This time of year, the Appalachian Trail fills up with hikers passing through Vermont and New Hampshire on their way to the endpoint in Maine. Some are walking to bring attention to a worthy cause. But not everyone scales the obstacles that Phil Valentine has faced.
The Connecticut man is recovering from alcohol and drug addiction and he’s beating cancer. He hopes his 2,200-mile hike will inspire others to find strength as they aim for sobriety and better health.
Passing through the Upper Valley on Monday, Valentine stopped by the King Arthur Café in Norwich to meet up with some old friends and make a few new ones.
Regulars at the café were taking hot coffee and fresh pastries pretty much for granted. Not Valentine. The tall, skinny, middle-aged guy in a blue T-shirt and shorts marveled at the way each gourmet cup of coffee left just enough room for milk. You could tell it had been a while since he smelled fresh bread coming from a bakery.
Walking the trail, he’s shared a lot of breakfasts, but none quite like this.
“You have this camaraderie, but when you’re in a setting like this with hot coffee and running water and fresh breads, oh my God, it gets really exciting. I don’t see a lot of that on the trail,” Valentine said, laughing.
What he has seen are about 15 bears. And he's encountered better walking companions — strangers who became instant friends. He’s grateful for family who sometimes walked alongside him and for helpers, called trail angels, who offered shelter and supplies.
When Valentine started, he was 50 pounds heavier than he is now. He had high blood pressure and his weak right knee clicked, carrying extra weight. So his trail name is “Right Click.” He still remembers the first day of his odyssey, after taking a leave of absence from his job directing the Connecticut Community for Addiction and Recovery.
“I started on March 19. It was a rain storm. It was cold,” he recalled. “The wind was blowing and my friend Neil, from Georgia, who runs a similar organization as I do, she brought me up there. We walked the 0.9 miles up there. I walked back to the parking lot, put on my pack. She drove away and I went, ‘Oh my God, what do I do now?’ And I guess the only thing I could do was walk.”
For days. Months. He looked at his well-worn map as he sipped his coffee.
“Yeah, I just wanted to make sure how many miles I’d walked. To be exact, 1,747.1. One thousand seven hundred forty-seven-point-one miles. I can’t believe I have done that,” he said.
And, unlike some other hikers he met, he’s done it cold sober. Valentine kicked his cocaine and drinking habit 27 years ago, but the Appalachian Trail has tested that resolve, as fellow travelers offered him alcohol or pot. He says if he took even a sip or a whiff, the better life he has built for himself, his wife and their five kids would end in a flash.
Valentine started the trek five years to the day after being diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer, and he says he has a lot to live for. The idea to walk the length of the trail came to him in a dream-like vision.
“It was really a calling, as I was healing from the treatment from cancer, to walk the Appalachian Trail, and my first response was, ‘The whole thing?’ And it was. 'Yes,’” the hiker remembered.
Valentine documents his trip at his website.
There were times, he said, when he felt "stupid," fighting heat and blisters and fatigue. But now that he’s a mere 444 miles from the endpoint atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, he says he’s never felt mentally or physically stronger, and he no longer needs blood pressure or cholesterol meds.
“And here I made it all the way to the end of Vermont. Hard to believe,” he said.
A friend and colleague joining him for coffee, Mark Ames, offered congratulations and thanks for candidly and publicly highlighting the positive outcomes of shedding bad habits. Ames runs the Vermont Recovery Network, which trains people in recovery to help their peers stay sober.
A lot of 12-step recovery programs, Ames notes, insist on anonymity. But Valentine’s very public journey brings the recovery process out of the shadows and into the sun.
Or, on harder days, through a storm.
After the coffee break, Valentine headed back to a nearby campground to prepare for the last leg of his journey.