The Tin Man
“Steve, your finger looks broken!”
My friend Nolan and I sat with Steve at the diner. We’d just emerged from the wilderness hiking up Tennessee’s highest peak, Clingmans Dome. The dirt was still impacted under our nails and the aromas made the waitress quick to take our order.
“It’s been like that for a week now. I don’t think it’s broken.”
I looked at Steve’s purple swollen finger that resembled the definition of my breakfast sausage.
“Can you even bend it?”
I saw him try to bend it.
“I think it’s broken,” I said again.
“Well, I sure as hell ain’t going to stop now. I’ll finish the trip and if it’s broken then a doctor can just re-break it when I’m home.”
“Maybe we can make a splint for it,” I suggested.
He looked at his finger and then went right back to enjoying his flapjacks. After a week in the woods eating spam and tuna, food trumps broken fingers.
Steve was two weeks from finishing his 6-month hike along the entire Appalachian Trail. I had been section hiking on the Appalachian Trail with a good friend when I met Steve. I don’t know too many people who will take care of a broken bone in a few weeks, but most Green Beret veterans are pretty tough and interesting people.
2 days earlier, my good friend Nolan and I were setting up camp along the AT (Appalachian Trail) when Steve came strolling in.
There were a few tell-tale signs Steve had been on the trail a while: An alarming level of calm while talking about bear encounters, not an oversized backpack, semi-ungroomed facial hair, and he knows the exact calorie count and weight of a pack of Poptarts. You can also pick up the scent of soap and detergent on a day-hiker from a mile away.
We got to know each other around the fire, debating the best wood stacking method. Teepee vs the log cabin. I’m a hunting and gathering kind of guy, so I go with the teepee. Steve’s more of a settler - log cabin method he prefers. The normal conversations between hikers is about gear, food, bodily functions, traveling mentality and weather.
Steve was digging through his bag and I mentioned how I overpacked food for this trip. He looked up swiftly and said,
“Well, of course.”
“Of course what?”
“Everyone overpacks something. You overpack what you fear.”
I drew quiet to listen.
“If you’re scared of starvation, extra food. Dehydration, too much water. Freezing, extra clothing. You get the point.”
That was so true.
I began to think about the kind of things we overpack into our homes as well and what that says about our fears. Clothing, dishes, food, televisions, books, or the kinds of things we hoard and won’t throw away. I keep every single note I write myself. Maybe I fear forgetting memories or losing my mind.
For some the television is always on in the background or music is constantly playing, or there is always another person around - fear of being alone or fear of the silence. You overpack what you fear.
The next morning Nolan and I set off early to have coffee on a peak and watch the sunrise. A major drawback of packing surplus food is carrying the extra weight. I stuffed another Clif Bar down, chewing it just enough to force it down my throat. God, I hate Clif Bars.
10 hours later, just before our destination, Steve had caught up to us. I was surprised he didn’t pass us sooner. We happened to be heading to the same campsite that night as well.
While setting up our hammocks Steve showed me his trekking poles that a bear had stolen a few nights before. It slobbered all over one of the handles and had licked the letter “o” off the pole.
“I think he likes vowels,” Steve said.
“Tomorrow is our last day of our trip out here,” I told Steve while tieing up the tarp over my hammock.
Steve wrestled with his hammock straps.
“Oh, where are you guys ending?”
“Oh, your car is up there. Are you passing through Gatlinburg on your way home?”
His voice sounded like he might need a lift into town. Why else would he care which way we were headed.
“Yeah, do you want a ride?”
“Wow! Like if you don’t mind. That would be great!”
My girlfriend and I had just returned weeks before from a bicycle trip across Europe. Many kind strangers befriended us and helped us in ways we could never repay them. But here was a chance, finally, where I could pay back a little of the big karma that’s been graced to me. What a pleasure to have the home advantage, I couldn’t wait to give back. My roommate Nolan felt the same way.
The sun fell like a stone as darkness filled the trees. The campfire in the distance cast enough glow with the help of the sagging moon to finish setting up the hammocks.
“I’m on your guy’s time. Just let me know what time we are heading out and I’ll be up.”
“We’ll set off by 8:30,” I said.
“Sure thing. Also, we will be grabbing breakfast at the diner in town, if you’d like to join us.”
“Without a doubt, I’m in need of some flapjacks.”
I laid in my hammock that night so grateful to have something to offer. After all that’s been given to me - more blessings than I can count. I felt like a kid on Christmas. Except this time I wasn’t anticipating getting the present, I was eager to give one. Giving is always better than getting.
On our final hike up the mountain, reaching 6,644 feet above sea level, we cut through the dense fog. Dark lush moss covered the spruce-fir crest trail. The air was thin but heavy with dew. The sun was nowhere to be found.
Steve looked at his watch,
“9:45 and we’re halfway there. We’re moving at about 1.75 m.p.h.”
“Wow, that’s pretty good time!”
“Yeah it is, and time well spent.”
“Indeed,” I replied.
“And that’s the thing with time,” Steve continued.
“You can’t save time, you can only spend it. So you have to be careful what you choose to spend it on.”
I looked down at the trail; rocks, dirt, old leaves and sticks all patted down under thousands of pairs of boots. The trail is no wider than my own two feet. It looks like any other winding dirt track, yet this one has been romanced and trotted for decades. Each man’s or woman’s steps following the one’s before them. Steve said the trail will be here until the end of the earth, but you won’t. The most important thing is to spend the time and enjoy it with the others who trudge this path less traveled.
A little food for thought while I pushed that last 500 feet of elevation gain.
So what does a 60 year old Green Beret veteran and myself have in common? We both insist upon enjoying life. With drastically different upbringings, occupations and life experiences, we were drawn to each other for the simple commonality of a way of life; a happy one.
A week after we parted ways I gave Steve a call to touch base with his progress. I asked him what was the single most important thing he has gotten out of the experience on the Appalachian Trail.
He quoted an old 70’s rock song by the band America, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have.”
“The trail doesn’t give character, it reveals it. People think that hiking the AT gives them courage, but actually it brings out the courage you already have. The good is inside you already, we just need to do things to bring it out.”
Steve continued to say that the 6-month journey along the Appalachian Trail restored his faith in humanity and he felt he grew closer to God. There were many problems and challenges along the way, and many of Steve’s plans to solve them collapsed. Just at the last moment someone would show up with a solution to help him. Steve said he didn’t always understand why God let things happen the way He did, but now he sees the greater plan at work. It was through the kindness and goodwill of others that he realized this Grace.