My Shenandoah Trail Angel
After granting itself two days of warmth and blue skies, Appalachia returned to gloom. A chilling wind swept the ridge over the green Shenandoah Valley, and a thick blanket of gray clouds on the horizon promised rain. Spring can be lively in Shenandoah, but all that life comes at a heavy, wet price.
As I skirted the ridge around Big Meadows a light mist began to fall. At Skyland, my spirit wore out and so I stopped.
The Skyland dining room bustled with suburban families in polos and khakis, spring breakers from up and down the East Coast metropolis. As the restaurant looked too formal, too clean, too un-thru-hiker-y for my current state, I sat in the cafe adjoining it. The only seats available were at one of those awkwardly high booth tables, and my weary legs dangled undead from an cushionless stool.
As I searched the deepest sections in my pack for my wallet (credit cards are about as useful as Wi-Fi routers on the trail) an elderly woman with long, silvery hair sat down across from me. She wore a baggy sweatshirt in hunters-cap orange, and around her neck, a thin silver chain which held a simple cross—two mahogany dowels knotted together with twine.
The woman smiled shyly. She seemed hesitant. I do smell pretty bad, I thought.
“Here,” she said, and slid a packaged club sandwich across the table. “You reminded me of my son.”
I thanked the woman dearly and dove into the packaging while the woman formally introduced herself. Her name was Karen, and she explained that her son had once been homeless. (I took no offense, as I was six days showerless and 22 unshorn).
Karen had come up to Shenandoah for just a few days. This weekend, she would be heading down to the mountainside town of Sperryville to host a booth at an arts festival. Handcrafted wooden jewelry was her specialty. The Sperryville festival would be the first time she was running her own booth. “It’s just a small thing, the festival, a small town thing. They will close down Main Street for it, but it’s only like a one-mile strip,” she said. Though she admonished the festival and tried to downplay her craft, Karen was clearly very proud, very excited to show and sell her work.
Karen was like a Shenandoah encyclopedia. She had grown up in the shadow of Loft Mountain and knew every gap, every peak. And she even knew and was close with several descendants of the old families of the region—Mathews, Lewis, Loft—from whom many the park’s features derived their names. When I asked about her favorite place in the park, Karen couldn’t decide between Lewis Mountain—for the spectacular views—and Mary’s Rock—for the story behind it.
As legend has it, the mountain that became Mary’s Rock was once owned by a man named Francis Thornton. Thornton had a young daughter named Mary who enjoyed exploring the gaps and peaks of her father’s land. One spring morning, just after her eighth birthday, Mary walked to the top of her soon-to-be-eponymous mountain and returned home with a bear cub nestled up in her arms. And if that doesn’t merit getting your name on a mountain, I don’t know what could.
We got to talking about the trail. Karen wanted to thru-hike it someday, but her biggest worries were the bobcats and the bears. I assured her that after 400 miles I’d encountered exactly zero of either beast.
I explained that the scariest part of the trail, at least for me, was being away from family and friends for nearly half a year. Then I asked what her family would think of her setting off on a thru-hike, whether she’d be scared to leave them—and for a moment after it, I regretted my question.
“Well, I don’t know where my son is right now,” Karen’s eyes drifted down and away. “And my daughter—she died, a few years ago now.”
The cafe seemed to grow loud, crowded. Espresso machines hissed. A barista shouted. A family of four argued about who forgot to pack the raincoats—or something.
“I’m sorry,” I said. No other words came to mind.
“Thanks,” Karen looked up. “It was fentanyl, she got hooked on it, it messed her up for years. It tore up her whole life.” She hesitated. “And the saddest part is, she got clean at the end. Sobered up, got help. And she made her amends but it must have been too late; she died anyways.
“You know, I don’t always love social media, but I have these friends on Facebook, these beautiful, kind, supportive women, and when my daughter died they were just… so kind. They didn’t accuse, didn’t shame her. It was…”
Her voice cracked. For me, everything else in the cafe beyond our booth had dissolved.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, again, weakly. “It doesn’t help to condemn someone with an addiction. Doesn’t help anyone.”
Karen nodded. Her eyes shined, wet with tears.
“I know; it really doesn’t.” She explained that she had been an addict herself, for years. “It ruined my life too. My friends left me, I was abused by my husband, my children wouldn’t talk to me, and they kept my… my grandchildren…” at this last, Karen broke into a full sob.
People probably stared. They probably did, but I didn’t notice. I didn’t look. Didn’t care.
I wanted to say something, anything. Karen pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her eyes.
“That’s why I love being out here.” She said. “Up here, on the mountain, there’s just so much peace, so much quiet. Sometimes I’ll just find a quiet place and lie back on a rock. Just get back to the base of it all. To living.”
I still couldn’t find words. Karen had stunned me. She had every right to hate the world, to fear it, run from it—even leave it. She’d been through hell and watched her own children do the same, and she’d returned despite the absence of support from the only people who could have loved her unconditionally.
And not only had Karen fought her way back into the world but she was now thriving in it, inspired by it, seeking in it new experiences and dreaming up ways to help others do the same. By all circumstances Karen shouldn’t be one to love life—and yet here she was, sitting across from me, relaxing for a few moments and enjoying nature and other small, simple things in life.
“Well, I’d better get going,” she said, eventually. “My friend will be here soon. Take care, Indigo. And good luck on the trail. Enjoy yourself, and enjoy getting back to the base of it all. You’ll be in my thoughts today.”
And she left.
As I walked out of Skyland, into the mist, the cold, the wild, it was as if all my misery had been left back at that uncomfortable (in more ways than one) high-top booth.
The gray skies now looked calm, pretty—no longer threatening. And while I marched on through the unconventional beauty of pre-spring Shenandoah, Karen was in my thoughts as well.
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