A Journey By a Son for the Father
By Jennifer Sicking
Danny Galyon walked about 100 yards on the Amiacalola Falls Trail toward Springer Mountain in Georgia with his son Troy. He could sense his son’s anxiety to begin his journey, following the white blazes marking the path of the Appalachian Trail for more than 2,000 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Feeling as if he were reining in a horse, Danny paused and looked at his son.
“You’re ready, aren’t you?”
“Daddy, I’m ready.”
With a goodbye, Danny turned and began walking back down the trail to his car. After five steps, he turned and watched his son disappear up the mountain. The 1988 UT Knoxville graduate hadn’t even done that on his son’s first day of kindergarten 17 years before.
Troy didn’t look back but continued climbing and moving along the trail. At the top of the mountain, he took a breath and wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” Though an accomplished long-distance runner, he was a novice hiker and camper.
Then he pushed on for another eight miles before camping for the night.
Sixteen miles down and 2,174 to go.
The idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) began during Troy’s senior year of college, studying economics as a Global Leadership Scholar in the Haslam College of Business at UT Knoxville. But, in October 2016, when doctors diagnosed his father with stage 4 esophageal cancer, which had spread to his liver, Troy’s idea grew and changed his purpose. One day he found a hiking backpack and camping gear left in the backyard of his rental house. After checking with neighbors and the house owner about who might own it—and no one knew—Troy took the gear as a sign that he should commit to the hike.
In the meantime, the lifetime runner trained for the March 2017 Knoxville marathon and sat with his father during his radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
At first, he didn’t tell his father why he wanted to spend months hiking the AT. But, a few weeks before his May 2017 graduation, as they drove to lunch, Troy turned to his father and asked if he knew why he wanted to do the hike.
“I guess to keep from getting a job for a few months.”
Troy laughed at his father’s response and then admitted the truth.
“Daddy, I’m going to walk it to honor you and to try to raise money for cancer awareness.”
Tears welled up in Danny’s eyes. “I don’t know if anybody has ever done anything that nice for me before.”
On May 14, 2017, the day after Troy graduated, Danny drove him to Georgia and watched his son walk away.
“It’s really pleasing and gratifying as a parent to see your kid set out and just be so determined to do something,” Danny says. After his cancer diagnosis, a friend told Danny, “The people it’s hardest on are the people you’re closest to,” and Danny agrees. “It’s not hard on me. It’s hard on him. So he wants to do something to make it better for me and everyone else.”
While Danny continued on his cancer journey, Troy climbed mountains, traversed ridges and waded streams. His thoughts kept him company when other hikers were scarce, until the thoughts exhausted themselves. Sometimes he replayed movies like The Big Lebowski in his head, or he sang “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast to himself or he listened to songs by Lord Huron, James Taylor and John Mayer. And mile after mile passed under his feet.
Danny met his son when Troy’s northward progress brought him to Fontana Dam in Tennessee, just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He brought Troy two Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, chicken nuggets and a milkshake, which Troy devoured before continuing on into the national park. That night, rain came in a downpour, collapsing his tent and drenching his sleeping bag and clothes.
The next night, temperatures fell to the upper 30s, and his sleeping bag was still wet. Other hikers at the Derrick Knob Shelter loaned him an emergency blanket for the long, cold night. The next day brought sheets of rain as he trudged toward Newfound Gap—marking the Tennessee-North Carolina border—in the park. Danny met Troy again there, almost 41 miles up the trail from their last meeting, to take him to a hotel with a hot shower, a bed and a place to wash and dry his clothes and sleeping bag.
Rani Zaouk (Knoxville ’17) also met Troy at Newfound Gap, bringing a cooler filled with chocolate milk, bananas, pecans, date treats and protein bars to fuel his friend on his journey.
“I’m not a big hiker myself; I’d not do it two days,” Zaouk says. “I’m proud of him.”
In the blur of days and nights that followed, the bitter night wrapped in an emergency blanket stands out as the worst on the trail.
“Most days were tough, physically, because you’re walking all day, but you kind of get used to that,” says Troy, who averaged 22 miles per day. “There were days where I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m ready to go home.’
“It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle every day, and you really have to know that it’s going to be OK or that you’re going to get to the end or finish.”
Then, a new friend made on the trail would encourage him. Or he would remember his father and his journey, and he would continue on: left foot, right foot. And he had made a vow at Newfound Gap: “When dad quits cancer, I’ll quit the hike.”
Danny has no intention of quitting his cancer treatments.
“I know all of this can seem daunting, but it is truly doing what Pat Summitt (the late UT Knoxville Lady Vols basketball coach) said, ‘Left foot, right foot, breathe.’ It’s truly living life, just going through life and trying to get better and stronger,” Danny says.
With the help of UT Medical Center’s University Cancer Specialists at Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville, Tennessee, Danny’s journey continues. While the tumor has shrunk in size, and he can swallow again, he retired as principal of Everett Learning Opportunity Center in Maryville in October 2017. Though the cancer isn’t curable, Danny continues to push forward.
And when he talks about his son, love and pride echo through his words.
“I knew he was physically strong enough, but I didn’t know if he was mentally strong enough,” Danny says of his son’s journey. “When I saw him at Newfound Gap, I was convinced he was going to finish.”
While heading north out of Tennessee and into Virginia, Troy picked up his trail name as most AT hikers do – from another hiker. A fellow hiker looked at
him and said, “You know you don’t belong out here. You’re just a pretty boy.” From then on, the hiker introduced Troy as Pretty Boy, dubbing him with a nickname for which he’d be known throughout the thru-hike, an attempt to hike the entire 2,190 miles in one season. Pretty Boy followed him through the forests and farmlands of Virginia, the long ridgelines in Pennsylvania, the Berkshire views in Massachusetts and the dense forests of Vermont. Finally, he crossed from New Hampshire into the final state: Maine.
Troy made his way through Maine, over and around boulders, wearing the same shorts he wore throughout the journey, even when temperatures fell to the 40s at night. He’d wake, eat breakfast and return to his sleeping bag until the sun had a chance to warm the air a few degrees. His last week, he hiked with a group. As they walked, they talked about food, shared stories about their lives and swapped riddles, puzzling over the answers as the miles passed.
With one last mountain to climb – a 5.2-mile hike with an almost 4,200-foot elevation gain to the top of Mount Katahdin – to finish the AT, the group started for the top about 9:45 a.m.
“Every day, you think about it while you’re on the trail,” Troy says of that last ascent. “And so, for months, you’re imagining what it’s going to be like.”
He reached the top at 12:37 p.m. on Aug. 29, 107 days after he set out from Georgia. He turned on his phone and discovered cell service had returned. He had one call to make.
“Hey, guess where I am?”
“You made it.”