A farewell to an old friend from the trail of life
By Jason Mott
Summer isn’t summer without a final road trip. So for my birthday, I threw a fistful of clothes into the trunk of my car, pointed it in a generally westward direction, and decided to let the road and the fates take me to the destination of their choosing.
When the miles had rolled long enough beneath me, I found myself in Virginia. Southwestern Virginia, to be exact. In a small town named Damascus, a town known for an annual event called Trail Daze.
Trail Daze is an annual celebration of hiking and the Appalachian Trail — the 2,000-mile-plus contiguous path that winds its way from Maine to Georgia. Most of the trail exists in the forests and hills of the East Coast of the United States, but occasionally it finds its way through small towns that have sprung up around the trail itself. Damascus is one such town. It’s one of the few places on the trail where a person can find white blazes — markers usually placed on trees to let a hiker know that they are on the Appalachian Trail — plastered to the side of telephone poles. It’s one of the few places where the 2,000 miles of nature that make up the Appalachian Trail are broken up by the smoke, smog and scramble of humanity.
So there I was, in Damascus, trying to figure out why my road trip had taken me there.
It wasn’t my first time in that town. I’d been there over 13 years ago with a friend named Ray. Ray and I met at Cape Fear Community College. We were both nontraditional students — that means “old” — and we wound up working in the library’s media center together. It was a typical college work-study job. Rarely did the duties exceed the effort it took to explain to some faculty member which hole to plug the HDMI cable into. Ray and I were from different generations. We weren’t dramatically far apart in age, but just far enough to occasionally grate on one another’s nerves. But in spite of it all, there was a deep friendship there.
Ray was a hiker, born and bred. It was almost all he talked about. So after we both graduated from CFCC, Ray talked me into taking a couple of weeks and going hiking up on the trail. It was a great experience — far too long to talk about here today — but it left enough of an impression on me that when I wound up in Damascus again this second time, I thought I’d look up my old friend.
While stopping by the town’s best-known hiking store, I asked after my buddy, Ray. And, as fate would have it, I found myself talking to his best friend, Lumpy.
“Do you know of a hiker named Otto?” I asked.
(I asked after Otto because that was Ray’s trail name. Trail names are a deeply rooted hiker tradition. It’s a moniker that a person uses when they’re hiking.)
“Otto?” the tall, big-bearded man behind the counter said quickly. “He’s dead. Two years now.”
Two small sentences. Five powerful words.
There was a moment of shock and disbelief. Even though I hadn’t planned on coming to Damascus, as soon as I found myself here I had wanted nothing but to reconnect with my old friend. He wasn’t supposed to be dead. I was supposed to run into him and sit around a roaring campfire in the deep hours of the night, the two of us laughing about how far life had taken each of us in the last 13 years. Or, at the very least, I was supposed to find that he was off somewhere having adventures and living well.
But life had other designs.
Ray was the guy who taught me about hiking — something I’ve come to love almost as much as I love cars. He even gave me my trail name: Sore Thumb. Trail names are a huge deal. You can’t just make them up yourself. A more experienced hiker has to name you after you’ve earned some miles. It’s a right of passage, an induction into a little-known, but deeply loving family.
My buddy Otto gave me that family.
And then, in the space of two sentences uttered by a man in a hiking store, he was dead.
And how did he die? Prostate and bone cancer. Just like my dad.
Life is cruel sometimes.
Lumpy, his friend who broke the news to me, was charged with scattering my buddy’s ashes. Two years ago he’d scattered most of them along the Appalachian Trail. But he’d also had some put into small — almost comical — plastic mini-footballs because Otto had been a Carolina Panthers fan.
Lumpy just happened to have one of these small urns left. He gave it to me and told me, “After you’ve spent some time with him, let him go.”
Life is generous sometimes.
At the time of this writing, I’m back at home and Otto is still with me. I’ll let him go soon, just like Lumpy told me to. But not just yet.
I could talk for another ten thousand words about all of this, but time is short, just like life. This is my final article for Salt — it’s been a pleasure, by the way.
If my ramblings about cars and life have given you nothing else this summer, Dear Reader, please take this with you: Take care of each other out there on the road of life. Enjoy the twists and turns, and remember to share as much of the ride — or hike — as possible.
— Sore Thumb
Jason Mott is a New York Times best-selling author, a UNCW alumnus and current UNCW writer-in-residence.