Connecticut man hikes the Appalachian Trail to prove a point

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BENNINGTON — He's been on the trail 140 days. He's lost 50 pounds. His legs ache when he stands. Hard journeys are nothing new to Phil Valentine, of Manchester, Conn., who is hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail to show recovering addicts and cancer survivors that they can still do amazing things.

"I stepped off Springer Mountain five years to the day I was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the tongue," he said, resting his sore legs on a couch at the Turning Point Center on Main Street on Thursday.

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Valentine, who's been in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction for 27 years, began his hike on March 19.

"This whole trek, for me, is to put a face on recovery. Not only for recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, but from stage four cancer, and to show that people do recover and they can go on and do extraordinary things."

Valentine is the director of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery. He expected to take a leave of absence from his job, or leave it completely, when he told the group's Board of Directors what he had to do, but to his surprise and delight they support him on this endeavor.

"I went through this intense cancer treatment in 2010," he said. "...and as I'm healing from that, I felt this call to do the Appalachian Trail. And my first response was: 'The whole thing?' and the whisper was, 'Yes.'"

He's got 590 miles to go and plans to reach Katahdin around the end of September.

At 55, married with five children, this trip hasn't been easy. It's been far harder than he expected.

"I've encountered a lot of ice, snow, rain, thunderstorms, hail, heat, humidity, lack of water, plenty of water, no food, so I've been through it all so far," he said.

Also, there have been bears. A lot of bears, in fact. Valentine said he's seen 15 in his travels.

"One ran across the trail, a cub, in front of the guy hiking ahead of me, and we were in a bad situation where mom was on this side and the two cubs were on that side of the trail, so we kind of gradually backed away, and she didn't get real aggressive."

For his other encounter with a bear family, the mother sent her cubs up a tree, then went up herself, leaving Valentine to pass on by.

As far as his own family goes, they've not been absent from his life these past months.

"I'm doing my best to make them part of the journey," he said.

His eldest daughter hiked alongside him for 280 miles over 23 days. His youngest was with him last weekend for two miles, and Saturday he plans to have one of his sons with him for a week.

"I've had my moments where I just want to get off the trail, and they say, Dad, no, you've invested too much time, too much effort, you can go another five weeks and finish this thing," he said.

Being on the trail has taught him not to take any relationship for granted. Before, he said, he and his wife would mainly discuss mundane things such as their daily schedules, getting their children where they need to be and the like.

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Rarely did they talk about how much they love each other.

"She talked about the first time she saw me after a few months, that the look of love in my eyes was so intense it almost frightened her," he said.

He's able to talk with his family via cell phone from time to time while on the trail. He gets emotional when talking about them, and about home.

"I desperately want to be home," he said. "I just desperately miss my wife and kids so much, but they're my biggest support. It's a both/and."

The both/and concept is something he learned in recovery. He had seen the world in terms of either/or, things had to be one way or the other, but now he knows they can be both, that he can want to go home and see his family while at the same time wanting to complete the Appalachian Trail.

The lessons of recovery apply well to the trail in other ways, especially the concepts of taking life one day at a time, or even one step at a time.

"As long as I don't quit the trail and go home, I'll be all right, I'll get through," he said.

When he left Georgia, he walked alone, but one has a tendency to find friends on the trail. He currently walks in a group of four.

"We have similar beliefs about the philosophy of the trail, treating it with utmost respect, treating the people we come across with utmost respect, hiking the same amount of miles per day," he said.

They try for 17 miles each day, but Valentine isn't on a tight schedule. Some of his journey has been chronicled on www.at4recovery.org.

"People in recovery go on to do extraordinary things and they don't have to live a shame-filled life anymore," he said. "I want other people to know that people get well. So many times you get well from recovery, from an addiction, and you hide in a basement, and you don't let your light shine, if you will."

He said that there's elements of his past he's not proud of, but the shame is gone.

He's been sober since Dec. 28, 1987.

"It all started off in the birthing room of Rockville General Hospital where I held a newborn baby girl while wildly strung out on cocaine," he said. "And I'm not proud of that fact, I'll never be proud of it, but after 27 years I'm no longer ashamed. And that's one of the messages of recovery and this whole trip."

He said simple things most people find easy are tough for recovering addicts. Holding down a job and leading a productive life, for someone with an addiction, can be more challenging than hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Valentine wants to prove that recovering addicts can strive for more.

"We're citizens like everyone else, we go to church, we pay taxes, we coach soccer teams, you just may not know it," he said. "Those are the gifts recovery gives people."

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567, Ext. 115.


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