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#3: Trail Magic

Pemi Newsletter #3, 2019

Prouty volunteers
Prouty volunteers

Well, we’ve been busy. Take Saturday. At roughly 7 A.M., a group of campers joined Associate Nature Head Deb Kure in manning the local rest and refreshment stop on the bicycle route for the 38th Annual Prouty charity challenge. (The event, featuring multiple forms of fund-raising crowd participation, benefits cancer research and patient supportive services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center.) This year’s community service participants? Charlie Koh, Brady Smith, Wilson Stavros, Cole Johnstone, Austin Greenberg, Philip Fauver, Barrett and Davis Bachner, Daniel Jones, Nathan Gonzalez, Charlie Shapiro, Landon Burtle, Connor Queenin, and Elijah Dorroh. The afternoon found a group participating in the annual National Butterfly Count. Joshua and Emmett Itoi, Leo Ventimiglia, Owen Wyman, and Ted Applebaum joined Deb, Nick Gordon, and Matt Cloutier to add data to that collected by two other central New Hampshire search teams. (Matt and Nick had both been part of earlier counts as campers!) They evidently identified over thirty species of Lepidoptera on a highly successful outing!

Meanwhile, on the athletic front, the morning featured a range of contests with our highly-respected neighbor, Camp Kingswood, followed by an afternoon of Baker Valley tournaments. Not that victories are everything (Pemi consistently touting supportive team play and good sportsmanship as far more important), we’re off to a good start this season. Veteran Director of Athletics Charlie Malcolm reports that we are 35-19-6 for the season. The breakdown by sport? Lacrosse is 8-0, Baseball 5-0, Soccer 5-5-5, Basketball 8-6-1, Tennis 8-7, and Ultimate Frisbee 1-1.

Finally, after a day chock-full of varied and worthwhile activities, the entire Pemi community retreated to the Campfire Circle for the third time this summer to enjoy a range of acts while the sun set brilliantly over Vermont way and a nearly full moon climbed high over Pemi Hill. It was a fitting capstone to a good week.

The second newsletter of the season was, unfortunately, already drafted when the camp community enjoyed one of the very best Sunday meetings in recent memory. It was inspiring enough that we felt it deserved to be at the heart of Newsletter #3.

As you’ll know from our initial 2019 communiqué, we’re fortunate to have back on staff two veteran trip leaders from past seasons: Sam Papel, who has taken over the Pemi Trip Program now that Dan Reed is pursuing his M.A. through his alma mater Middlebury College; and Nick Davini, who is heading up our inaugural Pemi West/Deer Hill collaborative outdoor leadership program in Durango, Colorado. (https://deerhillexpeditions.com/) Both of them already boasted considerable experience in wilderness travel and leadership, but they vastly augmented their outdoor credentials by spending the spring walking the southern half of the Appalachian Trail. Once the season is over, they will head up to Mt. Katahdin in the wilds of Maine and start south, finishing their trek at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the spot where they left off to join us at camp.

Sam and Nick were both long-term campers and cut their wilderness teeth in the Pemi outdoor program. Specialist Trip Leaders in 2017 and 2018, they’d frequently spoken of their desire to join the ranks of AT through-hikers, and this spring, they finally did it. Many of your sons run into this fabled brigade of committed backwoods walkers every summer on New Hampshire sections of the AT—on Mt. Cube in our back yard, Mt. Moosilauke just up the Pemigewassett Valley, in the Franconia and Presidential Ranges, and even in the Mahoosucs on the NH/Maine border. Our knowing, then, that Sam and Nick were of their rugged number and had already covered the first half of the 2200-mile trek created real excitement as 250 of us assembled in the Lodge to hear their tale.

Sam and Nick: day one of the AT
Sam and Nick: day one of the AT

After a brief introduction, in which they laid out the storied geographical and historical particulars of the Trail, they jumped into a highly accessible set of reminiscences about the various stages and developments of their trek, using a wonderful set of iPhone images to move the narrative forward. They began at Springer Mountain, Georgia, on March 9th, when the southern Appalachians were still in the grip of winter. In late spring and summer, the trail is aptly described as “the Green Tunnel,” with so much of it running through heavily wooded areas. As Sam and Nick set off, though, the trees were still bare of leaves, and their initial photos were a study in brown footpath and gray bark. They described their arrival at Neel’s Gap, thirty miles into the walk, where something like 30% of aspirant through-hikers throw in the towel—and then literally throw their tied-together shoes up into a tree to bear silent witness to the physical and psychological challenges of the AT undertaking. One of Nick and Sam’s admirable decisions was not to romanticize the walk but rather to use it as an example of the grit and faith and sometimes-hard-to-come-by belief in one’s self that any huge project can involve.

