They Got Married!
It was 10-22-2022, on a beautiful autumn afternoon near Huntsville, Alabama, when thru-hiker Matthew Odie Norman, author of The Hiker Yearbook series, and hiker Julia Roberts got married. How the Appalachian Trail’s most eligible bachelor got to this point is a story right out of a fairytale.
Recently, I gave them a call to ask them both how and why one of the Appalachian Trail’s more well-known celebrities finally decided to get married.
So, for an hour or so, I spoke to them on speakerphone in their car while they were out taking care of wedding business.
Wheels in Motion
It was in the summer of 2019 when Julia Roberts, a young woman in her late twenties from Pennsylvania, was on a northbound flipflop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
For some time, she’d been experiencing pain in one of her feet caused by several strained tendons, and she had been resting for a week in a hostel in New Hampshire to see if it would get any better (it didn’t, and she eventually had to quit her hike).
But one day while she was there, Matthew Norman—Odie, as he’s known to most—pulled up in his iconic Hiker Yearbook/Church Bus to drop off some hikers. He was only there for five minutes, but Julia caught his eye right away. Before leaving, Odie asked her if she wanted to go out with him for lunch. Unfortunately, she declined, but Odie did the next best thing and took her brother out instead!
Fast Forward Two Years
It was fun listening to Odie and Julia share the story of how they officially met. It was in 2021, and Julia had traveled down to attend the Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA. Julia, who’d been following Odie on social media for two years, said, “I walked right up to his bus to thank him for all the things he did for the hikers in 2020”, and Odie interrupted, “She didn’t get off the bus until I married her!” meaning that he knew she was going to be in and out of that bus and his life for a long time.
Sometime during that weekend, Odie said he wanted to get away from the throngs of hikers to have some alone time with Julia. So, he started up the bus and drove Julia a few miles down the road to a beautiful rock outcropping called Backbone Rock. They walked up and over the rock and sat for a while in the stillness of the forest and began to bond over some philosophically deep conversations. From this point on, Julia Roberts was constantly on Odie’s mind.
Odie said that after they parted, “It took a few months to get her to date me.” Oddly, they ran into each other a few times: once near Pine Grove Furnace while doing trail magic, and then again later on near Port Clinton. But in August of that year, Odie was volunteering at the AT museum, where he was giving several guided tours a day. One day, Julia drove down to “do the tour and ask questions.”
Odie said it was like “the trail kept putting her in front of me.”
“And him in front of me,” Julia added.
Their first official date
A few months later, Odie drove two hours to meet Julia in Lancaster, PA—the heart of Amish country—to do an Amish farm tour, where they went on a hayride, milked a cow, and played with baby cows in a corn pit. Later on, they went to an indoor climbing wall to do some rock climbing. Odie joked, “All that tree climbing I did as a kid prepared me to impress the woman I was going to marry!”
A few weeks later, they went on their second official date. Odie had asked her out on an overnight date, where they got to meet each other’s friends as a couple. This is where they had their first kiss, which just happened to be her first kiss. I asked how it could be that a pretty young woman could have gone so long never having a date or even a kiss, and Odie interjected, “I know, right? She’s gorgeous!” Julia explained that up until this point, she had been content with her life the way it was and was not looking for anyone. But that changed with Odie. “He was the first person that I felt close enough to spend the rest of my life with.” Odie humbly added, “I never thought I deserved to be the first guy she decided to start dating.”
Lives of Service
The main reason that they became so attracted to one another is because of their devotion to serving others. Julia said that she works at a retirement home where she spends her days taking care of the elderly. Odie said this loving aspect of her is one of the things that won him over.
Likewise, Julie had been following Odie on social media since 2019 and admired how he selflessly helped hikers. She loved how he kept on helping hikers while producing Hiker Yearbooks, despite the toll it took on him both financially and psychologically. There was just something amazing about this selfless, larger-than-life, yet down-to-earth man that caught her eye.
2021: An Incredibly Painful Year for Odie
2021 was a year of severe loss for Odie. His teenage sister was killed in a horrific traffic accident, and on the same day, his grandfather passed away. This took a huge toll on him and sent him spiraling into bouts of depression and despair. Basically, he shut down.
