The Green Hoof (For Greenhorns)
“The Green Hoof?” The bearded man spoke up suddenly when he heard the name mentioned and looked at the rest of the adults and children sitting around the campfire. “It’s real, alright. What is it? Well… they say it’s a half-man, half-deer beast that terrorizes these woods.” The bearded man gestured to the darkness that surrounded them. Some of the children squirmed closer to their mothers. A few of the adults laughed, some in derision, some to hide their fear. “It got the name The Green Hoof because the creature apparently has green fur. You see many, many years ago stories started popping up of local hunters seeing a strange creature deep in the woods. They all described seeing the same thing…a dark green creature that looked like it was half-man, half-deer. Most people laughed the stories off, saying the men were drunk when they claimed to see the creature or that it was some kind of hoax. Then one day, rangers found the bodies of a family that had been camping at the base of Mt. Washington. They had been viciously mauled, worse than the rangers had ever seen. The authorities were dumbfounded as to what had happened as the attack didn’t show the signs normally associated with the predators typically found in this area…bears, say, or coyotes. Plus, the newspapers reported the rangers had found tufts of green fur on the tree branches and bushes around the bodies. Thus, the legend of The Green Hoof was born…”
The bearded man became silent and stared at the campfire. A murmur rose among the audience as they discussed what he had just told them. Finally, a young girl struck up the courage to say, “But you said that happened a long time ago. What makes you think The Green Hoof is still around these days?”
“Well, there’s been plenty of incidents since then that were eerily similar. Plus, just-”
A loud shriek sounded from deep in the woods and cut the bearded man off. The sound echoed off the mountains, causing many of the people to gather closer together around the campfire. One of the teens in the group wasn’t convinced and boldly stated, “Sounds like a bunch of hogwash to me!” He laughed and some of the others joined in.
The bearded man didn’t laugh but just continued staring at the campfire with a blank look on his face. Then he said, “I used to think the same thing. It sounded so ridiculous. Then an hour ago, I found this hanging from a branch near our campsite.” The man held up his hand near the fire to reveal a thick piece of dark green fur. Branches snapped in the darkness behind them and some of the children screamed.
Such were the bizarre, yet original campfire tales my father would spin on our annual camping trips. While my mother, aunts, and uncles probably smiled at the gullibility of us younger ones, we’d all sit around the campfire enraptured by his stories. I can still remember staring intensely into the darkness surrounding our campsite and wondering if The Green Hoof was really out there. Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at my naivety or the sheer ridiculousness of the tales. However, for me, The Green Hoof and my father’s campfire stories demonstrate the transformative power of narrative. In my father’s hands, a cheap carnival memento, more specifically a green “rabbit’s foot”, somehow became the inspiration for an outlandish beast, and series of tales, that would become integral to my early camping experiences. (In fact, my father’s “Green Hoof” campfire stories and the mythical creature itself have become the stuff of legend within the Tarpey family, just like so many other things my father did.) Now the story of The Green Hoof might strike some of my readers as strange or even cheesy but it illustrates the quirky ways my father tried to ensure that everyone in the family, especially the children, had an amazing time on our camping trips.
In essence, those annual camping trips were his camping trips. Naturally the other adults helped out, but my father was the driving force behind them. He scouted the campgrounds, he called everyone up, he organized the food and supplies. Despite growing up a street-wise kid from Roxbury who was more likely to be sporting a pair of basketball sneakers than hiking boots, my father became a bit of an outdoorsman as an adult. By the time I was born, he was going camping regularly and had assembled such a large collection of camping gear that friends and family knew he was the guy to call if you needed to borrow a piece of equipment before a trip. (My father was a regular at Hilton’s Tent City, a camping gear shop that’s become an institution in Boston.) Many a young boy emulates his father, and since I was an only child who had the coolest father of all time (totally unbiased), it was only natural that I would as well. So whenever we went camping, I’d be right behind him aping his every move. If my father tied a rope using a certain knot, I wanted to learn it as well. If he stacked the firewood a certain way, then I tried to put my pieces on top of each other in the exact same way. Sure enough, I picked up quite a bit of knowledge doing so. However, more than anything, it was my father’s reverence for the whole camping experience – being able to live a simpler life in a beautiful natural setting, if only for a little while – that made the deepest impression on me.
My mother features just as prominently in my early memories of camping. While she wasn’t as comfortable as my father in that setting (looking back at old pictures around the time they were married and seeing how elegant my mother looked, it’s impressive that he ever convinced her to go camping at all), I can guarantee you she enjoyed herself just as much as anyone else on any of those trips. My mother always had a positive, rosy outlook that refused to be dampened no matter the annoyance or setback. I can remember one trip in particular when the three us went camping at Otter River State Park and it literally rained the whole week. While my father might lose his temper or I might be quick to whine, she didn’t lose her cool or complain while we were “trapped” in the tent for days on end. One morning, she stopped my father and I from tearing each other’s throats out. To be fair, I must admit to you, my readers (and I’m sure my aunts and uncles would nod their heads with emphatic approval), as a young boy I knew where all my father’s buttons were and when I felt like being an annoying little prick I pushed them hard. He’d been trying to sleep late and I’d kept bugging him. Eventually, he’d had enough, snapped up, and things looked grim! Fortunately, my mother chose that moment to let her voice be heard. Within minutes, all three of us were joking and laughing. At one point, I was literally on the floor of the tent, rolling around and my ribs started hurting I’d been laughing so hard. Never underestimate the diplomatic power of flatulence.
