The day after I hiked through a swamp on a geocache adventure, I did a ‘recovery’ hike on the flat River Trail in Valley Forge National Historic Park. The trail runs three miles from Pawling Road in Audubon to the Betzwood Trailhead on the Schuylkill River Trail. I’d not done a hike of that distance since a February walk on the paved path in Valley Forge, and I feeling enthusiastic. I knew the terrain would be friendly, but the distance would challenge me.
The hike was a group event set up by a local club on MeetUp. I showed up at the appointed time, stood around on the edge as the regulars chatted with each other, and resigned myself to being alone in the crowd. Then an elderly man stepped forward. “Neil?”
I’d not seen Dale in a decade. Last we met I was 400 pounds and struggling to get around. Our connection was, and is, the Royal Game – we are both chessplayers, and both of us have made contributions to the written history of chess. Also, we are both from the same small town, although Dale now lives in another state. It was coincidence, fate, the hand of God, or whatever you want to call it, that brought us together again, and I was happy that it did.
I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised to learn about the other. Chessplayers have a laser focus on the game to the exclusion of everything else. While Dale was surprised to learn about my journey from potato to potential, I was stunned to discover my friend had decades of hiking experience under his boots. The week before he’d been to The Pinnacle and Pulpit Rock in Berks County, hiking the nine mile loop to the two overlooks. He’d done my favorite hike, the climb to Pole Steeple, several times. At age 82 he’s choosing his hikes a little more carefully, but he’s not slowing down.
And he didn’t slow down. I’ve never hiked as quickly as I did on the first three miles. I look very red in the face in the photo. But that’s because I was doing three miles an hour and carrying on a conversation with my friend. The rest of the group hiked a half mile further for lunch at the picnic area at Betzwood, but Dale decided to head back. I wanted to take photos, and knowing I’d hold him back took leave of my friend. I promised Dale it wouldn’t be a decade before we saw each other again, since I would be 57 then and might not be capable of keeping up with him.
I sat on a rock at the turnaround spot and drank, drinking both water and the view. Fall in Pennsylvania is a color riot, and while the leaf color was past its peak, the view was impressive. I took my time on the way back, stopping for photos and enjoying the day. Two hours later I was back to my car, stiff with the usual post-exertion swelling but feeling I could do anything. Perhaps I can? If not, I hope to be able to keep up with Dale for a long, long time.