The Appalachian Trail meanders like a ribbon along the eastern edge of Clarke County, Virginia. As the crow flies the distance covered by Clarke’s section of the trail is just over fourteen miles. But the many twists and turns, vertical as well as horizontal, make Clarke County one of the more challenging sections of the trail. Every year thousands of hikers silently make their way along the path, sometimes in pairs or small groups, sometimes alone.
The AT is known for its beauty, but it is also a place where unbearable sorrows can be confronted through the quiet, meditative act of placing one foot in front of the other. Last week, “through hiker” Jeff Simpson carried both sorrow and hope as he passed silently through Clarke County.
In March 2003, Simpson’s daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenos Leukemia (AML). She was just thirteen years old. For the next four years Rebecca and her family journeyed along a path no one would wish anyone to have to take. Rebecca struggled with the pain of the disease itself, the side effects of chemotherapy, the devastating process of bone marrow transplantation, and a host of other physical traumas.
For Rebecca, the emotional and spiritual challenges of dealing with a terminal illness came when her life should have been focused on being a “normal” teenager. She died in February, 2007 on the evening of her high school graduation leaving her mother, sister and father not only grief stricken, but seemingly lost in a void of hopelessness.
“We questioned how in the world such a special young lady could be taken with so much of her life left to live,” said Rebecca’s father, Jeff.
Each member of the Simpson family – father, mother, sister – found different ways to cope with Rebecca’s passing. As Jeff worked through his grief, he involved himself with volunteer efforts through the University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital, St. Baldrick’s, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of NC.
As he worked behind the scenes for each of the organizations, Jeff began to develop an idea for fundraising that combined his love for the outdoors, hiking, and camping and soon landed on a hike to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of North Carolina.
“My through hike of the AT is broken into thirds,” Simpson explained from the Berryville home of friends Mike and Carole Hofmann. “The hikes are generally scheduled around typical weather expected for the section that I’m going to walk. Some personal and business commitments also play a role in my schedule as well.”
Simpson says that he started his through hike in March, 2011 and beginning at Springer’s Mountain, Georgia – the southern terminus of the AT – to Daleville, Virginia, a distance of about 720 miles. The current middle section of the hike goes from Daleville to Kent, Connecticut – about 738 miles – started April 6th and will conclude in early to mid-June. The last third will start in late June 2013 and should conclude in early August.
Although Simpson’s hiking schedule covers many years and many miles, the loss of Rebecca has placed Simpson on a journey where time and distance mean little when measured against the death of his daughter.
“As to how many years have passed since her death; time for me has stood still in that regard,” Simpson said. “To me, it was just the other day that I saw her take her last breaths.”
Simpson says that now, five years after her passing, Rebecca’s memory and words are a constant source of motivation for him as he hikes – step after step along the AT – but the pain is still there.
“One week before her death, when the doctors identified that she was, in fact dying, Rebecca made me promise that I would go on; that I would not let her death change me,” Simpson said. “I have done poorly in keeping that promise. I battle depression and loss of interest in many things except my desire to be with my older daughter – now married – and my wife. Home has always been extremely important to me, even more so now.”
As Simpson journeys along the AT he is traveling an inner path as well – perhaps more difficult – with no map to show where the trail ends. Instead, Simpson must create his own mile markers and landmarks along the way.
“My thoughts focus on two things: first, to make good on my promise to Rebecca, that is, to work towards being ‘me’ as she knows me. Second, having failed miserably in trying to accomplish that promise on my own, I am focused on listening and looking for God to tell me – show me – how I can grow and change and honor Him and my promise to Rebecca.”
Mike Hofmann, Simpson’s Berryville host during the Clarke County portion of the hike, says that even though his friend could have succumbed to the blow from Rebecca’s death, Simpson chose instead to help find a cure for the disease that took his daughter.
“It’s important that TheHike4Hope is a raising funds to cure a terrible disease,” Hofmann, who has known Simpson for fifteen years, said of his friend’s effort. “But personally to me it is about a man who got up when he could have stayed down. A man who did something despite his pain. A man who walked when he didn’t even really want to stand. I have had days that I did not what to keep going – when my problems have been bigger than me and the pain seemed overwhelming. But my problems have never been like Jeff’s – and he kept going. To me that makes him a hero.”
However, Simpson sees his effort, and his goal, though the lens of a man focused on making a positive difference in the lives of his own family and other families dealing with leukemia.
“This effort has very little to do with me except that it is a canvas where my heart can be restored to the masterpiece my daughter saw it as before she died. My oldest daughter, whose own feelings have suffered, and my wife, who lost her child, both deserve for me to be as whole for them as God will mend,” Simpson said.
Simpson tries to average between two and two-and-a-half miles an hour when hiking. The pace allows him to cover 15 to 20 miles per day. But for Simpson, the number of miles that he travels is really aimed at drawing attention to his higher goal.
“Perhaps on a larger scale, my whole hike- the whole journey- relates to finding a cure for AML,” Simpson said. “There are no easy days, the weather is always subject to change, obstacles, and the mental and emotional challenges are constantly playing with your attitude. But each step taken – in spite of those things – moves one closer to the end – the goal – that a cure exists.”
“One must keep moving to find it.”
To follow Jeff’s hike to cure Acute Myelogenos Leukemia please visit http://www.TheHike4Hope.com