On December 28th, I was super excited as I drove my car to meet Michele…
The doorbell rang bright and early at 7:20 a.m. When I opened the door, there stood Tekesha Martinez, my hiking companion for the 28th week of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail.” Not quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (she hadn’t yet had her caffeine fix), Tekesha was ready and raring to go! We each poured a steaming cup of coffee, grabbed hats/bandanas to keep the ticks off our heads and jumped in the car on our way to pick up the Appalachian Trail just off of Route 77.
Although early, by the time we got on the trail, it was already humid and getting hotter by the minute! The sun was beating down on our heads and the glare made it difficult to see. I was just about to start complaining when Tekesha said, “Well at least you don’t have 5 pounds of dreadlocks on top of your head.” That shut me up! Tekesha’s locks always look beautiful, but on this summer morning with a bring green bandana on her head she managed to look effortlessly cool in the sweltering heat.
In the field, just before entering the woods, we took photos of wildflowers and what I’m hoping were wild grapes. Now that I know where they are, I’m planning to check on them each week and nibble the yummy fruit, once it ripens! The woods were dense with vegetation and as we stepped into the shade it felt at least 10 degrees cooler. The sunlight struggled to filter through the heavy tree canopy, which meant the soil was warm and moist and perfect for mushrooms and termites. And boy, did we see lots of both! Ewww, those termites were just plain creepy as the swarmed over a large swath of the forest floor.
As we walked across the rocky trail, Tekesha and I reminisced about our friendship. We met at the Robert W. Johnson Community Center when Tekesha was Program Manager, and I was a member of the Board of Directors. I was impressed by her commitment to and compassion for the youth and her considerable talent as a spoken word poet. A few years later, I asked Tekesha to read, with Dyron Bell, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the MLK Day of Service Business Basketball Tournament. She laughed saying, “That was the first time I said ‘yes’ to you and have been doing so ever since. How do you think I wound up hiking with you today!” It works both ways. I’m a Tekesha fan! I supported her efforts to establish the Mediation Center, invited her to be the Poet Laurette of Prime Time for Women TV and proudly supported her successful campaign for City Councilwoman.
The trail got a little steeper and the conversation got a lot deeper. Asked about her life’s journey, Tekesha didn’t hide from sharing her trauma. In fact, she said, “Trauma is my training.” Asked about the best advice she ever received, Tekesha replied, “Brad Smith once said, ‘There’s purpose in the pain.’ Every day since, I’ve remembered those wise words.” She talked about her mother’s addiction and its impact on her life. For years Tekesha lived with another family. When her mother eventually found sobriety, they were reunited until her mother relapsed. Tekesha and her siblings were separated by social services and she was left feeling alone, devastated and distrustful of the system meant to help her. Later, Tekesha had five children with four different men, saw her boyfriend killed by police, and went to jail for beating a man who hurt her daughter. Pain, on top of pain, on top of pain…which means there’s a whole lot of purpose in Tekesha’s life!
Fast forward… today, Tekesha is a loving mother and grandmother to five adult children and 6 amazing grandchildren, with one on the way. She has worked with, encouraged and supported the youth of Hagerstown. She facilitates the resolution of community issues through mediation and is an elected City Councilwoman. She has allowed her pain to define her purpose. Tekesha intentionally looks for opportunities to share her journey of pain and resiliency as a way of giving hope to others. As she talked, I asked, “Is this a case of you have to see it to believe it?” She said, “Amen to that!” Tekesha is an example to others who have and are struggling. She has found her footing, follows her passion and continues to fulfill her purpose. May that be true of all those she inspires by sharing her story.
When we started our hike, Tekesha wasn’t sure if she would finish the whole thing but she knew she wanted to strike the “strong woman” pose. Once we reached the fallen tree, she said, “I’ve got this! I can do the entire hike!” As I took Tekesha’s photo, it occurred to me that some people are considered strong because of all they have endured. Some for their amazing resilience. Some for the truths they speak and others for their incredible accomplishments. Tekesha is strong for all of these reasons.
We made it to the stream at Warner Hollow and just the sound of the water gurgling seemed to refresh us! We met and chatted with a thru-hiker, who started in Georgia on May 1st and on July 12th he was almost at the halfway point. That’s some fast hiking! When I asked his trail name he replied, “Not Sure.” At first, I didn’t get it but then caught on and said, “Well, Not Sure, travel safely and have fun.” And off he went!
As we hiked back to the car we got laughing about the adorable, funny and yes, embarrassing things our grandchildren say! I’ve come to believe that when women share stories about their grandchildren, mothers or grandmothers, something special happens. Through these stories, generations are connected and so are the women who tell them. Regardless of socio-economic background, race, religion or politics, the process of telling stories, both beautiful and painful, fosters understanding and compassion and emphasizes our shared humanity. As I shared these sentiments, Tekesha nodded her head knowingly. She concurred but in her wise way, she gently reminded me that there is a huge difference between hearing words with our ears and listening with an open heart. Then she stepped out of the woods into the bright light of day.