This spring for her eighteenth birthday, Madeline and I took the day and went for a practice hike with her friend Maddie. They were preparing for their eight day coast-to-coast hike across England, scheduled for right after high school graduation.
We scouted out a convenient section of the Appalachian Trail with good road access. I would hike part way with them, then return to the car, drive to the next road crossing, and rendezvous with them. I think the total estimated mileage was around eleven or twelve miles, a decent stretch of mostly gently-rolling trail through unremarkable eastern deciduous forests.
To reach the Appalachian Trail proper, we ascended through broad open meadows, the path overhung with lush, dripping grasses and weeds. It was overcast and cool, with a gentle mist falling from time to time; on occasion the clouds would part enough to permit views of the distant piedmont.
It did not take long for us to finds our cadence, and by the time we had reached the ridgeline, we were making steady headway. With each step, I calculated the point where I would need to turn back for the rendezvous to time out right.
It so happened that my 'point of no return' coincided, more or less, with our lunch break. We sat on a large fallen tree in the quiet damp woods, eating whatever trail oddities we had packed—trail mix and granola bars, apples and oranges, hot coffee from a thermos (sure sign of a day-hiker)—until the time came to start walking again.
We conferred briefly, looked at the map once more, double-checked the math on our time estimates. Then it was time to go.
I have never experienced such a clearly defined transition. My daughter was eighteen; now we were quite literally turning away from each other and going off in our separate directions. I was trusting her into the wild, hoping that I had prepared her adequately and knowing that if not, it was too late to do anything about it now.
I hit my stride promptly, a good 3-1/2 mile an hour pace. I brushed the tear from my eye and focused on the task at hand—getting back to the car promptly without getting hurt on the way. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, before the hordes of through-hikers arrive, the AT can be a pretty lonesome place if you get into trouble.
Except for one brief stop at a trail junction to wring out my soaking socks, I hiked straight back to the car. The drive to the next trailhead was uneventful, a circuitous route through the verdant Virginia farmland, and I arrived a bare fifteen minutes ahead of the girls, who made a spectacular entrance, striding across a stone-and-timber bridge above a rushing mountain stream.
The return trip to town was quiet, with both Madeline and Maddie sacked out from the day's exertions, none the worse for wear. But I think we all knew then something important had transpired...