Many friends asked if I was afraid of going alone. I suppose their concerns were valid. Whenever in my life have I thought it was a good idea to go into the woods, alone, for six weeks? Anything could happen! I could be pillaged by a crazed lunatic or mauled by a hungry bear! Partly, I felt detached from most feelings, including fear. And partly, I knew God was giving me this gift and that He would provide what I needed.
I had no idea how profoundly true that would be!
The train ride up to White River Junction, VT was incredible. I had never been on an Amtrak train and I was hooked within the first five minutes! The seats were comfortable and wide. I could walk up and down the aisles, passing into other cars ahead or behind me. Mostly, I loved watching the land pass by in a blur of green. The train passed rivers, lakes, countryside, and New York City. Sometimes the view was breathtaking, untouched nature and other times it was colorful graffiti on city buildings just feet from the train’s window.
A sense of wild adventure was growing in me and for several hours the grief was dulled. I was headed to some town in New England, getting into a shuttle/tax I had prearranged, and then heading to a woman’s house whom I’d never met. Dr. L was listed on a site as a possible place to sleep and shower for AT hikers. I had called a couple of week’s before the trip and she was not accepting hikers due to a medical student currently occupying her guest room.
“Can I camp in your yard?”
“I live in a town home, I don’t have a yard.”
“Can I sleep on your couch?”
“It’s short, but you’re welcome to it.”
Phew! That saved me an $80 stay at a cheap motel since hiker hostels are almost non-existent north of Virginia.
The train arrived in White River Junction, VT in the early evening as the sunlight was beginning to glow. I stood for a few moments, backpack buckled at the waist, and watched other passengers greet loved ones and depart to their cars. One tiny anxious thought peeped out of the depths of my mind, “You’re alone in Vermont.” I quickly shoved the thought back down and looked around. A car horn blared, and as I turned around to look in the direction of the noise, a large white arm shot out of the car window and waved in my direction. This must be the “shuttle” I had prearranged a few days earlier.
Jack was listed in the Through Hiker’s Companion Guide as a shuttle service for hikers. “I popped the trunk for your backpack,” he said from the front seat with the window rolled down. Classy. I slid the backpack off my back and closed the trunk lid. Stale smoke oozed from the car out into the fresh Vermont air. Jack, probably in his late 50s, had a long gray ponytail and an unkempt beard. A 70 year old woman with pure white hair was in the front passenger seat. Cartons of Marlboros scattered the dash and there was a huge stack of envelopes shoved in between the dash and windshield (a filing system perhaps?).
I sat in the back on the dirty, stained, tan upholstery and tried not to breathe. “I’m Jack and this is Mom.” Half-way to my destination, we began to talk about the weather and this being my first trip this far North. In a gruff, no-nonsense voice, Mom said, “I’d like to welcome you to us.” And that was that. I was now welcome in New England. If anyone decided to be unkind, I was gonna sic “Mom” on them!
We pulled into a beautiful mountain resort style condo community and my host, Dr. L, opened the door. She offered me a glass of Merlot and presented me with a gourmet salad and vegetarian Pat Thai with bean sprouts, Chinese hot sauce, and fresh cilantro! I was amazed at her warm hospitality and open heart. We began to share a few stories from our life adventures and discovered we had much in common. As an infectious disease doctor, she had spent time in Haiti and Saipan (so she knew about the Marshall Islands, my childhood home!). Surrounded by brightly colored international paintings and decor, and a house filled with tropical plants, I almost felt like I was in another country!
The evening was short and Dr. L informed me that we would be leaving the house at 5:40 am. She had to head into work and would drop me off at the bus station, where I could catch a ride to Hanover, NH to start my hike.
So many people are shocked that I would stay at a stranger’s house, and maybe I am crazy. It’s hard to describe how genuine and hospitable people within the AT (Appalachian Trail) community are to one another. This backpacking community knows hardship, struggle, and problem solving against the elements of nature. In many ways, we are reminded of our dependency on the earth and those living in it. For a short time of days, weeks, or months, we must open ourselves vulnerably to others if we are ever to make it on the journey ahead. This is one of the reasons I hike. I want to need others, to receive their hospitality, and to remember there are wonderful, generous souls in this beautiful country.
I sat in a covered bus stop watching headlights zoom past in the black surrounding me. Finally, a large bus, filled with sleepy eyed laborers, came to a stop in front of me. The bus driver, familiar with backpackers passing through town, assured me that he would let me off at the correct stop.
In Hanover, NH the only place open at 6:00 am was Starbucks. After a cup of coffee and pastry, I walked outside to begin my SOBO journey. There, donning his pack, was 69 year old Bruiser. We chatted for a few minutes and I discovered he was headed South as well. Suddenly the reality that I was going to go into the woods alone gripped me and I felt desperate to start with another human being! Bruiser obliged and was happy to have me walk the road to Norwich, VT together. This was his second “thru-hike!” He had completed the entire AT just four years earlier after losing his wife to cancer. Hiking the trail was the way he had chosen to grieve her loss and now he was returning “just to keep moving.”
On previous trips, I had carried pepper spray, but this time I had forgotten to pack some. I asked Bruiser if he thought I needed to stay in town until the stores opened, so I could buy some. He looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Tangle, Genesis 9:2 says, ‘The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.’ You don’t need pepper spray, God will watch over you.” I was stunned. One, the first person I met was an old Christian man – what a gift! Second, he was right. God gave Adam and mankind rule over creation. In general, I agree. Most creatures do not hunt humans or act aggressively unless we are interfering with their habitat in an unwise or arrogant way. I did stop in a town a week later to buy pepper spray. I never once needed it in the six weeks I was on the trail.
When the trail turned upward through a neighborhood, we discovered a tree filled to the brim with ripe persimmons. Freshly fallen, juicy, fruit covered the ground beneath the tree and we ate until the juice dripped down our arms. Bruiser hiked slowly with me until I reached Happy Hills Shelter, and then he continued on to his destination for a full 15 mile day. His trail legs definitely surpassed my town life legs and lungs!
I was here. Six miles into the woods and filled with wonder, excitement, and gratitude. One day down, forty-two more to go. Two passages from the Bible were in my heart as I looked forward to this opportunity to hide away with God in the woods. Two passages that seemed to express the mixture inside of devastated grief and hope.
Remember my affliction and my wandering,
the wormwood and bitterness.
Surely my soul remembers
And is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S loving kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the LORD.
– Lamentations 3:19-26
“Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
“He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”
– Hosea 6:1-3