Excerpt from Her Hike: A Memoir by Jessica Chenard
This is a guest post by Jessica Chenard. Her Hike: A Memoir launches on August 4th, 2022 and is available for pre-order now.
Richard’s spiral before his tragic death was detailed on the front page of The New York Times. But Richard’s story—indeed, his whole life—deserves so much more than a newspaper article. What happened to Richard is sadly familiar to too many families. In Her Hike, Jessica Chenard tells her story as Richard’s sister, the lesser known one that society rarely hears, in which life continues after the online comments stop and the cameras and reporters go away.
Her Hike is the story of Chenard’s efforts to heal after the loss of her brother, Richard. Over the course of a decade, Chenard has coped with his death by hiking different mountains, from the Blue Ridge in Virginia to the Rockies in Montana.
Excerpted with permission from Her Hike: A Memoir by Jessica Chenard.
Chapter 13: Sharp Top Mountain
Like Big Sky, I had been to Sharp Top Mountain’s peak more than once. After our butterfly field hike, Cory and I began the new trail at the foot of Sharp Top Mountain. We wasted no time getting started, because it was a much tougher incline than the meadow hike, and our goal was to get to the summit and back before sunset so we’d have time to set up our campsite.
The day was hot and humid; the sun shone through the leaves of the trees, taunting us in what should have been our shady refuge. We were dripping in sweat. Halfway up the trail, I silently wondered how the heck I was going to sleep in a thick sleeping bag that night. How was I going to clean the sweat off? If it was going to be just as hot that night, there was no way I would get any sleep. Between the heat and the stench, our tent was going to be downright unbearable. I started contemplating all of this when the sky began to darken and raindrops started to bead onto the rim of my hat.
We both let out soft sighs and admitted that we were thankful for the little bit of rain, rinsing the sweat off of our skin and cooling us off. Thunder erupted, the sudden noise ringing in our ears, and a downpour came in sheets of rain that opened the sky entirely. We ducked under a large rock and sat there for a while, unable to pass the time chatting because the rain rushing off the overhang of the rock was so forceful that the noise was deafening. Eventually, once the rain eased up a little, we decided to continue our hike to the summit.
Everyone else must have checked the radar on their phones or chatted with the park rangers at the station below, because when we reached the summit, the downpour now a light sprinkle, the usually packed summit was barren. We walked around the top of the mountain, climbing the rocks and hopping over puddles. We saw the rainstorm that had drenched us only a half hour before in the distance.
Cory effortlessly leapt up onto the largest rock on the summit, and then I followed, crawling as he reached his hand out to pull me the rest of the way up. We watched the rainstorm travel farther and farther away from us. A rainbow appeared, trailing behind the edge of the storm. I jumped off of the rock back onto the cement platform and grabbed my camera. I adjusted the settings on my camera and pressed the shutter button, freezing a moment of Cory sitting on the rock by himself, looking out over his shoulder toward the rainbow and storm clouds.
I set my camera down on a rock beside me, pressed the self-timer, and, in the ten seconds allotted to me, ran to leap up onto the rock with Cory. In midair, I willed myself not to go over the edge, believing that I could have that kind of leaping strength within me. In actuality, my leap was really Cory throwing his arm out to catch mine, and he pulled me the rest of the way, just like he had moments before. I fell into him, and our arms wrapped around each other’s waists right as the shutter button opened and shut. We kept the camera propped up on the rock twenty feet away from us and continued to take in the scenery together, wrapped in each other’s arms for a little while longer. We agreed that this summit felt special. Together there, it felt like it was ours.
Several years later, I found myself in the parking lot of the same trail with five other women, lacing up my boots and preparing to hike. Over the years, I’d learned firsthand what hiking mountains could do for one’s soul. Richard had instilled this within me. I hiked because of him; I learned from him. And it brought me to this place in my life.
Unfortunately, I learned these things after he was gone. Although he is gone, his love for hiking and mountains has helped me see our world with a different set of eyes. And in this world, I have learned to cherish the ordinary, the small moments, and the smiles of others. I set out to bring others joy through hiking, and while I do, their joy naturally multiplies my own. I had planned this first hike on my brother’s birthday.
This was the first mountain hike that brought my dream to fruition. For over a year, I’d wanted to build a community that uplifted each other, hiked together, and listened to one another. To laugh, to encourage, to empower; I wanted all of these things for the women who would come to hike alongside me.
The hiking community idea had been developing in my mind for over a year. But the journey to get there had evolved over the past seven years. In the end, my planning led me to this trail head on another anniversary of Richard’s birthday, as I’d wanted to do something meaningful on his day. Something with purpose.
For some women, Sharp Top Mountain was the first mountain peak they would conquer. I had purposefully picked a hike with bathrooms, but since it was winter, I found them locked. After taking turns peeing behind a carefully selected rock—one we could confidently lean against while squatting, hidden just enough from the trail—we began our hike to the top of the mountain.
At the summit, we sat in a circle along the stone walls. Our 360-degree view of the rolling mountains and puffy white clouds couldn’t have been blocked if we’d tried. As we pulled our lunches and waters out, Kristie shared her grapes with the group, while Holly thanked me for bringing us here today. I thanked her as well and shyly told them why I picked this date.
