By Mara Klecker
Sometimes, all Tim Geary can think about as he’s hiking the Appalachian Trail is making it over the next hill. But he also finds his mind drifting to Gillen, his wife of 53 years, who died of melanoma in April 2020. At the end of the 2,190 miles of his thru-hike, when he reaches the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine, he’ll hold up a sign that reads “I did it for Gillen.”
Tim started his hike in mid-March and has already met other hikers who know his story and even his trail name, “Papa Smurf.” That’s because one of his sons, Brendan, has been posting social media updates about Tim’s journey as part of a fundraising effort for AIM at Melanoma.
Father and son had both been thinking about ways to use the hike to raise funds for a cause and Brendan found himself asking his late mother for some inspiration.
“Then I just thought to myself, what better way to help others and help mom in essence by raising money for melanoma research and awareness,” Brendan said. He went through some old photos from fundraising walks that his family had participated in after his mother’s first melanoma diagnosis in 2008. He zoomed in on the photo to see that the event was an AIM at Melanoma walk, and he went to AIM’s website. He read through the whole site and then reached out, eager to find out how he could use his father’s thru-hike to support AIM’s work.
Their initial goal was $5,000 for the organization. Within a month, supporters from across the country had donated even more so Tim upped his goal to $10,000. As of this writing, he has surpassed $10,000 and is now at $15,000.
Brendan has already heard from other melanoma patients who were inspired by Tim’s hike and Gillen’s battle with the disease.
“That’s just so humbling,” Brendan said. “I remember how I felt when my mom was going through surgery and just to know we could be a little part of sharing hope with someone else going through that is so meaningful.”
Gillen was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2008. In 2013, a brain scan after a fall revealed that she had tumors in her brain. The next seven years included several surgeries, including a colostomy, as well as radiation and chemotherapy.
“It was a long, hard road,” Tim said.
At the end of her life, Gillen was insistent that Tim start thinking about his own years after she was gone.
“You’ve been taking care of me and you need a plan because I’m not going to be here,” she told him then. They had several versions of the conversation, mostly because Tim didn’t want to accept that he’d be adventuring without her.
Gillen had a venturesome spirit herself: In 2009, she founded her own travel agency and was passionate about helping others plan their vacations. She saw all 50 states and visited more than 50 countries.
Together, the couple decided that Tim should pursue his dream of completing a long-distance hike. After all, Gillen said, he could at least use the time on the trail to think about other ways he could fill his free time as a widower.
Tim admits he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet, but the miles have made him more introspective and a lot more grateful.
“Most of this hike is about what’s between your ears,” he said, referring to having so much time alone with his thoughts. “I’m not asking for much anymore — just to wake up and be able to keep going.”
By mid-April, Tim said he can feel that his legs are growing stronger. He’s also learned more about his gear, including a GPS that lets his family know his progress. He credits the young people on the trail (some more than 50 years his junior) for teaching him more about the gadget than he could’ve imagined.
“I’ve met so many nice people on this trail, and a lot of them are decades younger than me,” he said. He’s had several hikers tell him about their grandparents, who are his age, who don’t walk much farther than down the block.
“I feel good and I feel strong,” Tim said. “I feel that I can keep going.”
Brendan is confident that his father will complete the entire hike. That’s just his dad’s personality, he said. And the fact that he’s doing it for Gillen is all the more incentive.
Brendan remembered hearing his dad talk about his dream of the Appalachian Trail, but never thought he’d get the chance to do it.
“Honestly, I’m not sure he’d be doing this if my mom was still here,” Brendan said. “He just wouldn’t want to leave her that long.”
Tim often talks to his wife as he’s hiking.
“She’s with me every day here,” he said. As for the fundraising in her honor, Tim said he knows she’s proud. “She’d love it because she was always about helping people.”
To donate to Tim’s Appalachian Trail walk in memory of his wife and to raise funds for melanoma research, please visit Tim’s event page HERE.
Checks may be made out to AIM at Melanoma Foundation, Memo: Gillen’s Army, and mailed to 5729 Lebanon Rd. Suite 144-305, Frisco, Texas 75034.
Watch an interview with Tim HERE.