He was coming south through the winter on the Appalachian Trail. Dealt with snow and ice and frozen everything, biting winds, sub zero temps and usually NO footprints on the trail. He could count the day hikers he ran into practically on one hand. The most populated trail in the world, but in the winter, Tommy Gathman had it all to himself. He was coming our way in Pennsylvania and we couldn’t wait to take care of him.
I met Tom three years ago right before he began his first AT thru-hike. Todd and I invited him and his partner, Adam Bautz down for any last minute questions they might have before they traveled to Georgia to begin their thru-hike. It was his birthday we learned, so we had to whip him up a cake and sing to him. Then we hosted Tommy when he came through later that year in November. He had injured himself when he came through PA and had to return in the winter to finish our stretch. He was here for 10 nights that year and he became part of the family. We couldn’t wait until he returned this winter. He had a new trail personality, The Real Hiking Viking and had logged 10,000 miles since we first met.
On his first night here, we fired up our Finnish log sauna. Joining him was Fred Murai from Africa Safariland Tours, my friend from Kenya whom I was hosting for three weeks. We shared stories of grizzly bear encounters and hippo encounters. We sweated away toxins together naked and bonded as friends over shared laughter, cool water outdoor showers, and lively conversation.
Every morning we dropped off Tommy at a trailhead and every evening we picked him further down the trail, 15-23 miles away. He got to hike unencumbered without the full load of his backpack and enjoyed the warmth of the living room woodstove, a delicious organic meal for dinner and fresh baked pie and ice cream for dessert.
While Tommy visited us, he made time to go into nearby Reading, PA to be on a special podcast, “The People Chronicles,” speaking on the topic of hiking veterans and how good walking in the mountains makes you feel, anyone feel, but especially combat veterans. Another crew also came to interview him from “Berks Story Project” to create an audio show on his hiking adventure, his time serving in the military as a Marine and his very exciting plans for his future.
My girlfriend, Laura Arnold a massage therapist from Blue Sky Therapeutic Massage, Hamburg, PA, traveled to our home with her portable massage table and upstairs in our warm loft, massaged the Veteran’s hard used muscles for 1 ½ hours free, as a supporter of River House PA- our non-profit for Veterans. What a treat that was for Tommy and so generous of Laura.
Throughout the course of the evenings, I watched Tommy lounge and relax on our sofa, make himself comfortable as if our home was his home, as it indeed is. I watched him gobble down the snack that I always brought along in the car when I picked him up at the trailhead, then fed him again immediately upon walking in the door, then again at supper, followed by a bedtime snack.
Todd and I would do this anyway for Tommy, because we love him and he is “our boy,” but now River House PA is connected to it too. We do it for Veterans and are here to support them as they make their way north and south on the Appalachian Trail or any trail, supporting them from afar. This is what we do. We want Tommy to succeed, stay happy for when he is walking in the mountains, he is blissful and all is right with his world. We’re behind you Tom- Springer Mountain, Georgia is within reach!