Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tragedy On The AT

During these many months of inactivity I've become somewhat of an obsessive follower of this season's Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  I've followed many such hikers but took particular interest in one young, Massachusetts man by the name of Jake Mehlman (aka Achilles) who started his journey on Springer Mountain in Georgia on February 27th.   Jake is young and strong and put in big miles right from the very beginning of his hike. He was confident in his ability but not cocky, and displayed a genuineness in his trail journal entries.

Early on, he met another young man named Paul Bernhardt (aka Parkside) from Queens, NY.  Unlike Achilles, Parkside had no prior hiking experience and never spent a night out in the woods prior to starting his AT thru-hike. Despite their different backgrounds, they became good friends and covered many miles together over the next few months. 

On June 15th, after 20 miles of hiking, they arrived at the Pierce Pond lean-to in Maine, some 2,029 trail miles from Springer mountain, and only 155 miles from their final destination, Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park.  I'm sure they must have been very excited knowing they would be standing on the summit of Katahdin in less than two weeks.  But fate, the trail gods or (insert higher power of your choice) had other plans for one of these fine young men.

That evening, Parkside entered the water and swam approximately 200 yards from the shelter, alone, and without informing any of the other hikers at the shelter of his plans.  Perhaps he tired after a long day of hiking, or perhaps his muscles cramped in the cold mountain water.  No one will ever know for sure.  But, by the time the others were aware of his distress, it was too late to help him.  Parkside drowned in Pierce Pond. 

Paul "Parkside" Bernhardt 

Achilles left the trail for a week to attend Parkside's wake and funeral and to spend some time with Parkside's family in NY.  He returned to Maine on June 24th and reached the northern terminus of the AT on June 29th, completing his 2184 mile journey.   He carried the ashes of his good friend Paul with him to the summit of Mt. Katahdin.  They finished their journey together in a manner neither one of them could have foreseen.  

"The 100 Mile Wilderness proved tougher than I expected, although much of this was based on emotional strain. I can honestly say I never would have made it to Katahdin without the support of other hikers. As a group, we made it with Parkside, and celebrated his life in a fashion that I'm sure he would have approved of. He had an amazing impact on not only my life, but on the lives of almost everyone he met along the trail."  - Achilles

Jake "Achilles" Mehlman

Although I do not know Jake and Paul, I am sadden by the lost of a life so young, and of Jake's loss of a good friend.  The one thing I take away from this tragedy is the reminder that life is fleeting.  Plan less. Do more. Live now.

And remember to say, "I love you," to those special people in your life.


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