1024 Miles In, Meeting with Dee Fleming, Grief and Connection

1024 Miles In, Meeting with Dee Fleming, Grief and Connection
June 27, 2018 Heather Starbuck

We’ve made it to the what is called the “spiritual half way point” of the Appalachian Trail, Harpers Ferry. Here in this historic civil war town Northbound and Southbound thru-hikers congregate and get their picture taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters to join the ranks of hikers of years past who also trekked over 1000 miles. They say only 25% of thru-hikers finish, the first 25% dropping after about a week in Neels Gap, the second 25% after the grueling Smokies and the final 25% dispersed across the months to come for various reasons. So in addition to outwalking the Proclaimer’s 1000 mile anthem, we have reason to feel serious progress and hopefully, motivation to crush on.

For anyone following my instagram, or Facebook for that matter, you likely already know that I caught a case of the Virginia blues. This is our longest state, by hundreds of miles, and word on the street is we have experienced some of the heaviest rainfall in years. The promised flatlands… did not exist, and it started to feel like we simply weren’t making any progress. It’s easy to get in your head and start questioning everything, my spiritual progress, the point of me hiking, or doing anything really, the hope for some light to come out of this. Everyday through the Shenandoah’s I did this mental gymnastics, beating myself and the whole world up and then having to rebuild my self esteem, sense of purpose and hope for getting through this seemingly endless dark tunnel of loss.

The Shenandoahs are a bit like the Disneyworld of National Parks. Many campsites charge a fee, and every 20 or so miles hungry hikers inevitably get sucked into the waysides for expensive resupplies, and those blackberry milkshakes. It’s easy to get trapped almost between the two worlds there, the quiet of the wilderness and the convenience but noise of the external. The combo makes us hikers feel like we’re in a weird vortex where miles don’t go anywhere and days slip by. Long story short, it’s hard to keep a solid groove in the “Shenderdome”.

Truly though, hiking this trail seems more and more like one giant, dynamic metaphore for grieving. The Shenandoahs, a relatively easy but mundane section, heeded far more challenge than I’d have imagined. Just as grief hits me not necessarily at pivotal moments, for instance at a beautiful sunset, but rather in the mundane small patterns in life – grocery shopping… waiting at the post office… cooking my Mac n cheese?… the trail blues come unexpectedly and often without some notable cause.

The one constant trigger is being around others also traversing through a major loss. I had a teary moment at breakfast one morning when a grieving father was sharing the story of his son lost to a sudden accident three years ago, he was about Matt’s age. When it was just us, I asked about his son’s wife and how she was fairing, I do this probably subconsciously for some sort of glimmer of hope, then I explained how I’d just lost Matt. We both could just see the depth of pain in one another. He stood up and hugged me and I saw tears streaming down his face. It was a short, ten minute encounter yet one of the most raw and splintering connections I’ve felt on trail. Pure pain and empathy for each other on this awful little path we find ourselves on. No one knows pain like someone who’s gone through it, and in that I’ve found such deep, instant, spiritual connections across ages, genders and backgrounds.

About a week prior I found myself in a similar situation, meeting up with Dee Fleming, her husband and two friends to hike the Bear Fence rock scramble in the Shenandoahs. She lost her son to an accidental overdose just one month after Matt. Joe sounds a lot like Matt. Similar age, a beardy, long haired outdoorsy guy who exuded humor and joy. But most importantly he sounds like Matt in the ways that truly matter most – his care for others no matter who they were or what their story was. She told me that in the wake of his loss, people from all walks came to her telling stories of his compassion and care when no one else was there. Joe quietly consoled someone’s little brother, not a person he was ever close with prior, through the depth of their depression. Reaching out and meeting up for lunches to check in on him and ensuring he didn’t feel alone. Like Matt, he connected with people without judgment. He was genuine, and kind, bringing only love into this world.

Since her loss, Dee has soldiered on, actively fighting to not only break the stigma, but also to promote recovery and the life saving spread of Narcan education. She runs the coalition, Culpeper Overdose Awareness, to provide solace to others, educate the community and bring people together for solutions. Thinking out of the box, Dee visits local businesses, sometimes even door to door, training employees on how to administer Narcan to someone who is overdosing. Many times the staff is beyond grateful, relieved even, particularly at places like hotels where they are often the first on the scene of an overdose. And overdoses are unfortunately becoming far to common of an occurrence in Culpeper’s county. She’s saving lives, she’s flipping the script and she’s making a difference in honor of her son.

I watched Dee and her husband embracing each other, silently looking outwards, on top of Bear Fence rock. The very place they’d all last hiked together as a family shortly before his passing, and the place where they sent his ashes into the wind. The pain, memories and quiet was palpable, like you could feel the world stop around them. Something I know all to well when I get lost into my own thoughts about Matt. But through it all, they continue to have such love in their heart, for each other, their boy, and families in their community still struggling with addiction. Both of them clear examples of what it means to channel grief into action and love, to utilize the pain in a positive way, and to bring light through the darkness, just like their Joe, just like my Matt.

If there is one thing grief teaches us, it’s how deeply connected we really are, to each other, to everything, to nature, to God, however you interpret him, and we gain strength to leaning on each other. There is no room for judgment and stigma, no good can come from it. I see Matt as my greatest teacher so far in life and while I’d give anything to unwind this and have our beautiful life back, see his buoyant curls come bouncing through this door, the best way I can honor him is by living a little more like he did and try to spread a bit more understanding and love into the world as I go.

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