Four Months, 1400+ Miles, On Recent Chance Encounters, Hope and Fortitude

Four Months, 1400+ Miles, On Recent Chance Encounters, Hope and Fortitude
July 31, 2018 Heather Starbuck

Four months on trail. The sun has peered out after a solid week of rain along NYs slick boulder style rocks. Some of which entailed hand over foot climbing and multiple trips up to carry Theo. Like many others on trail… I inevitably fell right on my rear a handful of times, cursing NY the whole way down.

The views have been unparalleled out here though, and with flags strung or painted across numerous treacherous peaks the patriotism and sense of strength no less. NY after all has survived one of the worst tragedies in American history and and as we pass these symbols you can almost feel the bonding and fortitude they’ve developed to persevere in the face of deep pain and loss. Smeared in paint below one of the flags are the words ‘Never forget”. New York will forever carry the weight of 9/11, but I almost feel they’ve taken it back, they’ve transformed that horrific day into a model of a community’s grace, love and strength. When I think of that day, I think not of the perpetrators but of the heros, the compassion and a city that never lost hope.

(Note: The above is not my picture… it was raining too hard to bust out the phone to capture this majestic spot)

Such survival has been on my mind a lot these days. Tragedy, personal or communal, can truly knock you flat and take you to dark places you never imagined you could go. In grief everyone tells you they hope you find peace. It’s the holy grail of loss, almost idealistic, and I can certainly attest that I have yet to find any such peace. Instead, I’ve been trying to shift my mental paradigm. I listen to stories on my walk of others who’ve gone through sudden traumas, some simply unimaginable hardships. I listen to them as role models, pillars of strength and beacons of hope. It can be done, there is another side to this. One where we can learn to live again while always knowing Matt is with us every step of the way. It’s in these moments where I let myself be guided or comforted through whatever mechanisms the universe sends that I feel most equipped to face this and continue on in the way that honors both Matt and the life I have left to play out.

At times though, the hope seems lost. I cried when I saw the story about Demi Lovato, I cried when I heard of another family shattered by this just days ago in my home town, and when my friend told me of another friend of hers now widowed with three toddlers from this awful drug and the disease of addiction. There’s just something about such a senseless loss that makes finding peace so challenging. More people are dying from overdoses than from Vietnam. More people under 50 are lost to this than any other cause in the US. Like Matt’s case, we have people in recovery, who’ve dug themselves out, relapsing years later. And yet, a staggering number of people are still convinced that one can simply snap out of addiction, that its a moral character flaw.

Meanwhile, we have pharma repackaging the same old tricks into new forms. I spoke with a fellow hiker out here who used to work at a nonprofit which distributes educational material about addiction. Think those pamphlets you see in Doctors offices. The nonprofit, like scores of others, is funded heavily through big pharma. As such, it was publishing bias material, encouraging sole narcotic based solutions to the trifecta – addiction, depression and anxiety (ie more drugs) and downplaying the danger of pills and opioids in the first place. After working as an editor for some time there she became extremely disturbed by what they were required to print, and what was not allowed. Jaded and wanting to escape, she decided to completely drop out of both work and society to journey along the Appalachian Trail where we ended up meeting.

In true AT fashion, the trail continues to lead me to more people that share similar stories of pain, addiction and loss, sometimes even daily. Today, I sit here from a sweet angels house where I received refuge from the rain, a shower, laundry and home cooked meal. We met on the bench of Shop Right where she waited for the bus with her elder care client. I sat spewing the entrails of my torn up food bag across the ground, throwing out mildewy food and replacing with fresh bagels, oatmeal packets, and pasta sides as she asked my questions about the trail. When she added me on Facebook she saw the blurb in my description stating that I am hiking to generate awareness for opioid recovery in honor of Matt. As my eyes started watering, she told me she lost her mom to an overdose two years ago. Her mom started as 3/4 do, through a prescription after a medical procedure. When the prescription ran dry, her mom turned to what she could to ease the pain. She was only 59 years old.

I’m in her room where I see the beautiful shrine of her mom, adorned with dried flowers and photos, two of her mothers ashtrays and calming candles. Standing next to it you can feel the energy, the time spent sitting there wishing you could just talk to them, that some magic would happen if you just stared long enough and they’d appear.

Matt’s sits in my sister’s childhood room at my parents. On it I have photos of us, his wallet, sunflowers from his service, dried roses he gave me over the years, empty bottles of rare beer from his collection that I sipped or poured out in his honor the weeks that followed. I have the two fossils he bought me for my birthday that he was going to make into a necklace, his bracelet and feathers I found in the wake of grief that I thought were from him.

These small relics that have the power to break us into a puddle of tears or provide comfort and an assuring presence depending on the day. Subtle reminders that there was this beautiful person, they lived, they breathed, they loved us, we loved them and each of them mattered so deeply. The only problem is, when someone dies, the love doesn’t, the relationship we had doesn’t. All the love we have for them has no where to go and so it is captured in our tears, our stories, or these memorials to our lost loved ones.

Brittany just sent me her speech that she is making for the REZHope event in North Carolina. The event runs in conjunction with Kallup McCoy’s run across the trail of tears to generate awareness and funding for recovery programs. She is sharing Matt and her story, in hopes of encouraging recovery and understanding. The reality is, while Matt did relapse, as many facing addiction do, what he achieved was powerful. He found sobriety, rebuilt his life without even a shred of foundation to stand on, he found so much love and joy. He exemplifies that it is possible. And while this almost makes his loss seem that much more unfair and cruel, through the success he did have, he can hopefully inspire other people on their own paths, even beyond his physical life.

It’s hard to keep going sometimes. We’re in New York and the woods actually flash flooded in areas by the trail last night. We’ll be back up there today slipping and skidding across giant boulders. But continuously meeting people also touched by this is a reminder for why I set out in the first place. To honor Matt and learn what I can about this awful epidemic that stole him from us. This trail is by no means easy, every single person out here I deeply admire. Many of us make up a big meddly of broken hearts but there’s community, strength and so much hope out here. I’m so blessed to be able to do this, to meet the people I have and to continue on this learning and healing journey.



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