We get to carry each other: Reflections on a sabbatical

Dean of Students Marty Mooney was on sabbatical last spring, and used the time to do some solo hiking on the Appalachian Trail and in Yosemite National Park. While he expected - and appreciated - the time to quietly contemplate nature, the greatest gift of the trail for him was a deepened "real and true" appreciation for people.

This is my 20th year at Peddie. Harry was born here, my daughters graduated from here, and my wife worked here for many years. I have a deep affection for this place. It is my home, and my profession, and my life. I was here on 9/11, through the death of students, through the death of faculty, through hurricanes, through student dismissals, and every other kind of problem or issue you can imagine. I’ve also bagpiped in the last 15 graduations and have wonderful friendships with more colleagues than I can name. I’ve worked for three awesome heads of school, seen multiple Potter-Kelly cups, athletic dominance, artistic excellence, and I also enjoy the highest of academic honors, teaching PG English. In times of tragedy and in times of joy, and most of all, during times of uncertainty, Peddie is my rock. You are always there.

Last spring, when the school graciously allowed me a sabbatical, I took a trip I never thought I would or could do. I walked 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and I summited two awesome peaks in Yosemite National Park: Clouds Rest and Half Dome. 

The first day out was wonderful. The sun was shining, it was a fairly flat section, so the miles were easy, and I was filled with energy and great optimism about this adventure. At 6:00 that night I made it to camp, got my water, cooked my dinner, and chatted briefly with a couple of thru-hikers. Then it started raining. And it did not stop raining for five days. This was not the trip I signed up for. Like, where were the scenic vistas I saw in the REI catalogue? Not only was I cold and wet and lonely, I was also off the grid. I could get some phone signals for some portion of the day, but for the most part I was cut off. Then the trail got steep, probably not too steep if you’ve been hiking for 1000 miles, like some of the thru-hikers I met. But for my large sized self, I struggled. 

Four days in I wanted to quit. I was going to be that guy. It’s ok, I told myself. This is probably not for me. Live and learn. On Saturday, I got a signal and called Mrs. Mooney and spoke with her for the first time in five days. So I told her how I was feeling, and in her loving and gentle way, she said, “Idiot, you’re homesick. Take the day off if you’re near a town, get some rest, and then if you want to come home, you can.” So I camped that night, zipped myself in my tent at 5:30 p.m., ate three Nature Valley bars for dinner, and vowed I would be on the bus home the next day. 

The next morning, the rain subsided a bit, I climbed down from a ridge down toward the James River, and picked up a signal with a text from Katie Schwizer. If you don’t know her, she is a former faculty member and one of the kindest souls I have ever known. She and her husband were in Virginia and she wanted to know how my hike was going. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, she and her husband, two children and dog packed up in the mini-van and met me at the Hampton Inn in Lexington, Virginia, where I proceeded to eat every piece of fruit and every cookie she had packed for the trip home with her kids. But their warmth and encouragement was the real nourishment I needed. After spending the afternoon with them and speaking with my wife who said, “You got this.” I decided not to quit. But this speech is not about “how I persevered.” It’s about something else.

After that, things changed. I changed, I guess. For the first few days of the trip, I would hike all day, then come into camp and pretty much keep to myself. There were always other hikers at the campsites along the trail--except the night I went to bed at 5:30--but I’m not the type of person that just starts a conversation---with people I know---much less with people I don’t. So, while I was wet and cold and lonely, I was also not smart enough to realize that I was in the company of other people, whose days were exactly like mine. They had all been hiking in the rain, too. My first day back on the trail after Lexington, when I got into camp I changed from my normal, fairly reserved self and became…..Mr. Clements. From then on, whenever I got into camp at the end of the day, I introduced myself to the other hikers, told them about me, shared meals together, learned their stories and picked up trail wisdom.

The days after this change were better. The miles were tough, the hills steep, the weather, dodgy most of the way, but at the end of each day, I looked forward to getting to camp and being with people. Some I would see for 3-4 days at a time, because we were hiking at the same pace, while some I’d see for a night, as they were younger and their pace was much faster.

