A Long Walk to Remember: Hikers hit the Appalachian Trail for Alzheimerís cure, cancer care
By Nancy C. Williams
Two young men, best friends since toddlerhood, will set out in early April for a northbound through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. But they’re not looking for self-glory—they’re hiking to raise money and awareness for organizations close to their hearts.
David Sweitzer has a personal grudge against Alzheimer’s disease. The debilitating illness has taken its toll on his family as they have watched their beloved patriarch slowly forget all of them.
“Have you ever looked into the eyes of a parent, grandparent or friend only to see the reflection of a perfect stranger?” he says. “I have…and it’s very sad. Alzheimer’s undermines the dignity and principles of its victims, stripping them of memories and mundane functions we all take for granted.”
Sweitzer, 23, moved back in with his parents in Bristol, Tenn., after graduating more than a year ago from Appalachian State University with a degree in cellular/molecular biology. His express purpose in returning home was to help care for his grandfather, Nathan Sweitzer.
“It was a 24/7 watch, and my parents needed me,” he explains, “especially for the night shift when my grandfather would stay awake. I learned a good bit about Alzheimer’s and the painful losses it incurs. My grandfather not only forgot who we are, but worst of all, forgot who he is.”
Recently, after Nathan Sweitzer was moved to Crossville where another adult son has begun caring for him, David Sweitzer decided to fulfill a long-term aspiration: hiking the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail all the way from Georgia to Maine. And he committed to honor his grandfather by making it a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association office in Johnson City.
“I decided it would be a good way to kill two birds with one stone,” he says. “My mom said it best—I’ll be finding myself in the midst of someone I love losing himself.”
Sweitzer aims to raise at least $15,000 for Alzheimer’s support and research. The hike is expected to last six months and could finish by October 4, a day when other supporters walk around the Bristol Motor Speedway in the organization’s “Walk to End Alzheimer’s.”
Along the way, Sweitzer will be promoting the work being achieved by the Alzheimer’s Association and will serve as an advocate for more research to find a cure. “While the number of Alzheimer’s cases reported each year is steadily rising, I sincerely hope that breakthroughs in research and technology will reverse this trend.”
His best friend, Timothy Grunstra, of Bristol, Va., will join him. They will start their trek at Springer Mountain, just north of Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia and follow the trail to its northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine.
“Tim and I have gone on a lot of adventures together, and we’re in a similar place in life right now,” Sweitzer says. “When I introduced the AT idea to him, he got really excited about it. He decided to raise funds for cancer support services since several of the women close to him in his family have suffered from it.”
Grunstra and Sweitzer are avid outdoorsmen and have been preparing for the hike for several months. Friends and family will mail/drop off supplies to post offices along the trail.
“I love nature in general, being out in the woods,” Sweitzer adds. “I really like the adventure aspects of the AT, embarking on something very grand with a lot of uncertainties.” In addition to training, he has been engaged in full-time construction work to get financially ready to go, and he hopes to have an outside job eventually, after the hike.
“It will be exciting to spend time with my friend and do some soul-searching with God,” he says. “I’ve been studying this for four or five years…I’m ripe for a hike!”
To support Sweitzer’s fund-raising effort, go to the Alzheimer’s Association support webpage at alz.org/walk. From the home page, go to the “Donate” section and enter “David” and “Sweitzer” in the boxes for first and last names and click “Search.” On the new page, click on the blue “Donate” box and follow the prompts for donating online. (Clicking on David’s name next to the blue donate box will allow you to view David’s progress and/or write a short note on his page). Checks may be mailed to the Johnson City office at: Alzheimer’s Association, 207 N. Boone Street, Suite 25, Johnson City, TN 37604; include a note stating that the donation is to be designated for David Sweitzer’s project. The local manager is Debbie Boggs, who can be reached at (423) 928-4080. Donations are tax-deductible. For more information on the local chapter, go to alz.org/altn.