Newly sober, a hiker loses his elderly dog and, nearly, the respect of his young son on the Appalachian Trail

ON MY LAST NIGHT OF DRINKING, a Saturday, I sat by myself from eight in the evening until eight in the morning, watching SportsCenter on a continuous loop. I put down twenty-eight beers in that timeframe, ESPN’s da-da-dunt . . . da-da-dunt pounding my head every fifteen minutes. I didn’t get started until 8 p.m.—late, for me—because the night before had been a rough one. I’d gone out with coworkers to Outback or Applebee’s or somewhere similar, and really painted the town. I wasn’t eating, just drinking, and I puked one particular tequila shot right back up, vomiting on a coworker’s pant leg. He was disgusted and left; I kept on drinking for several more hours. So I was hurting a bit the next day. When I awoke Sunday, after the twenty-eight-beer/ESPN night, my body shook and my hands trembled as I picked the bottles off the counter, the table, the floor. In that moment, I realized I couldn’t let my seven-year-old son, Mason, see such carnage anymore. On Monday morning before work, when my orange juice kept spilling over the sides of the glass despite my efforts to steady it, I finally decided to seek help. That was December 4, 2000.

Six months later, I took Mason to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail that leads to the most picturesque outcrop in the entire state of Virginia. Called McAfee Knob, it overlooks the rolling hills and farmland of the Catawba Valley, as well as distant peaks and ridges folding one after the other like pond ripples. It’s a popular destination for adventurous Virginia Tech students and tourists, but it’s not an easy “touristy” hike. On the way up, it’s a moderate four-mile climb, gaining 1,700 feet of elevation over terrain full of rocks and roots and ups and downs. It’s not a backbreaker, but it’s not a light stroll in the park, either.

Joining us were my two black Lab mutts, Napoleon and Boy. Napoleon, by the way, was a female, and Boy—well, yes, Boy was a male. I’d found him in the woods a few years back; Napoleon I’d had since college. She was my first dog, now on her last legs, her hips shot and riddled with dysplasia. She had no business being there, but I wanted one last jaunt with her. She’d been my trail dog back in the day, the two of us hiking countless miles of the AT in the Virginia wilderness.

I’d taken off early from work, wanting Mason to see the sunset and some of the brilliance of Appalachia. From the time he was born, I’d promised myself I’d raise him with an appreciation and love of the outdoors. I felt it was my duty as a father, but because I was always working, I rarely got him outside. Of course, drinking all the time—or, more accurately, being hungover all the time—didn’t help.

But this adventure was for me, too. I was working as a sales consultant for Verizon and hated my job. Felt absolute dread every morning, the same as I had in high school when a project or test or presentation was due and I was ill-prepared. If I was more than two minutes late to work, I was placed on a “step.” Reach Step 3, and I was in trouble, facing reprimands and possible firing. Tardiness was only one of the ways to acquire a step. Bathroom breaks were timed and monitored. Spend too long in the john, and bam: a step. If I didn’t follow a particular script when talking to customers (and the script changed often): a step. I felt handcuffed most days, but it paid well, and I had a mortgage, a son to feed, a wife to get through school.

So getting out of the office was another reason I wanted to hike: to show my son there was more to life besides swiping a card to gain entry to a cold brick building, or sitting in a cubicle answering call after call, or being yelled at by customers who wouldn’t dare talk to me that way if we were face to face.

But the biggest reason was that I was struggling mightily with sobriety. I hadn’t relapsed yet, but I wanted to. Getting outside, I thought, might do me some good.

I packed two liters of water, matches, snacks, a little bit of everything. The hike started off fine, the dogs out ahead, my little boy at my heels, the two of us talking about college football, his passion. It was hot, mid-June, but in the depths of the forest, it was noticeably cooler. A mile in, however, Napoleon began fading. Her hips simply couldn’t handle the toil. We could turn back or press on, leaving her behind, and in a moment of poor judgment, I chose the latter. We’d been together a long time, Nap and I. She was a trail dog, after all, and I was convinced she’d rest and wait for us. So I had her lie in the mayapple and Virginia creeper along the trailside, patted her head, told her to stay, and Mason, Boy, and I tromped on.

We reached the summit with an hour of sunlight remaining. Mason was thrilled by the spectacular views, the splotches of open pasture on the hillsides, and the bucolic farmhouses, appearing as tiny as Monopoly hotels down below. It was easy to discern how the Appalachian Trail wound its way along the distant ridgelines, and I explained to him the various hikes and camping adventures Nap and I had been on, including the one where we’d run into a timber rattler while en route to McAfee. What I didn’t tell him was how, whether camping solo or with friends, I almost always brought a twelve-pack along. What I didn’t tell him was that when I was trapped in my cubicle in downtown Roanoke, I’d sometimes stare out the window and see the outline of McAfee Knob, calling me, taunting me, almost mocking me for the way my life had ended up.