I met some amazing people and will share a little bit about two of them:

Ozark was a real-life hobo. Everyone I met on the trail was on it recreationally except him. He was walking south from Harper’s Ferry to Damascus, Virginia to be with family and possibly find work, and he was hiking the whole way because that’s how he got from place to place. Ozark had very little food and no fuel or stove, so he was eating cold powdered mashed potatoes for dinner. I offered him some extra crackers and power bars that I said weighed me down and that he’d be doing me a favor by taking them off my hands. He said “well, how about I’ll trade you” and offered me a little pen knife he picked up along the way. He didn’t want a handout, and I had to learn the unspoken ritual in this trade. In the trail register book at each campsite, he would sign it “Ozark, man of wildness.”

Pastor John Cromartie of Gainesville, Georgia is 76 and was attempting his second full section hike of the AT. He completed the whole trail in sections when he was in his early 60s, over the course of about four years. And now he was close to completing it again. Pastor John is a retired methodist minister who had been a legal aid attorney during the Civil Rights era in Atlanta. He talked about working with Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, and he was even offered a job by Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia. Pastor John is a living, walking, talking, hiking history lesson, but so soft-spoken and good humored.

There is one particular thing I remembered John saying, and I’ll always carry this with me: We were hiking just outside of Dalton, Mass, and the AT guidebook tells of a house you can go to, just off the trail, where the people there will let you camp on their lawn for free and use their hose for water. Plus, the woman who owns the house will bake you fresh cookies, thus she is called the Cookie Lady. So, we decided to stop there, doubtful that someone would actually make cookies for us. After knocking on the door, and being greeted by the Cookie Lady and her husband, we set up our tents, filled our water, and damned if she didn’t bring us hot cookies about 20 minutes later. As this was a working farm, we offered to do some chores in exchange for her largesse, but she said she’d have enough help later in the spring and summer when the bulk of the thru-hikers started coming. In the twilight, Pastor John and I talked about everything, his life, my life, families, Peddie work, you name it. We then laughed about the Cookie Lady and how lucky we were to be feasting on all these fresh baked treats. At that point, this Methodist minister got real thoughtful, kind of looked in the distance and said, “If you want to see the true goodness in people, don’t go to church, go on the trail.”

By the time I got to Yosemite National Park, in June, I felt like I was seasoned. I had 300 miles under my belt, had camped in all kinds of weather, except snow, and while I hadn’t hiked the whole AT, I’d done enough to feel confident in the woods. Yet for some reason, backpacking in the wilderness of the Sierras, all of this seasoning and confidence seemed to leave me. I was again scared, alone, not totally soaked, but hiking through deep snowbanks in the isolation of the Yosemite backcountry. I was again wondering what the hell I was doing, but this time I was truly off the grid and couldn’t even call my wife. The mountains were higher, and truly frightening, the trails steeper, the canyons deeper, the rivers swifter, with bears and even mountain lions a realistic danger. 

Feeling all this, I also had a permit to climb to the top of Half-Dome, the iconic hunk of granite some 9500 feet above sea level, that rises about a mile out of Yosemite Valley. You’ve seen it before. The last 400 feet of the ascent is too steep to hike, so you pull yourself up on cables bolted into a granite face at about a 45 degree angle. It had been a dream and a personal goal for me to climb this peak for a number of years, but when I finally got close to it, I lost my nerve.  Like a little kid at the amusement park, saying I want to go on that roller coaster all day, but when he finally gets to it, he’s like no way. I was feeling this fear and panic, and began planning an alternate route through the backcountry.

