I was four when I first set foot on the Appalachian Trail, holding on tight to my grandmother’s hand. We walked slowly as my brother and grandfather went ahead. She told me a story of an old woman who walked the entire trail from Maine to Georgia. She walked it alone, camping in little shelters “just like that one over there,” pointing to rough little three-sided wood structure.
“Someday I’m going to walk it too,” she told me. I wanted to tell her I would go with her, I would go anywhere with her, but I had a slight problem. The previous night we camped along the Housatonic River, not far from . I confided in my all-powerful big brother that I was afraid of bears. He didn’t laugh. He insisted that there were far worse things to fear at our little campsite. The trees came alive at night. They might step on me as I slept. He told me to listen for their whispers as the sun went down.
I smiled up at my grandmother, but said nothing. I couldn’t possibly sleep in that little shelter surrounded by trees. It would be far too dangerous and I couldn’t understand how an old woman could survive out here or why she would want to try. Since it was my grandmother’s dream, I tucked it away in my heart.
My grandmother () had a tendency to enhance her stories. Perhaps it’s a family tradition. As we both grew older, her dream was forgotten as osteoporosis kept her from camping and eventually walking long distances. I dismissed the tale of the old woman as simply another story that suited the situation, like the time she told me my parents didn’t take me to Manhattan with them on the Fourth of July because blue-eyed, blond girls (like me) could get kidnapped and sold into slavery.
took the Adventurer (age 11) and the Butterfly (age seven) on their first real camping trip to the same campground. It’s the one where the trees come alive at night, the one by the Housatonic River. The Princess (age four) and I (after enjoying a lovely night at home) drove up to meet them in the morning.
When I pulled my car into the spot between two trees, in front of the campsite of my childhood, where I had not been in more than 30 years, I was overcome. It felt like coming home. It was exactly the same, right down to the tree by the river where my grandmother would sit and chat with me as I waded in the water, as I questioned her about why I wasn't allowed swim out to the big rock like my brother.
There’s a story there, of course, for another time.
Now I feel compelled to take my girls for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. I will have to check all the multiple entrances in Kent to find the one I first walked with my grandmother. It will be worth it.
I’ll tell my girls about Grandma Gatewood who really did walk the length of the trail in 1955 at the age of 67. I'll tell them tales of my own grandmother's dream. And maybe it will become my own.