Soon after writing about two Goochland sisters and their remarkable summer – one hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, the other was pedaling from coast to coast – I received an email from reader Tom Grenell in Emporia.
Grenell wrote in admiration of what Eliza and Maya Sweeney were doing and said another pair of siblings did the same thing 34 years ago: he and his sister.
“We were older, 30 and 29, but so many other things were eerily similar,” Grenell said of the Sweeney sisters’ experiences. “The adventures have obviously stayed with us for all these many years, and articles such as yours rekindle an avalanche of amazing memories.”
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I wanted to find out more, so I spoke to Grenell by phone.
Grenell, 65, is a retired veterinarian, originally from New Jersey, who after school joined a practice in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and later opened his own practice in Emporia. He was working in Roanoke Rapids when he was able to take a six-month leave of absence in 1988 to hike the AT, which is something he’d been wanting to do since hiking a section of it in New England a few years earlier.
Meantime, his sister, Nancy Barta, a school teacher, was making plans to pedal from Seattle to Cape Cod during her summer break. Just like the Sweeney sisters said of the timing of their journeys, Grenell said there was no particular coordination on the part of him and his sister, though their trips overlapped that summer, nor was extreme sibling competition – one trying to outdo the other — at the heart of it.
“It just happened that way,” he said.
In reading the piece about the Sweeneys, and in particular, Eliza Sweeney’s hike on the AT, Grenell saw a lot of similarities to his own experience during his six months on the 2,200-mile trail: from her parents meeting her at the trail’s northern terminus, Mount Katahdin in Maine, something his parents also did for him, to her good fortune of meeting amiable hiking partners along the way.
“The variety of people that you meet out there is amazing,” Grenell said. “I guess that’s another thing about it. You watch the news or read the paper, and it seems like 97 percent of the world is rotten and three percent is good. On the trail and in life in general, I’d say it’s just the opposite of that.”
Friendships he made on the trail continue to this day, leading to hiking trips over the years to places such as Tanzania, Nepal and Peru.
“It just opened up a whole world beyond [the Appalachian Trail],” he said.
And it wasn’t just the people on the trail, Grenell said, but those behind the scenes who made a difference: family and friends who reliably mailed supplies for him to pick up at post offices along the way. It kept him and the two dogs he was hiking with going, and it made an impression that stayed with him long after.
“The support team was great, and I realized how important that was and carried it over to my business, too,” he said. “I had some employees that worked for me for 15 or 20 years, which is rare these days for a small business, but we made a really good team, and they were there all the time doing whatever they need to do to make our practice right. I tell people I had the best employees … the support team I had in my business spectacular.”
I asked Grenell how the Sweeney sisters might view this summer’s adventures 34 years from now – the vantage point Grenell and his sister have when they reflect on their experiences in 1988.
One thing is a general appreciation for what you have, and the ability to make do without the things you don’t. He recalled one of his first nights on the trail when he and friend set up camp near what was allegedly a reliable spring.
“It was not a gushing spring,” Grenell recalled with a laugh. “It was drip, drip, drip.”
It took 45 minutes for them to fill water bottles and a pan for cooking that night.
“So, appreciating things like plumbing and shelter … and things like that,” he said. “It really hits you when you’re out, and you don’t have those kinds of things.”
More than that, it’s the ability to persevere despite what you don’t have.
“When you start on something like what they did and you’re able to accomplish it, it kind of proves to yourself that determination can go a long way,” he said. “You’ve proven to yourself that you’re not a quitter. It’s something that can carry through life: when things get tough, you can find a way.”
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