A Journey of Remembrance- A final hike with Zachary “Shady” Adamson up McAffee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia with his friends and family

This video was made to remember a special Memorial Day climb up to Mc Affee’s Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. This far-reaching vista, the most photographed on the entire 2,150-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail (AT), was Airborne Ranger Zachary Adamson’s favorite spot. Zachary was an AT thru-hiker in 2013 and became a successful “2,000 Miler.” His Ranger friend, Travis Johnston, created the event for family and friends on May 24, 2014 to celebrate Zach’s life and to begin to find the strength to go on without him.

Cindy Ross, author/photographer and long distance hiker was privileged to be a part of the Zachary Adamson Memorial Climb. It is her wish to do everything she can to keep the spirit of Zachary Adamson alive, as well as all veterans whom America has lost. Her goal is to spread the word that walking and immersing yourself in the natural world aids in healing. She has co-founded http://www.RiverHousePA.org to help with this mission.

Music by The Piano Guys

THE STORY behind the video….Steve Adamson leaned on his son’s Appalachian Trail hiking poles with every step. He leaned on his memory of Zachary, needing his help to get up the mountain. Steve 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 the extra weight he carried on him. It was not 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 (AT) just last year. He left Springer Mountain, Georgia only four months after returning home from Afghanistan at the conclusion of four years in the military as a Special Operations soldier. Zachery got the idea to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail from his good friend and fellow 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 Eric and for himself in 2013.

No matter who you meet from the AT Class of 2013, everyone repeats the same mantra: Zachary was a friend to all. There was nothing he would not do for anyone. His fun-loving spirit brought joy to everyone’s life.

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. The cause of the wound may never be determined- self-inflicted, inflicted by another, an accident, or a combination because evidence was wrongly destroyed. 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.

Travis Johnston, Zach’s Machine Gun Team Leader who served with him in Afghanistan has also been dealing with his grief personal of losing Zack. To help with this 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 then got the brilliant idea to honor Zach on Memorial Day weekend, had a 150-pound memorial granite stone made, flew Zach’s family in from Ohio, and gathered friends and family to celebrate Zachary’s life on top of Mc Affee’s Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Zach’s most favorite spot on the entire 2,150 mile trail. Zach’s best friend, Sean Reilly, another Airborne Ranger, joined the group, as well as his whole family.

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 filed across to the stone, spoke to Zach, and placed the candle there for him and then began to climb.

It was a day of reliving memories. In only four ascending miles, the walking stimulated many memories. Zach’s dad told stories of taking the Adamson kids hiking and backpacking, of storms they got caught in. We would stop to sob and hug, to look at photos in Steve’s phone. Nearly every highlight in his son’s life was there for quick reference.

There is nothing like a steady climb when you are out of shape to remind you that you should get yourself in shape. Steve spoke of this and the beautiful fact that he feels his son here in the woods more than any other place. He wants to return, time and time again to visit with his son here. He also said he needed more joy in his life. Steve and 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.”

Up on the mountain top, with exceptional visibility and magnificent views across the valley, Travis and Sean laid out momentous of Zach on the rock: like his knife, medal and hiking poles and photograph. A bottle of twelve-year old Jamison whiskey, 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.

Each family member as well as Sean & Travis, all took turns speaking about what Zach had meant to them. They spoke of how they were planning to go on with their lives, wanting to be more like him, embracing life, living large, spending time in nature, etc. Rebecca 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.

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, believe that no one can be closer than their “band of brothers”…until they experience a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Zach had his “hiking family” and now Travis has his. Over twenty hikers left their thru-hike and arranged to get themselves north to Mc Affee’s knob to be there for support. Travis said his hiking family was helping him heal from his loss and his nightmares and horrific memories of war that still plagues him.

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 photograph alive. Travis sat down by it and began to tell me of that horrible day in Afghanistan, the day that became the worse nightmare in his and Zach’s life, the images that still cause nightmares, making his mind reel and be tortured with questions, “should I have done it differently.”
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. “
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.”

Like the tens of thousands of returning veterans, Travis still has emotional healing to do, but he has chosen to open his heart to love. He has chosen to expose his vulnerability, and understands that he can be a tough strong Ranger and still cry and still hug and work hard at loving. That was the single overwhelming emotion at the 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 their families.

Travis Johnston orchestrated an event that will have so many positive ripples, that reach 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.

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4 thoughts on “A Journey of Remembrance- A final hike with Zachary “Shady” Adamson up McAffee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia with his friends and family Leave a comment

    1. hi Tim- yes, he was killed by a gun shot to the head- at first they thought it was self-inflicted but maybe a combination of an accident/ inflicted by someone else.
      He had successfully hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and this occurred this past Jan.

  1. Thanks for such an eloquent narrative. I had been following the picture journey through the eyes of Zach’s hiking “family”.

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