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“Will we be able to talk?” I asked, my eyes red and swollen from crying, a balled up tissue squeezed tightly between my sweaty palms.
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
I slumped back into the couch and sighed. He was serious about this?
No one, including myself, could fully grasp the idea of someone hiking the entire 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one shot. Honestly, who would want do that?
Answer: My boyfriend.
The Appalachian Trail stretches across 14 states, winding through steep mountains, jagged rocks and miles of thick forest. The hiker can choose to start in Georgia and travel north, or start in Maine and travel south. The northbound direction is known to be far more achievable, especially for inexperienced hikers. Some choose to hike in sections by completing part of the trail, taking a brief hiatus, then returning for another section and repeating until the trail is complete.
To anyone born with common sense, section-hiking seems to be the much more rational option. Unless, of course, you’re my boyfriend.
His plan was to face the danger head-on and take the southbound route, alone, starting in Maine and ending in Georgia. He was dubbed a “thru-hiker,” since his goal was to complete the entire trail in one long, strenuous trip and finish in only three months. It’s a fairly uncommon accomplishment for thru-hikers to complete the entirety of the trail, and, needless to say, I was terrified.
To give you an idea of the irrational anxiety I felt, it was the first time in my life I had ever worried about someone being eaten by a bear.
I’ll admit that one of the things I love most about my boyfriend is his insatiable appetite for living life to the fullest extent possible. He’s not afraid to throw himself into any new experience he can find, including skydiving, bungee jumping, competing in triathlons, or exploring new countries. Honestly, we are polar opposites when it comes to spontaneous adventure. His past is filled with life-changing experiences, while mine is filled with Netflix and a period of bad decisions in college. Nevertheless, we complement each other.
When we met on New Year’s Eve, 2013, he already had this plan in place, so who was I to stand in the way? At the time of his hike, we had been dating for six months (including two months apart while he was overseas), and had just said “I love you” to each other for the first time. I wanted to support this drastic undertaking, but it was a much more difficult task than I had anticipated. The man I loved was about to embark on a journey that only one in four people successfully complete upon trying.
Naturally, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the idea of him spending a few months climbing mountains, enduring dangerous temperatures, or staying in a shelter with a bunch of dirty strangers. I had no clue when or if I would hear from him, and my chances to visit him were extremely limited. The only shred of sanity I maintained came from a satellite tracker he carried, which let everyone know that he was alive and moving.
I had no idea how I was going to deal with his journey like a rational human being. On the one hand, I was excited and proud of his determination. What a brave and ambitious venture, right? On the other hand, I was completely overwhelmed with fear. However, I concluded that if anyone could handle it, it was my boyfriend. He was an Army veteran turned contractor, and he’d been in way crazier situations overseas. How terrible could a hike really be?
More importantly, he was doing it all for charity, and I would’ve looked like a total jerk for trying to persuade him not to go. (Although, I must admit, I kind of wanted to.)
After a few emotional breakdowns and some pep talks from friends, I finally embraced the situation, stopped acting so selfishly, and came up with a creative and thoughtful going-away present for his hike. You know, some cheesy little keepsake he could take along that would ultimately force him to think about me.
I decided to make a collection of mini Post-it notes that he could read along the way. I wrote two little notes for each day he would be gone, giving him enough to last an entire three-month hike. In all, there were around 180 Post-it notes.
I wrote down reasons I loved him, some “motivational” messages (i.e., “Think of all the pizza we’ll eat when you get back!”), funny inside jokes, or poorly-drawn stick figures, usually sketched in some sort of awkward kissing pose. (Elementary, but romantic, nonetheless.)
I used a Ziploc bag to hold the collection of tri-colored love notes, which I assumed was a genius idea since he could carry them in his backpack without them becoming damaged.
This is so perfect, I grinned to myself.
A few days prior to his leave date, I gave him his gift, and I was overwhelmed with excitement. He appeared entirely grateful, making sure to add them to his backpack the night before he left.
