Steve Adamson leaned on his son’s Appalachian Trail hiking poles with every step that he took. He leaned on his memory of Zachary, needed his help to get up the mountain. Swore he saw him, swore he heard him in the woods, “You can do this Dad,” and he could, despite his two bad knees and extra weight he carried with him. One step at a time, taking breaks. It wasn’t just the physical challenge of the four mile climb up to Mc Affee’s Knob on this Memorial Day weekend, but the emotional drain of the event as well.
Steve’s son, Airborne Ranger Zachary Adamson (“Shady”) became a 2,000 Miler on the Appalachian Trail just last year. He left Springer Mountain, Georgia only four months after returning home from Afghanistan and the conclusion of four years in the military as a Special Operations soldier. He got the idea from his good friend, another Ranger, Eric Hario, who had a dream to hike the entire AT once he got out of the military. Eric died on his first mission. So Zachary carried Eric’s dream forward and hiked the AT for him and for himself in 2013.
No matter who you meet from the Class of 2013, everyone repeated the same mantra. ..Zach was a friend to all. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for anyone. His fun-loving spirit brought joy to everyone’s life. There wasn’t a human being that didn’t fall in love with Zach.
But four months after reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, Zachary died from a gunshot to the head and rocked the whole Appalachian Trail community as well as thousands of friends and family. It is a heart-wrenching tragedy for a parent to lose a child but especially one that brought so much joy to everyone’ s life. The cause of the gunshot wound may never be determined- self-inflicted, inflicted by another, an accident, or a combination? Not knowing the truth is horrific to any parent and loved one and inhibits forward progress and acceptance. Nothing can bring back happy Zach. Still, closure needs to occur. The climb up to Mc Affee’s Knob was perhaps orchestrating that to at least begin.
We began the day of Zachary Adamson’s Memorial Climb up to MC Affee’s Knob in the parking lot on top of the pass in Virginia. Travis Johnston, best friend of Zach who served with him in Afghanistan as Machine Gun Team Leader, orchestrated this eventful day.
To help Travis with his grief of losing his friend and to aid in healing from what the war has done to his spirit, he too decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in Zach’s memory. Travis got the brilliant idea to honor their fallen Ranger brother on this important weekend, had a 150 pound granite stone made, fly Zach’s family from Ohio, gather friends and family and celebrate Zachary’s life on top of Mc Affee Knob- Zach’s most favorite spot on the entire 2,150 mile trail. Zachary’s best friend, Sean Reilly, another Airborne Ranger, has joined him here in Virginia and will accompany him to Maine (and will finish the southern section afterwards).
The gorgeous polished granite memorial stone that Travis had made held two photos of Zach- one serious photo while on deployment in Afghanistan, the other bearded and smiling with backpack on his back on the AT. Travis and Sean, as well as Zach’s brother, Jesse, carried the stone across the busy highway to the trailhead leading to Mc Affee’s Knob. Everyone in the group received a lit votive candle and we filed across to the stone, spoke to Zach, and placed the candle there for him and then began our climb.
While the group took the trail, I stayed on the parallel dirt fire road with Zach’s parents, a shorter and less strenuous tread way to the summit. We would join together for the last 1 /2 miles to the viewpoint.
It was a day of reliving memories. In only four ascending miles, the walking stimulated many waves of past good times. Steve Adamson told me stories of taking the Adamson kids hiking and backpacking, of storms they got caught in. We’d stop to sob and hug , we’d stop to look at photos in Steve’s phone, as I believe every highlight in his son’s life was on his phone for quick reference.
There is nothing like a steady climb when you are out of shape to remind you that you are should get yourself in better shape. Steve spoke of this and the beautiful fact that he feels his son here in the woods as he hiked more than anyplace. He wants to return, time and again to visit with his son. He also said he needed more joy in his life. He and Zach’s mom, Rebecca, felt like they had been drowning in their sorrow. In four months since Zach’s death , they both gained a lot of weight, felt like they were becoming reclusive and certainly very, very sad. Steve said, “Maybe there are lives being saved here today.” Indeed.