“Someday, when you’re a little older, we’ll hike and camp those same places, okay?”

“Okay,” he said with a smile, hoping it was true. I hoped the same but wondered if I’d still be dry when that time came. Because the idea of being sober the rest of my life still wasn’t a reality. On that first day in the counselor’s office, the thought of never drinking alcohol again was impossible to fathom. And that’s not hyperbole. It was truly impossible to digest. What about our upcoming beach trip? My friend’s wedding? After a stressful workday? Weekends? Sad times? Happy times? Football games? Basketball, baseball, freaking badminton—it didn’t matter. Every occasion was an excuse to drink. The counselor wanted me to enter an inpatient program immediately. I refused, saying I could do it on my own.

In 1974, when I was four, my father took me to an Atlanta Braves game. Even at that age, I worshipped Hank Aaron. My memories of the day are, predictably, muddy. I don’t recall seeing #44 take the field or even the game itself. What I do remember is my father giving me a taste of his beer. Of looking up at him with pride, of knowing, even then, that sipping that beer was slightly taboo. That I’d been allowed into the inner circle. Not too long after that, I have another memory of eating pickled sausages at a dive bar in Louisiana while my father drank and shot pool with a buddy.

The first time I got drunk, I was twelve, in a field behind my friend’s house. He swiped a twelve-pack of Budweiser during his parents’ Fourth of July party, and three of us split it, drinking four warm cans each. At one point, I took a burning log from our campfire and chased my friends. I did handstands. I sang. I loved it. By junior year, I was drinking four to five times a week. By college and afterward, it was nearly every day, almost always to excess. So was it honestly realistic to think I’d be able to continue with the six months of sobriety I’d already achieved? An older drinking buddy of mine, who’d gotten sober the year before, said, “Scotty, you’ve lost the love of your life. It’s like going through a messy divorce. Your first true love, who was always there for you, is gone.”

Mason and I didn’t stay at the summit until full sunset, mainly because my poor dog lay in the weeds somewhere down the trail. We had descended about a mile when we bumped into Napoleon working her way up the mountain. Her hind legs trembled, and her head drooped, but her tail faithfully wagged when she saw us. It pained me, knowing she’d soldiered on, wanting to be with us. I quickly realized there was no way she’d make it back under her own power, which meant I’d have to carry her. She was eighty pounds, and I felt every one of them when I hoisted her onto my shoulders in a fireman’s carry. I held on to both sets of legs, pulling them into my chest the way an old woman might tighten her shawl to ward off a chill. But chilly it wasn’t. The sweat poured, sliding down my face and mixing with dog hair. Lots of dog hair. Nap was a Lab/shepherd mix, and that long fur clung to my face like a glued-on beard. The hair stuck to my lips, got in my mouth and on my tongue. My hands were of no use to remove it because they were even more covered. (And yes, I get it: hair of the dog.) I was soaked, matted with dog fur, and then poor Nap started farting, her ass right next to my face. The pressure on her stomach, I suppose, was too much. The stink was formidable. I walked over the rocks and debris, doing my best to keep my feet on the trail, hauling eighty pounds of deadweight for as long as I could. Then I’d have to set her down to get a break, a chore in itself; I couldn’t just cast her off the way you might shed an unwanted jacket. My fatigue and frustration rose quickly, yet I continued onward, step by step. Mason tromped behind, mostly quiet now.

Exactly one week after my last drink, I went to my first AA meeting. I sat in the corner, blubbering the entire hour. I studied the people sitting around the table, at first in a condescending way. As if I didn’t belong there. As if they were lowlifes. Until I heard their stories. “Hello, my name’s Rhonda, and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hello, Rhonda.” I was exactly like them. Our struggles were the same. I was them.

AA was there for me in that first critical month, and I couldn’t have gotten sober without it. For that I’m grateful. But I only went for a month, being a bit uncomfortable with the religious aspects. Not that they were overbearing, but I took a look at the Twelve Steps and didn’t fully buy into it—except for Step Nine. Step Nine says to make direct amends to those you have harmed because of drinking. That was a tough one, but the one I knew I had to confront. I apologized to my mother for the pain and worry I’d caused her. To my wife. To some other women in my past. It wasn’t easy—in fact, it was frightening—but I learned that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t a sign of weakness. A real man knows when to admit he’s done wrong.

