In my novel “The Greeley Stain”, Marvin Greeley is plagued by three horrific problems:
- His beloved brother committed a school shooting then ended his own life, leaving Marvin lost, bewildered, grief-stricken, and ashamed.
- After moving to Pennsylvania–pretty much against his will–he suffers a debilitating head injury
- Once able to attend school, he must deal with being “different” because of the injury, all while worrying the kids at his new school will discover who he really is.
Marvin’s remaining family members are each devastated in their own ways over the loss of their brother/son. Marvin’s life is further disrupted by the dysfunctional ways the others handle the loss. Hope appears in the form of Elena Whitfield, an aunt in Pennsylvania Marvin didn’t know he had. And through Elena, Marvin learns he has a grandmother. He has fantasized about having grandparents for many years, but assumed they were dead. His most profound hope is that Grandma–the politically powerful Nancy Schellheimer–will provide him with love, acceptance, and a new sense of family.
Marvin learns his new Pennsylvania home is within walking distance of the Appalachian Trail. His cousin takes him to the trail and he immediately feels a reconnection to Tennessee when he first sets foot on it. Throughout the story, Marvin turns to the trail and the surrounding neighborhoods to find solace and comfort.
As I was formulating the trail scenes, I drew on my experience hiking in the Smokey Mountains. While hiking to Chimney Tops, I noticed a sign for the Road Prong Trail, which leads to the Appalachian Trail. In 1999, I dated a hiker who introduced me to the AT on top of Peter’s Mountain and in St. Anthony’s Wilderness in Pennsylvania. I joined the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club (SATC). The relationship with the hiker didn’t last, but my interest in it stayed alive. For a while, anyway. Over time, new interests came along and hiking went on the backburner.
When creating Marvin, I decided to give him a desire to take long walks to deal with his stress, and I remembered the AT. Using Google Maps, I found the AT as it meanders through Central Pennsylvania. The novel is set in Carlisle, so I focused on the Cumberland Valley. I formed a “mental aggregate” of the neighborhoods and sites in the valley and mashed them together with the AT. I described the AT scenes and neighborhoods based on satellite images.
Then one day I came to the obvious conclusion that it might be better to actually walk on the AT myself and look at things as hikers see them rather than “guess” based on satellite images. Satellite images don’t tell you about the feel of the trail, the rocks and roots and sounds and smells and beauty and dangers. They don’t allow you to interact with other hikers, to describe them or to dabble in “hiking culture”.
So I decided, like Marvin, to set foot on the path. I rejoined the SATC and started going on group hikes. I immediately remembered my love of hiking and the physical challenge that comes with it. Like Marvin’s brother Larry and his methamphetamine abuse, I was smitten the first time I hit the trail. I found other local hiking groups, one of which hosts evening hikes through the very regions I imagined in my story. And when November came, I could “see what Marvin saw” the first time he went to the trail by himself.
Hiking has proven to be a great way to exercise, ease stress, and meet people. What began as “novel research” has become a huge part of my life. Before I rediscovered hiking, I had done many marathons and half marathons, on pavement. These races took me to interesting places and were a way of always keeping a goal in front of myself.
A few days after Christmas, I saw a runner’s Facebook post about a “1000 Miles in 2016” challenge and decided to join. The miles can be gathered by any means, as long as your feet are on the ground. Hiking miles will count. I hope to reach this new goal by hiking and road/track racing. I will even hike the 1000 Steps in Mount Union…again (the toughest hike I’ve done to date). Or the steps from Duncannon up to Hawk Rock. Or wherever.
I had no clue when writing about Marvin Greeley and the AT that I would be so deep into the Central Pennsylvania hiking scene six months later, or that I would be attempting a crazy fitness challenge. The trail is instrumental in Marvin’s recovery. Perhaps it will somehow heal me too.