The winter before she took off for college, my sister decided that she and I should hike the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that we weren’t hikers. Or campers. Or prepared in any way. We were just teenagers ready to test the limits of our independence — in no small way.
I can’t believe our parents didn’t balk when we announced our daring plan or when the glossy brochures, maps and trail guides arrived in thick envelopes via postal mail. In retrospect, I’m sure they knew it would never happen, so they let our notion run its course – which it did, before we ever broke in our sneakers. (Yeah. Sneakers.) Wasn’t it fun just planning, imagining, bonding?
It was an idea destined to fall apart. We relied on summer job money to pay college tuition. We couldn’t afford an off-the-family-grid adventure. As the plan began to unravel, Linda and I considered driving south, anywhere along the trail “away from home,” “not New Jersey,” and sleeping in her car – a well-worn Ford Maverick we lovingly, laughingly called the Mav-er-wreck. The green machine wouldn’t have gotten us safely to Virginia, let alone Georgia.
We never did hike the trail that summer or at any other time, together. When I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods some 25 years later, I laughed out loud. Linda and I were spared the roles of the clueless Bill and his hapless friend Stephen Katz, who carried a stash of Little Debbie snacks to fuel his way.
At 2,192 miles, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is the longest blazed trail in the U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine. Three out of four people who start the AT fail to cross the finish line, including casualties Bryson and Katz. Bryson does go back to hike sections of the trail he missed and highlights a 27-mile stretch along the Delaware Water Gap as one of the most scenic. The water gap, which divides the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, edged by the Blue Mountains to the west and the Kittatinny Ridge to east, was less than an hour from our family home and even closer to where my sister and I eventually put down roots. We drove through the Delaware Water Gap almost every winter weekend to ski in the Poconos or to visit my brother. “We need to do this,” I would say looking out the car window at the frozen water cascades clinging to the rock face. “We need to do this,” I would say as the ice turned into streams. “We need to do this.”
Like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty or the iconic Empire State Building, we could go any time, I reasoned. But we didn’t, until we were packing to move to North Carolina. Linda, who complained that kayaking across the Cape May Harbor was forced labor, passed on the opportunity.
On a beautiful August day, Alan and I, a couple of our then college-aged kids and their friends, made a day of it. The hike was a bit strenuous, over streams, through the woods and up rocky inclines, as difficult to climb as they are to descend. After several starts and stops — pointing out a a wildflower there, a patch of blue sky, a suspicious hole in the ground (all covers for catching our breath) — Alan and I found our way to a rocky outcrop with a spectacular view of the Delaware Water Gap. The young ones were waiting for us with the expected, “What took you so long?”
Why, indeed, did it take us so long?
The hike was an edited version of a much bigger, storybook plan, with a different cast of characters, but it was still awesome.
I marvel at the adventurers who stay at our bed and breakfast. Newlyweds “working their way” around the world. A young couple biking from Tennessee to Virginia. A retired couple who sailed around the world, only to end up in Belhaven, N.C. The Hokulea crew, who traveled the world in a replica of a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, with no auxiliary power, navigating by the stars. Their stories remind me that there are plenty of brave people in the world and, although I have the heart of a traveler, I am not one of them.
The fact that they are here, in little Belhaven, prevents me from dismissing my own backyard as ordinary. As an innkeeper, it’s my job to see the community through the eyes of our guests, or as a tourist “just passing through.” You never know if “the best part,” the keepsake of their trip, will be something they discovered in eastern Carolina: A bear sighted eating corn on the side of the road. A rave-worthy meal. A surprise encounter with an old friend. Or the most scenic part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.