How Do I Know I'm on the Right Path?

Once upon a time, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Before that, I had only gone on weekend backpacking trips, but the man I had fallen in love with was a past grand master. I could not for the life of me envision our happily ever after if I remained unadventured. Yes, it's a word. ;-)

So, I planned and I shopped. I picked over backpacks, technical clothing, stoves, pots, boots, socks, and various tidbits and gear. All the while I wondered...would I make it. Was I capable of living in the woods for 2,000 miles plus? How would I deal with the cold, the rain, the bugs, the heat, the pain? I had long moments of great pause, was I really doing the right thing?

But underlying all my doubts was the certainty that I had to try.

And so I did. I found myself, with my new husband, at the top of Springer Moutain. It was a cold day, with clouds in the sky. It wasn't the send-off I'd imagined...sunny, blue skies with little fluffy clouds floating along...it was cold and wet and a little bit scary.

And I wondered... was I doing the right thing?

It started to snow as we hiked our first mile, but it was light and fluffy and I only had a mild tingling of worry. I hiked slow and steady, watching my footing and often forgetting to look up and see the forest. We met other people just beginning their thru-hike at the first shelter. They stuck out their hands and introduced themselves, some with trail names already. My hubs had thru-hiked three years before and introduced himself as the Professor. A guy turned to me and said, "then you must be Mary Ann!"

And I wondered...would that become my lame ass trail name?

I was adamant that would not be my trail name, and a friend said to me, "You better come up with a trail name pronto or it is going to stick. That's how trail names happen."

That night, we camped in a pavilion next to a graveyard and joined a group of hikers around a campfire. It was cold and our socks were wet from sloshing through a stream or two. One of the hikers put his wet socks on his hands and held them over the fire to dry. Several of us warned him not to hold them too close to the fire. Synthetic blends melt mighty fast. "That's why I put them on my hands," he said with a smug smile.

A few minutes later, I smelled something weird, like hot tires. Someone called out, "Hey, what's that burnt rubber smell?"

"Oh, shit!" The guy with the socks yanked his hands back and sure enough, the bottoms were melted and scorched black.

"Should a' known," Everyone chorused and laughed.

His trail name became Should-A-Known. So yes, it happens fast and depending on the situation, sticks immediately.

It made me contemplate my trail name hard. I'd already had two people call me Mary Ann and I refused to believe that was any kind of trail name. Who has a trail name like that??? It's boring next to the Professor or Roy G. Biv (Should-A-Known's hiking companion) or Snore-a-saurus. Now those were trail names! I couldn't end up with such a pedestrian trial name. But I wondered...would I?

I woke up to snow all over our tent the next morning, still contemplating my trail name. I spent the better part of the hike that day mulling it over. Snore-a-saurus, the friend who recommended I nix Mary Ann asap, suggested Miss E. He thought that was clever since my hubs always called me Missy. I thought it was equally as pedestrian. No, it had to be something I could tell my grandkids about and smile. I wondered...would I smile over Miss E or Mary Ann?

It eventually came to me on day three...my trail name. It would be Peacepipe. I was a little disappointed that this was how my trail name would come to be. I'd hoped that I would be dubbed on the trail by the hikers I met, but what they were trying to knight me with was even more disappointing, I decided. I told my hubs; I told Snore-a-saurus. They weren't as enthusiastic as me, and even I wasn't jumping for joy. This sucked. I wondered...should I just let Mary Ann stick?

But I didn't. I claimed Peaceipe by introducing myself as such, over and over again. I had no great story to tell about my name, other than it was in self-defense. But I wondered...was it the right way to go about getting a trail name?

And I hiked. Miles and miles, over mountains and through creeks. I faced the rain for 40 days and 40 nights (I kid you not). I watched people drop like flies, abandoning the trail because it wasn't what they thought it would be. There was too much rain at the beginning. We joked about swimming to Maine, our gear growing mold, and our feet perpetually water-logged. That's a problem, by the way. Ask a soldier about trench foot.

When we reached Gatlinburg, I was still wondering how to make my trail name feel official, earned...right. I was still struggling with it, dang it. While we took a couple days off, I roamed the streets and shops of that famous Tennessee town, brooding way too much. Then I came across a shop full of Cherokee folk art. A very simple red clay peace pipe called to me. It was small. Just the right size to stow away in a backpack. And I wondered...did it mean something?

Along the way over the next few months, I started drawing a little peace pipe after my signature in log books, etching it into my mind and soul. I was Peacepipe. I was Peacepipe...wasn't I?

I found feathers. And friends. I attached the feathers to my pipe; the friends to my heart and soul. I discovered some beautiful blue glass beads in a little town in Massachusetts, and that my capacity for endurance outstripped any preconceived notions. I strung the beads on black leather thongs and tied them to my little peace pipe. And I wondered...how do we just know our soul tribe when we meet them?

Then one day, deep into the woods in Vermont, I had a bad moment. I wondered what the hell I was doing on that trail for all these months? I was tired, but tired like I was running on fumes tired. I ached. I hadn't NOT ached for weeks. I sat down on a log and stared at the three-foot tall ferns, a sea of them between the trees, and I cried. What was I trying to prove, anyway? I gingerly took off my pack and examined my hip blisters. Yes, I said hip blisters. They'd formed as I lost weight and my hip belt became too big. And I wondered...had my endurance run out?

Was this still the right path for me?

Maybe...maybe not. I couldn't imagine giving up, but right then, it was so hard to keep moving. But what was I going to do? Quit right there, in the middle of the forest? And what? Wait for a helicopter to lift me out?

Pfft.

No.

I at least had to hike to the next town.

Later that same day, feeling weary and exhausted to my soul as I slugged out the last couple miles of the day, I heard my trail name being called. Excitedly. Enthusiastically! "Peacepipe! Hey, wait up! Peacepipe!!"

My tribe mates Sensei and Peacemaker came around the bend, backpacks tacked down, their faces lit up with smiles as big as boulders. "Look what we found!"

And they held out this little stone. Pink. "Look!" Peacemaker poked at the stone.

At first, I didn't see it, then I did. My mouth fell open. A "P" shape created by another type of stone, maybe quartz, embedded in it. "That's so cool! How in the world did you find that?"

Sensei said, "I was crossing that stream back there, looked down and saw it. In the water. I couldn't believe it. I called out for Peace and gave it to him."

I grinned at Peacemaker. "That is such a cool thing to find! How awesome!" His trail name was Peacemaker. How perfect, I thought. What an amazing memento. Nothing could have been more perfect.

"Oh, no. It's not meant for me,"  he said. "Look closer. Look."

I frowned, squinting at the stone, not sure what he was talking about. Then, like it had popped into existence at that exact moment, I saw it: a little pipe shape. Unmistakable. It was almost the exact same shape I had been drawing in the log books at the shelters when I signed my name. My whole body flooded with prickly energy, like chills running through me, every hair on my body standing on end. I think I got choked up, but I laughed through the confusing tears. Shocked. Surprised.

And happily, wondrously in awe.

"It's a peace pipe!" I cried out. And we all laughed at the pure magic we had the honor to be a part of.

I have never felt so on the right path as I did at that moment.

And I wondered no more.

Peacepipe '98

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