Like any smart through-hikers, both of them had pared their equipment down to a bare minimum, quietly making the point for all of us that material possessions can sometimes be encumbering and are best set aside. Staunch New Englander Nick, though, had severely underestimated the grip that Old Man Winter could still exert in March south of the Mason Dixon Line. After virtually freezing to death in his superlight sleeping bag despite wearing all of his clothing to bed, he had to spring for something more thermally beefy to use until the nights became more temperate. Another good message for planning a trip or, in fact, a life.

Communal moment on the AT
Communal moment on the AT

One of the most moving observations they had to offer touched on the phenomenon of “Trail Magic,” the wonderful pay-it-forward ethos that characterizes not only through-hikers as a group but also the folks who live and work along the AT. There were multiple times, they said, when they turned out to have underestimated the amount of food they would need before they reached their next re-supply. Small wonder, as through-hikers burn through 6000-8000 calories each day, and being in a state of hunger all the way around the clock is an accepted condition of life. As they would fire up their stove, though, waiting to cook their last, solitary package of ramen, other hikers would somehow notice and, without ever being asked, come over and say, “Here, guys. Take these two cans of tuna. I’ve got more than enough, and I’ve got a couple of extra Clif bars, too.” They also spoke of a hostel owner, one of many who maintain economical roofed and windowed crash-pads along the way, who gave them a ride into a nearby town and insisted on housing them gratis. At any number of places where the Trail crosses a road, they said, they would find ice-chests stocked with cold drinks and candy—at others, bearded dudes with their grills fired up, flipping free burgers for the long-walkers. What was perhaps most elevating about their telling us this, though, was their saying that the unquestioning sense of community and care they witnessed reminded them, above all, of Camp Pemi.

Sam shared with us the difficulty of pulling out of the hike for a week when a bout of Achilles tendinitis proved to be impossible to overcome. He retreated to his parents’ home in Nashville to recover, totally missing the fabled Smoky Mountain section of the Trail, something all north-bounders look forward to with huge anticipation. Nick confessed that the week of travel without Sam took him to the greatest depths he experienced. They had often hiked separately, Nick usually rising with (or before) the sun, and Sam often indulging in the opportunity to sleep in. Yet they had almost always camped together and predictably came to depend on their shared sense of companionship and common purpose to recharge their psychic batteries. As he slogged, solo, through icy slush and mud, with his life completely scrubbed of any outside distractions, Nick thought back over the past and found himself dwelling, for some reason, not on the things he’d done well but instead on things he might do a little differently if he could go back and do them over. At one isolated shelter, luckily, an older hiker with the trail name “Pops” picked up on Nick’s discouragement and gave him exactly the pep talk he needed: “You’ve gotta leave all that heavy stuff behind, son.” This additional dose of “Trail Magic” and the constant support of fellow travelers sustained Nick until Sam was able to rejoin him further north, a reunion that reportedly included literal shouts of glee and leaps into the air.

Eventually they made their way north, finding themselves more and more often in terrain that offered spectacular views—craggy ridge tops, rolling alpine meadows, winding, sun-silvered rivers seen from on high. Spring greened the woods, and birds of a hundred varieties scored their walk with their songs. The weather could still throw the odd curveball, as when they were assailed by a thunderstorm on a high and exposed ridge and had to choose between 1) sheltering in place and risking hypothermia or worse and 2) charging on, very vulnerably, until they could reach the true safety of a lower elevation. They wisely chose the second option, but, once again, they offered their audience a valuable lesson in decision-making, all in the hyper-accessible and unforgettable medium of an exciting narrative.

1000+miles in. Time to head to Pemi.
Harper’s Ferry, 1000+miles in. Time to head to Pemi.

