Learning some outdoor lessons
I limped up to the roadside rest picnic table and shrugged to let my backpack fall to the ground behind me. My two dogs, both shepherd mixes, looked at me, the tops of their noses flecked in white.
We had been out of water since the afternoon of the previous day. Would the next water source be dry too? Watching my dogs pant and seeing their expressions crushed my spirit.
It was midday, and brutally hot. I was hiking the Appalachian Trail with two dogs and we were only eight days into our adventure, a trek planned from Georgia to Pennsylvania. We’d come to a paved road that crossed the trail, and as I sat on the picnic table the road began to look very inviting.
I thought about how I could stick out my thumb and get a ride to a town. I thought about how it would take me about three months to hike to Pennsylvania, versus a 12-hour ride back to Pennsylvania. In other words, after months of planning, I thought about quitting.
Then a station wagon rolled into the little rest stop.
The two women inside had just come from the grocery store. They seemed overly glad to see me, practically trotting over and asking if it would be okay to pet the dogs.
They were both widows, and had been married to brothers, I learned as we talked. They and their husbands had known each other since elementary school. Even before their husbands passed away, the two friends had made it a point to go grocery shopping together, usually stopping for lunch in town.
Since they lived just a few miles away, they had never stopped at the roadside rest before that day. While they were shopping one said to the other, “Let’s be tourists,” and they brought the supplies for a picnic lunch.
They soon spread that out on a table and fixed up a huge plate for me. The dogs and I guzzled water. They filled my 5-gallon water bag and the two water bottles I carried, waving away my protests, saying they could easily get more bottled water.
They wrote down addresses and phone numbers, told me it would be nice if I let them know “how my adventure turned out.”
The dogs and I hiked from Georgia to Pennsylvania that summer. During the next four years, I chipped away at more states and finally finished at Mount Katahdin in Maine five years later. I always sent postcards to the women from Georgia.
In the ranger station at the base of Mt. Katahdin, there’s a notebook for hikers. I wanted to write something profound, some essay that would sum up what I learned in five years of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I had been writing draft after draft in a notebook I carried, crumbling up many pages, rewriting, editing. I wanted what I penciled into that notebook to be the best thing I had ever written.
But as I stood there, I found myself thinking about all the good fortune and assistance from people that had led me to that spot. I thought about those women from Georgia, because I have never forgotten their kindness. The Appalachian Trail was a Touchstone, its challenges a great leveler for people from all walks of life.
Maybe the trail was a symbol for the challenges we all face in our lives. The most important thing the trail taught me about traveling through life has always held true, and it holds true in today’s trying times more than ever.
That day, I didn’t write down any of my carefully crafted sentences. I just wrote down one word, “Share,” which might just be the best word ever written.
“Our journeys on the Appalachian Trail end today, and we have learned the best way to travel, on the trail and in our lives – Share.”