Stories from the Trail

Kristine Villatoro: Why I Hike

Kristine (left) and her daughter Anna Dalton. Anna died in February 2019.

I have always loved the outdoors. As a child, my earliest fondest memories were weekends spent with my parents and siblings camping at Bull Run Regional Park or Burke Lake Park. As I grew older, it was hiking the trails at Manassas Battlefield with my parents. When I became a parent, my kids followed my childhood footsteps camping at Bull Run Park/Burke Lake and hiking the trails at Manassas Battlefield.

Sadly, as my children grew older, camping and hiking took a backseat to recreation, high school sports and other school-related activities. Then I became a single parent and between being a single parent, work, kids sports, and school activities, I completely stopped hiking except for the occasional hike with my parents.

In 2009, my dad was diagnosed with Esophagus Cancer. He fought long and hard for six years but lost his battle with cancer in 2015. My dad was a big part of my life as well as my kids. Losing him brought great sorrow into our lives.

It was during this time that I picked up photography. I started going into the woods at Sky Meadow State Park in Virginia to take pictures of nature. I found that the more I went into nature, the more I wanted to stay out in the woods and explore. A sense of peace would flow through me when I was out in the woods. Hiking at Sky Meadow State Park helped me heal from my dad’s passing. I put down that camera, picked up my hiking poles, and never looked back.

For the next three years, I hiked all over and loved to explore new places. I even started up a Women’s Hiking Group called Wandering Sole Sisters and became a source of knowledge to other women hikers.

Then, my world turned upside down. On February 19, 2019, my oldest daughter, Anna, was killed in a car crash caused by a drugged driver who had crossed into her lane, killing her on impact. At the age of 23, my daughter lost her life and a part of me died with her that day.

I was at a loss and found myself in the woods. In the days that followed, I found myself on familiar trails and often left those trails soaked with many of my tears. I, like so many others, turned to nature to find some sort of peace and comfort in my grief. However, in the first few weeks, after she was killed, the grief was just too much. I found the silence of the woods that once comforted me and brought me peace, too loud and, for a time, no amount of time spent in the woods could drown out a mother’s grief of losing a child.

With the help of a few friends and the support of my hiking community, Wandering Sole Sisters & Shenandoah National Park Hikers, I found myself back in the woods little by little and soon was able to get to those trails that would help me soften the grief and even wash away some of the loud grief and pain from my heart. It is true when they say the trail heals. Trails have seen many tears and heard many sorrows. The Trail is always here for those of us who need it, not only in our grief but also in the everyday life of just living.

My grief journey is like the trails I hike with changing elevations and winding terrains, some days the trails are easy and other days they are like never-ending rollercoaster trails. Maybe one day, my journey will cross paths with another person on their own journey, and I will smile and say the trail does have its moments, but you will be ok. We all must walk our own journey, but if you need me to walk beside you for a while, I will.