Clinching my lips, the blood finds a place on my already dirty shirt. Tying a worn out shoe lace, I take a look around to see which way the wind blows. Seeing a sign on a tree with a skull and crossbones with the warning “Danger Ahead.” Walking past an ancient waterfall and tossing an artifact from my past into the drink. I can hear the stranger screaming at me obscenity-laden threats from the trailhead. Looking west I squint to see the Appalachians. They are thousands of miles away. I have heart, a couple dollars, some old gear, a map, compass, and a vision. It was July of 2019 and I had just taken my first steps onto The American Perimeter Trail. It was July of 2019 and the cries of equality for People of Color were but whispers. It was July of 2019 and a looming pandemic and incivility were but a ripple in time space. It was July of 2019. The time before.
Backpacking provided plenty of time to plan, plan, plan. However, this really wasn’t my style or should I say preference. I had an idea of where The APT would go but I did not know how I would get there. I made decisions on the daily of which way to go. I felt free and unbeholden and unrestrained. Sometimes folks would ask me where I was going and I would answer generally. Like for instance I would say I was heading East. Often that was as close to the truth as I could get. There would be many days in the wilderness where I would shoot a compass bearing and trek in that general direction. Other days I rose from my tent, took stock of the sun, and used it as my basic directional course. Leaving California I knew I may not be seeing many more backpackers until I would reach the East. Little did I know there would be no one along the way. I was backpacking and creating The APT and it was still the time before.
The day had come to cross the Mississippi. I was excited and believed it was a good omen of things to come. I had reached The East and maybe I would even get to hike or camp with someone in the Appalachians, if only for a day. On the east shore I would walk The Natchez Trace. Every Spring the town of Natchez held a large festival called the Pilgrimage. It was perfect for a traveling Pilgrim as myself. I looked forward to seeing the home of The Natchez, Fort Rosalie, Antebellum mansions, and St. Mary’s Cathedral. Imagine as I walked through town only to find the streets empty void of any people or cars. Where were the masses of tourists that had come from all over the world for the Pilgrimage? I walked past a charming restaurant and then many others. They all appeared to be closed and had paper signs secured with scotch tape on their doors. The town was silent and apparently deserted. I was sweating as a very uncomfortable and eerie feeling lodged in my chest and throat. I approached one of the restaurant doors and read the sign. “Closed due to Covid 19.”
I now found a new focus and purpose in which I hadn’t felt in a while. How could someone isolate themselves to the point of only seeing one person every week or two and have no human contact. I decided I would not use any closed or restricted trails. I would not enter any towns or have any. I would collect a post box full of ressupply every 1-2 weeks. I used stand alone post offices to mitigate any contact with the general public. I created a methodology called, Backpacking a Social Isolation Approach, that I employed for many months and 2,000 miles of trail. I went without hot meals, restaurants, stores, phone usage (due to insufficient service and battery), laundry, showers, human contact, etc. The world had changed and I was willing to change with it. The time was coming.
I pushed through The Appalachians using a route I created to traverse the western slope. My process had been to use unknown trails and routes for exploring the American vastness. Whenever possible I backpacked through places I had never been before. I already had thousands of miles on The Appalachian Trail and didn’t see how it would inform the long term APT Project. Now the APT was becoming more of a reality than ever before. What had just started as a thought now had legs. With the help of Board Members Leilah Grace and Dani Flocco The APT Conference was born. I watched the unfoldings of civil unrest and a pandemic from an interesting perspective but in no way was I outside or beyond these reaches. It was 2020 and my home land was in the middle of a great Reckoning. Would it be a calling to account for its namesake. Would The Great Reckoning become The Great “Wreck-oning”?
We are reminded by Hugo Victor that “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I gazed upon the low lonesome that is The Dakotan Prairie. I was now approaching 15 months of continuous backpacking. The APTC was flourishing and I was receiving requests from many Trail Organizations all over the world. They wanted to know how they could help and the U.S. based organizations wanted the APT to share a footbed with their respective trail. I huddled below a pine in a blowing snow storm vomiting trying not to spray bile on myself. I tried but not very hard for I had come accustomed to the regular purging. This had begun a few months before and often woke me in the middle of the night to send me fleeing my sleeping bag and tent. I had been forcing a little food each day while still maintaining 25-30 mile days. I was ill. I looked west to the Rockies and was shocked to realize this would be the last hike, the last beautiful Range. The last.
I spoke with my Doctor, my Human Spiritual Guides, the Mountain, a Chickadee. After my death on a high inaccessible peak, covered in my own vomit and diarrhea, who would carry the message. Who would carry The APT? What a waste, what a shame, would be repeated from those hearing the news. But I was wrong. There is no beginning or end to the APT. No east or west, or north or south terminus. It is a loop. It is as infinite as the universe and as ever changing as the seasons. Enter another season with courage and grace. I looked on with amazement and curiosity of one who has spent the womb. I booked a flight and surrendered to vomiting.
At home I sought treatment and respite. I fought the inevitable but ultimately surrendered to my doctor’s orders “Rest, rest, rest, rest.” I am put on a host of medications and told it will be weeks or months until I may train or do any physical activity. My system has been through tremendous shock and my internal organs are seriously inflamed. I continue my work as The Executive Director of The APTC. I adjust to the trappings of society but often find the entanglements unappealing. I sit with my dear friend who is transitioning herself to the great beyond. I do interviews and fundraising and am a spokesman. The holidays are in swing and the tidings of a New Year. My state shuts down due to Covid. I feel as if I don’t recognize base camp (Oregon). All in all it is one of the more interesting legs of this journey. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for another day and another trail. The APTC is flourishing and I see clearly the way forward. I will rest, I will heal, I will return to backpack soon, I will complete my scouting trek, I will go forth in love and joy in my heart. We are all in this together and we will heal together.
It is 2021. It is the moment whose time has come.
Photos and words by Rue McKenrick. You can find out more about the American Perimeter Trail here. To read more about Rue's story, check out the article on him in Backpacker here.
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