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Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

Mary Williams
17 Snaps

Conventional wisdom would have it that it’s unwise for a woman in her late thirties to walk away from a well-paying job and the prospect of marriage in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. But I did that, all of that. I left my fiancé, quit my job, sold my house, packed a backpack, and left.

I had been secretly plotting my escape for years. Buying and caching gear and books. Going on training hikes in Kennesaw Mountain Park on the weekends. Dropping hints to my fiancé that things might not work out. And when the time was right, I bolted.

The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is to many American hikers what Everest is to climbers: it’s the thing they must do if they want to be taken seriously. I wanted to become what they call a “through hiker”—someone who does the whole trail in one season, all 2,175 miles of it, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Thousands attempt it every year but only one in four succeeds. The hike usually takes about six months.

My family was cautiously supportive. I assured them that I knew what I was doing. I had, after all, traveled extensively and was no stranger to adventure. I had lived and worked in Morocco and in Tanzania. I’d studied outdoor leadership and gone on ­several extended expeditions, including a monthlong trek in the New Mexican backcountry and a cross-country bicycle ride. I assured them I could handle any of the possible ailments that might await me: septic blisters, giardiasis, injuries sustained in falls, the potentially disabling symptoms of Lyme disease, and the pernicious effects of boredom and loneliness.

The afternoon before I planned to begin my hike, I walked into the office of a man I’ll call Mr. North Georgia. Mr. North was a friend of my stepfather’s, and, given he lived near the trailhead, was familiar with the many things that could go wrong for hikers. Mr. North Georgia was a good ol’ boy/country millionaire who made his money in real estate. He had the long, lanky body of Jimmy Stewart and a sticky Southern drawl that conjured a Southern gentleman sipping mint juleps on the veranda of an antebellum mansion.

When I told him my plan to hike alone through the woods for half a year, he took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and said: “Yer purty. You should carry a gun.” He reached into his pocket to retrieve his business card and pressed it firmly into my palm. “If ya get out dair and find ya need help, just call me. I’ll come gitchu. Ya hear?”

I was aware of the rare occurrences of female hikers being murdered on the trail, and friends and loved ones  advised against women hiking alone. I wondered again if I was foolishly putting myself in harm’s way. After all, I was a black woman who had chosen to go on a solo hike that would take me through very small, predominately white Southern towns and long, isolated stretches of forest. Maybe there was a damned good reason you rarely saw African Americans hiking the trail.

That evening, I sat alone in my room and began to seriously doubt my sanity. But the last thing I wanted to do was go back home with my tail between my legs before I even set foot on the trail. I’d rather get raped and murdered—at least I’d be immortalized on the Oxygen Network.

*

People have often asked me why I don’t feel the need to stay within the constraints circumscribed for my sex, my race, my age. The answer is simple: brave, militant, hardheaded people influenced me throughout my life.

My birth parents were members of the Black Panther party. Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, the Black Panther party called for armed resistance to societal oppression (especially police brutality) in the interest of African-American justice. My father, Louis Randolph Williams, held the rank of captain and was arrested when I was very young for leading police on a high-speed chase (and discouraging their pursuit with Molotov cocktails). 

After my father’s arrest, my mother was faced with the reality of raising six children on her own. She could have opted for welfare. Instead she went back to school and became one of the first female welders at Ameron Pipe, a manufacturer of industrial materials. They made things like wind towers and composite pipes. She was overburdened but resilient, raising five girls and one boy in East Oakland. We grew up quick.

It was not uncommon for the mothers in my neighborhood to send small children outside alone. To gain this privilege the child only had to demonstrate that she or he could walk upright most of the time, have sense enough to stay out of the street, and possess an aversion to poo. If you could wrap your mind around these few things, then you could successfully pass through one of the first and most significant ghetto rites of passage: running the streets without adult supervision. I was two years old the first time I was allowed on the streets alone. The magnitude of this event, in my eyes, was no less significant than a young Masai killing his first lion or a Native American brave on a spirit quest.

I felt like I was two years old all over again when, on the morning of April 7, 2007, I stood at the AT trailhead on Springer Mountain. I hoisted my sixty-pound pack (I wasn’t quite able to give up my books, two canisters of mace, a blank journal as thick as Atlas Shrugged, and other assorted unneccesaries) onto my back and walked down the trail like I owned it.

