God, via Dr. Seuss, sent Wichitan on 2,190-mile hike

A message from God, sent via Dr. Seuss, prompted Joshua Gribble to go on a 2,190-mile hike this summer along the Appalachian Trail. (September 28, 2016)
A message from God, sent via Dr. Seuss, prompted Joshua Gribble to go on a 2,190-mile hike this summer along the Appalachian Trail. (September 28, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

A message from God, sent via Dr. Seuss, prompted Joshua Gribble to go on a 2,190-mile hike.

On Sept. 15, the 22-year-old Wichitan finished hiking the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, having hiked 158 consecutive days through 14 states and some of America’s roughest country.

“I was sitting in church one day when the pastor quoted my favorite Dr. Seuss quote: ‘You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting! So get on your way!’ ” Gribble said of a morning service in 2015. “It was instantaneous. I just felt like God was nudging me to get out there and do something with my life.”

His father, Don, remembers it well.

“It was unbelievable. I was sitting right beside him, and I could tell right away something had happened to Josh,” he said of that day at the RiverWalk Church of Christ. “When we went home, I printed that (Dr. Seuss) quote, framed it and put it on his wall. The entire thing has changed him, for the good.”

Joshua Gribble said he would again feel divine inspiration along the trail.

The hike ahead of him

An avid hunter and angler, Gribble had done some hiking in the past but nothing like what he knew was ahead of him.

Gribble took a year to get ready for the hike that began on April 10. He worked and saved for the adventure. He knew he needed better equipment for the hike. Weight, he learned, would be a huge enemy.

“I got my backpack down to around 26 pounds, and that included five days of food and 2 liters of water,” Gribble said. “I didn’t take any kind of stove or a water filter.” He put purification drops into water he found along the trail. Food was eaten cold, including soggy instant mashed potatoes. He hiked with ramen noodles in a jar of water so they’d be hydrated when he got hungry.

But lousy food wasn’t his biggest problem.

“Boredom was the biggest problem, because it can be so repetitive, mile after mile, day after day,” he said. “My dad came out and did about the first 200 miles with me. When he left, I was alone for about 400 miles. It got pretty lonely.”

Sharing a lean-to

Gribble spent most nights in lean-tos available along the trail, often sharing the shelters with other hikers. Most he described as “free-spirited hippie types.”

“At first, that was a bit of a culture shock to me, coming from Wichita,” he said. “But they did nothing but smile. Nothing could bring them down. They really encouraged me and really gave me a lot of good advice and helped to keep me going.”

He became friends with several hikers on the trail. Joseph Tear of Montreal hiked the final 900 miles with him. Gribble expects they’ll be good friends forever.

Gribble also talked of “trail angels,” a name hikers give to kind local residents. He told of getting to sleep in a barn instead of out in the rain and of having a home-cooked breakfast the next morning from the same kind stranger. Things like food and coolers of drinks, including the occasional beer, were sometimes found on the trail, with a note encouraging hikers to help themselves.

“It was never a problem to get a ride into town (for supplies or a shower) if you wanted one,” he said. “If someone was driving down the road, saw you hitchhiking with a backpack, they knew you were a hiker and almost always stopped and gave you a ride.”

Facing problems

Gribble did face some challenges.

He saw several rattlesnakes and a dozen black bears.

“I was hiking through the Shenandoah Mountains, with my head down and my headphones on, and when I looked up, there was a black bear walking right down the same trail towards me, no more than 10 yards away,” he said. “It would have made a heck of a cartoon. We stared at each other for a few seconds, then both turned and ran in the other direction.”

Weather could also be a big problem. Gribble shivered through long, cold nights and hiked through “horrendous heat.” There was also heavy hail, and he got drenched so often in torrential rain that he eventually gave up wearing rain gear.

But he said those challenges may have provided him with the best lesson he learned from more than five months on the trail.

“I’m sure the most important thing I learned is that I can deal with being miserable,” he said. “At first, you always want to stop, but I learned to force myself to smile and keep walking along. I learned it was better to just laugh at what was happening and not let it get me down. I kept reminding myself to just get through that one day, and that it was just one day out of so many, many more to come. I’ve learned I can really depend on myself.”

Divine inspiration

He also learned he can depend on his faith, especially when things are tough.

During a particularly rugged day, when fatigue and frustration were high, he looked up and saw a hand-carved cross placed on the trunk of a tree deep in the wilderness, a ray of sunlight shining directly on it. Gribble said his body and mind instantly felt better.

After one of the most difficult days of his hike, he checked into a hostel and was contemplating the rest of the trip when he looked to his right and saw a framed sign that said: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting! So get on your way!”

“It was my Dr. Seuss quote. I think it was there for a reason,” Gribble said. “I knew from then on, everything was going to be OK.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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