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Week 52: Michele Downing

On December 28th, I was super excited as I drove my car to meet Michele Downing, my hiking companion for the very last hike of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail.”  I couldn’t wait to meet the woman who on a stinking hot summer day in late July, sent a Facebook message saying she would like to be my hiking companion during the last week of December.  Wow…that’s what I call advanced planning!

Though it had been exactly five months and three days since Michele and I had confirmed our hike, the time flew by in a flash! I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss ditty, “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Finally, and just at the right time, I got to meet Michele on a gray, overcast day, as we climbed out of our cars at the Appalachian Trailhead off Route 77 in Smithsburg, Maryland.   As I introduced myself to Michele, I was filled with an odd mix of feelings: gratitude for the opportunity to hike with another companion, proud to be completing a project I had dreamed of more than a year ago and a strong sense of ambivalence that “A Year of Hikes” was coming to an end.  I knew right then and there I would miss my weekly scheduled hikes, the adventure of connecting with new friends and the regular dose of the natural world that has filled me with joy and soothed my spirit during the past year.

As I adjusted the length of my new Trail Buddy hiking poles (a Christmas present from my husband) Michele said, “This is your last hike! I’m so glad to be part of ‘A Year of Hikes’.  Will you do it again next year?”  “No,” I replied. “This project is over. As T.S. Eliot said, ‘To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’” I explained that in 2022 I planned to cook and share meals with women from diverse backgrounds.  “I love ethic foods and I think food is a great conveyor of stories. I’m looking forward to learning how to prepare delicious dishes from around the world and telling the stories of the women who teach me!”

We set off across the field that borders the road, pausing only to snap a photo of the low gray clouds hovering over South Mountain in the distance. Even before we entered the woods, which is just a few hundred yards from the car, Michele and I discovered that we both graduated from Severna Park High School, she in 1974 and me in 1975…what a coincidence!  Immediately, I asked Michele if she knew my sister, who graduated the same year.  Michele replied, “My family moved to Severna Park in the middle of my junior year, so I didn’t really get to know that many people.”  Between us, Michelle and I have 13 siblings, so I’d bet anything that at least one of her siblings was in a class at Severna Park High School with one of my siblings!

Naturally I asked Michele to tell me about her family.  She is her parents only daughter and has three older and two younger brothers.  Michele laughed, “I guess you can tell we were Catholic!”  It’s a thing with kids from big families to rattle off the names of everyone as quickly as possible.  I swear when I asked Michele the names of her brothers, quick as a wink, “Mark, Kevin, Mike, Sean and Pat,” rolled off her tongue at lightning speed. Mark and Kevin live in Oregon where Mark makes high end, hand-crafted furniture and Kevin recently retired after a long career with the EPA. Her youngest brother, Pat, lives in Thailand where he works with reverse engineering to develop software. Her other brothers, Mike and Sean live and work in Baltimore. Sean provides computer support and technology assistance to students and teachers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I can’t recall where Mike works, but I do remember that Michele said he got married for the first time two years ago at age 67!  I guess it’s never too late to fall in love.

The woods were quiet, with little wind, so when we stopped to observe more closely the moss and lichen growing on the rock wall, we were able to hear small birds, probably Nuthatches and White-throated Sparrows, calling from high up in the trees. Most of the deciduous plants were gone but there was an amazing array of fungi, varying in color, shape and texture and an assortment of mosses that were so soft to the touch that I imagined it could make a spectacularly comfy pillow if I decided to take a quick nap.

As we walked along, Michele inspired me as she talked about her 31-year career as an early elementary school teacher. When I asked, “What was the best part of teaching?” she replied, “Watching the faces of my students light up when they understood a new concept. Their success filled me with purpose and happiness.”   Later she said, “I never had children of my own, but I knew the love of so many children. Every day my students would enter the classroom, throw their arms around my legs and hug me.”  Then chuckling, she added, “…and wipe their noses on my clothes!”  Only someone who really loves children would let them do that day in and day out!

