For my father’s 75th birthday a couple of years ago, my husband and four friends about our age joined him in hiking the “100 Mile Wilderness,” which is actually the top 120 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. They planned it for a couple of years, mapping out their meals, miles and carefully measured weights of their packs. On the Friday before Labor Day, they left Atlanta to begin their ten day adventure.
My dad had always loved hiking and being outdoors, taking his own English students from McCallie and Westminster out on trails to read such poetry as Frost’s “Swinging from Birches” in places where they could actually try what the poem described. There is something about nature that restores our humanity in the midst of a world that often demands we operate more like machines, which is why the trail often sends hikers home more alive than when they began. While the unaccosted beauty of nature does so much to heal one’s soul from the constant barrage of daily demands and responsibilities, the isolation from people for my extroverted dad in his early 20’s prematurely ended his first attempt at completing a solo hike of the entire AT. So, it was this mission of completing what he’d set out to do so long ago, but this time with a “band of brothers,” that compelled them to go.
One of many special things about the Appalachian Trail are the traditions of the trail, such as hikers abandoning their real names and going instead by nick names, provided by others in the group, by which they are known up and down the trail. There are also certain accepted mantras, like “hike your own hike,” which gives each explorer permission to accomplish what he or she needs from the trail rather than what his or her companions have come there to achieve. “Trail Magic” is the AT’s version of “paying it forward.” When you have extra cinnamon rolls to share with other groups at one of your stops, they also may share extra provisions on a following day with another group. Or, providing piggy back rides for small hikers over deeper streams may inspire similar labor to be shared further along.
For my birthday this year, my husband (with the help of my three children, parents and sister), created a box labeled “Trail Magic” for my school year. Inside this truly magical box are 180 envelopes (the number of school days he thought we had) in each of which one of the seven of them had copied a poem or a joke or photograph, or written a note for me to open at the start of each day in my classroom. So far this year, I have begun my day inspired by Longfellow, amused by my 7 year old, brought to tears by a love note, and made to laugh out loud by a funny photograph. This Trail Magic has propelled me into my day with my students better equipped to resist the pressure to have that place become a factory of life sucking machine like accomplishment, and instead a space that restores and relishes the fullness of our humanity, in all of its mess and marvelousness, that we all may engage the world more alive than we were before.
Learner, Thinker, Writer: Jane Gilbert, 4th grade teacher