The day was clear and cold. I was decked out in three layers of clothing—everything I had. The forest loomed above me, utterly silent, the branches naked. I easily found the first of the thousands of white “blazes”—white rectangles painted onto a tree—that mark the trail, and set off.

I kept to myself the first few days, except for an overnight stay at the WalasiYi Center at Neels Gap, Georgia, located at mile 32. The Walasi-Yi Center is impossible to avoid; in fact, the trail goes through the building. The center is an outdoor store and hostel that employs experienced backpackers to advise hikers on how to reduce their pack weights. I spent most of my two-hour consultation defending what I brought. In the end I begrudgingly agreed to give up one pair of hiking sandals, one of three books, and a bottle of hair conditioner. I packed these items into a FedEx box and shipped them home.

Some lightweight backpackers manage to get their pack weights down to twelve pounds. Impressive, but there is a cost. It’s not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a lightweight backpacker slapping out jumping jacks for warmth, all because he didn’t want to carry a heavier sleeping bag. Fuck that. Long-distance hiking isn’t just a test of physical endurance. It’s a mental game as well. Books, an extra set of clothes, and abundant toiletries make me happy. And if you’re not happy, you’re not likely to finish.

I spent the evening in the ­Walasi-Yi hiker hostel, sharing a dark, stinky bunk room with about ten guys. The following morning, my fifth day on the trail, I was out the door at 6 a.m. The temperature remained chilly, and the air was damp. I spent mornings in a shroud of mist thick enough to drench my clothes and pack. I kept warm by marching.

Fourteen miles later, preparing to eat dinner, I realized that I’d inadvertently packed my camp stove in the FedEx box I’d sent home. This sounds as though it would be hard to do, but it isn’t. Camp stoves are tiny enough to fit into the palm of your hand. Also, I’d stored it in one of the many little nylon sacs into which I’d organized all my various gear (it’s easy to mistake one sack for another). I settled for a peanut-­butter bagel. Then, like all good backpackers, I hung my food bag safely out of reach in a nearby tree. I lay in my sleeping bag reading, as rain pattered on the tent. Outside, I heard branches rustling in the tree where I’d hung my food bag. I yelled through my tent to frighten the animal intruder away. It worked… for about ten minutes. I yelled again, but was too scared and tired and cold to leave the safety of my tent.

When dawn broke I crawled out of my tent and into the rain. I was anxious to inspect what was left of my food bag. The animal had kindly left me a bagel, a bag of couscous I’d have a hard time eating, given my lack of a camp stove, and some partially gnawed dried apricots.

I had to make this food last two days, roughly twenty-four miles, until my next resupply. I ate half of my soggy bagel and drank a pint of spring water.

I headed out at 7:30. At noon I nibbled from the remaining half of my bagel. Hours passed without seeing another hiker. I had envisioned my hike as not only a physical challenge but also a spiritual quest. I wanted to experience a quiet mind, but by noon on the sixth day I found myself wondering how Paris Hilton’s latest romance was holding up. It was humbling to plumb the hidden recesses of my mind and find not a wellspring of wisdom, but a wasteland of pop culture and a Pandora’s box of annoying songs. I hadn’t realized I knew all the words to Madonna’s “Lucky Star.”

It was nearly dark when I entered the clearing around Low Gap shelter, one of hundreds of shelters along the AT. AT shelters are three-sided lean-tos on platforms. They generally sleep about six ­people. The Low Gap lean-to already held six hikers: all male, all white, all smelling like ass. To my relief, they squeezed together to make room for me. As I settled in, we introduced ourselves using our trail names.

The tradition of taking a trail name goes back to the early 1970s, and nearly all hikers use one. If you don’t name yourself, someone will name you. I met a guy named Cum Shot (after a crowd gathered to watch him lance an infected boil with explosive results) and a cute sixteen-year-old girl who was christened Trail Bait.

Wolverine, a friendly thirtysomething guy with the belly of a woman six months pregnant, loaned me his camp stove so I could cook my couscous dinner. My new friends couldn’t understand how I’d lost something as ­vital as a camp stove. I tried to save face by telling them that it was totally out of character. After all, I told them, I’m a National Outdoor Leadership School graduate. They were unimpressed. I ate my couscous in silence.

