My Mother, a.k.a. Rain Dancer
My mother continues to inspire my love of the outdoors as she pieces together a thruhike of the Appalachian Trail.
The vast majority of my childhood camping memories involve storms. I've been rushed into a minivan to sleep in the midst of a raging downpour, only to awaken to the sound of tree crews removing a large fallen limb that potentially could have crushed us while we slept. When my Boy Scout troop arrived at campgrounds, I'm not entirely sure I would have known how to set up my tent if it had not been raining buckets. And there's nothing quite like spending Easter weekend camping at the beach during a squall that corkscrews your tent fly and leaves you and your brother sleeping in a puddle.
At first it seems like a list of experiences meant to steer me away from the outdoors, but those memories pair with a parting of both literal and metaphorical clouds. We may have almost been squashed by a downed tree limb, but I saw my first chipmunk on that trip (I was pretty young, yes, but I still like seeing chipmunks). The scout trips usually involved miserable weather, but those are memories that have helped to bind me to lifelong friends. And even though we headed home from the shore after getting soaked in the storm, I think Easter dinner in the nondescript diner along some empty highway is one of my favorite holidays spent with my younger brother and mother.
It was, after all, my mother who has always embraced and fostered my time outside. Maybe she remembered her own time spent outdoors and how that affected her. Maybe she just wanted a moment of peace and sending her three boys outside meant they weren't fighting with each other. Or maybe she was as equally inspired as I was by a couple of thruhikers speaking at a troop meeting, planting a seed of thought that would lead us to the Appalachian Trail.
I will always remember the moment I explained to my parents that I planned on graduating early from college so I could thruhike. I expected shock and confusion. I had only been away at college for a few months, and had never backpacked outside of the sheltered experiences of scouting. But my mother's immediate response was, "That's awesome! I'm so jealous." She naturally ended up being my support team, shipping me mail drops and slacking me through the Whites.
And now, eight years later, it is me who is jealous. She has pieced together over 1,500 miles of the Appalachian Trail in her pursuit of a multiyear thruhike and shows no sign of slowing down. She's taught me that inspiration is reciprocal. She nurtured my love of the outdoors throughout my life, which directly led to me thruhiking the A.T., an experience I will never forget. And maybe in following my travels, she in turn was inspired to fulfill that dream for herself. Now it is her treks that drive me to get outside.
One hot summer day a couple years ago, I headed out for a day hike along the Appalachian Trail. I knew from a recent email that my mother was backpacking along the A.T. somewhere in Pennsylvania, and I too wanted to enjoy the trail. I rarely took note of the details she sent me, understanding they would only be important if she didn't check in at the end of her trip. So I picked a random spot on the trail I hadn't seen since my thruhike years ago, hoping to challenge myself on a tricky climb out of a gap. I dawdled around after reaching the top of the ridge, and got lost several times locating a little used trail that would complete the loop back to the parking lot. I took a long break lounging on a rock and watching the river, wondering where my mom was hiking that day.
Right as I approached the junction with the A.T., within sight of my parked car, my mom popped into view hiking from the south. I noticed her before she saw me, and I got to witness her realization that somehow I was on the trail with her, that we were in the same place at the same time. We hugged and laughed and I think were both a little too surprised to understand the serendipity of what just happened. A couple minutes of delay on either of our hikes and we would have missed each other completely, two ships passing in the night.
I recently got the enviable opportunity to hike alongside her, heading to the Smokies for a 60 mile section in the south. In case I needed reminding of her dedication, she did an additional 20 miles before my wife and I joined her.
I've now come to realize that my persistent love of the outdoors despite the sometimes miserable mishaps that often accompany time outside was ingrained in me from birth. My mom will gladly drive hours just to fill in a relatively short section of trail that has eluded her. She has earned the trail name Rain Dancer for her uncanny ability to have storm clouds follow her to the trailhead, and keep on hiking. She's even broken her ankle out there, while backpacking alone one time, and calmly directed rescue crews to her location (I picked her up from the hospital a day later). She healed up and hit the trail once again.
Sometimes when you go outside, it rains. And while in the moment it can be difficult to ignore the howling winds and driving rain, some of our most cherished memories are often defined by disasters and our ability to overcome the hardships with which we're presented. They teach you that the most important things in life are not easy to achieve. And if you keep stepping on down the trail despite it all, sometimes the skies clear and you meet on the trail the very person that inspired you to be there in the first place.
For my mother, the Rain Dancer. Happy Mother's Day.