Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The minute I found out my mom was sick, my life officially went on hold. The last several months were a difficult time that I am grateful to have spent with her. When I lost her I found my way to a path of reflection. As a kid, my parents taught Sunday school and I had fun there—it was creative and social. After my parents divorced and Mom and I moved to Indiana, we never joined a new church. We tried some here and there, but it never became a consistent part of my teenage or adult life. Other things became my church: building forts, ghost in the graveyard, kickball, sledding, cooking, hiking and kayaking. In no way do I want to diminish any form of spirituality, religion or church. Over time I have just come to realize my own perspective and finally feel a reason to articulate it. At this point in my life, the moments that feel closest to what I might call spiritual are when I am outside breathing fresh air and being physically active. This multisensory connection to nature is completely restorative. It is comforting to know that I can turn to nature at any time. Not necessarily to seek answers, but for reflection, exploration or simply to quiet the mind.

Hiking the AT was probably the best experience of my life so far. It was extremely trying and rewarding at the same time. Of course I only look back on it with fondness. When I planted the seed of thru-hiking the AT in conversations with my mom, I don’t think she got it at first. “Why would she want to do that?” she probably wondered. I treaded lightly. I was so nervous that she would straight up tell my then-29-year-old self that I could not go. What mother would not be skeptical of her daughter living outdoors and far away for 6 months? (Despite the fact I was going with my hiking/life partner, Collin.) The more I eased her into the idea and assured her there are plenty of people on the trail, the more she came to accept it: this is happening. During those initial weeks in Georgia and North Carolina, Mom thought I would eventually tire and come home. The farther north we hiked, the prouder she sounded when I would call to check in. Long after I finished the trail and came home, if a number of miles came up in any conversation, she would interject “That’s nothing for you!” with a big smile.

As her condition worsened, she would give me life advice on occasion—lessons that she had already imparted on me, but felt compelled to share again given the circumstances. One I remember in particular was ‘don’t live beyond your means.’ I told her that living simply for over six months on the trail had helped us realize how great life is without all the stuff. She told me she was so proud. Although she was not originally thrilled about the idea of me hiking the AT, she was very glad that I had the experience.

When she discussed her final wishes with me, she was already sure of what she wanted—her ashes spread along the same river as her father’s. Then she added a simple request: that Collin and I should make it a camping trip. For some reason I felt overwhelmed with joy in addition to the obvious sadness. It felt like an incredible gift. I don’t know how else to describe it. She knew how much we love to hike and camp, and she wanted us to have some enjoyment within all the sorrow. She was endorsing an important part of my life.

I will forever love and miss my mom. Never before have I felt a void so large. I can only hope to gradually fill it with a lifetime of adventures, big and small, remembering (and emulating) her bravery, strength and kindness along the way. She has been and continues to be a very reliable compass.

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