Jour­ney of a Life­time

They say you can learn some­thing by walk­ing in an­other man’s boots. On the Ap­palachian Trail last sum­mer, hik­ers learned what hap­pens when you carry them.

Backpacker - - CONTENTS - By Eric J. Wal­lace

This pair of boots changed lives on the Ap­palachian Trail.

THRU- HIK­ERS ARE a var­ied bunch, but there’s one thing they all agree on: Don’t carry an ounce more than you need. So it was more than a lit­tle un­usual when thru-hiker Thomas “Jabba” Gath­man stopped in Staunton, Vir­ginia, in March 2016 and picked up a pair of size-13 boots that weighed more than 4 pounds— and which he had no in­ten­tion of wear­ing.

Gath­man was in the midst of a win­ter thru-hike, which made the ex­tra weight even more ar­du­ous. Then it got harder. Gath­man slipped and sprained his an­kle while try­ing to make up the day he’d spent wait­ing for the boots to ar­rive in Staunton. “That weight be­gan to re­ally grate on me,” he re­calls with a laugh. “I started fan­ta­siz­ing about toss­ing my own boots—size 10s—and slip­ping into shoes three sizes too big.”

Gath­man per­se­vered, car r y ing the boots for more than 300 miles to Da­m­as­cus, Vir­ginia. There, he handed them off to an­other hiker, who strapped them to his pack, too. And who later also passed them to an­other hiker. In all, 40 hik­ers car­ried one man's boots dur­ing the 2016 sea­son, en­sur­ing they trav­eled the en­tire length of the Ap­palachian Trail.

THE BOOTS THAT ev­ery­one car­ried were known sim­ply as Paul’s Boots. They be­longed to Paul Evans, an Aus­tralian who’d never set foot on the AT. None of the hik­ers who car­ried Paul’s boots had ever met him, and they never would. Paul died of a heart at­tack in July 2015, at the age of 53.

But even with­out meet­ing Paul, they knew he was one of them. Paul had grown up hik­ing in Aus­tralia, where his dad served in the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force. The mil­i­tary life meant mov­ing around from base to base, so the Evans fam­ily did three things to pro­vide a sense of sta­bil­ity wher­ever they landed: got in­volved with the lo­cal scout troop, went camp­ing on week­ends, and spent va­ca­tions vis­it­ing Aus­tralia’s na­tional parks.

When Paul was 42, his par­ents’ health de­te­ri­o­rated. First, his mother de­vel­oped Parkin­son’s dis­ease. Then his fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. Paul moved in to help, and a few years later, was joined by his new wife M’Lynn Markel, whom he met in on­line sup­port fo­rums for peo­ple who act as care­givers.

“I was liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, tak­ing care of a friend who was dy­ing of can­cer,” says M’Lynn. “It was a hard and lonely thing to deal with, and I was seek­ing com­fort.” She was taken with Paul’s kind­ness in deal­ing with his mother.

The first time M’Lynn came to visit, the cou­ple went back­pack­ing. “Paul took me to one of his fa­vorite trails, a route in Lam­ing­ton Na­tional Park that goes up and down a se­ries of wa­ter­falls,” says M’Lynn. “We must have hiked al­most ev­ery trail on the east coast of Aus­tralia.”

But their hikes be­came less fre­quent as Paul’s par­ents re­quired more care. “It got to the point where we had to watch them in shifts,” says M’Lynn. Paul and M’Lynn cared for his par­ents for years, un­til first his mother died in 2010 and then his fa­ther in 2011.

This should be the point in the story where the cou­ple gets back on the trail, find­ing so­lace in the out­doors. But no. Paul could no longer hike, let alone shoul­der a pack. His own health had gone down­hill dur­ing the time he cared for his par­ents. Paul, al­ready a big man at 6’3”, gained weight and then had a heart at­tack. By the end of 2014, he’d had two more heart at­tacks and the dam­age was so acute he had to walk down the drive­way sec­tion by sec­tion.

But even as Paul’s body was fail­ing him, his love for the trail didn't. He started lis­ten­ing to the Dirt­bag Diaries pod­cast se­ries and was cap­ti­vated by tales of gritty thru-hik­ers over­com­ing men­tal and phys­i­cal ob­sta­cles.

“Ev­ery night, be­fore we went to bed, he’d tell me sto­ries about what he’d heard peo­ple were do­ing out on the trail,” re­calls M’Lynn, her voice catching. “I think it was the peo­ple’s sto­ries that he fell in love with. He wanted very much to be a part of that com­mu­nity, to ex­pe­ri­ence it for him­self.”

De­spite ev­ery­thing, Paul be­gan plot­ting an Ap­palachian Trail thru-hike of his own. Reach­ing out to on­line fo­rums and blog­gers, Paul asked ques­tions about the AT. He watched YouTube videos of hik­ers on the trail. In March 2015, he started pack­ing for his thru-hike. He re­searched new gear. Bought guide­books. Equipped his back­pack. Stock­piled de­hy­drated meals. Made trail mix. As­sem­bled re­sup­ply pack­ages. M’Lynn did not try to dis­suade him. “I think he was aware he wasn’t go­ing to be able to do it,” she says, re­call­ing that he was sim­ply too weak to walk 100 yards, let alone tackle a thru-hike. “But he was tak­ing so much joy in learn­ing and get­ting ready, and that was so much bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive.”

