I Would Never Have Hiked the Appalachian Trail if It Weren’t for This
I am here, I am here / I’ve already seen the bottom so there’s nothing to fear … / I don’t have the answers but the question is clear
It Starts with a Phone Call
Dec. 27, 2018:
“Mary Stewart?” I say. “Hi. I think I’m ready to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
I have met this woman a total of one time, for one hour.
And now she is my AT thru-hiking mentor, offering to pick me up in Atlanta. She says she will even drive me to Springer Mountain and hike the first stretch of the trail with me.
I am dumbfounded. And unspeakably grateful.
But it didn’t start with this phone call. It started with an earlier one.
A Dream Discarded
I hold the phone away from my ear, my back pressed against the cabinet. I am sitting on the rug of my parents’ guest room floor. I’m home for Christmas vacation.
The woman’s voice sounds as if coming from a distant planet. She repeats her words as I stare at the beige carpet under the rug. Maybe if I hold the phone far enough away, I can make the words less real.
“We have the PGS (pre-implantation genetic screening) results of your final embryo,” says the fertility center nurse. “The biopsy shows ‘abnormal chaotic.’ Discarded.”
“If you have any questions you can speak to a doctor in a few weeks. Goodbye.”
I set the phone down in slow motion and sink into the floor. I wish I could sink far, far, down—somewhere so deep I can no longer hear the words reverberating:
A wry voice in my head marvels at the clinical language of dismissal. “Can’t I at least be ‘orderly’ in my abnormal-ness? Or ‘within the range of normal’ in my chaos?”
Why do even my dashed hopes have to be labeled like an ornery child’s cluttered room? With a sign over the door announcing my uniquely shameful mess? Abnormal. Chaotic.
But the most haunting word of all: “discarded.”
What has just been discarded is the culmination of seven years of fertility work: four inseminations, two IVF’s, eight vials of sperm, two anonymous donors, three surgical procedures, dozens of appointments, hundreds of shots and pills and bloodwork and ultrasounds, eight embryos, one pregnancy, one miscarriage, tens of thousands of dollars, and mountains upon mountains of hope.
What has just been discarded is the last embryo, of the last batch of eggs, that I froze seven years ago. There is nothing left to try within my means and resources to birth a child.
What has just been discarded is one single woman’s hope to become a mother.
There are other nonbiological options, I know. But I am not there yet.
I Made Myself a Promise
When I met Mary Stewart six months earlier, it was a simple exchange between hikers. She smiled and said hi. I did the same.
We crossed paths at Bear Mountain, the part of the AT closest to my home in New York. I’d set out for a day hike. She was more than halfway done with her thru-hike.
Later we encountered each other at the lodge. “Be careful of rattlesnakes,” she warned, showing me a photo. “I saw two earlier today.”
Sure enough, I stumbled upon a rattler that afternoon. I also ended up off the trail I intended, and had to hitch a ride back with a state park construction vehicle. A skill I didn’t then realize would later come in handy.
Back at the picnic bench near the parking lot, I saw Mary Stewart again and told her about my snake sighting and rescue by Caterpillar (bulldozer). We laughed and she introduced me to her hiker friends.
Catching Thru-Hiker Fever
The month before, a friend and I were hiking in the same location and met some thru-hikers.
At the time I barely knew what the AT was, let alone thru-hiking it. I’d read the book Wild and seen the movie, even taking a writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed. But thru-hikers still seemed like mythical creatures.
The couple I met in June at the Bear Mountain balcony bistro were in their early 20s. They looked fashionably grimy with unkempt hair. I remember the girl singing praises of Nutella’s calorie-to-weight ratio, and the guy pointing to the mountains.
He said, “People don’t get it. You don’t have to stay doing what someone told you is grown-up life. People don’t realize what they’re missing. You can have all this. You can live this.”
Whatever “this” was, I knew I wanted it. He may have been on his parents’ dime, possessing the classic idealism of a post-college kid, but he was pointing to something good. Something I needed in an almost primal way.
I turned back to my friend and burger and dismissed it. “I guess that ship has sailed,” I thought. “Too bad I’m not 25 with a bearded boyfriend who wants to hike the AT with me.” Thru-hiking isn’t for people like me- women in their 40’s hiking alone- right?
Wait, This Is What a Thru-Hiker Looks Like?
But a month later, here is Mary Stewart. Radiantly fit at 59, and hiking the Appalachian Trail “alone.” But as she quickly assures me, no one’s really out here alone.
There are friends, trail families, trail angels, and trees. Mother Nature herself makes for mercurial company. There is cell service and battery chargers and times you stay in town.
She patiently answers all my questions and then some—questions I will later find tiresome when asked them myself six months later. Are you carrying a gun? Do you ever feel scared? What about the bears? And creepy guys? How do you carry your stuff? Do you ever get lost? Is it just like Wild? I’m not as cool as Cheryl.