Nick and Sam described the huge sense of accomplishment they experienced when, on May 20th—73 days into their walk—they reached Harper’s Ferry, for all purposes the mid-point of the AT. At the same time, they were extremely sad to place their adventure on pause, even if they were setting it aside only temporarily in order to spend another rewarding summer at Pemi. Their audience, too, was sad to have the evening end, so engaging and stirring had their presentation been. Their perfectly chosen coda to the talk was a lovely performance by Michaela Frank and Jonathan Verge (accompanied on piano by Taiko Pelick) of the song “Heavy,” by Birdtalker, a band Sam knows from Nashville. It’s message? “Are you feeling fearful, brother? Are you feeling fearful, sister? The only way to lose that feeling . . . replace it with love that’s healing. Leave what’s heavy, what’s heavy behind.”

Once the music was over, the crowd burst into applause—for the performers but, I think, even more for Nick and Sam. They had managed, with understated perfection, to convey not only the joys and trials and rewards of the journey already completed but also their eager anticipation of the further joys and trials and rewards of their planned Fall odyssey. It was impossible to sit there and not entertain the fantasy of, one day, lacing on your boots and following in their tracks. Just as easy, though, was to imagine other goals in life that might be quested for with keen ambition and courage and resilience and quiet faith in one’s fellow travelers. Many of us thronged up to shake their hands. Many more of us sat quietly and contemplated the depth and inspiration of what we had just heard and seen. One of our wonderful thirteen-year-olds, William Webber, stood silently in front of the last projected image—Sam and Nick, smiling with their arms around each other, at their halfway point at Harper’s Ferry. He stood there for a good two minutes, just looking. I asked him what was running through his mind. “As I looked at the two of them, half way through their journey, I thought about us all being on our own journeys, too—all of us in the room, whether we think about it that way or not. It’s like we’re all travelling together.”

We asked some other boys what had been going through their heads as they listened and looked: Ben Herdeg (S1) “I’m not a hiker, but it made me want to do the AT”; Will Sewell (S2) “It was really interesting. I was always thinking, ‘What will they talk about next?’ Everything was well said”; Luke Larabie (S2) “It was pretty awesome! I was amazed how much time the trip took. I may not be physically up to it right now, but maybe in the future I’ll do it”; Denver Yancey (J1) “It was a fun talk. It must have been pretty tiring for them. I’ve been on the Trail in Virginia. I’m not sure I’d do the whole thing, ‘cause I’m not a big hiker. It sounded pretty hard”; Lucas Gales (S1) “It was interesting to see and hear what it takes. I’d never met anyone who did it before, and it was interesting to hear how they dealt with their emotions and injuries. I kept thinking, ‘How cool!’”; John Kingdon (U5) “Super cool! I didn’t know they had to push their bodies so hard. I’ve been on hikes with both of them, and they’re incredible hikers. But this really pushed them. It must be really rewarding”; Cameron MacManus (S3) “It was really interesting. It sounds like a really good experience. Maybe I’d like to do it in the future”; John Poggi (L4) “It was really cool. They did so many miles. Just crazy. They went 20 miles a day, and camped in tents every night. I probably wouldn’t be able to do it, but it was really cool how they made friends and bonded with strangers. And I liked their trail names” [Nick was “Lord Hobo” and Sam “Disc,” after his love for Ultimate Frisbee]; Frankie McLaughlin (J4) “I fell asleep”; Owen Wyman (S1) “At first, I wanted to do it, but after the Madison Hut trip, I didn’t. It’s so difficult, a lot harder than I would have guessed”; Mike Warmington (U5 and a native of South Africa) “Hiking that distance is so cool. It’s amazing how they managed it. They had amazing views. I’d love to do it some time, especially with everything they said about Trail Magic.” What comes through most of all in the campers’ responses is the healthy balance the talk maintained between inspiration and realism. Life’s about challenges that are most attainable and rewarding if they’re not undertaken lightly.

2019 Pemi West'ers
2019 Pemi West’ers

Speaking of challenges that follow organically from the Pemi experience, this year’s Pemi West’ers left camp for the western wilds before breakfast on Saturday. With Nick as the Pied Piper leading the way, veteran campers Ailer Thomas, Bennet Braden, Eli Brennan, Hisashi Lonske, Ian Hohman, Jacob Smalley, Matt McDonough, Max Blohm, Mitchell Chin, Quinn Markham, and Sam OHara piled into the vans for the ride to Boston’s Logan Airport. This evening, they’ll be in Colorado, set to begin their adventure, including a week-long canoeing trip on the San Juan River, five days community service with a local Navajo tribe, and a week’s back-packing in the lofty San Juan Mountains. We look forward to sharing some of their tales with you in the near future. For now, farewell for another week. We hope your summers are unfolding as happily and productively as ours.


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