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Yosemite National Park near Half Dome, along the John Muir Trail July 29, 2003
I had been married nearly four years, and I was about to embark on my first long-distance backpacking adventure with my wife, Beth. We planned to trek across the spine of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California on the John Muir Trail. It was no easy feat convincing Beth-a woman raised with the belief that vacation means flush toilets, sleeping in a bed, soaking up the rays on a beach, and eating out-to throw on a pack and live in the woods for the better part of a month. This was our first visit to California. After months of planning, we had crammed our backpacks full of gear, food, and supplies. After flying into Los Angeles from our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, we had visited a few much-talked-about California wineries before arriving by shuttle bus in Yosemite National Park. Beth and I had positioned ourselves in Yosemite National Park's Yosemite Valley, near Happy Isles, the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail. We planned to walk the trail's entire 221-mile length.
The John Muir Trail, also known as the JMT, is named after one of the world's most noted naturalists. You have to do something on a grand scale to have an entire trailnamed after you. Muir's advocacy and appreciation for the wild earned him the distinction of being named the father of our national parks. One of his favorite areas was the present-day Yosemite National Park. Muir once hosted President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in the park, which seemed to convince the president to save the Sierra from development. Not long after Roosevelt camped out with Muir, Yosemite was protected as a national park.
I had walked the Appalachian Trail five years earlier and had been itching to take another long-distance hike. Although the JMT is only a tenth of my original journey on the Appalachian Trail, it is considered a world-class hiking path. The trail stretches from its northern terminus in Yosemite Valley to its southern terminus high atop Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. It passes through three national parks, two national forests, and a string of mountain peaks with rocky surfaces as jagged as saw blades. It winds far above the timberline, scaling peaks as high as 14,491 feet. By comparison, the Appalachian Mountains on the east coast top out at 6,643 feet. The John Muir Trail is speckled with glacial lakes and wilderness that are untouched by roads and most other civilized amenities. It's hard to find trails unblemished by roads in today's world. The trail wanders through deep canyons, around cold blue lakes, and under sunny skies. It joins with the Pacific Crest Trail for much of its length, and it is the most rugged and arguably some of the prettiest terrain of the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
We were scheduled, according to our wilderness permit, to begin our expedition of the John Muir Trail on Tuesday, July 29, 2003. Our trek was expected to last two to three weeks. We spent a last night of civilized comfort in Yosemite National Park. We bunked in a canvas tent cabin built on a wooden platform. Our abode was anonymous among 628 identical bungalows in Curry Village, a cozy little camping area with no vacancies. People were everywhere. It was the height of summer. A massive, rustic wooden commissary located in the center of the tent village provided showers, a buffet-style cafeteria, an outfitter, a convenience store, a food stand, and even an outdoor bar with a featured beer-Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, of course. Adjacent to the main building stood an old log structure that served as a sitting room and game room and that even had a U.S. post office. It was the most disparate combination of modern amenities and rugged outdoors I had ever seen.
Along the parking lot next to the commissary, tourists were gathered around trunk-size steel containers. They were stuffing food, snacks, and toiletries into these bear-proof chests under strict direction from the park service. Warnings were posted everywhere advising against consuming food in the tent cabins or keeping any scented toiletries.
Stunning views beckoned from every direction. With the commissary to our backs, our left field of vision was filled with the famous Yosemite Falls cascading off an immense sheer cliff, taller than most city skyscrapers. To our right was Half Dome, a mountain sliced in half during the Ice Age which has become the park's symbol. Beth and I wandered out to the field just in time to see the stunning sunset. A woman standing nearby looked dazed and dreamy and exclaimed, "This is what the Garden of Eden must have been like."
John Muir, a Scottish immigrant, came to America, fell in love with Yosemite and its surrounding wild lands, and he advocated for its preservation. We were smack-dab in the middle of the valley where Muir had spent quite a bit of time. While most early settlers to California were busy tending farms, searching for gold, or building cities, Muir was taking in the natural beauty of the wild lands. He had the foresight to realize that the land was in jeopardy of succumbing to the loggers' axes and the developers' shovels. He had lived for some time in the valley not far from where we stood. None of the coffee-table books could replicate the raw beauty we were witnessing. It really brought home Muir's passion about preserving the park.
We weren't the only ones awed by the view. Each year, millions of tourists flock to the park Muir loved. According to Yosemite National Park records, in 2002 alone, more than 3 million people visited the park by foot, car, and horseback. As we watched the sunset, the mountains were changing colors almost as if a slide projector was clicking to the next frame every few seconds. Various shades of orange, red, purple, and blue emerged and faded almost as quickly as they appeared, with a darkening sky creeping over the mountain. The tops of the mountains looked glowing hot, a phenomenon known as alpenglow.
Later that night, Beth and I tucked ourselves into bed with the false sense of security one feels after zipping shut the door of a thin-walled tent. As we were fading off to sleep, terrified shrieks and the loud, metallic banging of pots and pans shattered the night. Someone apparently had ignored the warnings of keeping food out of the tents and now was trying to scare away a bear using the recommended procedure of making lots of noise and hurling objects at the animal. We both lay awake, excited about the adventure we would begin the next morning and thankful the bear was bothering someone else.
