Brittany, Matt’s sister, arrived at Bangor airport three days ago. Summiting Mt. Katahdin on September 12th, the year anniversary of his passing, and ending my pilgrimage with Brittany has always been sacred to me and this journey. And though I will finish with about 1950+ miles under my belt, less than the full 2190, I feel at peace with having gone as far as I could, while meeting the people I was supposed to meet, in the time I had. And I also know that Matt is already glowingly proud. Although, I may go finish out the second part of the whites after since I loved that area. And so, I left NH in the middle of the whites as late as I could pull it to reconvene with the trail a short distance out from the 100 mile wilderness.
After blasting up through New Hampshire to get there in time I wavered between tears and singing along to the AT jukebox songs I’d compiled from fellow thru-hikers these past 5+ months. It was a little mix between feeling peaceful and calmed by how far I’d come, both in miles and grief, and daunted by feeling the ‘real world’ to come. When I drove to the quaint passenger pick up, I spotted her purple hair and forest green loaded up pack waiting. Immediately we both started crying.. those relief tears that force their way through after you’ve been away from someone who gets it, who feels your pain and you finally are reunited. Release.
God it’s so important and always reminds me of how much I really am carrying. Just as with my pack, the weight becomes part of you, the way you walk and stand comes to acclimate to a new center of balance. You’re forced to get stronger in parts of you that you’d never tapped into before. And it’s not until you unload that pack, or leave town with it reloaded, that you truly feel the difference and all you have bore across mountains, valleys, rivers and rock scrambles.
As we were driving in the shuttle, I grew a sinking feeling. I’d forgotten something…. something important. I looked at Brittany’s shoes almost instinctively and clasped my hand over my mouth gasping ‘my trail runners!’ I left them at the last hostel in NH. For the first time out here I felt a little ill with panic. It’s hard to shake me up with logistics these days, but there is no way I’d be able to hike the 100 mile wilderness in flip flops. Frantically, I googled outfitters and then begged the shuttle driver to take me to the nearest one. They were flexible and obliged. When I got to the store I sprinted in, asked for the cheapest ones they had and bounced on out. My fingers crossed that they won’t ruin my feet… so far so good.
We’re now a few days in, sneakers ands all, and Brittany is hanging in there like a champ. It’s not easy being thrown into the treacherous terrain that is the AT and reminds me how far all of us have come. Tomorrow she has her first big mountain to climb… I just reminded her to carb up. It’s surreal, to be out here, so far from Georgia, so far from Colorado, so far from last year but still also so close to it all emotionally. I’m lucky to have her, Carrie and Anna through all this, there is unequivocal comfort just being around someone who knows him like I did. And I don’t know what the summit of Katahdin will look like for the two of us, messy and tearful for sure, but I believe it will be a sacred, powerful experience beyond words and I’m honored to have her join me.
My intent on this memorial hike was not to ‘change the world’, I’ve been far too humbled by losing everything and the person I love most to think that grandiosely. Instead, I’d like to think we reached someone, even just one person, to make them feel less alone and that they are deserving of love, no matter what they are facing or how society views it.
Matt’s amazing, it’s hard to argue. He had the best Spicoli and Russian mafia impressions around, he stood up to bullies and creeps (‘someone needs a tune up’), he loved the hardest, gave the warmest hugs and he called chipmunks mountain squirrels. So many I’ve talked with out here say they feel like they know him and wish they could have been friends. I hope this story has opened up conversations about what addiction and overdose loss looks like and a small glimpse into the families behind the statistics. Ultimately, I wanted to humanize the issue, put a face behind it and enable people to actually feel what this epidemic is taking from us. Matt, the most lovable guy I know, makes it really hit home.
Two or three weeks back at the NH/VT border I met someone who made me realize that we’d done this. We’d achieved what we’d set out to when we created Matt’s Purple Bandana, and everything that followed. A young man going south bound on the AT stopped me as I descended and asked me ‘Are you Heather? Matt’s girl?’ It stopped me dead in my tracks, hearing someone so far from anywhere Matt and I ever went referring to me as Matt’s girl. I felt like I was in the Twighlight Zone. He went on to tell me that he too was in recovery and his mom had sent him my blog all the way from South Carolina. He looked about Matt’s age, same curly shoulder length hair but platinum blonde, same blue eyes. He was two years clean… just as Matt had been when we lost him. And here he was out here accomplishing this incredible feat.
I can’t pretend to speak for him but I feel like he resonated with Matt and our story and I hope it helps inspire him to keep trucking upwards as he has been. That its possible and he can get everything he wants just as Matt did. I feel bad though as I stood there pretty dumbfounded just blinking and streaming tears while he spoke to me.
But in that moment I felt everything had come full circle. I’d done what I set out to do not just spiritually but for Matt’s legacy. I’d spread his story up the coast and let people connect with him to feel less alone in his stead. I’d made everyone that I could know that I was so, so proud to be Matt’s girl and deeply grateful to have had the time with him that I had. Most of all, through this hike, I spread the message that love never ever dies, and that no matter what happens, I’ll always love my Matt and I’ll always be his girl.
In light of the end of this journey, Brittany and I are trying to raise a final $2,000 for Matt’s fund to aid others in recovery, $1 for every mile hiked in his honor (1950 from my, 120 from Brittany) through this Crowdrise (here). Please share along and help us spread his story a little bit more before this trip comes to a close. And though this particular chapter is wrapping up, I’m not done advocating for Matt and victims of this epidemic. We will continue to honor him and grow his legacy in all sorts of ways. Thank you so much for following along and all the support along the way.
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