by Peter Dolan, New Jersey Program Coordinator
and Keith Lyons, Hiker
On July 28th, Keith Lyons contacted the Trail Conference office with a hiking request. On the surface, this request was similar to countless other calls we get throughout the year – Keith had an idea of where he wanted to go for an overnight trip, and wanted our help in planning. He recalled a past trip to a shelter on the Appalachian Trail that had meant a lot to him, and wanted to find and access it again. There was one thing that made this call stand out, however. Keith was planning what would most likely be his last hiking trip.
Keith was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, with a prognosis that did not leave him much time. He spoke fondly of the Rutherford Shelter at High Point State Park, where he had taken his godson Jimmy camping years before. Now too weak to undertake the hike to the shelter with a pack of gear, Keith asked if we could help him access the shelter via a woods road.
Three people – Rebecca Fitzgerald (High Point State Park Superintendent), Gene Giordano, and Pete Zuroff (New Jersey Appalachian Trail co-Chairs) – put their heads together and recommended the nearby High Point shelter as the best option, with its easy access via a gated road. Keith was ecstatic that it looked like his dream of one last camping trip with his godson would become a reality.
Everything went according to plan, and on August 16th both Keith and Jimmy arrived at High Point. He asked us to share his story, which has been transcribed in his words below:
Keith and his godson Jimmy stand with Rebecca Fitzgerald, High Point Superintendent
“In November 2013 I was diagnosed with double cancer; three operations later have left me with diminished physical ability. I had previously backpacked through the Stokes-High Point area, seeing two bears – a great experience. I contacted the NYNJTC and Peter Dolan took charge. He communicated with High Point State Park and Park Superintendent Rebecca Fitzgerald, who allowed me and my godson Jimmy to use the woods road to High Point shelter. Jimmy liked riding on the road. We saw a doe and a fawn… they were just as surprised to see us. Last year we backpacked from Route 17 to the Bear Mountain Inn. We saw numerous animals including a huge eight-point buck. But his favorite sighting was the vending machine at Tiorati Circle (that’s until he discovered the snack bar at High Point State Park).
“These few parcels of land are magical, healing places that must be maintained.
“While at High Point we went to a concert where an Irish band played. At sunset, we night-hiked back to the shelter listening to great music. The last day we walked to the A.T. On the trail to the left was Pennsylvania, and straight ahead, towards NY. I told Jimmy, we walk this trail together. I pointed towards New York. I said, you’ll walk this trail without me. He looked at me and said he understood.
“While we were packing, Jimmy mentioned to me that we didn’t see many animals, but we met some great people. Mad Max from Germany, NYU from Brooklyn, and Leslie from New Jersey. On his first hiking trip, Jimmy said he would bring his friends backpacking to High Point one day. I knew then the circle was complete.”
–Copperhead and Hawk (Trail names of Keith Lyons and Jimmy Connolly)
Sometimes it’s easy to take what we do at the Trail Conference for granted. To be blessed with the means and opportunity to enjoy our local parks and forests – whether as a casual hiker or an active trail volunteer – is a privilege that we should never forget. Keith’s story, and the incredible gratitude he has exhibited for the chance to take one last hike, is a reminder of how lucky many of us are to be able to enjoy treasures like these on a whim.
Keith begins radiation in the next few months, and he acknowledges that this was the last hike he’ll ever take. He wanted us to share his story to show how important these trails are to people and families, and how the experiences formed there can last a lifetime. So as you go about your holidays, enjoying the beautiful snow-covered vistas and awaiting the start of spring, remember to be grateful for the public lands we all work to keep open to everyone.