Both raised in Mississippi, they’d walked more than 9,000 miles together, using ice axes on snowy peaks and filtering drinking water from cattle troughs in the deserts. Together, they’d completed the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the Continental Divide Trail.
“Your father does not want to backpack alone,” my mom told me. “That’s why he cooks all our meals on the trail!”
On a chilly February morning in our hometown of Fairhope, Ala., my mother, 58, was hit and killed by a teenage driver while cycling back to a yoga class to retrieve her warm gloves, of all ordinary things. She was heading to meet my father at the farm where he volunteered in exchange for organic produce. At home, her dining table was already set for a meeting of her bridge club.
My parents’ trail names — their nicknames while hiking — were Annie and the Salesman. She took the name of her grandmother. His name reflected the career he’d had selling IBM computers before corporate downsizing prompted them to live with less.
The Appalachian Trail was their first thru-hike in 1995, with backpacks weighing 22 and 31 pounds. For the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999, they decreased their load to 10 and 12 pounds, with my dad carrying the extra two pounds. They made much of their own gear, trading a Whisperlite stove for a homemade one constructed from a pineapple can.
After my mother’s death, my father began to embody her spirit at home: He cooked her vegetarian recipes and set the dining table for holiday meals. He prided himself on cleaning the kitchen “just like Ann would.” During my visits, I tried to ignore his less-than-pristine housekeeping efforts, such as the whole-wheat flour that stayed on the floor after he baked bread. My mother would have wiped up the spill as she worked with an efficiency I never truly noticed.
After a year, my father went on his first solo hike. “It’s the little things that throw me,” he said. “Like we always helped each other get our water bottles from the pack.” Whenever he put down his backpack to get a drink, he missed her even more.
But he was determined to visit the site of a shelter that would be built in Mom’s memory on the Appalachian Trail. Friends invited him to join a trek starting from Springer Mountain in Georgia, and I made plans to meet him in North Carolina.
At the start of the hike, he wasn’t certain he could walk without her. “Despite the beauty of the hemlock-shaded walk along Stover Creek, I couldn’t shake the gloom,” he later wrote in his column for the local newspaper. “She would never hike with me again. At Long Creek Falls, the largest waterfall until the trail reaches Laurel Falls in Tennessee, I plunged myself into the icy water, standing directly under the huge shower bath. Still no relief.”
He walked to the top of the falls to find a hidden spot covered with hemlock needles, where he’d spent the night with my mom only a year earlier.
“I lay back against the log, listening to the roar of the falls, and cried like a baby,” he wrote. “Then it came to me. She could be with me here just as she was at home.”
The next weekend, I drove with my daughter Maya to meet him at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where we watched kayak races and slept in a bunkhouse while a thunderstorm raged outside. After breakfast, we dropped him at the trailhead, as he planned to sleep at the site of the new shelter in Mom’s honor.
“After supper, I built a small fire and spent the evening listening to the ripple of the stream beneath the rhododendrons (she loved rhododendrons) and thinking about the wonderful times we shared,” he wrote. “Maybe there is life after death.”
That fall, after his first solo hike, he flew to Boston to join friends walking to the Gathering, a hiking conference in New Hampshire. He was giddy about the weight competition with Glen Van Peski, founder of Gossamer Gear, who designed packs weighing less than 12 ounces. “Glen’s pack was 10 pounds with food, two pounds less than mine,” he wrote, “So I didn’t carry water for a day as a way to decrease my weight. I was just drinking out of streams whenever we passed them.”
This didn’t sound safe to me, but that year Dad pushed boundaries my mother wouldn’t have supported, such as turning off the hot water heater to save money and energy. My parents integrated their faith with an environmental ethic, giving up trash for the 40 days of Lent to promote a waste-free household. Their conservation involved compromise between what was practical for a family of six (my mom’s perspective) and what was possible (my dad’s vision).
After the Gathering, 500 hikers honored my mom with a standing ovation and a metal sculpture titled, “The Final Blaze. “All weekend people kept coming up to me talking about how much she meant to them,” he wrote. “I miss her so much, but I loved hearing about her.” Later, he placed the sculpture beside her grave.
Two years later, my father was hit by a teenage driver while cycling to the farm. One moment, he was wearing a reflective vest and riding on the shoulder of the street; the next, he was lying lifeless beside a road he had cycled hundreds of times.
When my mother died, I couldn’t speak for an hour. After my father’s death, I yelled the f-bomb until one of my students walked across a pasture to the duplex where I lived. I screamed in disbelief that two parents could die, two years apart, in the same way. How could something random seem so precise? And as a single mom, how would I raise my children without my father in our lives?
More than 15 years later, I see no meaning in their deaths, but I am trying to create meaning even when the weight feels heavy. When I camp with my two daughters, I use the backpacks sewn by my dad’s hiking partner Van Peski. In my 50s now, the age of my mother at her death, I reached out to my father’s friend on Facebook.
“The one thing I remember about that hike was that Larry’s movements after tens of thousands of miles hiked were so fluid and so efficient,” Van Peski wrote. “It was a wonder to watch and learn from.”
That same year, my dad hiked alone for almost a month on the Continental Divide Trail: “In 26 days of hiking, I was never lonely, but I missed Ann so much. Yet I could always feel her presence.”
My father returned to the trail by holding my mother close. And I am learning from him to carry that love with me, too.