Walking to the Moon

A troubled brother’s trek to find peace

Photo by Jason Strull on UNSPLASH.

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window.”


Of course, Hugh would choose the Mojave Desert for ending his twenty-plus year trek. Who ends such an endeavor in the least accessible parts of the country? I’ll tell you who: the man who plans on never leaving. But that’s not technically true.

There were reports of flashes from the exact spot on the moon’s surface that Hugh had chosen as his destination, a crater named Copernicus. Am I supposed to believe that was mere coincidence?

I dreamt last night; in my dream, my brother sat propped against gray rocks in a smoky gray desert, the night sky curved behind and around him like a blanket of black emptiness. He seemed to be smiling. He seemed happy.

I promise you this, rescue patrols will never find his body.

In a previous era, we would have called him crazy. But now, we have so many new words, don’t we? Kinder, gentler words like depressed, manic, bipolar, borderline, anxious, obsessive. The list of words is endless.

Bottom line, my brother was crazy.

It was a big, ambitious plan; it was crazy. And there is that hopelessly dreary word that, like it or not, is sometimes applicable.

My brother was crazy. His plan was, if anything, crazier.

“I’m serious, Hazel; I am going to walk to the moon,” Hugh said.

I had been busy studying for finals when he told me his plan for the first time.

My brother, Hugh, had been depressed for as long as any of us could remember. He had been in and out of therapy, in and out of rehabilitation clinics since before I could remember. Growing up around crazy normalizes it. I assumed everyone had a sibling like Hugh. Didn’t every family routinely drop one of their members off at rehab right before heading to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner? I was so precious and clueless.

Through it all though, there was one trick Hugh never tried, never talked about trying, never even hinted at, the big-one. Maybe a part of him, buried under all the crazy, knew how much it would destroy me to lose him permanently. We weren’t always what you might call close, at least not in any traditional sense, but there was this abiding faith that he was always there for me, and I was always there for him. Most of the energy in that conduit between us flowed in the direction you might expect, but still, I trusted that if I needed help, Hugh would be there. He had always been my biggest advocate, my hero.

“Wait; what are you talking about, Hugh? The moon? You are aware It is not reachable by roads?”

As with Hugh being who he was, it was easy to talk to him loosely, without concern for decorum or propriety. No subject, no conversational gambit was beyond us; with us, it was always freestyle.

I looked up from my textbooks.

He got a funny look on his face then as if he were about to confess something. Looking back, I should’ve guessed, but how could I? No one else ever judges me for my perceived transgression, but I’ve more than made up for it this past year. Oh boy, have I ever.

“I plan on walking the distance from the earth to the moon,” he told me as if I were still the doting, six-year-old sister that adored her older brother and hung upon his every word and not a competent young lady who was headed to med school.

There are 238,900 airless miles between the earth and the moon.

He planned to cross, recross the continental United States over and over, spending the bulk of his time in the less populated, areas, the deserts, the mountainous regions in the center of the country, rambling around and around, up and down the continental divide.

He would hike, on average, 40 miles per day, six days a week, until it was done.

Yeah, my brother was that Hugh. The one whose face would fade from memory then sporadically appear on the cover of Newsweek or Time or, more likely, Runner’s World.

The publicity was big at first, then it dwindled, and the rest of the world heard little about “Hiking Hugh.” Occasionally there would be some revival or resurgence of interest, and the message forums on his website WalkToTheMoon.com would explode with a temporary flurry of hits for a few months. Then it would recede and grow small again like the tide.

Hugh always had donors. The outdoor apparel companies whose product is usually most favored by liberal soccer moms everywhere knew an opportunity when it presented itself. His endorsement was always on at least a half dozen different garments at two of the companies. And what did that cost them? Maybe a hundred thousand dollars? Over twenty years or so? It was, as they say, a no-brainer.

His needs were simple. Hugh only charged them enough to sponsor his trip, an occasional new lightweight tent, camp stove, water filters, and, in the end, just three trips to see a doctor. Not bad for a man hiking 40 miles a day for over two decades.

I tried to talk him out of it, but only half-heartedly. Honestly, the more I listened to Hugh’s plan, the more I bought into the idea. Also, I was somewhat distracted at the time, studying and trying to decide which med school to attend.

He was only in town for a few days, so when he came by my dorm that week, I would close my textbooks and give him my full attention. I can’t recall a sweeter time with my brother than those talks we had that week.

After high school, he’d become an engineer, but he wasn’t cut out for life in the corporate world. So after a token seven years, during a voluntary downsizing, Hugh took a voluntary layoff and headed for the Appalachian Trail; he finished it in four months.

I remember how he was when he first returned from the trail. He seemed transformed, a new man.

“Is my brother no longer crazy?” I allowed myself to wonder more than once.

Then, as if none of that had ever happened, I got a call one night. The six of us waiting and crying in the ER, the internist telling us that in his opinion, the overdose had looked accidental. After that came another bout in rehab, and a lot of tears, shouting, and promises.

Then, magically one day, Hiking Hugh was back; the next time we saw him, he was calm, serene, and apologetic for having slipped up again.

When the day came for his “Walk to the Moon” departure, I was there to hug him and wish him well.

Then he was gone, and I headed back to Harvard.

An idle thought drifted through my head as I watched my troubled brother walk away from me that day, I will never see my brother again, ever.

This dreary premonition turned out to be false.

That’s the upside of twenty-year plans; there’s usually time for visits.

After graduating and once after my internship in Chicago, Hugh and I spent a week hiking through Yellowstone National Park.

And Hugh looked healthy, happy, and content. He looked serene and fulfilled.

The noonday demons and the dark hounds of depression are excellent at hiding when they must.

The last time we spoke on the phone, I asked him, “What will you do when you reach the moon?”

How could I have been so blind?

He danced around the question and made some joke about hiking to Mars or just chilling on the moon for a bit.

When we hung up from that phone call, I still had no idea what Hugh would do when his mile total finally equaled the span of distance between us and the moon.

Looking back, however, I’m sure Hugh did.

He probably wanted to say goodbye to me, but he didn’t know how.

So that is why I never traveled to Joshua Tree National Park to identify that body. It wasn’t Hugh’s; I’m sure of it.

I’m confident that no one will ever find Hugh. Somehow, on August 9th or the day after, Hugh pulled his last, his most daring disappearing act. His walk was, in the end, a twenty-year, three months, seventeen days wish for tranquility and an end of his suffering.

I’ll tell you why the rescue patrols will never find my brother, because my brother, Hugh, my sweet lost, sensitive brother who had wrestled all his life with depression. Somehow, through magic, Hugh found his way to the moon.

Someday, you will see. One day astronauts will explore Copernicus and find my brother. No doubt he will still be wearing his favorite hiking outfit: his khaki cargo hiking shorts with fourteen-dozen pockets and his T-shirt, a burgundy long sleeve, cotton thing with his favorite quote.

At least be kind.

I think of him up there, looking down at all of us, at me, and I smile as a solitary tear slides down my cheek. My brother dabbled in a dark kind of magic. His suffering was finally over, but dear God, I wish I could have said goodbye.

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