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Amazing Grace; Walking Home: A Woman's Pilgrimage on the Appalachian Trail.

Kelly Winters. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2001, 335 pp., $14.95 paper.

Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche once advised those in his audience who had not yet started on a spiritual path to get up and leave. But those who had already begun, he said, would have to stay. The same advice might well be given to anyone through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you haven't started, don't; or at least think twice before you do. This is a journey that many begin and few complete. It is arduous in the extreme, and not for the faint of heart. Yet if this is what you must do, then do it.

How is one to know? The literature of pilgrimage is full of pilgrims' soul-searching questionings. A pilgrim fettered by self-doubt would envy anyone who knows her heart and is ready to follow where the path leads. So it was for Kelly Winters, author of Walking Home. Her certainty is enviable. Yet if they envy Winters her decisiveness, few will envy the rigors of her chosen pilgrimage.

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,150 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in central Maine and usually takes six months to complete. It crosses some of the most rugged territory in the US, often ascending so steeply that hikers use metal ladders embedded in the cliff walls. Winters finds she cannot carry enough food to replace the calories she burns each day, so she's continually undernourished. More than once she is near death from hypothermia and insufficient food as she stumbles off the Trail and into town in search of a grocery store. She hikes in rain, cold and blistering sun. She waits out lightning storms crouched on the ground. Her feet hurt constantly. Her fingers swell to the size of sausages. And through it all, she knows that this is the right place for her.

Winters chooses to see her journey as a spiritual one. Providing the basic necessities of life defines the activities of the trail, yet somewhere within the walking and simple, mundane chores lies the heart of a truly American pilgrimage route. "Certainty grows in me that there's a 'place' I need to get to: not a physical place but an emotional, psychological, spiritual one. And although the place is not physical, somehow the only way to get there is to physically walk, a long, slow, arduous process. A pilgrimage.... [I]t's as necessary as blood or breath."

Writing about pilgrimage in The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder observes, "The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail ... carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy. ... The point is to make intimate contact with the real world, real self." It is this joy that sustains Winters and inspires her reader.

Winters seems to be literally graced, beginning with the "trail name" she receives in a dream:

a week before beginning the Trail, I had dreamed that I was in a gospel-preaching church, with an African-American congregation. I was standing in the choir... singing "Amazing Grace." ... When the song ended, the woman next to me looked deep into my eyes and said, in a tone that would allow no argument, "Girl, your name has got to be Amazin' Grace." I knew she meant this should be my name for the Trail. (p. 37)

She takes it as a sign "that I will...find what I'm looking for: some sense of home."

What she finds is a sometimes odd, occasionally dangerous, very human drama, played out on a narrow corridor of woods paths, crossroads, hostels and lean-to's. Like a kind of Chatauqua, her tales of trail life unfold to include a "hoods in the woods" group of juvenile offenders; military men who are continually competing to prove their heterosexuality; a man who's running the trail (if it were up to her, Winters would give an award to the person who traveled the slowest); trail groupies; a German casualty of reunification; and many generous townspeople who help hikers on their way. A perceptive observer of herself and her companions, Winters tells each one's story with admirable honesty, generous acceptance even of things that may anger or upset her, and a measured respect.

Some, like Big Josh's, are told with understated compassion:

Big Josh makes noodles, the last supper in his food bag, and then when they're almost done, he knocks the pot onto the dirt floor. Noodles splay all over his boots.

"Oh Jesus," he says. "Would you look at that? What kind of stupid thing is that? I can't believe it.... Look at that mess. What an idiot."

Desperately he rakes the noodles up with his hands and tosses them out into the rain like confetti. For some reason this strikes the rest of us as funny, and we laugh uncontrollably, even as we help him fling the muddy noodles outside.

"Here, Noodle Boot, eat some of my supper," I say...

"Noodle Boot!" Everyone bursts out laughing. "That's your Trail name, man! Noodle Boot!"

The name fits him.... We all think he's the funniest man on the Trail, but he would never believe it. He thinks he's a terrible hiker, a know-nothing, a boring middle-aged guy who's an idiot to even think he can, make it out here. (p. 101)

Noodle Boot is hiking in the wake of a divorce and the death of his son in an automobile accident. Like most of the through-hikers, he's out there to heal.

As much as Winters' is a chronicle of the human life of the Trail, it is also a naturalist's notebook. Her father and grandmother left her a legacy of woods lore. It is inspiring to be with her as she identifies wild leeks and a rare salamander, comes face to face with a bobcat or strings the names of flowers together as if the hills were blooming in poetry: "Down here it's deep in spring, the mountainside's covered with dwarf iris, fire pink, ladyslippers, bloodroot, flowering dogwoods, shadbush, golden ragwort, violets... trilliums, flame azaleas, Dutchman's breeches, mayapples, trout lilies..."

Even before Winters makes the decision to hike, she seems to be guided, entering a realm of mystery and magic. Throughout the hike, she is uncannily blessed by coincidence, as if she were so completely in the current of her life, so completely in sync with the universe that all manner of auspicious incidents happen to her. "On the Trail things don't seem random; it feels as if there's a larger pattern for the trip, something too big for me to understand, as if I'm walking at the edge of a mystery, part of some large, intricate spiritual ecosystem." Sitting on the steps of a hostel, wondering where she'll find the rooming fee, picking mindlessly at the muddy treads of her boots, she pulls out a crumpled ten-dollar bill, exactly the price of a bed. Another time she realizes she's lost her only pen. In the same mile she finds another, right on the Trail. Sometimes the magic is not so small... but I won't tell the whole story.

There are dangers for women on the Trail. Winters is chased up a mountain by men who think they can easily catch a small woman carrying a huge pack. They're wrong. Other women have been less fortunate. The book is dedicated to Lollie Winans and Julianne Williams, lesbians who were murdered that same summer in the Shenandoah. Winters hears of the murders hundreds of miles before she gets there. People warn her: "Well, just be careful. I heard two girls got themselves killed in Shenandoah park." Winters wonders why people say it that way, "as if they willed it, did it to themselves..."

Walking Home is a woman's tale--the tale of a woman taking the long, rough road to find her self and her own home in the world. She prefers her own company, and the company of women. She walks with questions--about a relationship with a man who was not what she thought he was, about previous relationships with women, about what kind of life she wants now. She learns that leaving the white-blazed official trail brings greater freedom and diversity. She discover that she can be at home anywhere.

Not all pilgrims are similarly blessed, nor do all hikers find themselves wrapped in the kind of benevolence that Winters seems to be. Indeed, some of the coincidences in her tale will test a reader's credulity. Thankfully, she describes these occurrences in ordinary language, making no claim for them beyond what hikers call "trail magic." Still, a reader might wonder if some parts of her narrative aren't just a little bit polished. If so, Walking Home is a modern-day real-life lesbian fairy tale, and it's a great read. On the other hand, it just might be true as Winters writes it, and that could go a long way to renewing a faith in grace, for all of us.

ANNE DELLENBAUGH is a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Her Wild Song, a guiding company leading wilderness trips for women. In Appalachian Trail parlance, she is a section hiker, and has hiked most of the trails in New England.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Old City Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dellenbaugh, Anne
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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