Just crossed into Vermont this week. Finally feel like Ive made some serious progress… Vermont seems pivotal really. When I was about 11 our family had an old house in Vermont for skiing and my Dad’s work at the time. I remember one summer sitting out on the porch and my Dad pointed towards the nearby woods cusping the edge of our lawn. He’d grow vibrant talking about the trails by our secluded little house, going on and on about a bear he saw the day before and this thing called the Appalachian Trail where people came all the way up from Georgia. To keep it short, I did not have the same fascination… I remember turning to him with a scrunched up face and asking ‘why would anyone do that’?
As it turns out a decade and a half later, I would come to know exactly why someone would do something like this. Why everyday we trudge miles over miles, up endless view less peaks, falling on rocks, roots and now that we’ve reached VT, mud pit sink holes. The AT is an internal journey. Month after month slowly making our way through the ‘green tunnel’ makes it such. Most of the hikers I’ve found out here are seekers. Reaching for something that can’t be tapped into from our busy everyday realities. Being out here forces you to tap into being at it’s most foundational essence. Every few days we may have fantastic views but for the most part the AT is, as one of my favorite hiker friends Uncle Ya stated the other day, a mantra. Over and over, day after day, mile on top of mile all we do is step, think, step, think. It’s rhythmic, consistent, unbelievably aggravating while beautiful at the same time.
I’ve been out here five months. I’ve hiked nearly 1650 miles. I’ve cried, fallen, screamed, laughed. Though I feel I’ve grown and become stronger, I would not say that I have found myself, nor have I found peace with this loss. I miss him everyday, and as the year mark approaches it’s almost like he’s even more at the tip of my fingertips but slightly beyond reach. My mind is constantly playing tricks on me, giving me the sense that he’s just in my periphery. I see his deep brown curls blowing in the wind next to me in the back of a pick up truck on a hitch. His irresistible little crows feet smiling outwards from the corners of his eyes when I close mine in the shelter. I can almost feel his back when I think of hugging him from behind and burrowing my face in his t-shirt while he’d be cooking dinner or brushing his teeth. It’s all simply right there, but so distant at the same time. These small tiny details, that’s what lingers and haunts us most I think. I suppose if I could give 25 year old me advice right now it’d be that, embrace that, because god I’d give anything at all to have one more hug, one more laugh, one more ‘I love you’.
I have other regrets too these days, especially knowing what I know now. I was very protective of Matt. I’ve investigated people, scared them out of my house, stood up for him, and offered all the encouragement I could to him. But I have come to know that I failed on a bigger level, one that many in my generation also struggles with. I rarely spoke out or addressed anything about the addiction issue at hand beyond our closed doors.
We had a friend named Danny (name changed) who struggled on and off with drug use. Matt often told me he reminded him of what he was like at 23 before he knew how dark things could get. Deep down, Matt wanted to help Danny, mentor him through it. One night, Danny went on a rant about how his heroin use was recreational, just like us drinking beers, and I didn’t raise a flag. I ‘knew’ it was dangerous and he was wrong. That none of these lethal substances should be considered recreational but I chose not to rock the boat or fight him on it. I should have though, I should have said something, told him it wasn’t recreational at all, it was actually life or death.
Though he was a very kind soul, we didn’t see much of Danny anymore when Matt and I were together, it would have hindered his sobriety and both of them knew that. But I’d come to find after the loss that Matt had confided his relapse to Danny, he was apparently crying, fearful and full of regret thinking he’d lose everything. He’d gone to Danny because he knew that he wouldn’t be judged. When Danny told me this I said ‘why, why, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you say something to me I could have helped him’. But that was unfair, because just a few years prior I had not said anything to Danny when I was concerned by his rant. I let it slide. Let him continue to justify it as recreational, and when Matt came crying he continued to not grasp the depth and danger of Matt’s relapse. How could he afterall?
Even out here on trail, I’ve witnessed occasions where people simply don’t understand the dangers of these pills. I witnessed a hiker in recovery being offered prescription pain pills. A young man bragging about his Xanax use and offering it out at a campsite. In the woods. It’s clearly everywhere, out of control, and comes from us simply not getting it. These are hard drugs. They are proving over and over again to be lethal. The numbers just came in from 2017 where 75,000 people died from overdoses. That’s up 10,000 from 2016. We have to stop taking it lightly, I don’t care if that makes me ‘uncool’ or ‘uptight’, it means I give a shit. I don’t want to see this to happen to anyone else. It’s too senseless and horrific for anyone to have to go through.
We have to take care of each other. We have to start stepping up even when its uncomfortable to express concern. These are our friends dying after all. Now if someone starts talking about popping a Xanax while drinking, I make sure to tell them that hey they may not wake up someday doing that. Or if someone is passing out their wisdom tooth pain pills willy nilly that if their friend dies, it’s on their hands. None of this is recreational. We aren’t talking about weed or drinking a beer, we’re talking about substances that are the number one cause of death under 50. And we need to understand that, to speak up to it, for our friends and loved ones.
I miss Matt so much. I miss our life. I don’t even recognize this one, I don’t like it and I certainly didn’t choose it. I wish it hadn’t taken me losing Matt to become this ferocious about this and maybe I have gone a little crazy these days but I hope Matt’s story can serve as a reminder for all of our friends. If this got Matt, it could get anyone, nobody is immune so always, always speak up. And while none of us can unwind time, there’s no redo for any of this, I hope we can all be a little bit better, and more protective for each other in his memory.
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