After dinner I crawled into my sleeping bag fully dressed to ward off the cold. Three of my other shelter mates were prep-school graduates with the collective trail name of The Hobbits. I told them a friend from home had given me the trail name Rosie, in honor of Rosie Cotton, the only prominent female hobbit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They promised to check my progress in the shelter logs. Each shelter has a log: a ­spiral notebook in which hikers write poems, draw pictures, or pass messages. We turned in early because Wolverine and his hiking partner, Hong Kong Phooey, were planning a forty-mile hike in the morning. I lay in the cramped, dark shelter listening to the rain dance on the tin roof. I enjoyed the body heat radiating from my fellow hikers. In the darkness I grinned. I finally felt like I belonged; also, for the first time I was absolutely sure I would complete this hike.

*

Growing up, my family moved often. Sometimes we were evicted. Sometimes my mother just wanted to be somewhere new. We never left Oakland, but new houses meant new schools, new teachers, new friends, and new neighbors.

I adored my mother. I loved the way she looked, the way she smelled. Nothing made me happier than to be near her. Every Saturday,
I helped my mother prepare bologna and cheese sandwiches.
We packed them in a cooler with grape and orange soda for our weekly trip to the drive-in movie theater. We took our old green Ford. My mother made my three oldest sisters sit cross-legged in the backseat and draped a blanket over their laps. We three smallest kids curled up in the footwell, hidden under the blanket so my mother didn’t have to buy us tickets.

When the movie started, I usually sat on my mother’s lap, or my older sister Deborah’s. We saw Star Wars, Eyes of Laura Mars, Jaws. I was a happy little girl, sitting in that car that smelled of bologna sandwiches and family.

But then my mother changed. A knee injury caused her to lose her job and go on welfare. The strain of raising six kids began to wear her down. Alcohol and drugs appeared in our home, along with strange men. She grew distant from us.

The trips to the drive-in ended. She was sad all the time and started drinking heavily. She’d sit on the couch for hours with her chin on her chest, listening to blues records and weeping. All she would say is “I’m tired. I’m tired.”

I developed a slight stutter and began to stash candy bars, extra clothing, and books in secret locations. I had a hideaway at school—under the stage in the auditorium—and one in the attic at home. My favorite escape was a place we kids called “the creek,” but which was really just a small pond fed by a metal culvert. This was a time when there were still vestiges of nature in the city. The creek was like a portal through which we could escape the chaos at our homes. I spent all my free time there with my friends. We caught tadpoles and sold them to the men in our neighborhood who liked to fish.

Our parents warned us not to go in the culvert, but this only made us want to go. We’d usually get in about fifteen feet. After that, what little light remained faded to ­total blackness. Inevitably, one of us would yell, “Rat!” and that would send us all screaming back toward the entrance.

One day we all decided that we were ready to break the fifteen-foot barrier. We made a pact that we would follow the culvert wherever it led, no matter how long it took. We met at the creek with packs full of rope, flashlights, our favorite toys, soda, Doritos, and other essential survival gear.

The six of us arranged ourselves in a conga-line formation. Our cheery mood quickly deteriorated as we passed into complete darkness. Except for our rapid breathing and the occasional gasp at some imagined attack from a creepy-crawly, all was concentrated quiet. It felt like an eternity before we noticed a disk of brightness at the end of the tunnel.­ Someone yelled, “Rat!” and we all surged forward, laughing and yelling triumphantly as we scrambled back into the light.

*

On April 14, as I crossed the North Carolina border, I noticed the first clear evidence that spring was on its way: budding flowers. Also changing was the terrain. Overnight, Georgia’s rolling hills had transformed into steep rises and knee-biting descents.

I almost cried (twice) while ascending the North Carolina Grind, a steep, four-mile stretch of trail. My double-digit-mile days were starting to take their toll on my body. I had hyperextended my knee, but that pain was nothing compared to the screaming in my feet caused by an excruciating case of plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue that connects the heel to the toes.

The pain was particularly intense in the mornings and at the end of the day. Endorphins pumped through my system when I hiked, but once I unshouldered my pack, my body shut off the drugs. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. Experienced hikers assured  me the pain was temporary: it should only last for the first three to four months.

