Day 27, 228 Miles In, Insane Weather, a Mother’s Recovery House in Honor of Her Son

Day 27, 228 Miles In, Insane Weather, a Mother’s Recovery House in Honor of Her Son
April 21, 2018 Heather Starbuck

You have to figure out a way to act on that love, it doesn’t go away. It stays in your heart forever, what do you do with it? – Jan McCoy

Today marks my 27th day on the trail and our final night in Great Smoky National Park. We were warned over our weeks of hiking, through trail blogs and via word of mouth that the Smokies, while beautiful, push it’s poor thru-hikers to the max. Our trail family prepped to enter the mountains last week after a relaxing dip in the Fontana dam, glancing at the weather predicting rain into snow with far too much optimism.

Our first day was a brutal climb, ascending 3000 feet in around 5 miles, but the sun was shining, and we were warm. Only 24 hours later that warmth turned into a prized commodity that we cuddled around the fire to obtain for mere seconds. But wide eyed and fresh from Fontana… we didn’t yet know the onslaught we were about to endure.

The next morning, the rain started. It was my first time packing out a tent in the rain and I had to learn the under fly sheet shimmy that, ideally, prevents rain from soaking the interior. After moderately succeeding to prevent total drench of my tent, I packed up at the shelter out of the wind and rain brewing. For the rest of the day, the rain pelted down soaking our shoes, seeping through our pack covers and leaving every inch of clothing at best damp, at worst soaked. The trail turned into an actual stream that we navigated through for about 10 miles when we finally, excitedly reached the shelter.

Sadly… most people saw the weather. And decided to hold tight, unlike us. And so, we quickly found out that the shelter was full, and we’d have to put our wet tents back up in the rain. Round 2.

Because it’s the smokies, our struggle didn’t stop there. The next day I looked up at my tent… it was still dark.. and the walls were caved in a bit. I heard some ruckus outside. Yep… it snowed. And our tents also completely froze over. I could barely unzip the vestibule as the zipper stuck from the frozen rain and snow, when I finally did a huge plop of powder greeted me on my lap.

Then the realization came… if my tent was…everything was frozen. It ended up taking us upwards of 10 minutes to crack our socks and shoes enough to get our feet into the frozen ice boxes. One of us even busted out their camp stove to heat up their shoes… finding no other way to bust through the icy block. Eventually, after lots of clothing cracking, hustling to and fro from the fire for quick warmth, and jumping up and down to get blood flow, we were packed and on our way for a day walking through the snowy, windy mountains – with dreams of Tennessee BBQ in Gatlinburg keeping the discomfort at bay.

Lol. Gatlinburg. Not today the smokies said! Nope, the roads were closed. We were stuck in the frozen mountains for another blisteringly cold night. Upon waking up, we saw there was even more snow on the ground… not promising for road openings but we pressed on thinking positively about Gatlinburg and showers and dry feet. We finally reached the windy parking lot of Clingman’s dome, the highest point on the AT, and discovered that the road was indeed closed, at least for a bit. We found a break from the wind cuddling up in our sleeping bags in the bathrooms until we figured out our next move. We decided that we were getting to town even if we had to walk the way. So off we went down the closed road, walking 7 miles until we could get a ride. Apparently the whole 72 hours of storm and our following walk to town was nicknamed the death march by other thru-hikers, warm and cozy from Gatlinburg following the posts and weather from afar.

After a rejuvenating zero in Gatlinburg, we hit the Smokies again, this time blessed with cold, but dry weather. The last two days have been beautiful and flew by with fairly easy miles.

With my refreshed energy I was able to call a woman named Jan McCoy who I’d been hoping to meet for a while now. Jan is from Merryville, TN, about an hour away from where I am. She lost her son Dane to an opioid overdose four years ago.

Since then, Jan channeled her grief into helping other young men find holistic, long term treatment options. This past year she funded Dane’s house in honor of her son, a facility housing young men in recovery. Working with with True Ministries, a local church active in the recovery community, Dane’s house helps addicts in recovery foster sobriety, stability, work, spirituality and a supportive community of peers. She is also personally involved in helping these patients, running errands, getting them groceries and providing other logistical support. We talked a lot about how these logistical hiccups made recovery that much harder for her Dane, and my Matt. The facility allows the young men to stay for up to two years, and costs only the original $300 required for a background check. The church coordinates local jobs a couple times each week where half the pay goes towards funding the center, the other half to the patient, making it so they can get affordable, long term care.

Jan’s story of Dane’s addiction echoes the familiar tale of a typical teen, a good, kind kid, he had a solid GPA and was actively involved with athletics, but somewhere along the line got his hands on pain pills. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains are some of the most prolific pill mills, some excreting millions of OxyContin pills within short periods of time during the burgeoning pill mill craze of the early millennium.

Jan told me how her son was recruited by a woman who said she could help him make some money. She showed him how to get prescriptions from such a pill mill, where they would churn out prescriptions and patients like a McDonalds drive through. The woman bought three quarters of his pills, and then he kept the rest. Like many, he started experimenting with the pills he was getting, leading him deeper and deeper into the throws of opioid addiction.

Jan started noticing something was wrong. One night, she called him out to which he came down displaying his bottle and said it was legal and from a doctor. Jan told me “this was bothersome to me because my son was not hurting, something was not right here”, prompting her to call the DEA office about the prescriptions. Years later, the pill mill her son received his opioids from would be closed down, with prosecution going after the owners and physicians assistant who doled out the prescriptions.

Through Dane’s addiction, originally she was angry, disciplined him, took away his car, but towards the end, four years in, she knew screaming and crying and begging and pleading never worked. She knew she was fighting the disease. It was the drugs and addiction coming between them, not her son himself. Jan told me she worked to figure out a way to love him without enabling him. Like Matt, Dane attended a rehab for six months and had started to rebuild, he was taking community college courses and didn’t want to leave after the months were up. But the program ended, and upon staying at a halfway house after rehab, Dane fell back into the hands of addiction.

Four years later, she still feels the sting of his loss, something that survivors of an opioid death understand all too well. It’s not something that simply goes away, we carry it with us, always. But Jan is doing amazing things with her grief, and her life experience. There’s a wisdom to her that I find in others who have gone through this. That as she stated, to love deeply is to grieve deeply, and a common theme that through helping alleviate this epidemic we can find some healing and peace in our loss, in honor of our loved ones gone too soon.

Jan too is very connected to the trail. True Ministry’s new recovery pastor, another Matt, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail as a minister years ago, and is also a former addict. She recollects, “I remember the first year looking up at the sky an awful lot. Just looking out wondering what’s out there and somehow nature tells you.” I agree with her in many ways, being out here, in nature, away from the hustle of modern life and others’ expectations of my grief has provided solace so far. I also feel more connected to Matt… powering onwards even through these rainy, cold days.

It’s getting dark in this shelter so I’ve got to tap out. Relieved to be leaving the Smokies where we mostly can’t tent. As much as the group dynamic keeps me distracted from my grief I can feel that pain creeping in day by day as I hold it in and feel an emotional bomb, and likely panic attack, brewing. I never thought I’d say this but I miss crying in my tent and of course, cuddling Theo, who wasn’t allowed in the Smokies. I can’t wait to squeeze him in Davenport.

Much love.


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