Af­ter months of re­search and pack­ing, Paul pol­ished his three pairs of leather hik­ing boots. He ar­ranged them by the front door and qui­etly told M’Lynn that he was ready to go.

A few weeks later, on July 23, 2015, just shy of his 54th birth­day, Paul was gone.

WHAT DO YOU DO with hik­ing gear that will never be used? M’Lynn do­nated the bulk of Paul’s AT sup­plies to the scouts. But she couldn’t sim­ply give away the three pairs of size-13 boots still sit­ting be­side the door.

Then she had an idea: Maybe she could get some­one to take Paul’s boots on the AT and send her a pic­ture. It didn’t need to be the whole thing. She was only hop­ing for a cou­ple of photos, hop­ing to see his boots out there, on the trail he’d dreamed of hik­ing.

M’Lynn sent a let­ter to Paul’s fa­vorite pod­cast, Seat­tle-based Dirt­bag Diaries. “We all read it and cried,” says Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor and Pro­ducer Becca Ca­hall. “We got to­gether and said, ‘We have to make this hap­pen. We have to find enough hik­ers to string to­gether a thru-hike.’”

Ca­hall and her team put out a call to the hik­ing com­mu­nity for vol­un­teers to carry Paul’s boots, re­lay-style, and record the jour­ney in photos and video. More than 400 peo­ple re­sponded.

One of them was Gath­man, who had picked up the boots in Vir­ginia (all three pairs were on the trail at var­i­ous times). Gath­man had hiked alone much of the win­ter, and was grate­ful for the com­pany. “I would lit­er­ally talk with Paul like he was hik­ing with me,” says Gath­man. “Af­ter a while, I’d for­get the GoPro was rolling, and we’d be hav­ing these in­tense con­ver­sa­tions.” (Par­tic­i­pat­ing hik­ers car­ried GoPros for a planned doc­u­men­tary: see it at­boots).

Gath­man would talk to the boots about things like why in hell any­one would want to put them­selves through a win­ter thru-hike. Or what kept peo­ple locked in jobs or re­la­tion­ships that they didn’t even like. Some­times, he'd just won­der aloud at the moon­light fall­ing on a stand of snow- cov­ered pines.

“For me, the trip was about in­spir­ing peo­ple to tap into their in­ner wild­ness and sum­mon the strength to quit putting off their dreams and pur­sue them right now,” says Gath­man. “That’s what I’ve been try­ing to do with my own life. And I felt like Paul was with me, in ca­hoots with the mis­sion.”

Ev­ery­one who car­ried Paul's boots be­came part of this larger mis­sion. There were col­lege kids look­ing for ad­ven­ture, 40-year- olds tak­ing a mid- ca­reer break, 50-year- olds tak­ing their teenage kids on a rite of pas­sage, 70-year- olds tak­ing a fi­nal crack at a life­long dream.

And there were hik­ers who might not have made the jour­ney at all with­out Paul's boots. Take, for ex­am­ple, 28-year- old Alex “Daddy Long Legs” Newlon. As an epilep­tic, Newlon had been told a thru-hike was im­pos­si­ble for him. But af­ter hear­ing about Paul’s story on­line, he de­cided to re­ject the naysay­ers: Not only would he com­plete the AT, he was go­ing to do it while car­ry­ing a pair of Paul’s boots. “I wanted to show my­self, other epilep­tics, and ev­ery­one else that any­thing is pos­si­ble,” Newlon says.

But just over four months into his north­bound jour­ney, in New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains, Newlon was worn down and felt dan­ger­ously close to quit­ting. “I was trudg­ing up South Kins­man Moun­tain, star­ing at my feet, when Paul’s boots came un­tied and whacked my left el­bow,” says Newlon. “I look up and there’s a deer stand­ing in the mid­dle of the trail, star­ing at me. It was as if Paul was try­ing to tell me to pay more at­ten­tion to my sur­round­ings be­cause, lost in my head and caught up in my own doubts and fears, I was miss­ing the beauty of the world around me.”

Newlon pushed on, think­ing of Paul and his fam­ily. “It was like I had a team, and that team was go­ing to help me make it to Maine,” he says. Newlon made it, and so did Paul’s boots. The un­like­li­est pair of boots on the AT sum­mited Katahdin on Au­gust 24, 2016.

“The fact that my Aus­tralian hus­band’s hik­ing boots be­came so rec­og­niz­able on the AT is ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble,” M’Lynn says. “The hik­ers car­ried his boots as if they were ac­tu­ally him. They took them to din­ner, in­tro­duced them to friends, took pic­tures of them as if he was walk­ing in them.”

Turns out Paul was right all along. He was plan­ning a thru-hike.

Alex “Daddy Long Legs” Newlon

Thomas “Jabba” Gath­man

Paul Evans in Aus­tralia

Erin “Olive Oil” Oliver

Paul’s boots were shipped from Aus­tralia to the Ap­palachian Trail.

Brit­tany Leav­itt From left: Paul in the Aus­tralian bush. Mid­dle: a few of the 40 hik­ers who car­ried Paul’s three pairs of boots be­tween Ge­or­gia and Maine. Far right: Arthur, Paul’s younger brother, trav­eled from Aus­tralia to carry the boots on the...

Is­abel and Alex Gar­cia

Arthur Evans

Grace “Al­ley Cat” White

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