I was feeling pretty confident in my gift, because just imagine: He’s been hiking along, about twenty or thirty miles into a hot, sweaty, rocky wilderness, when he becomes completely exhausted. He’s running low on water and energy, the sun is setting, and there's not a shelter in sight. He starts to feel like he can't go on, but then — wait!
"I have love notes from my girlfriend!" he will exclaim. "How thoughtful of her to give me these brightly colored pieces of motivation to get me through such a difficult hike! How could I ever continue without them?"
And then he’ll read them and suddenly feel the strength to power through! What a lifesaver I will be! He'll carry them to the very end of his hike, keep them as a souvenir, and years down the road, we’ll read them together and he'll say, "These were such an important part of my hike, Alex! Thank you!"
Score one for yours truly! Chalk that one up as a point in my favor, karma! How could it possibly play out any other way?
Well, that’s not what happened. In fact, that’s actually the opposite of what happened.
About a week-and-a-half into his hike, we were sending texts back and forth, which is when I learned the dreadful truth:
“Are you reading the notes I gave you?” I asked him, smiling.
He paused. Why such a long pause?
"I needed to shed some weight," he said, "so we used them to start a fire."
Wait. What? He did what?
"You burned all of them?" I asked, stabbing furiously at my iPhone keyboard.
"Yes, I told you this already! But I read every single one first!"
Let’s stop right there. I had some very burning questions that needed clarifying:
- When exactly did he tell me this? Was I drunk?
- He’s in the middle of the woods, and that's what he used for kindling?
- Who is "we?" There were other people around to witness this? I could only assume it went something like, "Here guys, we can use these — they're just love notes from my girlfriend," he says as he sprinkles the ground with green, pink, and blue tokens of my love. My singed heart, all over the dirt.
I needed some time to calm down before discussing this, so I told myself to wait until our next phone call. I set the phone down, dumbfounded.
Is he serious? I thought to myself, angrily. Is the trail already making him lose his mind?
I was in a bit of shock since I was under the impression my love notes were for motivational support, not for roasting marshmallows. I was also pretty confused as to how they only lasted about 10 days before meeting such a fiery fate.
I guess the Appalachian Trail is where romance goes to die.
A day later, I spoke to him, trying to keep my emotions in check, knowing that he was dealing with a lot on the trail. Generally speaking, here's what I found out:
- Yes, he had already told me about it, and sure enough, I was out drinking with friends. (Great.)
- Yes, he used them for kindling, but I should be "happy" about that, because they kept him warm that night.
- Yes, he was with other people — a couple of guys he had met earlier that day. (How honored they must have felt to share such a memorable moment with him.)
I won’t lie: I was feeling pretty hurt. I did my best to understand his intentions and eventually had no choice but to let it go. In his defense, he needed to shed as much weight as possible, which included cutting off the straps from his backpack (and apparently burning two ounces of love notes). I knew the situation wasn’t meant to be malicious, and he felt pretty bad after realizing how insensitive it came across. So let’s just go ahead and blame the lack of food and water for his delusional decision-making.
Three-and-a-half-months later, after a minor injury and hiking over 20 miles a day, he completed the entire Appalachian Trail and raised thousands of dollars for charity.
Now, as our relationship reaches the two-year mark, the “love note fiasco” has become a memory that, thankfully, makes us both laugh. (And, of course, it’s something he’ll never live down.) His time on the trail was a learning experience that taught us about patience, trust, and, most importantly, commitment. No matter how far the distance became, we still managed to grow closer as a couple.
Sure, there were the unfortunate times where he sat helplessly on one end of the phone, eating a can of tuna fish while listening to me cry on the other end. But, as time passed and his trail legs developed, so did my ability to handle the struggles and be there for him when he needed it most. Ultimately, we learned that no matter how hard the situation became, we loved each other enough to make it work.
And I’m completely grateful for the experience.
Still, do I write "DO NOT BURN THIS" on every single love note, card or letter I give him, just in case?