Elizabeth and Annie’s feet, April 23, 1997

written for The New York Times

YEARS ago, I decided to take my two young daughters backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. If it went well, I thought, we would go again the next year. We would hike girls-only, without their father. He and I had hiked from Georgia to Maine before they were born. I was sure that Elizabeth, who was 8, and Annie, 6, were as strong as boys. I wanted them to know it, to learn courage and independence. And I wanted to immerse them in a world with no lights or stores, where you forget about what other people think of you.
One day in late April, in a place on the Tennessee-North Carolina border where we’d arrived after a two-day trip from our home in Connecticut, we set out on the Appalachian Trail for a magical place called Grassy Ridge. Under threatening clouds, the girls climbed with me out of Carver’s Gap. They ran to a fence and stile, climbing it to start up stone steps through the still-dead grass. Within 15 minutes we ate M&Ms on a large rock, then climbed gently to Round Bald. “Look, girls,” I kept saying, admiring the open view.
It was after 6 p.m. when the ridge rolled down into a little campsite in a col. “This is it,” I said. The girls hurled down their packs, grabbed their little spiral notepads and perched on a rock at the edge of giant rhododendrons. They drew pictures of the grassy scene, a few trees, distant ridges and me, struggling with the tent. As soon as it was up they jumped in and settled into the sleeping bags as I fixed their dinner.
Before I was finished scraping spaghetti into their bowls, a thunderstorm hit and I dove into the tent with them. Rain, wind and thunder rocked it most of the night.
The next morning, as I packed up in the mist to go back to the car, Annie, wearing my raincoat (I’d forgotten hers) wailed: “My hands are cold. Yeeeeeeeuh!” Elizabeth stood by, silent. We stepped up to the muddy path. “O.K.,” I said. “Let’s go. Just keep walking.” Then, to distract them, I suggested, “Let’s count the flowers.” Four hundred flowers later, we reached the car.
As soon as we could, we called their father to report that we’d made it out after a huge storm. We had survived.
Year 2: Southwestern Virginia, near Mount Rogers. We bit into pepperoni and cheese by an abandoned corral. Elizabeth fell asleep against a fence. A forest ranger drove up and pointed to a shortcut. As we crunched our way up the new path through runoff from the last night’s rain, I smelled something foul, then saw a mass of hair and teeth. “Uh — stay to the right, girls,” I said. “Don’t be scared, but — there’s a dead horse.” (What kind of a mother was I, leading them to this?)
Mount Rogers made a stunning backdrop to my realization, an hour later, that we were lost. We found our way, but my little troupers hiked three more miles than we’d planned, 11 in all.
That night, settled in a guest room at the house of some friends, Annie said, “Mama? I’m afraid of the horse.” Before I could answer, Elizabeth said, “Think about cupcakes.” That’s my girl.

Read the rest at The New York Times website by clicking here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/travel/escapes/30Rituals.html?_r=1&scp…


About This Article

This first appeared in the Escapes section of The New York Times on January 30, 2009. I had been working on this essay in various forms for years.

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