Erica, a woman who’d lost her mother to cancer a few months before the hike, said it best at the summit: “We all have different reasons for being here, to be hiking with one another, but it is great we have all come together for these different reasons.” I’d known Erica since we joined the same sorority in college. Although our paths had taken us different places, we’d reconnected when she saw me share an open invitation to go on a hike. I was intrigued by this, knowing that she may be the first key to my idea of bringing something substantial to another’s life. I could relate to her in the sense that we’d both lost someone we loved and were looking for a healthy outlet to grieve and ultimately heal. It felt like it was no coincidence that I’d created this group a few months after her mom had passed, when she began to search for somewhere for her energy to go.
The energy that comes from grief needs to be put somewhere, applied toward something. It needs to be released. Erica had long blonde hair, not yellow and not quite white, a perfect shade of gold. Since I’d known her, her hair had always touched her elbows. She was wearing her mother’s hiking boots on that trip, and the instant she told me that, I wanted to photograph them. Normally known for being vociferous, Erica became quite soft in nature for a little while on the summit after I told her it was my brother’s birthday. I imagined she was picturing her mom, with the same golden blonde hair but much shorter than her own, smiling and prancing around the summit.
Holly was a friend whom I’d met in the wedding industry, she a wedding planner and myself a wedding photographer. She was kind and joyful, and later on became known in our group for exclaiming, “This is the best day ever!” repeatedly while out hiking with us. On Sharp Top Mountain, Holly said to me, “Thank you for sharing his birthday with us.” Then she tilted her chin up toward the sky and said, “Happy birthday, Richard.”
I began to reflect on this moment even though I was still living it. Although the moment was still unfolding, I already knew that it mattered. We all sat in our circle, legs crossed and our knees touching. These women, who were strangers to my brother, were at the top of this mountain with me, taking a moment to say happy birthday to him in their own way. The other three women nodded toward the sky and raised their water bottles as a toast to Richard. All of us understood, whether we’d spoken up or kept to ourselves to ponder and reflect, that we were all on top of this mountain—at this summit—for a reason.
I hoped from the very beginning that hiking would mean a lot to other women. My hope and need for hiking to mean something substantial to others was both my foot confidently pressing down the gas pedal in creating this community and my foot switching to the brake pedal in a panic. I knew that this could really matter, and that was also what scared me about opening up.
Needless to say, when they all shared their reasons for hiking at the top of the mountain that day, the gravity of the moment overwhelmed me. I realized that my life was exactly where it was supposed to be. I was meant to press this gas pedal down to the floor. I was destined to give the love of hiking and adventure to others by inviting them to witness a mountain’s power to heal and empower them. Richard would have been proud to spend his birthday the way we did today.
After these moments of Richard’s birthday at the summit, we began to hike down. During the ease of hiking down the mountain, my mind was able to venture into thinking more about this community I had created and why. The infinite thoughts flooded my mind, like a random summer storm causing a flash flood that poured in seemingly unannounced, creating a rushing river in the middle of a trail. Like this newly formed and powerful river, my thoughts demanded my attention.
We all had our own reasons for lacing up our boots and setting out to accomplish something, and that’s what made that day so extraordinarily beautiful. Everyone’s individual reasons for coming on the hike had brought us together, whether it was a decision to spend more time outside or a promise to themselves to be more active.
If you want to get yourself out of your comfort zone but don’t want to venture into the woods alone, if you’ve lost someone dear to you and are trying to figure out what your life will look like now, or if being out in nature with no cell phone service or WiFi just feels good, then hiking is for you. A person’s reasons for hiking are personal, and no matter how big or small those reasons may seem to anyone else, hiking was for those women who hiked Sharp Top Mountain with me that day. Hiking is for you too.
When I find myself at the summit, my demeanor softens. My shoulders relax, and I marvel in the 360-degree view as the wind swirls all around me. I know that I am here to hike for a significant reason.
On top of the mountain with those women, a motto was born for all of us. To the women I have already met and all the ones that I will meet in the future, it goes a little—okay, a lot—like this:
Hike for her. She who believes that she can do anything, be anything; that’s who you hike for. We all have our personal reasons for lacing up our boots and setting out to hike. Just like life, it’s not an easy walk in the park, but also like life, do we really want it to be?
When you hike for her, you are searching for more than a walk in the park. You are ready to give her more, you’re ready to shake her and wake her up. If you have not realized this yet, the her I am describing is YOU!
The best part in the unfamiliarity of the waking, shaking, and more is that you are not alone. You have others who made the decision to hike alongside you. As we dedicate ourselves to creating more for her, we use our hikes to build strength, determination, and friendships. We wake ourselves up to see new horizons, often before the sun rises. Hike for her, and I promise your life won’t be a walk in the park, but a hike to heights you have yet to imagine. Be her, wildly.
Order Your Copy of Her Hike: A Memoir
About the Author
Jessica R. Chenard is a writer of purposeful adventures, healing, and legacy; hiking and writing give her a sense of creativity and purpose. She is a business owner, mother, wife, daughter, sister, community builder, and friend.
Chenard is the founder of Her Hike Collective, an all-women’s hiking community. You can find her hosting the group’s quarterly hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Chenard was motivated to write this book after spending a decade living it. She hiked to heal from tragedy, and later hiking helped her nurture a beautiful life. People she cared about played a large role in nurturing her love for the mountains, the most significant of these people being her brother. After his tragic death, she was left with only the knowledge of his love for nature and hiking. This enabled and inspired her. His love for the outdoors gave her a direction to go in—her true north—and she made hiking a part of her lifestyle. Ultimately, writing this book became her calling.
Chenard passionately believes that spending time in nature can heal. When you endure a tragedy or even just a hard season, hiking and nature can be a lifeline for you too, just like it was for the author. This story is written for you.
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Jessica Chenard / Her Hike Collective.
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