My father taught me that concept early on, actually; he had done his best to make a man of me. But my father was also a drinker. He’d often berate me, make me feel inadequate or stupid, especially when there was liquor on his breath. “If you noticed the light bulb was out, why didn’t you change it? Get your head out of the clouds. . . Take some initiative . . . Be a leader, not a follower.” It was always said in a self-righteous tone, almost as if he was disgusted with me. Or thought I was weak. When I was eight, he taught me how to defend myself, using his Vietnam training. “If some guy ever attacks you, jumps on top of you or whatever, here’s what you do. Take this,” he said, showing his pointer finger, “and jam it into the outside corner of the guy’s eye. I mean, drive it deep. Then,” he said, curling the end of his finger and turning it into the letter J, “you make a hook. Go toward the bridge of his nose. After that, rip with all your might, and you’ll pull his eyeball right out.” I was horrified and also strangely pleased. I’d been let in on a little war secret, similar to when he’d shared that sip of beer with me. I pictured Dave Rollorson, the class bully, screaming in agony as I squeezed his eyeball between my thumb and finger, maybe held it up by its stringy veins and tendons like a trophy, like Perseus with Medusa’s head. “Only in extreme situations, of course. But it’s the best way.”

A mantra of AA is “One day at a time.” It’s a good thing to tell yourself, and it had served me well for the past half-year. But on the side of the mountain, I wasn’t in the mood for cute little sayings or inspirational quips. As Nap grunted and farted while resting awkwardly on my shoulders, I took it one step at a time instead. One step at a time down the trail, Mason in tow and getting nervous, absolutely quiet, reticent because now I was screaming intermittently, like a crazed lunatic. The forest had quickly turned dark after sunset, the trail nearly indiscernible. The thick canopy of oak, maple, and poplar had shut out the residual light. But I’d been prepared, had brought a flashlight, which I gave to Mason, who switched the beam back and forth between us so we could both watch our steps. My fear of tripping and having to launch Nap forward as I fell was very real.

I attempted to get the sprigs of hair from my mouth by drinking water, but it did no good. And then the water ran out. I was losing it. Exhausted, angry, frustrated, thirsty. I took it out on Nap, screaming at her to walk at least a little bit to save my shoulders some agony. I booted her in the butt a few times to nudge her along. She was unable to take even one wobbly step. I’d scream at her some more, then feel guilty, as if I were a baby shaker. Everything was collapsing. Dog hair, dog farts, no water, my young son in the forest, fatigued muscles, no alcohol. At least we had the flashlight. Then the flashlight died. It didn’t slowly dim from weak batteries; no, it just stopped. “Mason, goddammit, shine that thing in front of me.” He dropped his head in similar fashion to Nap, as if he’d done something wrong, when in actuality it was his baby-shaker father who was completely at fault. I was the asshole, not anybody else. I screamed at the trees, the primitive exhortations more like a coping mechanism than anything, but my son and two dogs didn’t know that. They only heard a man cracking up. A man who was truly losing his mind, who was freaking the fuck out. My father occasionally went into tirades, getting extremely angry over seemingly minor infractions. Alcohol was often involved. One of his favorite sayings was “Being a parent doesn’t come with a set of instructions.” That’s certainly true, and I have no ill will toward my father at all, but I wanted to follow a slightly different template than what he’d used. So far, however, I was failing miserably.

I once raided my father’s liquor cabinet and poured a lethal cocktail of various liquors into a plastic Pepsi bottle. I was sixteen. The next morning, after my night of partying, he called me out to the back porch where he sat, drinking coffee. He didn’t accuse, question, put me on the spot, raise his voice, or show disappointment. Instead, he said, “The way I see it, you took about eight dollars worth of booze from me last night. So that’s what you owe. Eight bucks.” I nodded, a bit dumbfounded, and went upstairs to get the cash. Neither of us ever mentioned it again. I still don’t know how he knew I had pilfered his stash. The bottles weren’t marked. (I’d checked beforehand.) My only thought is that a true drunk, as I learned from experience over the years, always knows how much alcohol he has on hand. During my peak years, one of my biggest fears was that I might run out before I passed out. And then what would I do?

It took us two hours to get to the parking lot. After opening the Subaru’s hatchback, I managed to get Nap in, resting her on her side. The dome light shadowed her face, and I vaguely saw the pain in her eyes, but also regret, as if she thought she’d disappointed me. I smoothed her fur, apologized, and felt a strong urge to cry. Nap was my child, my firstborn in a way. She’d taught me responsibility, how to nurture and care for something. Failure, once again, overwhelmed me, but at least we were all off the mountain. Until I realized Boy was missing. All of my screaming and yelling and losing my shit had apparently scared him. Mason and I stood in that dark, abandoned parking lot and beckoned for twenty minutes. He didn’t show, and who could blame him? I would’ve been wary of me, too.