The weather had improved from cold drizzle to cold sunshine when I arrived, on April 19, at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). Located at mile 134.1, at the bottom of a slick rock gorge, this compound of buildings (including restaurants, an outfitter, a general store, hotels, and hostels) is a much-­anticipated stop for hikers.

I was a physical and emotional wreck when I checked in. I’d slept poorly the night before and was weary from the long, bone-­jarring hike down from Cold Spring ­shelter. I assured the receptionist that I didn’t want kayak lessons. Word was that the climb down to the NOC was nothing compared to the steep climb out. I wanted to be well rested.

I peeled off my filthy gear. I washed all my clothes in the washing machine while I showered. A hot shower after ten days on the trail is, and I do not exaggerate, ­better than sex.

On my way back to the bunkhouse, a young woman intercepted me to ask if I was hiking the trail. She walked without a limp, no infected bug bites marred her legs, and she looked well fed. Telltale signs she wasn’t a through-hiker. I told her that I was. Through-­hikers are rock stars on the trail. Locals buy us meals, offer us rides, and even open their homes to us.

She was a social worker supervising a group of twenty foster children, all girls, staying at the NOC. She asked me to talk to them about through-hiking.

I met the girls in a common room with big bay windows that revealed a forested hillside. The girls were tall, short, chunky, thin, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. Each was fiercely beautiful in the way of young girls made to witness the harsher side of life at an early age. 

I told them that I, too, was raised in a dysfunctional home. When I was their age I was frightened of everything. I couldn’t sleep in a room alone if I didn’t wedge a chair under the doorknob.

But I was lucky. I was adopted by people who loved me. I got ­better and now I was strong enough to go on a six-month hike all by myself.

I asked how many of them would like to hike the trail one day. They all raised their hands. “Well, since you are all gonna hike the trail, you have to pick a trail name for yourself. It’s best to pick something that will let people know what kind of person you are.” They took turns telling me their trail names: Panther, Waterfall, Moon Dancer, Queenie, Buttercup. Each name provided a clue to the secret selves these girls nurtured. Despite their tough-luck lives, they still had the dreams and ambitions of girls raised under more innocent circumstances. If they were fortunate, they’d be adopted by loving people who could help them realize these dreams.

*

I was ten years old when I first met Jane Fonda. At the time she was a supporter of the Black Panthers and an acquaintance of my paternal uncle’s. She and her husband, Tom Hayden, owned a summer camp in Santa Barbara, California. The camp taught theater­ arts and self-esteem to children of varied races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

She convinced my uncle that it would be a good idea for some Panther children to attend the camp. My uncle agreed and put my younger brother and me on a Greyhound bus. It was my first trip away from home.

Laurel Springs Children’s Camp stood on 160 acres in the hills above Santa Barbara. At 2,800 feet above sea level, it offered spectacular views of Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean.

Jane and her family lived in a small cottage just a few hundred feet from the lodge, so we saw them ­often. She spent a lot of time with us campers, attending our productions and campfires. She was extremely personable and affectionate, often taking the time to coach us on our performances or just hang out.

She took a personal interest in me. She often invited me to have lunch with her and her family and picked out challenging monologues for me to perform in our camp productions. After that first summer, she encouraged me to come back the following year.

I returned four summers in a row and our friendship deepened. I’d often write her during the long months that separated me from Laurel Springs. The fact that I had such a beautiful place to go to each summer helped me endure the hard times at home.

For years I kept my family life a secret from Jane. My mother‘s drinking had gotten worse and her behavior more violent. My older sisters all had babies as teenagers and fled the house. Being the youngest, I was left to withstand the worst of my mother’s abuse and neglect.

It was as if a stranger had replaced the mother I loved. I never shared with her how I was doing in school, what my interests were, who my friends were.

The first person I told about my history was one of my camp counselors. The camp counselor told Jane. Jane asked me about it, and for the first time I opened up to her about everything that was going on with me in Oakland. Soon after, she invited me to come live with her and her family in Santa Monica. I was still a minor, but my mother did not contest the move.

Jane became my greatest friend, my cheerleader, and a dedicated mother. Despite being a busy actress and activist, Jane was home most nights and often cooked dinner for us. When she was out of the country making films she’d fly me down to spend time with her on the set.

