On December 28th, I was super excited as I drove my car to meet Michele…
In the past 8 months, as part of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail”, I’ve hiked with two women I’ve known for more than 40 years, a few women who have been good friends for the past 30 years and many women that I met for the very first time just prior to our hike. It has been a privilege to share the trail with these women, all who willingly shared their stories with me. As I truly believe every woman deserves to be seen and heard, I have felt honored to highlight their wisdom and grateful for the way their stories have enriched my life.
But my companion for the 32nd hike of the year falls into a completely different category! This woman I have known her entire life, literally since the day she was born…her name is Ginger Baker, and she is the youngest of my six sisters. Before the pandemic, we used to see each other regularly at large family gatherings and when I say large family gatherings, I mean HUGE! In addition to the regular family holiday celebrations, every other year the Howard siblings and our families (children and grandchildren), which currently numbers 92 people strong, gathers for a week-long family vacation/reunion at the beach. It’s fun, loud, exciting, and, if I’m honest, exhausting at times and a little overwhelming for the new in-laws and our youngest grandchildren. My husband likes to tease that he needs a vacation to recover from the Howard Family vacation.
Other than a few chaotic Zoom gathering and short phone conversations I haven’t gotten to spend time with Ginger in almost two years. So, you can probably imagine my joy when we climbed out of our cars and hugged and kissed by the side of the road next to the trailhead. We parked next to the wild grapes I’ve been tracking over the last several weeks, which were beginning to turn purple. In addition to being my sister, Ginger is a mother, grandmother extraordinaire, nurse and, along with her family, owns Old Westminster Winery. I pointed out the grapes and Ginger, with her knowledge of the wine industry, gave me a quick lesson on “verjus”, the French word for the tart green juice of unripen grapes. She encouraged me to taste the grapes…and boy were they ever SOUR! It turns out Old Westminster Winery harvests grapes to make verjus, which is used in organic liqueurs and salad dressings. Who knew!!!! Isn’t it amazing the things you can learn while hiking!
We set off across the field by Route 77 a few minutes after 8 o’clock. A trail angel, or some kind soul, had mowed a swath of the field of wildflowers so hiking toward the woods was much easier than it had been for several weeks. Other than Queen Ann’s Lace, there were not many wildflowers to see but it didn’t matter. The way the sun radiated its glory over the mountain and across the field made for a beautiful start to our hike.
As we entered the woods and started down the trail, I asked Ginger to catch me up on all her news. Here’s what she said, “Life isn’t always easy. I’ve been going through some painful stuff. It’s been difficult. But the good news is that this pain has provided me with lots of opportunities to learn who I am and what I want.” As she spoke, I knew we were both thinking of our father who found sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He often prayed the serenity prayer and Ginger said, “I am learning to live one day at a time, enjoy one moment at a time and accept hardship as a pathway to peace.”
WOW! How did my little sister get so wise? Of course, being a nosy big sister, I just asked! It turns out her life has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Eckhart Tolle and his book, The Power of Now. I can’t begin to recap everything Ginger shared with me, but my takeaway was, she is striving to live in the “eternal present now” and has found peace and joy in the process. When Ginger struck the “strong woman” pose, I knew her strength was real, and it came from a place of self-knowledge
We also took photos by the lichen-covered rock wall. Ginger being Ginger, she decided to climb atop the wall instead of posing next to it like everyone who previously hiked with me. Without a doubt, she is intentionally setting her own course and actively following it…more power to her, I say! Sometime, as we hike the AT, my hiking companions and I cover a vast array of conversational topics but not so with Ginger. Instead, on our journey down the trail we discussed Ginger’s journey of self-knowledge. Ginger emphasized that her life is a work in progress…she’s not done, yet (and never will be.) She is seeking to better understand her own unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors, practice patience, be less judgmental and more compassionate and most importantly…strive to live in the present moment.
When we made it down to the stream at Warner Hollow, we took a little break. We took some photos, complained a bit about the annoying insects that kept buzzing our heads (including the one Ginger swallowed) and took a picture of a pile of sawdust at the base of a dead tree, which we figured was made by some sort of boring insect. Then we turned around and began the uphill climb.
On the way back, I checked in with Ginger about my sister, Rainy, who she recently visited. They are planning some fancy dancy hiking trip out West next year, which sounds so wonderful that I may have to see if I can crash it! As we are both interested in fitness and like to exercise, we talked about our latest workouts. Ginger is currently into Kundalini Yoga and I’m super interested in Total Immersion Swimming (also known at TI), which I described as a blend of physics and water yoga. As I started describing it, Ginger started laughing. She said, “Do you remember the Howard Family vacation where the only thing you talked about was Chi Running?” The answer is “yes” and all I can say is I am predictable!
As we approached the end of our hike, Ginger tried to summarize Rational Self Awareness, the strategy she practices all day, every day to retrain her brain to stay in the present moment. She said, “I ask myself four questions: 1) What am I feeling or thinking? 2) Is it true and rational or irrational? 3) What am I going to do about it? 4) What outcome do I want? She says this simple practice, (which is no doubt difficult to master) is helping her to let go of past regrets and freeing her from anxiety about the future, over which she has no control. As I listened to my baby sister, I was inspired and kept thinking how proud our parents would have been, had they not passed a few years ago. They can’t wrap their arms around Ginger, but I can do it for them. As Sunny Gupta said, a “sister is our first friend and second mother.” Lucky for Ginger, she has six women to be her second mother.