GROTON -- For the first time in over three months, my brother Ryan is practically within arm's reach.
Since beginning his mighty expedition through the Appalachian Trail in March, and after traversing through eight states, Ryan (or the King, as he is known to his fellow trail travelers) took his first step on Massachusetts soil on Friday, June 28.
That evening, which was also coincidentally my mom's birthday, she and I were nearly out of our skin with excitement to see him, ready to jump in the car that minute. Instead, we'll be waiting a week and picking him up on the trail to take him home for a few days. Afterwards, he'll be taking a brief hiatus for his annual job at a wilderness camp, beginning July 14, before getting back on the trail.
The news of Ryan's imminent visit was far better received than the news we'd received from the trail on my birthday, May 19.
A month and a half ago, Ryan had called to tell me he had arrived at the 27th annual Trail Days, a huge backpacking festival that takes place in Damascus, Virginia. Having already passed through Damascus three weeks earlier, Ryan caught a three-hour car ride backwards to participate in the festivities. (Yes, you're doing that math correctly.)
A huge section of the trail was parceled off to host a weekend's worth of events, dozens of backpacking vendors and a city of tents. There were concerts, free breakfasts and giveaways, medical screenings, gear repair and even a seminar on how to care for your dog along the trail.
"They basically shut down the trail for three days and all the through-hikers come here," Ryan told me.
But the festivities were cut terrifyingly short after a car veered out of the parade and drove through a crowd of hikers. The driver, who had suffered a medical emergency behind the wheel, lost control of the car, injuring 50 through-hikers and hospitalizing 19. Ambulances filled the field and helicopters arrived on the scene to airlift four.
Luckily, everyone survived and the seriously injured soon stabilized, but a black cloud lingered as the remaining hikers absorbed the day's events.
"I was actually really lucky. It was right next to (hiker) Great Legs. He was right there and got missed," Ryan said.
Since beginning his hike, Ryan's pace has increased considerably. Each time I've spoken with him during our brief, periodic phone calls, he has been in a different state. These days, he's hiking about 25 miles a day, 10 hours each day. His longest day was 27 miles in the pouring rain. He has breezed through Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, often hiking at night to put even more miles on his pedometer. (Figuratively, of course, a pedometer would be useless extra ounces to carry.) He's even officially walked his way through his first pair of hiking boots, which by the end, were held together with shoe glue. My mom had to overnight him a new pair.
"Pennsylvania chewed up my shoes and spit them back out," he said.
Virginia is notorious to trail hikers as one of the toughest states to make it through due to its length and lack of views, and Ryan wasn't impervious to its effects.
"The Virginia blues were definitely setting in a little bit. There was a point where I just didn't even want to hike anymore," he said.
But, he told me, Virginia is nothing compared to Pennsylvania. Shelters were rundown, litter was scattered throughout the trail and the terrain was treacherous.
"Virginia was just long and boring. Pennsylvania is just awful. The entire trail is made up of fish-sized rocks, so every time I take a step, it feels like a knuckle is being driven into the bottom of my foot. It's definitely been my least favorite state so far," he said.
One night after a day of walking in the rain and fog, Ryan lost his temper for the first time on the trail.
"I threw sticks on the ground and screamed and threw rocks into the woods. I was so frustrated. It was a 26-mile day. I couldn't see in any direction and I just kept tripping. The last straw was when I stubbed my toe on a rock," he said.
There was one good view of Pennsylvania though, he said, (if you can call it that).
He had come across two rattlesnakes in the middle of the trail. They had waited until he was a mere five feet away before warning him of their proximity, and he leaped back.
The snakes haven't been the only wildlife he's come across either. He's spotted a baby bear, a black widow spider, was stalked by (what he guessed was) a bobcat and even woke up one morning surrounded by a herd of wild ponies.
"I fed one an apple, and another was licking salt off my leg," he said. "It was really cool. They're so docile."
Up until recently, Ryan had still found himself hiking with the same group of people, who dubbed themselves the Mighty Morphin' Power Blazers. Although the swell of hikers that initially began the trail has since thinned out, they still meet new people every day-- mostly day-hikers whom the through-hikers refer to as muggles. (Members of the trail community who aren't actually hikers are called squibs.)
The funniest thing Ryan has noticed, he said, has been the change in his perception of smell.
"Through-hikers all smell pretty bad, as I'm sure you can imagine, but we all think everyone else smells bad because their colognes are so powerful. You can tell when a muggle is a mile away because they're so stinky," he said.
Asking if he'd had any life-altering epiphanies on the trail, he said he's become more patient.
He also contemplated that he might never be able to shave again.
"My beard gets me so much trail cred," he said.
So much so that it has even been dubbed with its own trail name. Ryan is no longer just the King. He is now the King and Beardsley.
"It's kind of like my evil alter ego. I got so close to putting a brick-sized rock into Great Legs' backpack but he turned around and saw me. He just shook his head and said, 'Oh, Beardsley.'"
Despite his hardships in Pennsylvania and, what seems to me like an excruciating amount of walking with little else to distract him, Ryan said the experience is deeply serene.
"It's pretty much like my brain is scanning FM radio," he told me once when I asked him what he thought about all day long.
"I'll think about something for 30 seconds and it will flit out of my brain. It's almost meditative. I'll not be paying attention to anything at all, even my thoughts, for two hours straight. I'll just walk past things. It's almost like sleepwalking. The only thing I'm paying attention to is my next footfall."