My transition from living in a poor, black, single-parent household in East Oakland to a wealthy, white, two-parent home in Santa Monica was surprisingly easy. The biggest adjustment was getting used to Jane’s strange behavior. She was always getting in my business, checking in on me, asking me how I was doing, and making sure I got everything I needed. In Oakland, I was largely unsupervised. I was responsible for getting my own clothes and food and making sure I did well in school. Suddenly someone was hovering over me. I found Jane’s constant attention unsettling. Then it dawned on me: her weird behavior was what most of the world called parenting.

Those first thousand miles I endured alone. I suffered from insomnia, excruciating hip pain, several twisted ankles, and plantar fasciitis. I scared off a black bear in Shenandoah National Park. I taught myself to safely read and hike at the same time. (The trick is to read only on uphills.) I volunteered on trail maintenance crews and I pushed myself to hike thirty miles in one day.

I was more than halfway through the AT before I allowed my­self to accept hiking partners. I wanted first to prove to myself that I could survive on my own.

I met Walker and Mellow a few days after I left Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the AT’s unofficial halfway point. We kept passing each other on the trail, mostly because Walker was faster but had to stop every twenty minutes to pee. I told him that he should get his prostate checked. He said, “Why don’t you check it for me?” They soon invited me to join them.

Walker was a gangly, balding white guy from Austin, Texas, whose wife had begrudgingly allowed him to attempt his second through-hike. Mellow was an uptight Korean American computer programmer from Chicago. They were both in their late thirties. They fought often and had a pretty intense love/hate hiking partnership. Walker hoped my estrogen might cool their hostilities.

We ended up hiking Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and part of Vermont together. I thought of them as my boys. They were fun to hike with, but I was hiking more on their terms than my own. Before I met them I was a White Blazer, trail lingo for hikers who rigidly follow the trail and refrain from taking short cuts or skipping sections. While I hiked with the boys (inveterate Yellow Blazers: the opposite of a White Blazer) we skipped about a hundred miles of the trail.

In Vermont I left them, and briefly left the trail, to attend my adoptive brother’s wedding in New York City. It was an intense shock to my system, after 134 days on the trail, to find myself battling my way through throngs of people on the streets of New York.

At the wedding, I was surprised to learn how much my time on the trail had changed me. I felt like a fish out of water as I watched the celebrity guests looking gorgeous in their designer gowns. Though I was squeaky clean and well dressed, I couldn’t shake my laid-back, grungy hiker state of mind. I loved being with my family but I also missed the trail.

After the wedding, I decided to pick up the trail on Mt. Katahdin, in Maine (5,267 feet), and hike back toward Vermont. This is called flip-flopping, and is a great alternative when you find yourself hiking late in the season. I wanted to relax and enjoy my last weeks on the trail. I didn’t want the pressure of hiking long days to reach Mt. Katahdin before mid-October, when bad weather closes it.

But Katahdin, I learned, is tricky to climb no matter the season. The 5.2-mile climb to the summit began uneventfully enough. The first three miles meandered through a dense spruce forest. Birds sang, the sun shined. I passed streams and ­rivers, and even a cascading waterfall. Then the ground transformed to bare granite, with brutal gains in elevation. Huge boulders blocked the trail. Soon I realized the boulders were the trail. I was nearly rock climbing. The temperature began to drop and the wind picked up. I hadn’t believed the ranger when he told me that the summit had its own weather.

At the crowded peak, I took my photo with the sign that marks the northern terminus of the AT. I was cold, tired, and pissed off. I wasn’t alone. I overheard several novice hikers asking if there was some other way to get down besides on foot.

At the bottom, I found a shelter and slept like the dead. I woke up refreshed and ready to take on Maine’s hundred-mile wilderness, the most isolated section of the trail.

Most hikers get through this section in ten days or fewer, but I spent two weeks there. I saw moose every day and slept near glassy ponds. I nearly ran out of food twice, but I met northbound hikers who were happy to feed me. Two weeks was the longest I had gone without access to modern comforts and world news. When I emerged from the wilderness in Monson, Maine, I checked into Shaw’s hiker hostel, cleaned up, ate, and planted myself among my fellow hikers on the couch. They were watching the film 300. I had seen it, so I reached for a newspaper. A headline struck me dumb. There was a story about a young African American woman named Megan Williams. Six people in West Virginia had kidnapped Megan, raped her, and tortured her. They held her captive for a month. Finally, the police mounted a rescue. The details were shocking. In addition to sexually assaulting her, the kidnappers forced her to eat dog feces, to drink from a toilet, and stabbed her multiple times. She was lucky to be alive.

