by Heather Warren

A Forty-Year Love

Who knew that an overnight trip in the Smokies and a climb up Clingmans Dome would set in motion a fifteen-year section hike of the entire Appalachian Trail (A.T.), an even longer commitment to trail maintenance, and special times with the holy?

In May 1982, when Rhonda, my best friend from college, and I decided to celebrate completing our first year of graduate school by rafting down the wildest river, the Chattooga, and climbing up the tallest mountain on the A.T., we chose to backpack to the Double Springs shelter before ascending “the Dome.” On the way to the shelter, the prime views of mountain ridge upon ridge and a glimpse of Fontana Lake in the distance stirred something vital within me. That evening, cooking over a fire and sharing camaraderie with other hikers gave me a yearning for more.

My Smoky Mountain view.

The next morning as we made our way north, the wind blew at exactly the point we passed a spectacular view on our right and an angel-like stone slab on our left. Rhonda paused and whispered, “Ruach,” the Hebrew word for Spirit. I stood silent, filled with awe, gratitude, and a sense of blessing that extended beyond me.

Heather and Karen in Monson, Maine.

Other moments of wonder and deep friendship have marked my subsequent years on the trail and kept me returning. I have watched magnificent sunrises and sunsets, heard loons sing their plaintive songs, and stared while a moose worked a pond for food, each time my heart filling with reverent affirmation. When I needed a partner to hike a New Hampshire section, I posted a personal ad in the Appalachian Trailway News, and discovered Karen, “Walkabout,” who became a treasured life friend. We have not only seen each other through completion of the A.T. but been through life’s ups and downs together: raising children, academic careers, her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, my ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, all the while returning to hike the Trail in our respective ways — best summed up as blessed.

Two years after starting my section hike, I fell in love with the A.T. in a different way: through trail work. Wanting to “give back,” I met Larry Linebrink, then south district manager of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) in the Shenandoah National Park, who tutored me in trail maintenance — regrading, blazing, disposing of blowdowns — and we became fast friends. I have since grown to appreciate in detail the changes over the same stretch of Trail through all four seasons. I also take heart in knowing that I have joined in fellowship, though largely invisible, with the many others who keep the Trail open and safe from Georgia through Maine.

This summer my soul found itself renewed in the Grayson Highlands by gazing upon the ponies and beholding glorious vistas from the open mountain tops.

Hiking and caring for the A.T. over these forty years have enriched my life so deeply I have come to believe that the beauty, the friendships, the work, the “trail magic,” and life itself come from Love itself.