Book Excerpts

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.


Encounter with a Hare

For years I remembered this moment but did not know what I’d seen:

On a July night in 1987, during our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I awakened past midnight and crept behind the mountain shelter, over dry leaves behind the back wall. Wind whispered from the open ridge of Vermont’s Mount Tom toward the spruces. I wore my improvised headlamp, a flashlight on a nylon cord tied around my head. The light wagged back and forth over dead leaves. I teetered unsteadily on my left hand while peeing.

Something rustled to the left. I turned my head. The flashlight on its cord swung out and then crashed into my forehead. I grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at a snowshoe hare. It stood giant in my obnoxious light, staring into the night. I held my breath. My companions slept. I felt alone. I did not smile or whisper, “Wow,” something I might do with a person nearby. Pretensions vanished. I saw that this creature and I did not understand each other. The hare then disappeared from the edge of the flashlight’s beam. Each moldering leaf near my squatting spot brightened into sharp focus.

I moved my flashlight back to my feet and gathered up my long johns. I stood and trained the light back out into the dark. The hare was gone.

Lepus americanus lives in dense forests, mostly in far-northern woods. It favors thickets. Its fur grows brown until winter and then turns white. The hare’s babies stop nursing and hop off to their own lives within one month of birth. Hares spend most of their time avoiding danger. Because this one had come close, my encounter left me in awe.


Years later I saw my second hare, though I’m certain that many dozens of hares have watched me walk by without showing themselves. I walked alone from Carter Dome down the Rainbow Trail into the federal Wild River Wilderness. Just over the wilderness border, suddenly I noticed moose droppings every few feet. I sensed that animals hid just off this trail, waiting for me to move on.

I walked 3 miles down into desolate Perkins Notch. The Wilderness Act had sent this once-bustling campsite back in time. It looked like a ghost camp—really just a signpost. Following federal wilderness regulations, U.S. Forest Service workers had dismantled the Perkins Notch shelter about a year before, piling the lumber by the trail. Graded areas for tents now resembled rutted gravel squares. I hadn’t seen one person all day. Forecasters had predicted rain. I wandered about looking for a good tentsite, not the abandoned gravel tent pads, which looked more like water collection units. I settled on a flat spot below a stand of saplings, but I felt uneasy. Something 50 yards away caught my eye. Someone had built (out of the pieces of the old shelter) a crude A-frame shack. I shuddered. “I’m not going in there,” I said to no one.

The stream ran across the trail back by the way I’d come in, so at dusk I returned there with my cooking pot and water bottle. To the right and left I cringed at signs of people who’d been there and tried to erase their presence. There sat a pile of lumber from the old shelter. A rotting signpost pointed to lonely, little-traveled trails deeper in the wilds.

The stream rushed, interrupting my loneliness. And then I saw the first animal of the evening. A snowshoe hare, in summer brown fur, stood as if frozen. It stared. I stared back, fearing what it knew that I didn’t know. A natural cycle in which I have absolutely no part was playing out in Perkins Notch. The hare had emerged at dusk looking for plants it could eat in safety. An owl could swoop in and grab it. A lynx could pounce and kill it. Most hares die violently. That’s why they breed like rabbits.


At times New England wildlife managers have transported snowshoe hares from Maine to states where too many have been hunted. Transporting hares also saves Canada lynxes because the only thing a lynx will eat is a hare. I did not worry then that a lynx might be lurking.

A hare’s purpose, its movement, is completely wild. This hare looked wise. It knew what it must do always: find food, live for a while, then die. It seemed accepting of what it was. Seeing it made me feel lonely somehow. The snowshoe lives a life of worry, looking for something to eat and escaping something that wants to eat it. I could feel how disengaged I was from my own food sources. I had hauled in here what I needed to survive the night, all except the water. I was a visitor perched on this hare’s land.

A wild animal lives in a constant state of fear. I have never known such fear, but I suppose I went into Perkins Notch looking for it. Theologian and backcountry explorer Martin Laird has written, “Fear itself becomes a vehicle of deeper silence,” and “Be still in the midst of fear.” In Inuit culture, the polar bear is sometimes called tornarssuk, which means “the one who gives power.” One confronts the bear to grapple with fear of it and to “receive the gift from the bear.”

I knelt clumsily at the stream with my pot, water pump, and bottle. I could find no level ground or rock on which to prop the pump, so I lugged the pot of stream water and the rest of the stuff back to the campsite. Dusk had moved in. I could see very little. Was that movement over by the A-frame shanty? What was that crackling noise? What was that whirring sound? All potential dangers. My senses sharpened and my vision cleared. I had come out here seeking to know what I could do alone. Instead, I had confronted the gift from the snowshoe hare.

 [1] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (Darton, 2009), a short book about Christian contemplation.

from…The All-Girl Quest


I was picking up dishes and old papers one October evening in 1996. Elizabeth stood by the tiny doorway to the dining room. “A boy at school said girls are weak,” she announced.

