Book Excerpts


The Abandoned Truck

“I’m going for water,” I said. “Anyone want to come?” Annie leaped up: “I do.” Elizabeth said she’d rest in the tent. We strolled a quarter-mile across the meadow, under power lines and down an old road to the spring. A pipe channeled it along the ground for 20 feet until it poured into a runoff stream. It was flowing strong, gurgling into pools of water. I leaned down to the largest pool and scooped potfuls of water into the open cap of my old nylon water bag.

When we returned to the tent, Annie told Elizabeth about the pipe and the pools, and Elizabeth wanted to go back with us after we ate our pasta. I needed to collect more water for our early breakfast. The sun was dipping low, and, as I asked, They carried their stuffed animals along the edges of the water flow. I half listened to their soft voices making up stories about their animals. They lay their bandannas on the gravel, letting the water clean them. They leaped over mudholes and up and down the stream banks. How much joy and imagination they found in a piped spring.

Standing 20 yards back so I would not interfere with their play, I saw at a faint roadbed leading downhill. The grass-covered route ran parallel to a stone foundation. I ambled over to look at the wall, wondering what other remnants of former habitation I might find. I did not ask the girls to come. It was almost dusk now, and I didn’t want them to feel afraid as the dark settled in. I put my hand on my headlamp in my pocket, reassuring myself. Then I noticed something in the distance: the hulk of an old truck.

I walked downslope to it. The side had the faded words Valleydale Meats, but the V had mostly worn off. The rusted back doors sat partway open, so I peered inside. I could see little in the gloom except that the bottom of the truck slanted at an unnatural angle, and it had giant rust-edged holes. I could make out a bent metal framework.

An animal could take refuge in there, or someone might duck inside to escape a storm. I tried to imagine this truck back when it worked, back when someone drove up the mountain on this old road now covered by grass and saplings.


I realized I was neglecting Elizabeth and Annie. I turned away from the truck and returned quickly to the stream. They were still dragging their bandannas through the water and running up and down. “Let’s go back to the tent, girls.”

I said nothing to the girls about it, but all day I had been glancing around as we walked. Could big cats be skulking up here? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had declared mountain lions extinct east of the Rocky Mountains. The animals had once thrived in every state east of the Mississippi River, but scientists believe they have been gone from the East since about World War II, except for the small subspecies known as the Florida panther. Ghost cats persist in the community imagination, in the culture, and some say in truth. Since 1970, 121 sightings have been reported in Virginia. But most likely the big cats disappeared sometime in the 1800s, coinciding with the near-disappearance of the white-tailed deer over hundreds of years of tree cutting and hunting. In 2018, years after this trip, the federal government removed the eastern mountain lion from the endangered species list on the grounds that one cannot protect what does not exist.

We walked several paces away from the tent with our toothbrushes. I poured a little water in the girls’ cups. We brushed our teeth and spit into the thick leaf cover. I pushed dead leaves over where we’d spit. Back in our nylon home, we burrowed into our sleeping bags. “You did so well today,” I remember telling them before saying a slightly rambling prayer, thanking God for the mountain, for our time, praying for Nat and our cat Smudgie, and of course the long list of relatives on both sides of the family, starting with the grandmothers. Then I kissed both girls good night.

A few minutes later, I unzipped the door and headed back outside to look around for movement: raccoons, porcupines, bears … mountain lions?

From Going Over the Mountain: One Woman’s Journey from Follower to Solo Hiker and Back Again, coming out in September 2023 from Appalachian Mountain Club books.




We scrambled to a ledge high on that giant rock face, with nowhere farther to go—it seemed. We could see holes and stubs of metal rods where handholds had once helpfully steadied adventurers. Now there were none.The rock sloped alarmingly to a horizon above my forehead. The summit lay beyond that.

Bob and Skip frowned. “Let’s scout this without our packs and come back,” Skip said. They both dropped their gear at my feet and scrambled up an impossibly steep piece of rock in front of us. The girls and I were left standing there. I realized that I had no choice but to be a better mother to Annie and a calmer leader to Zoe.

“Girls, let’s think of our favorite cakes,” I said.

An eerie calm had inhabited them. I filled the air with my chatter. “I really like chocolate cake with white icing, but I also will eat chocolate cake with chocolate icing,” I said. All of us sat down, leaning back against the rock wall and keeping our feet from the edge. The brilliant sun and warm breeze signaled a perfect mountain day. I had never, ever, seen a trail that navigated a steep face like this. Nothing on the AT could rival it. But I wondered if it were just that my hiking brain had gone rusty over the last fifteen years and I had forgotten why mountains are mountains. In any case, I had to stay calm for Annie and Zoe. We were not turning around and going back the way we came. We were going to go up.

Suddenly, Skip appeared from the left. How had he gotten to us that way? He was alone. He said, “OK, I’m going to pass my pack up to Bob and then Bob’s pack.” We looked straight above us and could see Bob’s boots and Bob’s legs. Skip grunted and held his pack as high as he could and handed it to Bob. I watched as the pack slithered precariously up and away. They repeated this with Bob’s pack. Annie’s pack. Zoe’s. Mine. Then Bob disappeared again.

Skip addressed the girls, assuming, I knew, that I would be all right (apparently trusting me not to fall apart): “Annie, Zoe, we’re going to do a traverse. The rock is dry. Your boots will stay on it, like this.” Adrenaline no doubt fueled him to do what he did next. He took three or four running steps up the steep face and then ran down backward. Just to demonstrate. He did not slip. He did it a few times more. I could see he wanted us to realize that he did not slip. “See? You will stay on the rock. Now we’re going to hold hands. We’re doing to do a traverse. There’s an easier place to get you up. Now, everybody hold hands.”

Speechless, I cooperated, feigning calm.

“One, two, three, go!” Skip said, and we were suddenly walking across the cliff, holding hands. He did not really drag us so much as pull, and I did not dare let out a squeak. Our boots stayed on the slanting rock. Skip led us to a place about 20 yards along the face. “This spot is easier to get up.” Its rough surface gave us little bumps to grab onto. A wide crack bisected part of it. Bob stood above.

The girls went first. Zoe scrambled up the crack as Skip steadied her from behind and Bob grabbed her hand and pulled her up. Then Annie went, and I followed. Skip soon joined us, navigating the crack for the second time that day.

Unbelievable! We were up that face. We had joined the people who from Basin had looked like ants. Now we trudged over to a wide, flat, open area: the top. As we sat down and pulled out our lunch bags, I could not focus on the multitude of mountains laid out in all directions before us. I sighed. We had gotten up this peak! It seemed unbelievable.

A young man emerged over the lip of the cliff. He loped up to us and then kind of bounced by, commenting, “Isn’t this fantastic?”

From Going Over the Mountain: One Woman’s Journey from Follower to Solo Hiker and Back Again, coming out in September 2023 from Appalachian Mountain Club books.


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