My wife's courage ran too deep for a bear to scare her. Beth was embarking on a journey completely outside of her comfort zone for a cause greater than herself. This was more than an adventurous vacation. We were walking with a purpose.
Cincinnati, Ohio August 21, 1999
Five years ago, I walked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, an adventure chronicled in my first book, A Walk For Sunshine. I mention in this book my pursuit of a relationship with my friend Beth. I attended graduate school with Beth, and from the first day I met her, I knew she was the one. She was the first woman who stopped me in my tracks and made me go to great extremes to appear to be a gentleman-the perfect gentleman for her.
Beth was an athletic, petite, brunette woman with a soft, warm personality. Being friends with her was easy. The more I got to know her, the more time I wanted to spend with her, but all through graduate school, Beth wasn't ready to establish a relationship beyond friendship with me. After all, she was seven years younger than I, and she lived in a flat Midwestern suburb of Chicago, which she knew did not appeal to me at all. But we both were very fond of each other, so much so that all of our close friends were always telling us that we should be more than friends. Some even speculated that we were secretly more than friends.
Beth met me on my Appalachian Trail journey for a weekend. I thought for sure then that she had deeper feelings for me. Unfortunately, we departed that weekend still just friends. It wasn't until recently that she confessed, "Jeff, you really stunk." Well, I was showering only once a week. I was wearing synthetic clothing, which has an awful tendency to retain the body odors we normally try to eliminate in order to maintain relationships. I wasn't wearing deodorant so that I wouldn't attract bugs, and I had been living among the animals for more than 800 miles since I had left Georgia. My patchy, shady-looking beard made me look more like a fugitive on the run than an attractive, eligible bachelor. After that weekend, I continued walking toward Maine, another 1,300 miles from where I left Beth in Virginia. This gave me time to get used to the possibility that she and I might never be more than friends. After all, we had known each other for almost three years, and she still hadn't fallen for me.
What I didn't know was that while I was walking in the woods, Beth had come to the realization that I was the one for her. According to legend, several of Beth's family members-after hearing Beth talk about me-would say to her, "It sounds like you really like Jeff as more than just a friend." The Oprah Winfrey Show caught Beth's attention one day with an episode on relationships. It left her with this advice: "Look under your nose for that special person."
The problem with this tip was that I was right under Beth's nose, and I stunk. Eventually, Beth got around to developing a relationship with me. Looking back, I believe that her family's comments and even Oprah may have been signals from God to bring us together. After returning from my journey, the Sunshine Children's Home of Ohio hosted a dinner party and slide show in my honor. I had dedicated my journey to my brother, a Sunshine resident, and raised money for the home, which is a haven for developmentally disabled youngsters. Beth was one of a few hundred in attendance. We spent that entire weekend together, and at one point I asked her, "If you aren't married in five years, would you marry me?" She said, "Yes."
This was a long-shot question, and she gave me a long-shot answer. She had told me of another friend of hers that she had a similar pact with. I think the fact that I was now showered, shaven, and separated from my smelly hiking gear had a lot to do with her response, especially with Oprah's olfactory advice. I was determined to follow through on our pact. Our relationship developed quickly because we already were great friends and we knew each other very well. We were engaged four months later, and we married in August 1999.
We stepped from the church on our wedding day wearing backpacks bearing "Just Married" signs. I had to spend quite some time convincing Beth that she would still look beautiful in her white wedding gown even wearing a backpack. I also figured that this would send a clear message to everyone that Beth had now become a hiking outdoorswoman. To her credit, Beth is very athletic, having run three marathons, so physical fitness wasn't an issue. Also, she had joined me on dozens of day hikes, so enjoying the great outdoors wasn't an issue. The issue was her appreciation for domestic amenities. Beth would avoid staying overnight in the woods at all costs.
Hiking had become a lifestyle for me, so we made a premarital pact that if Beth would do an overnight hike with me, I would run a marathon with her. This resulted in an insane honeymoon that included several long runs, including one 18-mile cataclysm in preparation for the Chicago Marathon. In turn, Beth donned a backpack with supplies for "a, one, uno" night in the woods-hardly a fair deal considering the determined training regimen to run a marathon. On our honeymoon, Beth turned what was meant to be a two-night backpacking excursion into a one-night affair. She flew down the trail so fast that we covered double the miles we planned for one day, ending up back at our car a day earlier than expected. Beth knew that if we finished early, she would be able to stay in a hotel. In spite of her hasty hiking experience, I filled my end of the deal by running the 1999 Chicago Marathon with Beth.
I figured Beth would think back and romanticize our overnight adventure in the woods-like I tend to do after every hike-and crave more overnight hikes. But after our adventurous honeymoon, Beth declined all my offers to come along on extended hiking trips. She liked her hot showers and warm bed. To her credit, she has a disorder in which her fingers and toes turn purple and become excruciatingly painful in even moderately cold temperatures.