It was during one of these camping trips that I saw the name Appalachian Trail for the first time. We were driving along the highway near the White Mountains of New Hampshire, perhaps going to get supplies for camp. Looking out the window at the dense pine trees, I noticed a long and strange word on a sign. “The Appalalachacha? What the heck is that?” I asked my father. He smiled as he corrected my pronunciation, “That’s the Appalachian Trail, son.” Then the tone of his voice became a little more solemn as he explained, “It’s a hiking trail that runs from Maine all the way to Georgia.” The way in which discussed the trail that day, in that soft tone with a child-like, awe-struck look in his eyes he usually reserved for discussing his favorite old basketball players, it was obvious that he was talking about something special. It would be years before I would rediscover the AT again. As my youth faded and I entered high school, we stopped going on family camping trips all together.
In the early 2000s, when I was living in South Korea and working as an English teacher, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite his diagnosis not being grim, I still had a hard time coping with the news, and began going on hiking trips with some friends. On the jagged ridges north of Seoul, I fell in love with hiking. Day hikes became more frequent, and frequent day hikes became weekend camping trips. As I continued exploring the mountains of Korea, I started to develop that a strong passion for natural, wild places. Just as my father, I began seeking them out as sources of strength and solace. He had continued camping as well, despite his increasing health issues. Although we had stopped going as a family years before, he organized a group trip up to Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, every year. Some of my father’s friends probably wondered at some point along the six hour drive up to Baxter State Park in northern Maine: “Why are going all the way up here when there’s plenty of other places to camp that are closer?” Knowing my father, and having been there myself many years later, I think he knew that sometimes you have to go farther afield to seek out those isolated, wild places. I find it so inspiring that despite being increasingly plagued by more health ailments (severe chronic back pain, arthritis and then all the discomforts and pains associated with cancer treatment), my father still traveled all the way up to Katahdin to enjoy its serene beauty.
In the summer of 2004 my father had some serious complications while recovering from surgery. My mother’s phone call to tell me the horrible news woke me up that morning and by that evening I was on a flight headed home to Boston. Just like when I was a boy, I remained absolutely devoted to my father. So when my mother asked me if I would stay at the house during the week to help take care of him rather than look for work, I didn’t hesitate. The next few months were extremely difficult for me as I watched my father, my hero slowly weaken. Yet despite the toll the disease took on his body, my father never lost his wacky sense of humor, nor did his courage diminish. However, in December of 2004, after persevering for several years, my father passed away. In the weeks that followed, the loss of my father weighed heavily on me. However, I also gained a great deal of strength as so many people revealed to me how my father had been such a source of light in their lives with his funny, caring personality.
During this period, I came across an article about someone who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. The notion seemed preposterous (hiking over 2000 miles for several months…with a heavy backpack no less) although even then such an idea struck me as a grand adventure. I began to read up on the AT and a plan began to develop in my head. It hurt me deeply that my father, who had touched so many people with his compassion and humor, should have to leave this world so young. So I decided that I would attempt to thru-hike the AT and raise money for a cancer charity in his honor. However, since it cost a few thousand dollars to undertake such a long distance hike, and having very little in the way of savings, I decided to return to South Korea to earn money. Unfortunately, as so often is the case for young men and women, I didn’t have the discipline to follow through with my plan. Living in a foreign country again, my mind was quickly tempted with other things and the dream slowly got placed on the backburner.
Years later, I was living in Boston again and trying to develop a career as an elementary school teacher, when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Throughout her whole ordeal, my mother always maintained her rosy outlook. Just as she had done throughout her life, she faced each challenge with elegance and strength. Unfortunately, the doctors discovered my mother’s cancer at a later stage and the disease had already started to spread. Despite her unwavering optimism and grace, my mother passed away in June of 2014. One day not long after my mother’s death, I was pondering just how much both my parents gave back to others. Not only would they be quick to help a friend or family member in need, but also they were both involved in a number of charities (my mother donated money, food and clothing to so many organizations, while my father, as a former Marine, especially liked being involved with the Toys-for-Tots Christmas toy drive). I suddenly recalled my old dream to hike the AT and raise money for a cancer charity. After giving the idea a great deal of consideration, I made a decision.
In early July of this year, I will attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail southbound. While doing so, I hope to raise money for the Cameron Neely Foundation. This blog, which I have named The Green Hoof, will keep people updated about my preparation in the next two months and I hope also to publish my journal here as I progress along the trail. Furthermore, this blog will help me broadcast my fundraising efforts to a larger audience and hopefully encourage people to donate to the cause. (For information about the Cameron Neely Foundation and how to make a donation, please click here). Finally, I hope this blog inspires more people to explore the wild, beautiful places of our planet.
Although there are a variety of individual reasons that I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, the ultimate spark comes from my parents’ influence. Naming my blog “The Green Hoof” not only pays homage to my parents but signifies that I’ll be carrying on my father’s tradition of story-telling. I don’t plan on making my posts on “The Green Hoof” a mere record of daily events on the trail. Instead, I want you, my dear reader, to truly get a sense of what thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is all about. I want you to smell the strong aroma of those northern pine trees. I want you to hear the serenade of birdsong as it surrounds around my tent in the morning. I want you to taste the juicy sweetness of fresh blueberries as I pick them straight from the bush (Wait…were those nightsahde instead?). I want you to feel the deep, erratic pounding of my heart as I realize that bear shit I just stepped in is less than an hour old. So come along and join me on for a walk in the mountains!
P.S. Did I mention I’ll be hiking with a fictional Lego character that I’ve created? Don’t worry…you’ll learn more about my little buddy, Melben, in the weeks ahead.