His plans of switching the publishing of the Hiker Yearbook to the AT museum didn’t happen, and he lamented it was “through failures of my own.” But now, because Julia believed in and encouraged him, he was able to go ahead with plans to publish the yearbook on his own. “If it weren’t for Julia, there wouldn’t have been a 2022 yearbook”, he humbly said. She helped keep him focused on his roots: how he started the Hiker Yearbook for the express purpose of passing the project along someday because he knew that though life is fleeting, “the trail goes on forever.”
“My purpose (in creating the Yearbook) was to create a project for the trail, and not myself: it is bigger than any one person.”
Falling in Love
Later in 2021, Odie found a place to live in Pennsylvania that was only 15 minutes away from where Julia lived, and the two went on many dates.
By the time the 2022 Trail Days festival rolled around in Damascus, Odie had already made up his mind to ask Julia to marry him. Prior to this, he’d hinted at marriage, but Julia had told him that she wasn’t ready, so it must have taken a lot for him to work up the nerve for him to ask her. Unbeknownst to her, he’d already asked for and received permission from her brothers (her father passed away when she was young) to marry Julia and had already arranged for his good friend and trail angel, Squeak, to be with him while he popped the question so that she could video the encounter.
So, during the festival, Odie drove Julia and Squeak back out to Backbone Rock. And, just as they’d crossed the crest of the ridge, Odie dropped to one knee. While Squeak had the camera rolling, Odie looked up into Julia’s eyes and said, “Do you know this is where I fell in love with you one year ago? Since then, you have brought me to my knees, and I can’t get up again unless you marry me. Will you marry me?” With a flushed, happy look on her face, Julia said, “yes.”
Afterward, Odie drove Julia and Squeak back to the festival to exclaim to the hiker world that “she said yes!”
A Beautiful Place To Have a Wedding
For the next several months, Odie and Julia were busy preparing for what was going to be a beautiful wedding.
The place they chose, Monte Sano State Park, was a beautiful little park atop a 1600-foot high flattop mountain near Huntsville, Alabama with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains—scattered remnants of the lower end of the Appalachian Range. The words Monte Sano translate to “Mountain of Health,” a fitting name for the place they chose to have their wedding.
The day of the wedding was a drop-dead gorgeous, with a slight 72-degree breeze rustling through the golden autumn leaves.
A grouping of chairs was set up near the edge of this low stone wall, above a steep drop-off overlooking the vast, picturesque valley below, making this a perfect balcony on which to stage a wedding.
As people drove up to the wedding, I saw a well-dressed man in a black suit—40-ish looking—step out of a car with his wife and children. He looked so familiar with his penetrating stare that when I asked for his name and who he was with—groom or bride’s party—he said he was Joshua Norman, Odie’s older brother. Looking him in the face, it felt like I was staring directly into Odie’s eyes.
He told me that up until yesterday, he’d been unable to walk, as he had no feeling from his waist down due to a problem in his spine, and that he’d just had major back surgery the day before, which restored the use of his legs.
When I asked him how he could be out walking with all the pain he must be experiencing, he said he was indeed in pain but affirmed, “I wouldn’t miss this wedding for anything.”
After they walked down to the wedding area, a small car drove up with none other than Miss Janet Hensley in the passenger seat. This was the first time I ever saw Miss J not surrounded by groups of admirers. It was nice seeing her as just Janet. She got her small dog out and walked over to sit at a picnic table near the wedding area where we had a little chat.
Janet, who said she’d recently changed her hair from red to blonde, told me about the first time she met Odie. It was in 2013 when she was in Hot Springs. She said that at that time, she heard a commotion going on in the back of Spring Creek Tavern, and when she went to investigate, she saw a very energetic hiker, Odie, surrounded by a festive group of hikers, regaling them with his stories. She said that, over the years, Odie has been a very enthusiastic and encouraging trail angel/hiker, always concerned with the needs of other hikers, and has worked selflessly to ensure that as many as possible have successful thru-hikes.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere at the park filled with excitement as more and more nicely dressed guests began walking up.
At one point, I was introduced to a 60-ish-looking man and woman, whom I learned were Randal and Brenda Norman, Odie’s mom and dad. I could instantly see where Odie got his features from. When I asked them what they thought of Odie getting married, they said they couldn’t be happier. His mom said that she always knew there was someone out there for their son and was very happy with him choosing Julia, to which his dad agreed, “We love her!” His mother added, “We can honestly say that the trail saved Matthew’s life” and that Julia is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
In short order, Matthew Odie Norman strode up. Wearing a solid white suit coat, jet black pants, and solid-white shoes, with hair and beard trimmed to perfection, he looked so clean—like he used up an entire month of Tuesdays (his weekly shower day)—all in one day!