“Mason, we’re going home,” I said. “We’ll come back in the morning.”

That’s when Mason lost his shit. He’d been so strong, so stoic, not whining, crying, or complaining through the entire ordeal, but Boy was his dog. His best friend.

“We can’t leave him,” he said through tears. “What if we never find him again?”

I called out futilely a few more times, but Boy was having none of it. So we got in the car and left, Mason a mess in the front seat, Nap a mess in the back seat, and me a mess for all sorts of reasons in the driver’s seat. With every convenience store we passed, there was nothing I wanted to do more than grab a six-pack. Pop in, hit the cooler, swipe my card, be back in the car in nothing flat. But I didn’t.

The next morning, stepping onto the deck and not being greeted by Boy’s happy grin was eerie. Mason quickly got upset. I phoned in sick, then we set out.

“We’ll call for him once we get there. If that doesn’t work, we’ll hike the trail again. But don’t worry, buddy, we’ll find him.” I tried to sound confident, but I wasn’t so sure, and if Mason’s expression was any indicator, he wasn’t so sure, either. But the search was over before it began. As I pulled in, lying in the tall weeds at the edge of the parking lot was Boy, his head perked, his tail thumping. Apparently he’d forgiven me. Either that or he’d already forgotten last night’s tirade. That’s the great thing about dogs: they don’t hold grudges.

Mason squeezed that dog’s neck, and Boy was in the back seat in no time. On the way home, achy and sore but indescribably relieved, I posed a series of questions. “I wonder where Boy was? What do you think he did all night? Was he right there the whole time? Did he sleep? How long would he have waited before wandering off?”

Finally, Mason said, “Daddy, there’s no way we’ll ever know.” I immediately shut up. The kid was far wiser than I’d ever be. Mason looked back at his dog, convinced that all was right with the world.


THIRTEEN YEARS LATER, while Mason is home for winter break, I suggest a hike to McAfee Knob. Mason has grown up to be a proud Appalachian, a lover of the outdoors—camping, swimming, what have you—and his favorite thing is hiking in the Virginia mountains. As we climb, we discuss the semester, some of the architecture projects he’s been working on, and also that day way back when with Napoleon and Boy, both of us laughing about how crazy it all was. What we don’t discuss is that I’m still sober. That I’ve never relapsed. That I’ve done my damnedest to be the very best father I can be.

I hope he knows that. I think he knows that. Okay, he knows that.

He attends Virginia Tech—the same university where I teach, having left the Verizon job years ago. We meet for lunch or dinner at least once a week. Sometimes, he drops by the house unexpectedly, just to watch a game with his old man. He’s my best friend, and I realize how lucky I am. Essentially, every relevant memory he has of me is when I’ve been sober. He’s never known me any other way. He never met the all-night ESPN guy. Strangely, I don’t necessarily regret those days of heavy drinking, but I’m sure glad they’re over. Not once, in all my years of sobriety, have I woken up and said, “Man, I wish I had a hangover today.” Not once.

I understand I’ve beaten the odds so far, that I’m fortunate. My father still drinks. Nearly every one of my close friends from both high school and college struggles with addiction. Mostly from alcohol, but there are chronic pot smokers, too, a couple of heroin addicts, one who got clean, one who’s still a junkie after twenty years. My dad once said, a year into my sobriety, that he didn’t think I was really an alcoholic. A friend once told me I was a pussy for quitting drinking. I watched him throw back yet another shot and thought, I’m sorry, who’s the pussy? What takes more balls: having a drink or not having one? Two of my friends are dead and buried because of alcohol, both hanging themselves in closets because they couldn’t get control. Both with wives, both with two children they left behind, both permanently decimating the lives of those who loved them most. So yeah, I get how fortunate I am.

Mason is a serious student, but sometimes he goes out and drinks with his buddies. He’s honest with me but also discreet. I’ve never seen him drunk, never smelled alcohol on his breath. He chooses to do that elsewhere, away from me. I like to imagine it is out of respect, or perhaps it’s that he’s embarrassed. Or maybe he imbibes only occasionally because he understands the link between alcohol and heredity, and doesn’t want to follow that path.

The path we’re on now has deposited us at the top of McAfee Knob. It’s been a brutal winter, and we crunch through some ice patches, especially near the edge of the signature overhang, the one where everyone gets a picture taken. It’s a slip and fall that would guarantee death. It’s happened before. But we’re cautious, fully aware of that fine line, taking it one careful step at a time.

About the Author

Scott Loring Sanders

Scott Loring Sanders lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 2014, he had a story featured in The Best American Mystery Stories, as well as an essay in Creative Nonfiction #53: Mistakes.

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