Richard Hyatt: A reminder along the trail

March 22, 2014 

Mike Stephens was not a typical hiker. He bought a tent and sent it back. He bought a camping stove and never used it. He bought a hunting knife to slice fresh cheese, and it rusted. The most important items in the retired English teacher's backpack were his iPhone and his debit card.

For five months, Mike hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, hoping to confront the 2,186-mile hike with the courage his brother exhibited as he was transformed from a powerful cleanup hitter to a helpless man whose final game was ending.

Don Stephens suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease most of us can't spell or understand. We know it as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease -- named for an imposing New York Yankee star whose career and life was ended by this cruel affliction.

Doctors gave Don the news in 2011, and he worried about what the illness would do to his family. His only anger was that he had a disease that he couldn't fight.

Don died in 2012 at the age of 55, a man who loved the water and the woods. He hunted and he fished, releasing more fish than he caught. Even his Bible was camouflaged. He was the outdoorsman, not his brother, so he did not take Mike's idea very seriously.

Mike intended to hike the Appalachian Trail in honor of his brother but Don corrected him. "It won't be in my honor," he said. "It will be in my memory."

For 164 days Mike posted an online journal that became a story about two brothers who would no longer share Sunday morning pews and how they learned to cherish moments they once took for granted.

Mike Stephens has turned his diary into a book that is now available on www.amazon.com. It's called "Don's Brother: A Hike of Hope on the Appalachian Trail."

Mike, a long distance runner and a veteran of 42 marathons, thought he understood pain but until he pushed himself on that historic trail, he really didn't. He compares his feelings to his brother's and realizes how insignificant his pains were.

In one compelling passage, Mike offers a glimpse into how one man dealt with loss:

"As I have hiked the Appalachian Trail, I have thought daily about my brother Don, and I have prayed. I have prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for my brother's life, for all that he contributed for the good of mankind while here on this earth, and for all the wonderful times we shared as brothers. Often when I have faced a challenging section of trail, I have thought of my brother who bravely confronted an illness with no cure, every day for 15 long months. I have prayed and I have moved on, for I really haven't been hiking alone. There have been other sojourners with me. But more importantly, God has been with me and my brother has been with me as well. The three of us have walked together. I have stumbled at times. I have encountered difficult stretches that have seemed insurmountable. I have felt defeated. Despite all these obstacles, we have walked on. I have admired the beauty of all that God has created and I have been thankful … for every day that I have had the opportunity to hike the Appalachian Trail."

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.hyatt31906@knology.net

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