Michele retired in July of 2019, just months before COVID-19 hit. Though she never had to do the whole “remote teaching” thing, Michele said she has the utmost respect for educators who creatively continued to teach, support, comfort and connect with their students via long distance learning throughout the pandemic.  “So” I asked, “what are you doing now that you are retired?”  An avid outdoors woman, Michele spends a few hours a day hiking, biking, kayaking, and walking.  Luckily her home of 25 years backs up to Leakin Park/Gwynns Falls, the largest woodland park in an East Coast city…even larger than Central Park in New York!  She and her boyfriend, Rex, who is a retired Pennsylvania State Park Ranger like to spend time outdoors together. They camp, fish, cross-country ski, visit state and national parks and in general, enjoy exploring the great outdoors. As Michele struck the strong woman pose, the smile on her face lit up the woods around her.  I knew I was looking at a woman that felt most at home, not inside her house, but outside surrounded by the beauty of nature.

Usually, trees are green, and rocks are gray.  But surprise…on this day, by the stream, the trees were gray, and the rocks were green. After hiking to this spot every week for a year, I was amazed that the moss covering the rocks was thicker than at any time!  To me, it looked like Rivendell, the magical and beautiful homeland of the elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Standing by the stream we had a lovely conversation about personality traits. Michele recently attended a lecture and, despite a long career in which she interacted daily with students, colleagues, and parents, concluded that she is more of an introvert than she realized. Probably it’s no surprise to anybody who regularly reads this blog that I’m an extrovert, but let me be clear, an extrovert that deeply cherishes the introverts in my life.  Michele and I agreed that one of the best things about being women in our prime is that we better appreciate diversity.  At this point in our lives, it is no longer “our way or the highway.” When we were younger, we not only knew what was right for ourselves, we knew what was right for everyone else, too!  There’s something to be said for letting go of arrogance and embracing humility.  Maybe this sort of self-awareness is a kind of wisdom that comes with age, and if that’s the case, we are embracing that too!

Hiking back up the hill, Michele and I bonded over other shared experiences. We both had helmet-cracking bike accidents and lived to tell the stories…boy are we grateful!  We both like to camp and shared suggestions for great wilderness vacations.  Michele highly recommended Janes Island State Park, located just outside of Crisfield on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The park, which offers campsites, rental cabins, and a marina, has over 30 miles of water trails and miles of isolated pristine beaches. I suggested Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island in Georgia. It’s the perfect location to experience unspoiled marshlands and wide, white, private beaches while staying in a luxury inn.

Another thing we have in common is elderly relatives that need support to stay in their own homes. Michele’s father and my father-in-law both live in Severna Park and, at 97 and 88-years-old respectively, need a great deal of assistance.  As Michele and my husband know, caregiving can be physically taxing and emotionally draining. Fortunately, they both have siblings that work with them so that, at least for now, it is possible for their fathers to remain in their homes. Not everyone is so lucky. I don’t usually include links in my blog but I’m going to make an exception. If you find yourself caring for a loved one and need assistance, check out https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/family-caregiving.htm.

Toward the end of our hike, Michele asked about an old, rusted piece of metal by the side of the trail.  I told her that I didn’t know what the heck it was but that over the course of the past year some of my companions guessed it was an old piece of farm or logging equipment, others thought it was machinery left by the Washington County Roads Department, one thru hiker told me it was an ancient catapult and one jokingly speculated that it was part of a spaceship left behind by extraterrestrial beings who visited Earth hundreds of years ago!  “The weird thing,” Michele said, “is that I didn’t even see that huge metal contraption on the way down to the stream.  The trail looks completely different when viewed from the other direction.”   Michele was right!

Not just on the trail but in life we see things differently depending on our perspective.  It’s one of the reasons I started “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail.”  I wanted to see if I hiked the same trail with women from diverse backgrounds if I would see things differently. After 52 hikes with 52 women, the answer is an unmitigated “YES!”  I have learned much from the gracious women who have been my companions on the trail. Without intentionally doing so, they have gently challenged my inaccurate assumptions, expanded my thinking, encouraged me to see the world from novel points of view, taught me important life lessons and redefined my definition of friendship.  A year ago, I would have defined friendship as a long-term relationship that over time, promotes understanding and mutual affection. Now, I know that it is possible, through stories shared on a trail, to develop a friendship in just three hours!

I have learned when women share their struggles, triumphs, sorrows, and joys they experience one of life’s greatest gifts: the gift of mutuality. Seeing themselves in others and others as part of themselves, they celebrate their similarities and respect, rather than fear, their differences.  It was wonderful to wrap up the last hike of the year with Michele, a woman who willingly shared her stories and listened to mine! It took me a whole blog to express what John Muir artfully expressed in one sentence: “And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul and found new friends that have enriched my life and expanded my view of the world.”  Happy Hiking and, of course, Happy New Year!



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