Last spring, I traded in my textbooks and laptop for a pair of boots and a sleeping bag. I signed a leave of absence from Penn State, stuffed my camping gear into a pack and headed down to Georgia to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, more than 2,000 miles in total. Over the course of the five-month journey, I hiked about 15 miles every day. I saw a lot. I thought a lot. And I learned a lot.
I learned how to start a fire with wet wood. I learned to forget I was carrying 30 pounds on my shoulders. I learned how to fall asleep when I was sopping wet. I discovered that I was stretching my physical and emotional limits just by refusing to quit before I made it to Maine.
I learned more while hiking than I have during any given semester of college so far. And that’s why I was so surprised that the most powerful lesson the trail had in store for me took place in December, when I was four months removed from the trail lifestyle and once again enjoying the comforts of collegiate life.
Frank Madeiros was a “thru-hiker” like I am – someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail from end to end in one go. And for part of the long walk, our feet fell in step and we became friends. And though his given name was Frank, those he met on the trail he was known by his trail name, “John Wayne.” My first thought when I met him was that the name was only appropriate in that it was completely inappropriate. Frank was easy-going, amiable and quick to make a joke. He didn’t look like John Wayne, and he didn’t act like John Wayne. But the name was perfect, and for a while I couldn’t tell why.
On Dec. 10, John Wayne stopped hiking. He lost his footing and fell to his death on a trail in Alabama. He was 27.
He taught me that despite the physical endurance required to hike 2,000 miles, a thru-hiker is not immortal. While I was hiking, it was easy to feel like I might be. I could eat anything I wanted to and never gained weight or even felt full, thanks to the roughly 7,000 calories I burned a day. After months of hiking, it was easy to feel more at home in the woods than in a real house or apartment. But the dangers are real no matter how experienced the hiker. Rocks can be loose no matter how sure your footing.
A thru-hike is highlighted by moments of intense beauty, but nature is impartial. A sunset seen from a mountaintop is a humbling view. So is a thunderstorm viewed from the same height, but the latter is so awe-inspiring because of its associated danger. To get the most out of the natural world requires resilience and courage. These were two characteristics that John Wayne possessed in no short supply.
Danger is part of the thru-hiking mentality. We may not have been climbing Everest, but after months of hiking, at one point every thru-hiker has been at high elevation with lightning striking nearby or on an exposed ledge with the wind gusting. We camped where bears roam and hiked across rocks where rattlesnakes sleep.
These were dangers that John Wayne understood and accepted.
And I can’t speak for him, but I know that I faced down the dangerous, lonely and painful times because the Appalachian Trail is also the temporary home of some of the memorable and captivating people I’ve had the chance to meet.
John Wayne was one such person. I only knew him for two weeks, but the impression he left was enormous.
I knew him as the guy who would hike 30 miles just to get into town to see the Bruins game. The guy who carried a ukulele strapped to his pack even though he couldn’t play it yet, but he wanted to learn. The guy who swore he was quitting chewing tobacco but always had more than a pinch stuffed under his lip. The guy who would offer to pay for a hotel room after we all had a rough day on the trail.
The guy who was, as Jack Kerouac would say, “mad to live.”
The beauty of the trail is that as unique as John Wayne was, he fit in on the Appalachian Trail like a missing jigsaw piece.
There are some people that just seem to belong right where they are. The real John Wayne, the movie star, belonged in front of the camera. He demanded attention because he seemed so at ease. The John Wayne I knew was the same way when his backpack was slung across his shoulders and he had nowhere to go but north. He seemed so comfortable.
Maybe that’s why the name fit so well.
Nathan Pipenberg is a junior majoring in print journalism and international politics. He is The Daily Collegian’s Wednesday columnist. Email him at email@example.com.