Standing beside Odie was his longtime friend and pastor of the local Church of the Nazarene, Dr. Hunter Cummings, or as he quipped, “You can call me Doctor, Reverend, Most High Exalted Pastor Cummings.” He told me a funny story of how, after Odie returned from his tour in the Navy, Odie was a roommate in his house, where they both ran a landscaping business. He said that once, Odie arranged for the two of them to go on a double date with two girls he knew but backed out at the last minute, forcing Hunter to go on the date alone with this woman, who, incidentally, went on to become his wife. He suspects that this is what Odie had in mind all along.
Ironically, when Hunter married this woman, she immediately insisted that he ask Odie to move out. Regardless, Odie didn’t get offended and still came by every day to go to work. He was even Best Man at their wedding, and they’ve been lifelong friends ever since.
While we were all standing there, the rich, unmistakable sound of bagpipes began to fill the air. Instantly all eyes were searching for the source of this sound and, standing there alone in the middle of the park was Squeak, Odie’s good friend and “Best Man”—the one who recorded the video of Odie’s proposal—all decked out in her kilt and full Scottish gear. The ancient bagpipe is a wonderful instrument that seemed perfectly designed to be played out in the open, and she played it beautifully. After her song, I stopped to ask her about her friendship with Odie.
Beth Ritter-Guth, better known as Squeak, told me that “Odie and I first met in 2020 at the AT kickoff in Amicalola State Park”. She said he had made an unusual request for one of her socks, which he was going to use to make hiker campfire coffee. She didn’t have one he could use so Miss Janet drove to town and bought a black silk sock, which he indeed used to make a huge pot of strong coffee. To describe how spontaneous Odie was, she told an “Odie story” about a time when he came to her house one morning and asked her to go on a short hike. She said that he eventually got her to hike to the top of Lehigh Gap in PJs and slippers, something she vowed she’d never do again!
Finally, the wedding begins!
In Julia’s family, most of whom traveled down from Pennsylvania, there were several women wearing the little white caps of the Mennonite faith, including Julia’s mother. I was told by someone there that they don’t generally like their pictures taken, but I did see one Mennonite woman taking shots with a rather large camera, so I figured it was OK to do so.
When everyone was seated, an excited and anxious-looking Odie was standing with the groomsmen in front of the wedding arch, which he’d cleverly fashioned out of bamboo earlier in the week.
Suddenly, way off in the distance at the edge of the park, Julia appeared, accompanied by a man whom I learned later was her boss, Aaron.
As they slowly made their way down the graveled lane leading up to the balcony, her gorgeous dress, dazzlingly white in the bright afternoon sun, caught everyone’s eye. The trees, their branches loaded with their multicolor autumn leaves, beautifully framed her as if in a painting.
As she drew up and faced Odie, he couldn’t contain his joyous smile for her. Beneath her veil I could faintly see her smiling back at him.
The ceremony, led by Dr. Cummings, was lovely, which ended in them tying a knot in a symbolic rope they both held. In typical Odie humor, when Julia started to place the ring on Odie’s finger, he flinched and yelled, “Ouch!” generating a low round of laughter.
Miss Janet recorded a compilation of their wedding in a video.
After he was given permission to kiss her, Odie raised her veil and they embraced, giving each other the sweetest of kisses, to the applause of many.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with photos. Though I didn’t stay for the reception afterward, I can honestly say that all the rustic tables in the open-sided pavilion were decorated as beautifully as anything I’d ever seen. At each end of the hall were rough stone fireplaces lit with crackling yellow flames.
Some of the videos the guests had recorded that evening showed that they all had the best time ever.
Odie told me that he’s planning to hand the 2023 Hiker Yearbook over to the AT Museum while continuing to be involved with the trail by working with ALDHA (Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association) and doing trail work/trail magic. He hinted that he’s even toying with the idea of starting a hostel someday.
As for the honeymoon, you know they’re going on a section hike because that’s what hikers do. And as Odie always says, “Hikers Hike!”
Hike on forever, Odie and Julia!
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