“What?” I screeched. “That’s not true.” I shook my head. Ugh, hadn’t my generation already sorted out this misinformation? Where was this boy’s mother? Had the world evolved at all since Title IX?

I began my best equality speech: “Girls are strong. Maybe you’re not exactly as strong as he is, but strong.” Life is not a competition. Strength is often an attitude.

I had heard the same on the playgrounds of my childhood. My friends and I had actually enjoyed a game that later seemed creepy: Boys captured the girls as if we were helpless. They’d grab hold of our arms and lead us like zoo animals back to an imaginary holding pen in the trees that lined the blacktop. We went willingly, as if we were prizes they owned. I never tried to escape. I was 8. What did I know?

I did not mention this to Elizabeth. I just said that the boy had not told her the truth and she should not believe it. I wondered whether boys had primal urges to exert power. I’d been wondering this most of my life. I loved the energy of boys, having grown up with three older brothers, yet the playground and its rituals of power seemed unchanged since my childhood. Kids are forever on their own in that freewheeling environment. What could I say that would help Elizabeth navigate this? I wanted to help her and her younger sister, Annie, gain confidence in the playgrounds of the world.

I worried that such misguided declarations could become part of how they viewed themselves. On playgrounds, adults rarely overheard comments and rarely understood context. Teachers told us parents in the 1990s that we should “grab a teachable moment.” Here came mine in the kitchen. I took up my mantle, determined thatcould inspire my daughters to be feminists through scrambling uphill. This was the genesis of seven all-girl backpacking trips during spring vacation.

After she had grown up and was on her way to becoming a nurse, Elizabeth told me she didn’t remember this stunning moment in the kitchen, but she did remember boys telling her that girls shouldn’t be scientists. She thought her father and I had probably taught her that girls are not weaklings: “I definitely experienced implicitly and explicitly boys saying girls shouldn’t do/shouldn’t be good at science, but, luckily, had also been inoculated against that by you guys, especially Deed.” (Deed is Nat, her father.)

She also said, “I do feel that the way you and Deed split up household tasks, which was not the ‘traditional’ mom does all cooking/cleaning/child-rearing and dad mows the lawn, played a strong role in letting me discard limiting ideas about what girls and women could and couldn’t do.”

After Annie had grown up, she reported that the boys she knew in childhood tended to put out a double message. On the one hand, they would say, “Girls are disgusting.” On the other, they believed (Annie said) that “girls can do everything, so it’s OK to punch them, and they ought to have to register for the draft.” As if equality would blow up in girls’ faces.

As far as I knew and my daughters remembered, they hadn’t devoted time arguing with boys about this. They found ways to work around it. Walked away, perhaps.

At that moment in the kitchen, I looked down at my young daughter and understood that raising girls offered me a challenge. I mentally filed the problem as an action call.

It had been nearly ten years since Nat and I had hiked the Appalachian Trail with our friends Cay and Phil. I was still laboring on a book manuscript about that trip. I took my early chapters to writers’ conferences only to come away discouraged that my long journey could hold meaning for a wider audience. Writers I admired, and those who were students next to me at those conferences, told me not to give away that we had made it to Katahdin—but so many outdoor stories start out with the ending. I felt misunderstood and dismissed. I thought of our AT hike as a snappy tale of the woes and triumphs of an ordinary woman. I had whined, cried, and felt hopeless many days, but I had continued trudging. By about Massachusetts, I moved on the instinct of a new life and stopped caring what people thought of me.

A writer at one workshop agreed to look at some of my pages. She said, “Don’t start crying until halfway through the book.” But I was more of a crier than that. Still, her point resonated. I did not know yet how best to tell the story. Writing is a lifelong journey full of tough lessons. Just like the trail.

Now I was becoming obsessed with what people (writers at conferences, editors at work, strangers in the community) thought of me. I felt overwhelmed with full-time newspaper reporting, running from town hall to police station to zoning meeting. I was working on a proposal to become my paper’s part-time environment writer so that I could start doing some freelancing. I didn’t think the paper would allow me to write about the environment full time. Still, the potential for a shift in my work thrilled me. And scared me.

I called my friend Jenifer one day, and we talked a long time—mostly about the way my parents had been disorganized and somewhat chaotic, as wonderful as they were. My father was a self-made man whose parents had divorced in the 1930s. That background had left a few demons in him. My mother had never been on time, and her habits of molding the minutes and hours to match her desires were ingrained in me. I worried I was creating chaos in my mind and in my routines out of habit. Taking on too much and working too hard made me feel more alive and yet also more confined. Jen told me she could relate to some of what I said. My situation was not unusual; the antidote was to take better care of myself. I needed to regain the way I had felt on the Appalachian Trail. I needed the trail the way a sick person needs oxygen.



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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