She’s Got the “This”
Whatever “this” is, that the bearded boy spoke of, Mary Stewart’s got it: love for nature, a light in her eyes, a warm presence and smile, a sense of gratitude and in-the-moment aliveness.
I ask her about the saint pendant around her neck, not telling her that I’m a minister. She says, “If you haven’t found God yet, you’ll find him on this trail. I’ve prayed out here like I’ve never prayed.”
In that way that you can feel free with a stranger, I speak aloud something I don’t even know I want until the words come out:
“I have 11 frozen eggs. I’ve already done five attempts at conceiving a child, and this is the golden goose. I’m going to thaw and fertilize them this fall and if no baby comes, I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
Sometimes You Just Need a Role Model
I didn’t even think about becoming a minister until I saw a young woman preaching in the pulpit. Sometimes you have to see someone like you, someone you can see yourself in, in order to do the thing she’s doing.
Mary Stewart and I exchange Facebook contacts and I drive away, a new dream beginning to hum inside me.
It’s not the first time I see a woman I admire and think, “Well, who knew? If she can do it, maybe I can too.”
And What Started as a Consolation Prize…
Becomes the thing I can’t imagine not doing.
After the call from the fertility center, I sit in silence awhile before calling my friend Kim. She’s known me for over 20 years and will not be afraid to hold this pain with me. She will know that there are some wounds that can withstand no answers, assurances, or questions.
I choke out the news in between sobs. She takes a breath and says, “OK. Let’s declare this the bottom. The very bottom. There’s nowhere lower than this. And here you are.”
I confess to Kim my feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. This isn’t how the motherhood story is supposed to end. I already had the title of my memoir picked out: Single Pregnant Preacher: Where the Virgin Birth Meets Modern Science.
So much had been poured into this desire. So much money and plans and prayers and books and names and love all saved up to give my baby.
Kim says words I will never forget. “I don’t see you as empty. I know you feel that way right now. But I see you as so full of love. A love that doesn’t even know yet where and how it will be poured out, but it will. You are so filled with love.”
Then we talked about me stepping off script and doing something outdoors, something far away, something new.
And I knew.
I was calling Mary Stewart.
Which Brings Me to a Car Ride in Georgia
March 17, 2019:
She picks me up at the airport and I can’t even believe this is real. That everything has flowed so easily and beautifully to bring me to this point.
Mary Stewart and I laugh because my parents fear she could be a cult leader and her daughter worries I could be a psycho, and both families are saying, “Wait, you just met this woman for an hour? In the woods? And you’re doing what?”
So we send our families reassuring iPhone videos of us together in the car and the next two days fly by.
We go to a gas station and she points out the sticky buns and PayDays I will crave at a resupply. We get burgers at a fast food place and she says, “Wait till you start stealing a few extra mustards and ketchups.”
We talk about the coldest she ever got on trail, huddled together with others in the shelter, wearing every article of clothing they had. We talk about tornadoes and lightning storms and ticks and all the things.
But mostly we talk about the why. Why she did it. Why I’m doing it. This Appalachian Trail thing that gets under your skin, as Mary Stewart says, and makes it so you can’t think about anything else.
She says to let myself feel every emotion that comes up, no matter when and how. That it will surprise you. She says I will meet so many wonderful people who will restore my faith in humanity.
She says, “You will doubt yourself and celebrate yourself a million times a day.”
So Mary Stewart, Here’s What I Want to Say
You were right. About everything.
(Except the pack and shoes. I already traded in the ones you recommended because I’m not as tough and ultralight as you.)
Thank you for smiling at me that morning as you hiked down Bear Mountain.
Thank you for wishing that my eggs had worked, and saying I would be a good mother.
Thank you for the ride into Springer, the tips about putting lunch in my mesh pocket, the reminder that it’s OK to sometimes stay at a hotel and have a bath.
Thank you for our shared wine and sunset at Amicalola Falls, and for talking about our pasts and friends and loves and prayers.
Thank you for sifting through my pack and sending home to my parents the things I didn’t need.
Thank you for hiking the first bit together and even carrying my pack for part of it. (I think you are secretly 30 instead of 60.)
Thank you for your open heart and laughing gently when I said, “Mary Stewart, you are so friendly to everyone but I only get you to myself for a few more hours. Can we please not make any more new friends before you leave?”
Thank you that even though I cried like a baby on my first day of nursery school when you said goodbye, you knew I would be OK.
A Better Word
You sent me down the trail alone, but first you thought of something. “Hey!” you said. “Do you ever play Words with Friends?” I said no.
You said, “Today’s word is Fortitude. That’s your word. Go on now. Come visit me in Charleston when you’re done. You’re gonna do great.”
We hugged and you said it again: “Fortitude.”
I stared down at my feet, cinched up my pack, and took a breath.
Just a bit of a weepy mess when I turned around to wave.
Blinking through tears, I looked for the next white blaze on a tree – and walked toward whatever lay ahead.
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