The skunk was only trying to stay warm. He just needed a place to get out of the snow and the wind for the night and get a good night's sleep. Jeff Alt's sleeping bag was the perfect place.
"He kneaded the sleeping bag like a cat between my feet," says Alt.
The skunk wasn't even fazed by the flashlight beam Alt shone on the animal. He just kept on kneading the sleeping bag, getting comfortable. Even after Alt nudged him off once, the skunk came back and curled up again. This time Alt just let him stay. Partners. When he woke up in the morning, the skunk was gone.
Jeff Alt's been living his dream for the last two years.
Alt's dream was to hike the Appalachian Trail - a 2,160 mile footpath through the Appalachian Mountains that runs from Georgia to Maine. In the process, he raised $16,000 for the Sunshine Home in Maumee, Ohio.
His brother, Aaron, is a mentally retarded man born with cerebral palsy living at the Sunshine Home. Alt used his brother's situation - imagining what it would be like if he couldn't live out his own dreams - and drew inspiration from it to perform an extraordinary feat.
And now, he's written a book, A Walk for Sunshine, that details his five-month walk through the mountains. He started getting speaking engagements after he completed his hike due to the publicity generated by the fundraiser he had run in conjunction with the hike. At these speaking engagements, people started asking him if he planned to write a book. And after a while, he started writing ("emotion recollected in tranquility" as Wordsworth might put it).
Of course, the skunk episode isn't his only contact with the wild animals of the Appalachian Trail's woods. Throughout the southern Appalachians, Alt worried about wild boars. "I'd fear a boar over a bear any day," he says, mentioning that they are stupid, travel in groups, and will stampede people. He saw quite a few but never got close.
He did come face to face with a mother bear protecting her cubs, though. She charged full speed out of the Maine woods and stopped 10 feet from Alt, who stood shaken. He had expected a moose. The cubs followed their mom out of the woods, and Alt realized why she had charged him. He stood still, waiting for the bear to do something. She turned around and walked back into the woods. Her cubs followed.
Only about 100 yards up the trail, Alt heard another rustle in the brush and thought for sure it was the bear coming back for his food. This time his moose emerged from the woods.
Though excited by these wildlife encounters, Alt is even more impressed with the people he meant along the AT. There is such a diversity of people hiking the trail, he says, "from millionaires to people dodging creditors." People with trail names like Packrat, Crash, and Comfortably Numb. He writes about these people in his book with obvious gratitude to have met such characters.
One person he met in New Jersey survived on a diet of cake frosting, graham crackers, and fruit. He was just out of high school and went by the trail name of Gingerbread Man. He carried a tarp with him and when he stopped for the night to sleep, "he would roll up in the tarp like a burrito," Alt wrote. Gingerbread Man had started an entire month after Alt and had no trouble passing him. In fact, Gingerbread Man got off the trail in Vermont to party with his friends for two weeks and still passed Alt before he reached the end of the trail in Maine.
Alt describes another man who smelled so bad that somebody put a dead raccoon in his tent and he didn't even notice it until morning. "And it had been dead for a while," he says.
When he finished the hike, however, Alt had a hard time adjusting to normal society. While he was on the trail, his life had drastically changed, had become much simpler, and afterward, he had to enter the rat race again. The sound of lawnmowers bothered him. Parties overwhelmed him. The streetlights frustrated him.
"I kept my pack packed and ready to go for about a year after [the hike]," he says of his need to get away. And when he got a free weekend, he would rush down to the Smokies for a quick 50 miles.
However, Alt stresses that the lessons he learned from his journey far outweigh the frustrations he went through on returning to the "real world." His life has become simplified. "My priorities are much different than they were before the trail," he says. The things that seemed so important aren't so heavy on his mind anymore.
More than anything, he exudes a real sense of accomplishment for what he was able to do for the Sunshine Home and his brother. "He knew I was doing this for him," Alt says of his brother. "When I walked in that room when I finished, he just lit up."
And now, after inspiring the initial Walk with Sunshine fundraiser, the home is preparing for its fourth annual walk in May.
Even two years after the five-month hike through the wilderness, Alt is ready for more. He plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail soon - 2,650 miles of trail through the mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington.
What's more, he has learned that people have a tendency to settle when they don't have to. Alt explains that it's stupid to let your dreams fall to the wayside because of the everyday fears that run through our heads. "If you have a desire to do something, freakin' do it," he says. "Those fears are mostly what society teaches us."
Jeff Alt will talk and sign copies of A Walk for Sunshine on Thursday, November 16, at 7pm at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
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