WRAL-TV’s Tar Heel Traveler Scott Mason recently celebrated being 60 by hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail with a close friend. The trip fulfilled a promise made long ago. He penned a piece about their adventure:
Boots on The Ground
By Scott Mason
I’m a city boy. Never camped before, not really. But always love playing the cowboy.
I sprang for a pair of boots once on a trip to Dallas, fake snakeskin, and went strutting around Harris-Teeter back home in Raleigh. I felt tall and rugged—though I don’t think anybody noticed.
Awhile later, I took another trip, this time to Cleveland, and met an old college buddy over beers in a bar. He brought up the Appalachian Trail. “We’ll start in Georgia, hike a week or two, then pick up where we left off the next year, and the next. Shoot, we’ll hit Maine by the time we lose our hair.”
I hoisted my PBR, whacked the can against his, and hollered, “I’m in!”
But I wasn’t in when the trail came calling that fall. “Too much to do,” I told him. “Next year.” But the next year, he solo trekked again—and again and again. I didn’t wear my fake snakeskins to the Teeter anymore.
A decade passed, and all the while my buddy kept section hiking his way up the mighty AT. I was sure he’d given up on me—the way my Orthopedic had bailed on my hips. “Double replacement—very soon,” the doc said with a face grimmer than Clint Eastwood’s in a spaghetti western.
I joined a gym. My wife bought a Peloton. I lifted and biked, and the ol’ hips improved, and when my buddy rang me out of the blue…Yeehaw! I was suddenly back in the saddle. “Yes,” I told him. “Yes, yes, I’m in!” I was also in AARP. I was about to turn 60, and this time there was no turning back.
We met on a Sunday night at a hotel in Hagerstown, Maryland, and I splayed my backpack belongings all over the bed. Too many clothes, too many Cliff bars. I left a pound or two in the car, repacked the pack, and we toasted our journey-to-be. Craft beer instead of PBR, but okay.
We caught a ride the next morning to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, our starting point, and I felt like a hiker. I looked like a hiker. I was ready to be a hiker. We hiked—and my loaded pack grew heavier with every step. Maybe I was not so ready.
The scenery, at least, proved a pleasant distraction. The Potomac River shimmered in the morning sun. A deer eyeballed me from 20 yards away. Everything was lush and green. My buddy showed me how to adjust my shoulder straps, and the weight shifted. Much better, and okay, this was good. This was great. I was loving it—but love proved a short honeymoon.
The woods closed in, and the rocks popped up. So many rocks. By day two, I would have given a hundred Cliff bars for one pair of ankle braces.
Three nights, four days, 40 miles through Maryland, and at one point, the trail was not a trail at all but an endless series of boulders. My legs wobbled over them, my poles scraped across them, and worse, we bounded the daggum boulders in a driving rain.
Oh, yes, it rained, but that was day three, and by then I was a battle-scarred veteran. “Bring it on,” I growled. “Ain’t gonna stop,” and I didn’t. And rarely did the rain.
I planted one foot in front of the other during those grueling days. I sang the National Anthem to myself 10 times. I wrote a short story in my head—though I can’t remember it now. I told my friend jokes I hadn’t thought of in years.
We laughed. We hiked. We camped. Each night, I set up my tent in an hour and slept about as long. I thought an air mattress was supposed to be comfortable. I thought the middle of nowhere was supposed to be quiet.
Breakfast was always a slim packet of oatmeal, but I wasn’t hungry anyway. I guess the exertion robbed my appetite—though even that early, I nearly scarfed a Mountain House lasagna just to rid the pack of a few more ounces.
Each day was like the other. But not like it, too. Surprises greeted us along the way, such as the friendly fellow hikers we met. One gave us his spare water filter when ours broke. We asked for his address so we could mail him a check later, but he waved us away. “Nah. Glad to help.”
We rested at beautiful overlooks and passed Civil War battlefields. We came upon a stretch near Boonsboro dedicated to George Washington, and around the bend rose the Washington Monument, the original one, a 40-foot stone tower built in 1827.
The whole trip was a surprise, the fact I made it, that my body made it. My ankles and hips, too. I practically jogged the last half mile, the pack never so light as it was then.
We arrived just before dusk at Pen Mar County Park, about a quarter mile from the Pennsylvania line. My buddy hiked that last little bit and stepped across, but not me. P.A. could wait, I thought. Maybe next fall, maybe the next state on the list, and forget tiptoeing over. I’d tackle it from one end to the other. All in. Yeehaw!
I settled myself on a bench, slipped off my pack, and kept an eye out for our ride. The driver was running late, but that was okay. It was all okay. Everything was outstanding. I gulped the crisp air and gazed at the grey sky. The rain had quit. But I had just begun.
Alone with my thoughts, my cowboy boots sprang to mind, the snakeskins I’d tucked deep in my closet. I realized my hiking boots would not be keeping them company. At that moment, I knew the muddy clodhoppers now on my feet would remain close at hand—and, sure, maybe I’d even wear them to Harris-Teeter just so they’d stay broken in.
But without a doubt, I also knew they’d kiss the trail once again.
Thanks to WRAL-TV’s Scott Mason for this Capcom story and for these Capcom photos.