In the following weeks I could not forget Megan Williams. I wondered what would make people want to treat another human so cruelly. I also wondered if I were being sent some kind of a message—an African American woman with the same last name as mine had met the fate I’d cavalierly decided couldn’t befall me. Whenever I got off-trail to resupply, I collected newspapers and searched for coverage of the story. I realized there was another reason Megan’s story affected me so deeply. Megan reminded me of my sister.

*

Deborah was the oldest. A beautiful caramel-colored girl with white teeth and large brown eyes, she was the image of our handsome father. She was physically perfect except for a mass of melted skin that spread from below her right buttock to just above the crook of her knee. She got the burn before I was born, when her nightgown caught fire on a space heater. She was never ashamed of her scars, and wore shorts and bathing suits ­every summer. As a child, she loved to play the trombone. She was a member of the first graduating class of the East Oakland Community Learning Center, a Black Panther elementary school. When asked by a reporter on graduation day what she had learned, she proudly said, “One of the most important things I have learned… is what freedom means.”

When Deborah turned fourteen, I began to see less of her. She and my mother fought almost every­ day. Deborah began to run away from home. Eventually, my mother heard a rumor that Deborah was working as a prostitute.

My father was out of jail by this time. He dropped in on us for brief visits, often leaving us milk and small gifts. The last time I saw my parents in the same room was when Deborah returned home. She had been away for weeks. She plopped down on a chair and I climbed into her lap. My mother secretly telephoned my father.

Deborah tried to leave when she saw him standing in the doorway. My parents argued with her, and the argument became a beating. My father chased her outside and continued beating her in the street. My mother did not interfere. Deborah eventually slipped free and ran into the night. We didn’t see her again for years.

Deborah became the mother of three children. She spent years as a prostitute and developed an addiction to crack. Through it all she carried a yellowing, tattered copy of that newspaper article with her quote about freedom. Through years of homelessness, it stayed carefully wrapped in plastic.

One night she was doing drugs in the hallway of an apartment building. One of the tenants, a nineteen-­year-old woman named Stacey Lee, got angry and demanded she leave. When Deborah refused, they fought. Stacey drove Deborah out into the street and pursued her, wielding a kitchen knife. Fifteen bystanders on a nearby corner saw Deborah running toward them. They knocked her to the ground, taunted her, stomped on her, kicked her, and hit her in the head with a wine bottle. She lay curled in a fetal position over the grate of a storm drain. Stacey Lee attacked Deborah again while the bystanders cheered her on. To shouts of “Kill her! Kill her!” Lee stabbed my sister three times in the chest, ending her life.

A street-hardened homicide detective said that he had never, in his long career, witnessed such a callous and cold-hearted slaying.

Deborah and Megan weighed heavily on my thoughts during the final weeks of my hike. I carried them through the White Mountains and to the peak of Mt. Washington. I was more exhausted than I had ever been. I also had a chance to rethink why I’d come out here in the first place.

Once upon a time I thought I hiked the Appalachian Trail because I wanted adventure. I knew then that I hiked it for other reasons as well. I did it because my mother stopped loving me. Not because she was a bad person but because she was tired. I did it because my adoptive mother saw greatness in me. Not because it was there but because it could be.
I hiked the trail because my sister’s life was taken. Not because she deserved it but because she lost her way. I hiked the trail in order to free myself from those things in the world that made me tired, overwhelmed me, and led me astray, in order to see clearly these women to whom I owed so much.
This in turn helped me clearly see myself.

I chose to end my hike in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, in a beautiful valley at the entrance to the White Mountain National Forest, just as the leaves were beginning to turn colors. I sat in a deck chair and watched the sun set, the clouds spilling over the mountains. I wished Deborah could have been there to share it with me. I felt her presence as strongly as I did when we were girls, crammed into a ­little green car, looking up at the blank screen, waiting for a story to begin. 

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