In spite of our opposing preferences for vacations, we were happily married. Our marital journey had embarked from the trailhead full stride. Then, like a hike in rugged country, we descended into a valley of unanticipated tragedy, which forever changed Beth's attitude toward hiking.
Toledo, Ohio September 2002
On a sunny, warm September weekend, Beth and I were in Toledo, Ohio, three hours north of our home in Cincinnati. We were celebrating the fifth annual Walk With Sunshine for the Sunshine Children's Home. My 1998 benefit walk on the Appalachian Trail inspired this annual 5k walk, which raises funds for disabled people. Every year since my hike, I have helped organize the event, including giving a motivational speech to kick off the walk. On Saturday, the day of the walk, we were blessed with sunny weather, a bluegrass band, the largest walker participation since the walk's inception, and animals to pet from Sunshine's animal barn, which the walk would benefit. In my speech, I reminisced about my original walk, pulling examples of perseverance and the spirit of Sunshine. Beth and I spent that Saturday evening with my father and stepmother-Toledo residents-at a relaxing cookout before driving back to Cincinnati. On Sunday morning, Beth and I got up and went for a morning run in my favorite Toledo park, Wild Wood Preserve. The weather had changed from sunny to dark and rainy, foretelling the events that were about to unfold.
When we returned from our soggy run, my stepmom said, "Beth, call your mom." We soon found out that Beth's brother Mike was missing. Beth is the youngest of four siblings and the only girl in her family. Her three brothers lived in the Chicago area, where they grew up. Beth was closest in age to Mike, and they were very tight emotionally. Beth's family is so close that Beth was the maid of honor in Mike's wedding, and her two brothers were the best men.
Beth's brothers and dad had gathered at Mike's house after a frantic call from Mike's wife, and they had organized a search party. Beth's mom was at home in case Mike showed up. When Beth hung the phone up after talking with her mom, she had tears running down her cheeks as she explained that this was not like Mike. I suggested that Mike might have gone to a friend's house and that everything would be fine. We decided to get on the road back to Cincinnati. There was no reason to sit around and wait for news. We were 30 miles south of Toledo heading toward Cincinnati when our cell phone rang. It was her brother Brian. As Beth listened to Brian, her demeanor changed dramatically from calm and hopeful to upset. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "No!" she cried. "No, no, why, why, why?" Beth was distraught. She blurted out, "Mike's dead."
I was shocked. Mike had died by suicide. My stomach was knotted. All I wanted to do was hug my wife, but I couldn't let go of the steering wheel. I just wanted to comfort my wife. I got off at the next exit and pulled into a truck stop. Beth was a mess. We remained in the far corner of the parking lot for quite some time. Slowly, we made our way back to Cincinnati-making calls to friends and family, who helped us make flight arrangements to Chicago. Shortly after returning to Cincinnati, we left for Chicago to be with Beth's family.
Excerpted from A Hike for Mike by Jeff Alt Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Alt. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 12, 2008
Jeff Alt is a motivational speaker, expert hiker, speech pathologist, teacher and author. We first got to know him in his first book, ¿A Walk for Sunshine¿ where he hiked the Appalachian Trail. His openness, humor, and purpose make this book a great read. In A HIKE FOR MIKE, Alt hikes the John Muir Trail in California. The hike and book was dedicated to his brother-in-law, Mike, who committed suicide during depression. Throughout the book and his hike, he educates us and people he meets about the seriousness of depression. The last chapter, 24 ¿ Depression: know the facts, is full of information and on-line resources for both the sufferer and family. The John Muir Trail, JMT, is 218 miles of rugged, climbing trial through California¿s Sierra Nevada mountain range which begins in Happy Isles, elevation 4,035 ft., and ends at Lone Pine beside Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,496 ft. All of it is exposed to extreme temperature swings, deadly lighting storms, flash floods, bears, and mountain lions (hikers have been attacked and killed by the lions and bears). That¿s not including potential strange and dangerous people - Chapter 18, A Creep at 10,000 Feet - yikes! Jeff and his wife, Beth, take on the JMT with humor and resolve. Jeff¿s writing is so good that you experience the adventure, pains, fears, wonderment, and appreciation for nature¿s beauty that they had. He writes with candor, telling everything. Their underwear shopping, Chapter 5, Finished Basements, is funnier read than explained. From losing his clothes on the first day, to catching his first trout, to the arguments with Beth, to protecting her with a makeshift spear, to Beth¿s almost deadly accident he tells all. I really enjoyed this book. His description of what they did and explanation of why they did it shows what a great teacher and writer he is. The amount of detail is well integrated with the story and dialogue. Based on his book, I feel I can hike the trail and know what to expect. Personally, I now know I¿m not going on that hike. It¿s too rugged for me. The importance of Jeff and Beth¿s purpose is Depression Awareness, which is highlighted by the stories from the other hikers and people they met along the trail.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.