Discovering Who We Are, Travel

A Woman, Her Dog, and Hiking in the Dark

Have you ever just needed to get away? To go take a walk to settle yourself down?  Now imagine that walk turned into a thousand miles, by yourself along the Appalachian Trail.

I met Brittney and her dog, Jack, on a very hot day in a laundromat near a Vermont egress to the trail. She looked so tiny and fragile – if she weighed 100 pounds, it had to be while soaking wet and carrying a sack of concrete.  Her long blond hair was wrapped in a bandanna and her blue eyes twinkled with innocence.  The girl’s travelling companion was just a puppy -an odd assortment of husky and pit bull with a goofy tongue that was too, too, long for his head.  Money for the wash was an issue and I offered to share my detergent.  I struck up a conversation only to discover that this apparent woman/child had the heart and soul of a lion.

The Appalachian Trail is 2181 miles long,  crossing 14  states.   Thousands of people start the journey every year and only one out of four finish.  Of those thousands approximately only 8 women a year try walking it alone.  In 1955, Grandma Gatewood was the first, donning a pair of Keds and a rucksack, she got off a bus and started her walk on her own. She was in her 60’s when she began, she didn’t even tell her own children her plans.  She felt that she just had to walk and didn’t want to be talked out of it.  Like Gatewood, Brittney- felt that she ” needed to calm down, so I went for a nice relaxing  900-mile walk.  ”

When we met she seemed so delicate and the pup seemed so worn, that husband and I offered her a place to sleep off the trail for a night.  Thinking a home cooked meal (OK, take out and a vat of ice cream) and a bed n’ bath might be the ticket for tired travellers on such a hot, hot evening. I felt virtuous in my offer. I was wrong because what we got in return was so much more.

While taking our dogs for a walk,  Brittney talked about walking the trail. My first surprise was that she was much older than her waiflike countenance.  My second was that she was confident in her ability to take care of herself and Jack while on the trail.  My third surprise was that she could really do it.

 

At some point, Brittney shared that she had made hiking pals with someone who enjoyed night hiking.  She described climbing up rocks and down ledges with only the moon as a light. It was often the severe absence of light that guided her; trees and obstacles were dark voids, blacker holes against the blue night sky.  Each step was a step of trust.   Long periods of silence kept her company.  There were times when she had to carry her pup up and over a particularly rough patch.

Hmm?

Out in the dark with a stranger, feeling her way up and through rugged rock, sometimes carrying her beloved dog.  I couldn’t imagine such strength and reserve. But wait, as she spoke, I felt
as if she was describing my own life now,  inching my way through unknown territory. Night hiking, yes that’s middle age.

Like my life, Brittney’s choice to walk didn’t feel like much of a choice. Her night hiking was brighter than how she felt when she first started off.  “I was in a dark place when I left for the trail; I felt like I was clinging to my life, clinging to my sanity, and one wrong move would send me tumbling to a place I’d never return from.”  I never learned what the problem was, it didn’t matter.  We’ve all been there.  That point of no return.  That point where the choice is to go to bed and hibernate for the winter or to face the cold of what we’ve done.  Too often, I’ve chosen to hibernate, hoping that the dark, cold would magically pass into spring, knowing that that wasn’t really a solution.  But Brittney was made of sterner stuff. “I learned that even in the darkest of times you’ll find the light if you believe it’s there because you are the light”. Yes, I am, we are our own lights while hiking at night.

What did Brittney bring out of the woods? “Trust,” she says, “Trust that the universe will take care of you and send the people you need to meet your way…All experiences no matter how draining at the time come to you from a place of love and learning”

Trust… yes,  trust.  After years and years of figuring stuff out, as I wander through the adventure of middle age, I want to design and dictate and not to believe.  My reminder to relax as I walk on stage for the Third Act; my reminder that “I’m stronger than I give myself credit for, much braver than I let myself believe” came from the voice and life this giant of a little woman.

Beginning my 2017 walk,

Beth

13 Comments

  1. Oh, goodness, I love this, I love this, I love this. I think hiking the Appalachian Trail must be the most amazing thing.

    Did a solo paddle down the Hudson from Waterford, NY to Brooklyn a couple of years ago – absolutely loved the time to myself, and balanced it nicely with visits with friends along the river. That was a pipe dream for a very long time, and then one year things just fell into place and so I jumped and did it. I’m still so glad I did!

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  2. I so love this post. First, I’ve always wanted to thru hike the AT. Second, I can only imagine how terrifying it actually would be and what a strong person one must be to take on such an adventure on their own. And third, this is a wonderful circle back to life and your own walk. Truly amazing. Wishing you the best as 2017 unfolds!

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  3. My son and daughter attempted a “night hike”. They were going to watch the sunrise from the top of a 4000 footer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As they made their way up in the dark, they came face to face with a huge moose in the middle of the trail staring straight at them. It started making a very loud noise and shaking a tree. That ended their attempt at a night hike and they haven’t tried one since. May your hike through middle-age (and mine) be moose-free!

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    1. Beth Author

      That sounds terrifying. Moose are huge and not as cute as Bullwinkle. I’ve encountered them here in Vermont during the day and they’ve taken my breath away. I can’t imagine the encounter in the dark. Thank you for taking the time to read and share.
      Beth

      Reply

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