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Week 37: Sharon King

If “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail” was a class reunion, Sharon King, my hiking companion for the 37th week, would get the award for traveling the farthest. Sharon, who once lived in Washington County but now resides in South Carolina, traveled all the way to Hagerstown to be part of this adventure.  She also came back to Hagerstown to visit her mother and best friend and to sprinkle the ashes of her son’s beloved dog on his grave.

I first met Sharon when, as a volunteer, she worked with me on numerous community outreach projects at Hospice of Washington County. I haven’t seen her for years so I knew we would have lots to catch up on.  Sharon and I met at the trailhead on a beautiful mid-September morning with just a few high clouds floating over the mountain in the distance. We sampled the wild grapes that grow next to gravel parking space along Route 77 and oh my…were they sweet!  Over the past few weeks, the grapes have transformed from what looked like hard green marbles into deep purple, almost black, scrumptious fruit.

We crossed the road and walked into a Swallowtail Butterfly Convention!  Sharon and I didn’t pay to attend the conference, but we enjoyed it anyway.  The swallowtail attendees flitted from purple thistle to purple thistle the way their human counterparts at conventions dash from stall to stall to get the best freebees. As we posed for a selfie in the wildflower field, we appreciated the beauty of an early fall morning and felt lucky to be in each other’s presence after so many years.

Walking into the wood, I asked Sharon how she’s been keeping busy. Sharon shared that she goes to the gym three times a week, hikes at least once a week and is still volunteering but, due to the pandemic, not with hospice. She currently volunteers twice a week at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Seneca, where she enjoys the team atmosphere of preparing and serving meals and interacting with the clients.  Perhaps Sharon’s biggest contribution at the soup kitchen has been organizing the kitchen equipment and creating processes for the ordering of food and supplies.  That doesn’t surprise me in the least! In the past, Sharon was a professional organizer, helping businesses and people create systems that turned chaos into order.  Not everyone loves her style, but I think everyone loves the outcome. As Sharon says, “I’m no nonsense. I tell it like it is. I don’t sugar coat anything. If you want it done right, do it my way.”   I happen to be one of the people that appreciates Sharon’s style as well as the results.  In the years we worked together, she assisted me with many community programs and to this day, I sometimes say, “I need a Sharon in my life!”

Hiking for Sharon is easy, it’s her happy place. As we climbed down toward the lichen-covered wall, she was relaxed and comfortable and filled me in on her life. We shared our journeys and compared notes on our spouses and children. I’ve been married for 41 years (I know you are wondering how anyone can but up with somebody that talks as much as I do…I admit it, my husband is a saint), have five children and four grandchildren and another due next month. Sharon has been married and divorced three times, has a son, Wesley, that she lost to suicide and a son Jared, of whom she is incredibly proud. After a long naval career where he worked on nuclear submarines, Jared is now the Senior Reactor Operator at Duke Power in South Carolina and the father of Sharon’s two grandsons.

Sharon is an open book and wants others, if possible, to take what they can from her story. She shared that all her divorces occurred while she was drinking. Asked about her journey to sobriety, Sharon said, “I’ve been sober for 9 years” and then she laughed a little and added, “but I didn’t go to AA. I was afraid I would have taken over, knocked those twelve steps down to seven. Twelve steps are too many, it’s just not efficient.” That’s Sharon in a nutshell…she does it her way!

When we got to the tree that is angled across the trail, Sharon struck the “strong woman” pose. Getting sober her way, finding a path forward after Wesley’s death, being a supportive presence to Jared and his family and volunteering in the service of others all speak to her incredible strength.  Sharon’s been through a lot, but she’s learned even more. Overcoming life’s challenges has a way of making people stronger.  And in Sharon’s case, has made her humbler.  As she struck the strong woman pose, I wondered what the world would be like if, like Sharon, we said, “Every day that I wake up I’m grateful for the chance to do better than I’ve done before.”

Right before we entered the powerline field, we saw a small American Toad jump across the trail.  I posed for a picture with the little fellow, which showed his tiny foot resting on my purple thumb nail.  My grandkids are going to love that photo! In the powerline field, Sharon advised me on selfie-taking technique, and I already said I follow her recommendations.  No doubt, my photos will be much better!

Down by the stream at Warner Hollow we took a few photos and then chatted with Taco and Paddle, two thru hikers who started in Maine a few months ago.  Sharon, an avid AT section hiker, chatted with them about her plan to be on the trail in Virginia for seven days the following week. All three agreed it was likely they could run into each other and hoped they would. As we started back up the hill, Sharon told me about the hike she was planning to celebrate her upcoming 60th birthday.  I enthusiastically said, “Oh, that’s sounds wonderful! Can I join you?” Sharon immediately said that of course I could, and I felt myself getting excited!  However, as we hiked up the hill and Sharon described the gear we would need to carry in our backpacks (tent, sleeping bag, water purifier, backpacking stove, clothes, and food for seven days), my enthusiasm began to wane. I’m comfortable walking for miles but not with a heavy pack on my back. Even in my younger days, I one time emptied my entire backpack with the idea of eliminating unnecessary weight only to remove one package of oatmeal!

Climbing up from the stream, Sharon pointed out what looked to be tiny white fluffy feathers stuck to downed tree branches waving in a gentle breeze.  Upon closer inspection, we determined they were insects of some kind.  I did a little research when I got home, and it turns out they are called wooly aphids or “fairy flies.”  Fairy flies, what a perfect name! They looked exactly like teeny tiny versions of the fairies I imagined as a child!  Having a hiking companion point out something you would have missed is one of the best things about not walking the trail alone. Come to think of it, the same thing can be said of life.

We stopped talking long enough to enumerate the lovely signs of autumn’s fast approach: multicolored leaves littering the trail, mushrooms of all colors, shapes, and sizes, including one that was at least a foot high and 8 inches across, and the bright pink stalks and white berries of White Baneberry plants, nicknamed “Doll’s Eyes.”   These plants, so vibrant in color, want to be admired. Their eye-like berries seem to say, “Look me in the eye when I call you.”  But don’t be fooled. Though they are beautiful, they are extremely toxic.

Towards the end of our hike, Sharon told me a fantastic story. The night before, Sharon went out to dinner with her best friend.  They decided to do it up big as they hadn’t seen each other in years and had not been in a restaurant for more than a year and a half due to Covid.  They ate a delicious meal at The Press Room in Shepherdstown, WV, reminisced over old stories, laughed themselves silly and had a lovely conversation with a young couple seated near them.  When it came time to settle their tab, they were told that their bill had been paid by the couple they had been talking to.  Sharon said, “Some people are just so nice!  Now we want to find a way to pay forward their kindness.”  Extending generosity and acceptance to those we love is one thing but to do it for complete strangers is something else altogether.  Sharon and I marveled, as we headed down the trail, how just a little act of kindness has the power to reset one’s perspective of the world.

Speaking of changing perspectives, Sharon told me about several retreats that she attended over the last couple of years at Yogaville in Buckingham County, Va. The Ashram features a shrine that is shaped like a lotus flower and houses 12 altars representing Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, Tao, Buddhist, Islam, Sikh, Native American and African religions. As Sharon elaborated on her experiences at the ashram, I felt a calling to visit.  I said, “Okay, I’ve changed my mind. Can I celebrate your 60th birthday with you at Yogaville instead of on a 7-day backpacking trip?”  Being the true friend that she is, Sharon said, “You got it!”  I can’t wait to sing happy birthday to Sharon in Virginia!

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