I wrote the story below after my second Long Trail thru-hike in 2010 when I developed Peaks For Parkinson's and hiked the trail to raise awareness and funds for the Vermont Parkinson's community.
Peaks For Parkinson's 2020 will be my 4th Long Trail thru-hike on the 10-year Peaks For Parkinson's anniversary when I will again try to raise awareness about PD and encourage people with, and without, the disease to keep their bodies moving.
The Long Trail ends at the Vermont-Canada border, also known as "Journey's End."
In 2007, after thru-hiking the Long Trail, did I imagine I would be hiking the 272-mile trail again? Yes.What I couldn't have imagined were the circumstances or the impact it would have on me and others.
My father reached his "Journey's End" in January 2010, two days before his 72nd birthday, following a courageous ten-year battle with the progressive, degenerative neurological disorder, Parkinson's Disease (PD). In February, I started hearing a restless, nagging voice.
Casting aside reasons why I shouldn't or couldn't hike again, I planned my next Long Trail adventure, this time combining something which brought me such joy—hiking—with that which brought me incredible sadness—Parkinson's.
I created Peaks For Parkinson's (PFP) to raise awareness of PD, promote exercise as a way for Parkinsonians to remain mobile, and raise funds for the Vermont PD community. I had a personal goal too: find inner peace.
I would try to exemplify a lesson my father taught my family: never give up; never give in; never stop trying.
I did not intend to hike alone. Reaching out to the Parkinson's community, I found hiking partners—people with PD, their family members, and caregivers. The PD community, excited by my mission, rallied around PFP, signing on to hike portions of the trail while I committed to hiking the entire distance.
Overwhelming logistics transformed into a plan to meet other hikers at specific times at certain trailheads. Apprehension about my guiding skills dissipated as I brought to mind another lesson my father taught me: Confront your fears head on.
August arrived and we collectively trekked north. Each day on the trail was life-affirming. We encouraged and inspired one another, sharing insights and experiences of life with and without Parkinson's.
I had many memorable hiking companions, but to me Jim Hester was the epitome of Peaks For Parkinson's. He was seizing an opportunity to do something he loved again. He was confronting his fears. And while I didn't know this beforehand, he would publicly share his diagnosis of Parkinson's for the first time during a television interview on the summit of Mount Mansfield.
A former Long Trail end-to-ender, Jim joined me for the challenging 22-mile stretch through Bolton and over Mountain Mansfield. Diagnosed with PD earlier that year, Jim also had personal goals—one was to see if he could still backpack with PD.
Easing Jim into trail life, we did the short 1.7-mile hike to Duck Brook Shelter and spent the evening in the company of an unforgettable trio of thru-hikers. My new friends' support had a life-altering effect. A desolate, undefinable sorrow had settled inside of me as I watched my father struggle over the years. These hikers were filled with infectious, positive energy. In their company, I felt grief dissolve—despair become hope.
Jim and I spent several memorable days walking and talking, sharing stories and comfortable silences. Over rugged climbs, up steep ladders, and through gnarly rooted terrain I watched each step Jim took, in awe of his bravery. As we moved north I realized what a thoughtful man he was, with a gentle spirit and enviable determination.
Settled at Twin Brooks tenting site, we spent our final evening savoring the late summer sun as it descended behind the mountains. In the morning we broke camp, excited about the beautiful clear day we had for Mansfield. Jim, depleted from the grueling hike through Bolton the previous day, voiced his concern at the arduous climb ahead. We decided to take it slow—nothing was more important to me at that moment than Jim.
Climbing carefully and steadily to an open spot on the side of the mountain, we stopped, reflecting on our time in the Vermont woods. I felt honored to be in this special place with this exceptional person, his focus and determination reminiscent of my father's strong will. We sat in silence looking south across the mountain range, marveling at the distances we had both traveled.
When I didn't have Jim or the other PFP hikers by my side I would hike quietly alone. One morning I walked through a radiant forest, pausing briefly to think of Dad, imagining he was in the warmth and light of the sun's rays filtering through the trees, guiding me. Only in the safety and solitude of my tent did I allow my exhausted mind and body to relax and let tears flow freely.
The Long Trail is a gift—its value immeasurable. After 272 miles, my mind was quieter, my body no longer in pain, and my soul deep and whole again. I had reached my own "Journey's End." I will keep you close to my heart, Dad, finding you in the woods and on mountaintops when I need you most.
Long Trail on Mount Abraham Summit
Jim "Rolling Thunder" Hester taking a break on the side of Mount Mansfield.
I dedicated Peaks For Parkinson's 2010 to my father, Peter J. Hebert.
I dedicate Peaks For Parkinson's 2020 to Jim "Rolling Thunder" Hester
(July 20, 1944 – May 11, 2019).
You will be in my thoughts my friend.
Frenchman's Pile, Mount Manfield Summit
My father as a young man.