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Week 49: Susan Woodruff Howard

My hiking companions for A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail are a diverse group.  Some I’ve known since childhood; some I’ve known for a few years and still others I met for the first time at the trailhead.  I’m not sure when I first met Susan Woodruff Howard, my companion for the 49th hike of the year, but I remember clearly being at her wedding when she married my youngest brother 26 years ago and became an important member of the Wonderful, Wild (and sometimes, Wacky) Howard Family.  To her credit, she doesn’t regret it in the least!

Getting out of the car at the trailhead, Susan and I bundled up against the cold.  With the wind blowing between 7-10 mph, it felt like 29 degrees…brrr!  We grabbed our hiking poles and started walking at a quick pace, with the hope of generating some heat.  We hadn’t gone far when Susan stopped to point out the lovely orange-yellow bittersweet berries growing on the edge of the field where in the summer wildflowers once thrived.  She recalled, as a young child, hiking with her parents and four older brothers in the woods behind their house and stopping to cut bittersweet, which she said her mother arranged on the mantel over the fireplace.  Like the berries, the memory was bittersweet, especially since Susan lost her mother to aneurism when she was just 17 years of age.

Entering the woods, I asked Susan how losing her mother at such a young age had impacted her life.  Susan replied, “I miss my mother every day. My mom passed when she was only 51.  Being a motherless daughter is a real thing, there’s even a book by that name by Hope Edleman.” True to Susan’s hopeful nature and positive outlook she added, “My children are my life’s joy. When I turned 51, I was acutely aware of being healthy with two daughters of my own.  My daughters and my son are my greatest blessings.”

As we headed down the trail, Susan, who had never hiked on the Appalachian Trail before, was struck by the lovely green ferns that seemed to wave at us from every direction.  Comparing them to the ferns near her home in Virginia, she said several times, “They are so beautiful. I wish the ferns in the woods behind my house looked like these.”  In addition to the ferns, we were amazed by the dark blue huckleberries that littered the ground…they were everywhere!  Knowing that black bears are famous for eating huckleberries, since the high sugar helps them store fat for long and lean winters, Susan and I figured the bears wouldn’t begrudge us if we ate a just a few. And boy, were they delicious!

We continued walking down the trail and, of course, talking.  Susan updated me on her children’s latest adventures and exploits. My eldest niece, Grace, who graduated from JMU last year, is working for a small software firm and recently ran the New York Marathon, finishing in the top 7 percent!  Geez, I’m one proud aunt!  Susan’s second daughter, Lily, is studying Art History at The College of Charleston, and works part time in a shop featured on “Southern Charm”, a reality TV show on Bravo that chronicles the personal and professional lives of seven Charleston socialites.  Lily, who is rather reserved, was not thrilled when recently, while at work, she was filmed for an upcoming episode of the show.  Figures…those who want to be on TV never have a chance and those who want no part of it, wind up on the TV screen!  Her youngest child, my nephew Liam, attends Loudon County High School in Virginia.  He is a typical teen, except, much to his father’s joy, Liam is an exceptional golfer.  This year, as a sophomore, Liam qualified for the State of Virginia Golf Tournament, which made Susan and her husband, my brother, incredibly proud.

Susan asked about my kids and grandkids.  We talked about the joys and worries of parenting and shared some of our more harrowing experiences.  Susan reminded me of when Liam as a one-year-old swallowed a small lithium button battery that had fallen out of a toy.  Although Susan immediately rushed him to the hospital, Liam suffered significant burns to his esophagus and trachea.  Liam spent a month in intensive care, intubated and sedated so that the burns could heal.  Since then, Susan has given interviews to news outlets with the hope of raising awareness of the dangers posed by toys containing button batteries and magnets and with the goal of preventing another child from experiencing the trauma her son faced.  As she finished recollecting this difficult time in the life of her family, we approached the spot on the trail where I ask my companions to strike the “strong woman” pose.  As Susan assumed the pose, I admired anew the strength she showed all those years ago and the fierce parental love she continues to show for her children today. Looking at Susan’s soft smile as I snapped the photo, I wondered if losing her mother as a teen instilled her with a greater sense of resiliency and a deeper appreciation for her role as a mother.  I do know Susan is incredibly grateful for her children and her kids are truly fortunate!

Susan and I enjoyed the bare beauty of the winter woods, which seemed to be decorated for the upcoming holidays.  Susan commented on the lovely dark green fern protruding from the lichen-covered rock wall, which I imagined would make the perfect centerpiece for a festive holiday table. And the lichen, almost white against the dark green moss, sort of looked like white lights on a beautiful Douglas Fir Christmas tree.  Enjoying my holiday musings, it’s not surprising that the clicking of bare tree branches reminded me of a line from my favorite holiday poem, “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.”

Heading down the incline toward the stream at Warner Hollow, our footing was a little unsure as the rocks on the trail were covered with a thick layer of leaves.  Susan, who had never used hiking poles, was glad she borrowed mine. She said, “I’ve slipped a few times but thanks to these poles, I’ve maintained my balance.”  If Santa winds up bringing me the Trail Buddy Trekking Poles I requested, I think I’ll let Susan keep them…hint, hint!  We made it down to the stream without any falls and took a few pictures before I said, “Let’s go!  My hands are freezing, despite wearing my ski mittens!”  With that, Susan, like Santa’s helper reached in her backpack and… pulled out hand warmers!  OMG…the best early Christmas present EVER!

On the way back up the steep incline, we chatted about the upcoming week-long Howard Family Reunion scheduled for next August in Amelia Island.  The Howards really need to plan far in advance as we are a BIG clan! With just my siblings and our children and grandchildren we are 88 people strong!  In fact, we can be a little overwhelming so it’s sort of amazing that the Howards can find anyone to rent to us. Perhaps that’s why we never go to the same place twice!

Almost back to the car we switched topics, this time talking about our family’s first Christmas gathering since Covid.  There will be four new grandchildren, a new fiancé and a couple of boyfriends and girlfriends brave enough to enter the fray.  As Susan and I talked I was reminded of a wall plaque I once saw that said, “Family: A little bit of loud. A little bit of crazy. And a whole lot of love.”  I was grateful Susan joined our loud, crazy family, but not as grateful as my brother!


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