I was spending the weekend in Harpers Ferry and stopped at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and to get directions. The two older gentlemen volunteers were so friendly that I quickly found myself relating my own experience in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, a hike I had done with my sister, Anne, nearly thirty years before. “So, you must remember Old Man Shaw,” one of them said. “He had the hikers boarding house in Monson.”
“Yes,” I said, “They had a little boy, he could only have been a few years old, and Mrs. Shaw had just made a blueberry pie when I arrived. I still remember how especially delicious it was after ten days on the trail.” I also told them that my sister, Anne, had gotten there before me, and embedded herself with the family. “She was drinking a beer with Mr. Shaw when I showed up. You would have thought she was kin the way she fit in,” I told them. But then, my sister had that way about her. Anne was a free spirit in the truest sense of the word. Where she saw good in people, she bonded quickly, and where she saw hypocrisy or injustice, she was just as swift to act. Covered with tattoos and armed with her own brand of courage, Anne connected with kindred spirits of all types, formed lifelong alliances over a few drinks and left a deep and lasting impression wherever she was known. Somehow, she fit right in with the Shaw family.
My conversation with the volunteers stirred up old memories and I wished I could tell my sister that I had met people who remembered that hostel in Monson. I thought how good it would be to reminisce with her about the hike, to talk about that great adventure we shared together. Sadly, my sister had passed away several years ago, and the shared treasure of our memories was left for me alone to safeguard.
The fact is that our hike in the Hundred Mile Wilderness was more significant to me than the distance I covered. It was on that trip that I first realized there was something wrong with Anne’s health, something more than just a passing illness. Halfway through the drive from Pittsburgh to Katahdin, we stopped at a rest area for the night where Anne was badly bitten by mosquitoes and had an intense allergic reaction. “We need to get to a hospital”, she told me. I was alarmed at her appearance - her eyelids so swollen she could hardly see - her face puffy - even her hands enlarged and red. It looked like something much worse than bug bites. I drove through dense fog to find the nearest emergency room. Sitting in a glare of the florescent hospital lights, I looked at my sister and a sense of dread crept over me. "Are you sure we should go on with the trip?" I asked her. She replied that she just needed some medication and she would be better. Finally, the doctor took her into an examination room where they spoke in private for what seemed a long time. As we were leaving with a prescription in hand, he reached out to touch Anne’s arm in a way I thought was oddly sad. “Take care of yourself,” he said. We found a cheap hotel and I hoped a good sleep would erase what had just happened.
The next day we continued our drive north. It was then, as Anne reached across the driver’s seat to change the cassette, that I first noticed the needle marks on her arm. “Did they take a lot of blood in the emergency room?” I naively asked. “Yes”, she replied. How stupid she must have thought I was. Looking back, I wonder if I just didn’t want to see. We drove on through New England and Ann seemed to improve. I told myself that everything would be ok.
We finally made it to Baxter State park, pulled on our packs and embarked on a trail that neither of us knew much about. Fortunately, the weather was good and the path straightforward. We fell into an easy pattern of hiking independently for most of the day and regrouping at the designated shelters each night. It was on the fourth day of the hike that things went wrong. I arrived at the shelter a couple of hours before sunset and waited for Anne to join me. But as darkness fell and she still had not arrived, I began to grow seriously worry. The other hikers in the shelter who had been with us since the start, tried to assure me she would be ok. But the sky was darkening and when the rain began to fall, there was no way to sleep. I was sure she had been hurt along the trail. There were plenty of places where one could slip at a stream crossing and fall unconscious into icy water, or break a bone from a tumble in the rock scrambles. The storm grew worse along with my fears, but I was trapped by the darkness and the rain. At the first light of day I was up and on the trail, heading back to search for my sister, dreading what I might find. An hour down the trail I found her hiking towards me, not visibly injured but looking pale, tired and wet.
"I lost the path late in the day and spent the night under a rock outcropping," she said, "I hope you didn't worry too much." I just smiled and wished that things weren't always so complicated.
When we arrived at the shelter where I had left my pack, Ann said, “I’m going to hitch out. I’ve seen trucks go by on that logging road back there and I think I can get a lift. I’ll meet you in Monson, at Shaw’s Boarding House.” “Are you sure you don’t want to keep going – we can hike together this time. It will be safer” I offered. “Jane, there is something I have to tell you. I’ve just gotten out of rehab for a heroine addition. This is just more than I can handle now. I should have told you before.” I was stunned. Bereft of words, I hugged her there in the woods and felt everything change in my world. “I’ll come with you back to Monson,” I offered. “No, finish the hike," she said. "I’ll be ok.”
And so I continued down the trail, though now it was a completely different path. In the empty days ahead of me I thought about my sister, once an invincible warrior in my eyes, now suddenly vulnerable to the world. The lonesome space of the wilderness is the perfect caldron for reducing thought and pain into an entity that one could somehow learn to make peace with, and the fragility of my sister was in my thoughts when I caught up with her in Monson five days later. I was so deeply comforted to see her happily at home with the Shaws, safe for the time being. Even now I see that light-filled room and my sister handing me a cold beer to welcome me off the trail. It is an image of happiness that time will never fade.
In the years ahead, my desire to see my sister safe would haunt my hopes, because I understood too well that Anne would always be vulnerable to life, to being lost in the world.
To this day, I remember the Hundred Mile Wilderness as a place where I had found her for the first time, and loved her the more for her wandering. And I will always remember the Shaws as a family that, for a few precious days, gave my dear sister shelter from life's storm.
- Jane Gamble