But, as had happened on the AT, I met some awesome people, in this case, the Silicon Valley 7. A group of SF professionals in their 30s, on a 4 day trip in Yosemite, one of whom even roomed with a Peddie kid at Penn in the early 2000s. I met them on the top of Clouds Rest, a10,000-peak in the Yosemite Wilderness, and they invited me to join them down to where they were camping for the night. Sharing a meal and a long evening conversation, I told them my fears about climbing Half-Dome; that I was going to probably skip it. The three most experienced hikers, Jodi, Ben and Josh, each of whom had done long portions of the Pacific Crest Trail took me aside later that night and were like, “Dude, you HAVE to do it. You came all this way out here? This was your dream. Marty, we’ve known you for about six hours now, but we will be so disappointed in you if you don’t go. What would the Peddie kids say?” And finally, Jodi said, “if you go, and you make it to the cables, and don’t want to do it, fine. But if you don’t try you’ll always regret it. You don’t know when you’ll be back here again.” So, short version is, I did it. Got up the next day, broke camp, got on my way and did it.

Made it to the top, where a guy named Dale from Oklahoma was brewing up some coffee and offered me some, overlooking a spectacular view of the Yosemite Valley. But, as I said, this isn’t about me getting over my idiotic fears.

Here’s what I came to say. At the end of my trip, I sat in the San Francisco Airport for five hours waiting for my flight and finished writing up my journal entries. I was trying to think about what I was feeling: there was a mixture of elation, accomplishment, weariness, and even some sadness that it was over. But more than anything else, what I felt was gratitude. Overwhelming gratitude to Peddie and to my colleagues who covered for me, obviously my wife and my family, and of course to the friends who supported me. In my journal, I wrote down all the names of the people to whom I was grateful: family, friends, colleagues, all the AT hikers who go by their trail names. The wall of gratitude.

I was especially grateful to all the people I met along the way, whose small kindnesses, conversations, pep talks, jokes, hiking tips, their simple and wonderful humanity. There was Dawn who worked at the Park, who drove me three hours to Tenaya Lake on her day off; there were Dave and Wendy, both firefighters from San Diego, who I met on the way down from Half-Dome and then connected with at the campsite, who told me they were getting married (Dave proposed at the top of that mountain); there was Dane, a lawyer from Florida who was on his first day ever backpacking and forgot his water filter. Sharing mine with him, I’m grateful to have the chance to show him how you care for each other on the trail. I’m grateful to all the AT hikers whose real names I never really got to know, but each of whom shared their trail name and left their marks on me in so many ways.

I thought I would walk away from this experience remembering the scenery and the trail conditions, the sights and the sounds, and the quiet contemplation of nature. I did get all that, so much of that. But what I really walked away with is a real and true appreciation of people. As I said before, it’s not in my DNA to reach out and to connect. I am comfortable sitting back in my own little bubble sometimes, so, after this trip, I hope I am better at reaching out, and work at being connected, at being personable, open, curious and kind. I know I am not always, but I know I need to be.

Ambassador Annenberg’s words, that we should strive for the highest quality of citizenship are now especially meaningful for me. And whether your fellow citizen sits with you in geometry, or serves you lunch in the dining hall, whether they want to make America great again, or believe we’re stronger together, whether you connect with people on the track, or Fab Lab, in the dorm lounge, or around a campfire in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the highest quality of citizenship means more than just showing up and retreating politely into your own cocoons. Reach out to others, whether they agree with you or not, be the best citizens you can be. This does not mean “don’t rock the boat.” Striving for the highest quality of citizenship means that you work harder when you see an injustice, that you speak your mind, that you become the change you believe in.

There will always be intimidating climbs in front of you, and rainy wet days that make you want to pack it in. Don’t be intimidated and don’t give up. EVER. Instead, find strength, courage and inspiration in your friends, your family, in the Peddie community. It’s an imperfect place filled with imperfect people, but it is our little camp, and we need to take care of it. Most importantly, though, we need to take care of each other. In the words of U2:

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.

We’re one, but we’re not the same; we get to carry each other, we “get” to. Not “have to” or “must do” but we “get to.” Our citizenship, our duty to others is above all else an honor that we have to cherish. So, take care of yourselves, study hard, play hard, do well on your exams, set out on your adventures, do nice things for your families when you go home, dream big, but above all else, take care of each other. We have lots of hills to climb together.