Have you ever been given someone’s extravagant love and time, when you felt you least deserved it? Or maybe during a time you were so empty, you couldn’t imagine anyone delighting in you?
It is with an overwhelming sense of wonder and humility that I recall the moments, the wonderful surprises, and the restoring comforts I experienced while on my walk in the woods. This is a story about a girl with a broken heart, and a God who held it.
I just couldn’t go back to the trail as “Roo” – the naive happy go lucky baby kangaroo from Winnie the Pooh. I was given this trail name seven years previous by a hiker named Eeyore. This time I would be section hiking SOBO (SOuth BOund) in New England by myself, and I doubted I would hike with a group that would carry on the tradition of naming me based on some funny situation or quirky aspect of my personality. I didn’t care about any of that anymore. AT culture is fun, but I needed the woods. I needed to be restored. I needed a name that encompassed the reason I was heading back to the trail.
I had fallen in love with Backpacking in 2009 on a last minute, thrown together trip to Grayson Highlands with
my roommate at the time. We planned the trip in less than 24 hours and were on the road. I had borrowed all my gear, including someone’s boots, and wore cotton socks!!! Needless to
say, I was sorely unprepared, had a blister on every toe, and only completed 25 of the 50 miles we had planned. However, the Appalachian Trail won my heart. There was something about walking forward and never going back on the same trail. I felt strangely competent, collecting my own water, gathering firewood, existing unprotected from wildlife and elements, and persevering through physical pain and exhaustion. What I enjoyed most, though, was the complete openness of fellow hikers. There were no layers of society to categorize us or define us. We were just us… stinky, happy, friendly hikers who are wandering in the woods together. The kindness and openness of hikers and residents in towns I passed through restored my perspective of strangers.
Over two more summers, I completed a total of 300 miles on the AT. I gained experience, memories, and momentum to make backpacking a part of my future.
In the Fall of 2011, I embraced the opportunity of a lifetime that brought my outdoor adventures to a halt. I opened my heart and home to a child I had loved from his birth. A child whose Autism was complicated by early years in a home filled with abuse and violence. He had lived in a therapeutic residential facility for four years, and now at the age of 10, he was stable enough to transition back into the community, and into family. My nephew was the treasure of my heart.
I had always had a special bond with my younger sister, who was eight years younger than me, formed by the traumas we experienced through a messy divorce and eventual loss of relationship with our father. As the older one, I was continually trying to protect her, to guard her, and to give her some sense of acceptance and love. When her life took a painful turn and she was no longer able to care for her special needs son, there was no question in my heart. Even with all the challenges I knew that raising him would bring, my nephew would live with me. He was partly mine already. I had helped raise him. The bond in my heart was so deeply intertwined, the pain of losing him would have ripped me apart.
We spent four tumultuous years attaching, going to therapy, trying every behavior plan out there, working with some of the most equipped and cutting edge programs the country has to offer. He made so much progress academically, socially, and spiritually. He loves nature, animals, and being in the woods, and we shared many fun adventures together. I even gave him the trail name Mossy, inspired by a character in George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key.” He and I both loved the name and knew he and the character had much in common.
However, Mossy wasn’t progressing in the area of being able to identify or manage his anger. He seemed stuck in his ability to recognize that he was losing his temper before it was “too late.” That one developmental delay made life as a single mother completely overwhelming. After school programs, respite programs and summer programs would quickly reach the limit of their ability to maintain structure and safety, and I would be left yet again to find another solution. Family and friends would try to understand, and many did, but they had their own obligations. Sitters and in-home providers would come and go, and the learning curve was steep. The transition and training was exhausting.
Juggling appointments, working full time, trying to run a home, endless advocacy, the never ending search for resources and providers, and the non stop supervision of a growing impulsivity left me running on empty. And then the change from childhood to adolescence pushed us over the edge. The kind, caring, tender hearted spirit in Mossy did not trump his impulsive reactiveness and aggression. I found myself holding my breath almost constantly. Often thinking, “Don’t screw up this one, Mossy. This is a good provider. We can’t afford to lose him/her.” I was on edge in public, waiting for tantrums and explosions. Thought they didn’t happen all the time, when they did, I felt humiliated and defeated. I waffled back and forth between deep compassion and resentment. I struggled to focus and to remember important details.
Another year in, and I was exhibiting my own signs of mental fatigue and acute stress disorder. Medication helped, but I was not ok. Often times, I found myself triggered and reactive. Anxiety pressed on my chest to the point of physical pain and I wondered if I was going to have a heart attack.
The time came that I knew the most loving thing for both of us was to seek a higher level of care. It ripped out my soul to make the decision. I grieved losing his daily presence in my life. I grieved the loss of a life I wanted so desperately to give him. I grieved the struggles I knew he would face being cared for by “staff” instead of family.
In the back of mind, whenever things would get bad, I would think about the Appalachian Trail. I would long for the peace and healing of the woods and promised myself that I would give myself the AT if Mossy ever had to go back into state care. As August came to an end, so did my season of raising Mossy. I packed up my house, moved my belongings into storage, quit my job, packed six care packages of dehydrated food and toiletry resupplies, and took the train to Vermont.
In the Golden Key, Mossy’s companion through the woods is a girl named Tangle. The journey is not easy, and for a time they are separated. At one point, they hear beautiful music and see shadows of dancing figures on the forest floor. For the remainder of their journey, they search for the land “from where the shadows fall.” Tangle seemed a better fitting trail name for this journey on the AT. I needed to wander in the woods to find myself again… to unlock hope again… to seek God in quiet and rest… to find the land from where the shadows fall.