On December 28th, I was super excited as I drove my car to meet Michele…
Thank goodness! After last week’s hike in uncomfortably hot and humid weather, Samantha Baker, my hiking companion for the 29th week of a “Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail”, and I were thrilled to set off on a cool, early morning hike. With the temperature hovering right at 69 degrees, we didn’t feel the need to rush into the shade of the woods. We took our time crossing the field, as the wildflowers and berries seemed to be begging us to slow down and marvel at their diversity and beauty. Black-eyed Susan, dainty white Yarrow, Wild Red Clover and what I think was Paleleaf Woodland Sunflower. We also saw raspberry cane, with unripen berries and Wild Grapes…the same ones I noticed for the first time last week. Official Grape Report: Not yet ripe enough to eat but getting closer!
Just a few yards inside the woods, and this is sort of embarrassing to admit as I’ve been hiking this same section of the AT for more than 6 months, for the first time I noticed a low stacked rock wall on either side of the trail. I took a picture of Samantha where the wall would have bisected the trail as a reminder that sometimes it is easy to miss what may be obvious to others. It’s one of the things I love most about A Year of Hikes. Each week I see the world (and maybe myself) differently as I hike and travel through life with a different companion.
I had never met Samantha before our hike, so it was fun to wonder about her experiences, ask questions and listen to her stories. Here’s some of what I learned. Samantha, who sometimes goes by Sam, is a former elementary school art teach who is married to her college sweetheart. They met as undergraduates at the University of Maryland. As she shared this part of the story, Sam laughed saying, “We attended the same high school but had to go to a college of 50,000 students before we found each other.” She described her family’s farm, Deere Valley Farms, which is a big operation! Located in Dickerson, Maryland, the Bakers plant and harvest 2000 acres of wheat, barley, corn and soybean and raise 300 head of beef cattle…and I have trouble maintaining my 20’ x 10’ vegetable garden!
As we descended the steep hill by the lichen covered wall we talked about our children. She has two sons and I have three sons and twin daughters. We talked about the pandemic and how it impacted students at every level from preschool to college to post graduate studies. Samantha wisely said that in some ways the pandemic provided not only students, but people the world over, time to pause, reflect and reevaluate options. We both have adult children who decided to take different paths once they had time to discern their hearts’ true desires. My daughter decided to seek a graduate degree in Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin instead of going to law school and both of her sons decided to study Agriculture and Business at the University of Maryland in the fall. As mothers, we are grateful that our children have learned to listen to their inner voice and follow their passion rather than seek validation from external sources. On top of that, since their farm has been in the Baker family for five generations, Sam and her husband are pleased that their sons are interested in continuing this proud family legacy.
As we hiked along, we heard different birds calling in the trees above but mostly we heard mosquitoes and gnats buzzing right in our ears, despite tons of bug spray! Ask any hiker and they will tell you that the best way to ignore annoying bugs in to get lost in an engrossing conversation. And that is exactly what happened! The insects completely stopped bothering as Samantha told me about a medical crisis, she experienced almost 7 years ago.
She had an episode that left her unconscious, paralyzed on one side of her body and in severe pain. Doctors initially diagnosed and then ruled out stroke as the cause. After consulting medical experts (cardiologists, neurologists, pulmonologist, etc.) from around the country, the exact cause of the initial event was never determined. But all of the experts agreed that it left Sam with a chronic disease called Dysautonomia. I am married to a physician, which may make me overly confident about my medical knowledge, but honestly, I had never heard of that. “What is it? What are the symptoms?”, I asked. “Basically”, Sam replied, “Dysautonomia is a condition in which the autonomic nervous system does not work properly.” Symptoms vary but for Sam it affected her heart rate, bladder control, ability to digest food, blood pressure and vision.
As Sam talked, I heard her words and the emotion behind her words. Taken together, it is clear that for her, the emotional impact of this chronic disease has been more painful to bear than the physical symptoms. She had to give up teaching, a job she loved, one that gave her purpose and allowed her to exercise her considerable creative artistic talents. It was traumatic for her children. Sam said, “Can you imagine what it was like for my kids? For a while, I was losing consciousness four times a day.” The answer to that question is, no! I can’t imagine it and I am sorry that Samantha and her children had to experience it.
According to Samantha, the greatest impact and the most difficult thing to accept was the loss of relationships with so many people that she had considered friends. She felt abandoned in her time of need. Sam’s friends stopped calling, stopped inviting her when she was no longer able to join their activities. Samantha said, “I would suggest other activities that I could do, like get a cup of tea. But they just said, no.” Sam and I grew quiet as we continued down the trail. I was deep in thought…and here’s what I was thinking: There is a big difference between inviting a friend in need to join you and intentionally deciding to join that friend in their need. When I asked Samantha what advice she would give to women who have friends diagnosed with a chronic disorder she said, “Don’t give up on them. Relationships aren’t always 50-50. Sometimes, when you are able, you give more. Other times you receive more.”
Making our way down toward the stream at Warner Hollow, Sam explained that with the help of her doctors she has learned to manage and mitigate the worst of her symptoms and is glad she is again able to do things she once enjoyed…like hiking! Yay for Samantha! As we approached the tree that angles across the trail, I invited Samantha to strike what has become known as the “strong woman” pose. I took the photo and marveled at her strength…her dogged pursuit of treatments to manage her condition, her unbelievable resiliency and her incredible faith which enables her to live each day to the fullest.
As we neared the stream, we met husband and wife thru-hikers, Mycelia and Fun-guy! Don’t you just love those creative trail names! Honestly, and I’m not kidding, the only thing keeping me from doing a thru-hike is the lack of a great trail name! We enjoyed climbing on the rocks and when we started the trek back up the hill, I pointed out the dry-stacked stone wall that runs along the left side of the trail. Interestingly, there is a similar wall on Samantha’s farm that is on the National Historic Registry…who knew! Samantha said I could learn about the walls I pass each week by contacting the Appalachian Trail Museum, which I did. I called and emailed the staff at the museum and am waiting to hear back from them. I’ll let keep you posted.
On the return hike, Samantha and I noted a variety of ferns, differing in size and color. Some were gigantic and covered large sections of the forest floor while others were so tiny that we could just barely see them peeping out from small crevices among the rocks. Not to be out done, the mosses, mushrooms and lichen with their different colors and textures were on full display…some showy and colorful, others more understated. Like the women I get to hike with each week, the plant life on the trail is varied, resilient, colorful and makes the world more beautiful.