Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5. Community

This is the one of the most intense, incredible stories of the community of the Appalachian Trail, but it is not my story. I met Sarah "Nectar" Maes when we crossed paths on our separate AT hikes in 2013 (she was SoBo), and Michael took a stunning portrait of her. We learned her story, and followed her journey south through her blog. Last week I asked Nectar if I could ask her some questions and tell her story, and she heartily agreed. She gave me profound and thoughtful responses to the questions I asked her, and allowed me to craft it into a narrative. 

Thank you Nectar and Papa, and thank you for making the Appalachian Trail beautiful.

On November 21st, 2012, 24-year-old Zachary Shanafelt, a combat medic in the United States Army, lost his life in Afghanistan. He was a father to a 17-month old son, a loving husband to his wife, and a son to Patrick Shanafelt, a retired Marine. Before he was deployed on his last journey, he spoke with his father about his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and promised that he was going to look into it when he came home.

In the summer of 2013, Patrick, who would later earn the trail name "Papa", collected everything he would need to hike the Appalachian Trail. He spent weeks doing research on gear, looking over maps, and putting together everything he would need. Patrick put Zack's ashes in a carrying urn, placed his son's dog tags around his neck, and headed to Mount Katahdin to start his Southbound trek.

After the arduous beginning, summiting Katahdin and heading into the 100 mile wilderness, Papa began to start getting his trail legs. However, as all of us hikers know, "trail legs" also involves aching bones, sharp spikes of pain in our knees, and soreness every single day. In Monson, as he was resting up and resupplying, Papa met Nectar, a young red-headed girl with a bright smile and an infectious laugh. Nectar had started the trail with a friend, but her friend needed to cut the journey short, and Nectar was left alone. She and Papa sat together under the porch at Shaw's, resting their weary bones, bonding over their soaking wet gear and brightly looking forward to the adventure that yet awaited them.

They, along with several other hikers, became a trail family. Nectar saw Papa as her trail father, and felt stronger every day with his support and encouragement.  With every passing day and week, Papa knew more and more that because of his own health concerns, he wasn't going to be able to finish his thru-hike attempt. However, Papa was certain that Zack needed to be able to finish his hike. In Gorham, NH, Papa took Nectar aside and asked her if she would carry Zack's ashes.

Nectar was terrified. She was overcome with the profound responsibility of such a task, and more than anything she was afraid she would fail Papa. She was afraid she would fail Zack.

"Nectar," Papa told her, "Even though you are the smallest, the only girl, physically the weakest, from the other side of the world... even though you struggle with everything, you never show fear, or pain or sadness. I have never heard you complain. You're the only one who can do this."

Nectar took the carrying urn into her hands, feeling the weight of Zack and all that this meant to him. She placed his dog tags around her neck, and hugged Papa goodbye.

Nectar felt herself change, felt her life change, as she hiked with him. Each step, each breath, each day forward, Nectar felt herself get stronger. Even on the hardest days, even when it felt like she would never make it, Zack was there with her, pushing her. Believing in her. Sometimes she had to ask for his help, telling him that she needed his strength to get both of their spirits up and over those mountains. Before he left, Papa had told Nectar that as long as she had Zack, she would never be alone. Together they made it over every single peak, across every river crossing, through laughter and pain, through joy and tears.

Through it all there were some immense challenges. Nectar collected stress fractures in her feet, and tore something intense in her knee. She came down with pneumonia and continued hiking, even though the coldest part of her trek where every day was below freezing. In a town, some drunk townie men verbally assaulted her, but she was able to escape from the situation unscathed. There was a time that, after being separated from her trail family for two and a half weeks, Nectar hiked completely physically alone. Some of these hurdles Nectar flew over without incident, and some hurdles she had to crawl over. But through it all she never stopped moving, never stopped going.

"I never would have make it without Zack."

On November 24th, 2013, almost exactly a year since the day Zack passed away, Nectar approached the peak of Springer Mountain in Georgia. Over the last mile, Nectar was awash in powerful and profound emotions. She was so relieved, and excited and happy... but she was also heartbroken because the time had come to say goodbye. He had traveled with her for 2185.9 miles, through 14 states, and to the end of his journey. Even though they never met physically, they had been there for each other in exactly the way they both needed.

Nectar's trail family, as well as her father, were waiting for her at the peak. As she emerged from between the last set of trees, everyone began to scream and cheer. Nectar threw her arms up in celebration, even as tears cascaded down her freckled cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat and she was overcome, speechless but joyful.

From the top, Nectar called Papa to tell him she'd made it, and as they cried on the phone together, Papa told her it was time for them to let Zack go. Zack was finally where he had wanted to be laid to rest.

Nectar turned to the other hikers on Springer, and gently told them her story. She told them Zack's story. The other hikers listened in silence, crying, smiling, holding their breath in wonder and love for the trail, its community and its unfathomable beauty.

Alone, Nectar turned from them, opened up Zack's urn, and scattered him to the sky. In that moment, a powerful gust of wind rolled over the peak, enveloped Zack in its arms, and carried him down the mountain and out into the valley below.

He was finally home.

"I pulled Zack out of the case I carried him in from Maine. 
I turned and walked toward the view and held him out. 
I said a prayer and a thank you for being with me, 
and helping me keep my head up, and pushing me to the end. 
I then released his ashes into the wind. 
It was very difficult, but at the same time knowing that this promise had been met. 
Zack could finally rest at the end of the Appalachian trail.

My dream finally came true. I accomplished this goal that most thought I could not do. 
I didn't have to dream about anymore because I knew what it was like.
I will live on holding onto every moment of the trail.
Every lesson, friend, memory, scar, but most of all that feeling of 100 percent happiness.
I will never let that go."

Photograph by Michael Wilson

Love always,
Clever Girl


  1. Awesome story......Thanks for sharing Zach's dream.

  2. Even though I had heard a part of this story from you guys before, the tears are still drying on my cheeks. Bravo, to you Clever Girl, and to Nectar, to Papa and to Zack. Semper Fi, Hooah, and well done.


  3. Wow....Sarah stayed with me and I never knew about this....Wow!

  4. Thanks for putting this together and sharing this story.

  5. Thank you to Nectar for this beautiful and healing act. Thank you to Zach for his sacrifice and service. Thank you to Clever Girl for sharing this story.

  6. Clever Girl, I posted a link to Nectar's story on Whiteblaze. I know they can be a rough crowd there, but I would say they also appreciated and were moved by this beautiful story. Here is a link...