About a month ago I became aware of the Gritty Soldier – March for a Purpose Challenge. This challenge is to help bring awareness to the tragedy of veteran suicide. Studies have shown that an average of 22 veterans take their own lives every day. EVERY DAY! I don’t consider myself a veteran, but I was in the Air Force for a short time before an injury sent me home from boot camp. Many of my family and friends are veterans or are still members of the military. I pledge to be there for them or anyone who may need a listening ear or helping hand.
You don’t have to be a military person to be a soldier or be gritty. A soldier has courage and audacity. A person with true grit has passion and perseverance. They set goals and those are followed through. They work hard and don’t back down from a commitment. There have been a couple times in my life where I didn’t feel like a gritty soldier. I felt hopeless, lost, discouraged. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with supportive parents, siblings, children, family and friends that have knowingly or unknowingly helped me through difficult times in my life.
The March for a Purpose challenges participants to walk, run, hike or ruck 22 miles on August 22. Guess, what I chose? When I decided to accept this challenge I knew it wouldn’t be a “walk in the park.” I needed a good hiking buddy for real support and encouragement that I knew I would need on this difficult hike. Someone I could trust and someone who wouldn’t let me quit. I invited my good friend James Nagel aka Silver Fox aka Squeaker (sorry, not sorry, Jim) to accept this huge challenge. I’m grateful he was on board the moment I asked.
Jim and I planned and researched the trail for this hike a few weeks in advance. We decided on hiking the Letchworth State Park Branch Trail of the Finger Lakes Trail. We knew it was about 22 miles long from end to end so it was a perfect fit. There are two shelters along the trail and access (or bail out) points as well. Unfortunately, the shelters were reserved, so we studied the maps again and found a shelter on the main Finger Lakes Trail just south of Letchworth State Park. The Hesse lean to had the roof damaged by a fallen tree last year but, just had some major repairs made to the roof by a volunteer crew of trail maintainers. In fact, they installed a privy, new fire ring and wood shed. It was like the Shangri La of trail shelters. So Jim and I made plans to stay overnight at the Hesse lean to before driving to our chosen access point near the Parade Grounds in Letchworth State Park. On the Friday before our hike my girlfriend and I stashed a gallon of water on the trail for Jim and I to recover the following day. The weather has been so hot and rain free the water in the creeks were unreliable. This helped us not to worry about our water supply and we were able to stay completely hydrated the entire hike.
Carrying just our day packs filled with water and food and the ten essentials we started out at the crack of dawn. We were excited at the prospect of completing the challenge, but knew it was going to be hard.
Just like our lives the trail had many ups and downs. So many. The conversations we had revolved around our favorite books we read when we were children, our favorite movies, and me singing songs by John Denver and the Sound of Music. Sorry again, Jim. We picked a cool waterless creek in a ravine to eat our lunch and rest. We removed our shoes and compared how dirty our toes were. We had hiked 12 miles by 12:30. Over half way!
The second half of our hike was more of the same except the sun was hotter. The pines of the forest offered a hint of relief, but we still dipped our bandannas in whatever finger deep water we could find along the way to keep our heads cool. Jim offered me Jolly Ranchers and Skittles to keep me motivated. It worked. I’m a sucker for sugar. We stopped for dinner at the second shelter on the trail. This shelter had a nice picnic table so we sat for about 45 minutes to really recover. I was glad to eat in order to lighten my pack load.
I’m not going to lie or sugar coat it though, the miles between 16 and 22 were brutal for me. Each time I had a doubt about being able to finish, I put one foot in front of the other and Jim and I talked about the sacrifices of our American soldiers, and their families. We reminded ourselves that our freedom in this beautiful country came at a cost to them. After mile 22 we knew the trail was about to end, or so we thought. I had parked my car at the end so we had to keep going.
I’m here to tell you that the Letchworth Branch Trail of the Finger Lakes Trail is 24.5 miles according to my Strava app. I sang a song those final 2.5 miles.
This is the trail that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend. Some hikers started walking it, not knowing where it goes, and they’ll continue hiking it forever just because…This is the trail that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend…..sung to the tune of “This is the Song that Never Ends.”
The last 2.5 miles I felt like I had the runner’s high. I knew the challenge was almost over and I knew we were going to be successful. After not seeing any wildlife except for squirrels, chipmunks and a dinosaur, we finally saw a doe and her fawn cross the trail. It was a perfect ending to the hike. And then BANG, we were finished, done and right as the sun was setting. I teased Jim about going another 1.5 miles to complete a marathon. That was a hard NO from him! I was relieved.
I am so grateful to be able to spend this time just loving nature and feeding my soul.
Happy trails to you, my friends. Bless our military veterans and those currently serving. Thank you from the bottom of heart.