Up top, with exceptional visibility and magnificent views across the valleys, Travis and Sean laid out momentous of Zach on the rock. A bottle of twelve year Jamison, a favorite drink of Rangers, was passed around in tiny plastic cubs for a toast to Zach. Songs were sung accompanied by a guitar. The American flag was folded over Zach’s mementos and photo.
Each family member- Jesse, Zach’s brother and Ashley, Zach’s sister, his parents Rebecca & Steve, as well as Sean & Travis, all took turns speaking about what Zach had meant to them. They spoke of how they were planning on going on with their lives, wanting to be more like him, embracing life, living large, spending time in nature, etc. Mom Adamson said to us all, “You all see a hiking friend, I see my little boy,” and broke up. There was crying going on and off all day, intermittent with sobs. It was a day of releasing. Every step forward up that mountain, brought up emotions that needed to come out, from everyone’s hearts.
Sean spoke of his memories with his best friend and Travis shared a story of how impressed he was at Zach’s funeral- how Zach’s hiking “family” came from states far and wide to pay their respects and show their love. Many in the military, especially a tightly bound group like the Rangers or the Marines or the Seals, but all military, believe that nothing can touch their “band of brothers” allegiance. ..until they experienced thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Zach had his “hiking family” and now Travis and Sean had theirs. Indeed, over twenty of them had left their thru-hike and arranged to get themselves north to Mc Affee’s knob to be there to support Travis and Sean. Travis spoke of how his thru-hike and his hiking family was hugely helping him heal from his loss and his nightmares and horrific memories of war that still plagued him.
On the way down the mountain, Travis and I spoke about his future dreams, his current struggles, his concerns for his future, because life doesn’t get “fixed” just by hiking 2,150 miles and you don’t heal entirely on a 6 month walk in the woods. It is a beginning. It is a way, a place to go to encourage more and ongoing healing. And you have to change your life, redesign it, because it is not realistic to continue hiking full time.
When we reached the trailhead as the sun grew low and evening descended, we were hit with the intense beauty of Zachary’s stone sitting there at the trailhead, flickering votive candles bringing his image alive. And Travis sat down by it and began to tell me of that horrible day in Afghanistan, that day that became the worse nightmare of he and Zach’s life, the images that still cause nightmares, making his mind reel with questions, “should I have done it differently,” struggling with mistakes made, and on and on with the mental torture. I asked him,
“Have you forgiven yourself yet Travis?” and he replied, “I don’t know that I can.”
And I told him, “Work on that. Spend the next 1700 miles working on that. “
And I stood up and kissed his face and told him, “You are a wonderful human being. You are on your way and you will be ok.”
The thing that Travis Johnston doesn’t realize is that contrary to many suffering veterans, he has chosen to open his heart to love. He knows he’s still fucked up and might be for life to a degree, as are tens of thousands of our returning veterans but he has chosen to expose his vulnerability, to understand that he can be a tough strong Ranger man and still cry and still hug and work hard at loving. That was the single overwhelming emotion at this entire Mc Affee’s Knob event- an out pouring of love and support. Healing can’t happen in our “safe” little homes, behind closed doors and sturdy walls that we have constructed around our hearts, alone with our demons and memories. Our veterans have to stick their necks out- go on a walk, embrace, as do all their family members like Steve and Rebecca Adamson.
I spent the entire five hour drive home crying, reliving each memory shared, each word spoken, each moment when someone broke down and sobbed, and there were countless. And the crying isn’t over just because we all made a successful climb to Mc Affee’s Knob, even though the Adamsons promised to turn a page and begin to seek more joy in their lives, even though I expect Travis and Sean to successfully reach Katahdin in the fall. It is a start.
Travis Johnston orchestrated an event that will have so many positive ripples, out into all our lives, just like the life of Zachary Adamson touched so many lives. Travis commented on Mc Affee’s Knob with the exquisite backdrop of the valley, towering tall with clouds behind, feeling like heaven was right there. “Zach did not practice the concept of ‘Leave no Trace,’” for everywhere he went he left his residual love and huge spirit.” May we all continue to walk in his light.
to see related photos of the epic dayhttps://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10202203104218755.1073741853.1224015243&type=1&l=59e2d7b227