A walk to remember
Faye Gillis, widow of the late Linus Gillis of Miscouche, Linus’ brother John Gillis and walking friend Bill McFadden remember the avid Island walker as the one-year anniversary of his death approaches. Faye will be wearing the backpack that Linus wore on the Appalachian Trail and the Camino in Spain on the first day of an 11-day memorial walk for him.
Published on May 6, 2011
After completing a multi-day hike of the Confederation Trail in 2003 and a six-month trek of the Appalachian Trail in 2008, this Miscouche man was looking forward to his next challenge in the spring of 2010 — the 780-plus kilometre Camino de Santiago path which stretches across the whole of Spain.
No one doubted he could do it.
“Linus was the type of person that if he took something in his mind, no matter what it was, there was no stopping him. It was a 110 per cent commitment,” says his brother, John Gillis of Miscouche.
Tragically, the only thing that could stop him did — a heart attack midway through the Camino that abruptly ended his life’s journey.
Now, one year later, a tip-to-tip walk of the Confederation Trail is being organized for May 14 through to May 24 as a memorial to this well-known walker and P.E.I. businessman.
“It’s a great memorial for him. I think it’s wonderful,” says Linus’ widow, Faye Gillis.
“It’s what he loved doing.”
Walking wasn’t always what Linus loved doing. In fact, at one point he was overweight and unfit.
“(A few months) before he made the Island walk in 2003, Linus said to me, ‘I can’t even walk to the end of the driveway.’ And he was complaining that he had no wind and stuff . . . . And he decided to do something about it,” John remembers.
Linus started walking with his wife, but her practiced pace proved a bit to quick for him at first.
“I took him one night for a walk with me around the block and, of course, I walked too fast and he said, ‘I’m not going with you again,’” she smiles.
“And I looked out the window one night and here he was going out the driveway and I never said a word. This was in January . . . . Each night he’d go up the road a little farther and that’s how he started.”
They and fellow walking friend Alan MacKenzie started a weekly Saturday walking club that met in Summerside and headed out to walking destinations across the Island.
The idea to walk across the Island soon popped up.
“The next thing Linus and Alan were sleeping down in the woods in tents on March 10 or something like that to get ready for this walk,” John remembers.
They and a number of other walkers completed the Confederation Trail in 2003.
Then came the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2008.
“He really thought about it a lot for a long time, made a lot of decisions and preparations and, of course, he had to know that he had my support, too,” Faye remembers.
“I said, ‘If it’s something you want to do, you do it,’ because this was after my son died and I just said, ‘We don’t even know if we have tomorrow, so you just go do what you need to do and I’ll be here.’”
MacKenzie walked with Linus for a portion of the 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) journey.
“We ended up not walking together that much during the day,” MacKenzie remembers.
“We would meet in the evening. And then our walking styles and our social styles were slightly different. I preferred life on the trail all the time. I was kind of an extremist that way, camping every night. And he liked the opportunity to get into town and have a good meal and a night in accommodations. So we just agreed to disagree on that,” he laughs.
Six months after Linus began, the formerly super-charged Summerside building contractor, who earned the nickname “Serene” on the trail, climbed to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine on Sept. 30.
“That was quite an experience for him. He said, ‘You’ve got nothing to do but walk and think. You do a lot of soul searching,’” Faye says of his Appalachian Trail journey.
“It changed his life. It really did. He just was a different person when he came home. Much more serene and he just took life a little easier. He didn’t get so rattled up over things like he used to.”
By 2010, Linus was ready to tackle the Camino with a hiker he’d met on the Appalachian Trail. But whether it was going to a foreign country or that he wouldn’t be able to speak the language, things were quite a bit different from his departure for the Appalachian Trail two years before.
“Even when he was going in through customs, of course the tears were coming, and he looked at me and he said, ‘It’s OK. It won’t be long. It’s only two months this time.’ He came back three times to give me a hug because I was sitting there (crying). It was almost like we knew,” Faye remembers, tears welling that that memory.
Despite the fact that the Camino is fairly level compared to the mountainous Appalachian Trail, Linus was surprised that he was having difficulty.
“And he said, ‘I seem to have a lot of anxiety.’ And I just kind of talked him through: ‘Are you anxious because you’re in a foreign place, you don’t know the language? Or is it that you’re just not feeling up to par?’ And he just couldn’t pinpoint it,” Faye remembers.
On Linus’ final day, May 17, 2010, he wrote in his hiking journal: “We hiked 28.6 (kilometres) into Terradillos (de los Templarios). It was the longest hike yet and even though it was flat most of the way I found it hard and I was beat when I got in. It was sunny and hot today and the trail had long stretches with nothing but fields. Hope I find tomorrow a better day.”
Tragically, tomorrow never came. Linus died that night of a heart attack at the age of 61. Faye received the shattering news by phone from his walking friend the next morning.
“(It) was completely out of left field. I had just turned the computer on to check the blog. If I’d had time to read it I would have seen that he wasn’t feeling well that day because he made the comment that he was nauseous, but he still did his 28 kilometres, which was Linus. Determination big-time or stubbornness, I don’t know which,” she smiles at the memory of her beloved husband.
He was returned home and is buried in the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Wellington.
As the one-year anniversary of his death neared, another of Linus’ walking friends, Bill McFadden, broached the idea of a memorial walk.
With the family’s blessing, plans were put in place for an 11-day walk that starts on May 14 at North Cape and ends at East Point on May 24, with a special gathering in Miscouche on the May 17 anniversary of his death.
“There’s something very mesmerizing about walking for long periods of time. It’s all you really have to be doing. You’re just there. You don’t have all those other worries or cares,” McFadden says.
“You also get a chance to review your life and think about what’s important without any of that outside (distraction) going on. It can be very addictive to walk.”
A passage from Linus’ Appalachian Trail journal describes how he and others feel about their walking passion.
“We live it. We love it. We do it . . . . ,” he wrote.
“Remember it’s the journey to be enjoyed not the destination until it’s reached.”
Here is the Linus Gillis Memorial Walk schedule:
Leave North Cape May 14 at 9 a.m., stay in Alma area that night and end in the O’Leary area, May 15.
In Ellerslie, May 16.
Miscouche, May 17.
Emerald, May 18.
Hunter River, May 19.
Brackley, May 20.
Mount Stewart, May 21.
St. Peters, May 22.
New Zealand, May 23.
May 24, finishing at East Point in the afternoon.
The group members are going to visit Linus’ gravesite as they pass through Wellington. An event is planned in the Miscouche area on May 17, which is the anniversary of his death.
The walk is purely a memorial one for Linus. However, if people wish to, they can contribute to the International Children’s Memorial Place (www.icmplace.com) at Scales Pond in Freetown in memory of Linus, where Faye Gillis has memorials in place for her late husband and her son.
People are welcome to join the memorial walk for any or all of the trip. Feel free to cheer the walkers on with a friendly smile, a drink of water or whatever else along their way.
For more information about the walk, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 218-5657.