Birthday Gift on the Trail

Sometimes a knock on the head can set priorities straight, as I learned at the unexpected ending of my 4-day solo birthday hike a couple weeks ago in New Hampshire. There I was, at the start, full of high hopes and hubris that it would all go down without a hitch, this big birthday gift to myself. Oh, it went down alright. Here’s how…



I begin the last day of my trek at dawn. Leaning into the uphill climb with my poles pointing behind me, one tiny root catches my foot. There is no stopping the momentum of 30 pounds on my back and with a THUD, I get a full-on ‘close inspection of the trail.’ Dazed, I manage to un-plant my forehead and hoist my body into a seated position while trying to stay calm. After some unknown moments, I open my eyes. This is not good. A vision emerges: a guy with an orange shirt and day pack hiking up the hill toward me. So I’m hallucinating now? No, he is real, and had been dropped off at the road crossing a mile and a half down the mountain so he could hike the same long stretch I am supposed to be hiking. Without hesitation his plans change—he becomes my trail angel, getting me safely from trail to town.


The day unfolds at Dartmouth hospital with the requisite testing and resting—allowing me, my concussed head, sprained wrist, and bruised ego to cool off. I have a lot to think about, including how lucky I am I can think at all.



So, I think. Ruminate. I had hiked around 30 miles, that was something. Miles of rainy, shiny, autumnal vistas with time to reflect on an inspiring, adventure-packed summer, to wrestle with how best to express the way it all rocked my world. Reflective writing time is a big point of these excursions with my self, and here I am chilling in a gurney-bed with my right hand under ice.


I want to figure out how to write about redwood trees, no offense to the little A.T. trees. I want to write about how my husband and I walked among those giants in June, captivated for hours by their family-oriented ways, basking in their magnificent, healing grace. I want to artfully wax nostalgic on the West Coast of my childhood which ever haunts me, even while scrambling along a New Hampshire ridge which was apparently the East Coast about 400 million years ago, which was essentially a south coast at the time, before the Atlantic Ocean even existed. I want to write about how freaking cool this is. I think about continental plates and divides. Warming waters. Violent upheavals. Our current societal suffering boiling like magma under the crust, coast to coast. I want to write or scribble or unleash something about all that, too.


The woman in the bed next to me moans in pain, apologizing. It occurs to me—lying there on pristine linens with my clunky, dusty boots still on—that I might want too much.



Back home, post-concussion, I only want to write and share the following letter of gratitude:


Dear Trail Angel,

I regret not having the clarity of mind to get your address in order to send you this letter. So I will throw it out there this way, a pebble in the blog-pond with perhaps a few ripples of hope and faith in humanity we could all use more of these days.


I thank you, and my family thanks you, for being there on the trail. Thank you for giving me the space, while you waited, to make my own decision about what I was capable of doing next, which as you know became woefully clear as I staggered up, throwing up breakfast and dinner. Hiking the rest of those miles to Hanover? HELLL no. So thank you for happily hauling my huge pack for the better part of an hour down to the road while I trailed slowly behind you. For warning me of rocks and roots coming up. For making sure my eyes looked ok. For being kind, calm, and nonjudgemental. Thank you for calling and asking someone you knew to make arrangements to have a ride waiting for us at the trailhead. Thanks for referring to me as me ‘a person’ who needed help. Thanks to that someone you knew. Thanks for letting me sip your fresh, clean water after I threw up again. Thank you for insisting I go to the hospital to get checked out and rest before getting the green light to go home.


My long, solo walk in the woods got complicated. So did yours, thanks to me. I don’t know what you ended up doing after making sure I was safe. I know your first name is Rich, that you are from Virginia, and that your daughter is a freshman at Dartmouth. But I don’t know you. I don’t know what you think or believe, or who you vote for. All I know is that you went out of your way, in every way, to help a stranger—a fellow human being—who was in need. I can’t think of a bigger, better birthday gift than that.


Ever grateful, and recovering well,


More to come, safely, around the bend…

10 Responses to “Birthday Gift on the Trail

  • What an experience! Your reflections on it bring it life and depth.

  • Anonymous
    5 years ago

    Wow Karen, that was so eloquently written. Lots of emotion stirred up in me. So glad to know there are trail angels out there looking after my best friend!

  • Your beautiful writing brought tears!! ?

  • Dave Southam
    5 years ago

    Thank you Trail Angel Rich for helping my sister.

  • Anonymous
    5 years ago

    Such a beautiful posting, sharing the latest experiences on the AT in New Hampshire! We are so grateful for the kindness of others who helped you. There is much goodness in this world, and strangers so often step up and show the very best of humanity, helping others during times of need. It’s Canadian Thanksgiving, and we give thanks to you and our loving family and friends who bring joy into our lives every single day,
    Love, Mummeth, Dad, David ????

    • Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! Indeed, there is much to be grateful for, on and off the trail. love you guys xox


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