Brittany and Brian spent one sweet and loving year of marriage together before Brian suffered a heart-attack and left Brittany a widow at age 28. It was an unimaginable loss. Brian had been healthy, active and full of life, the thought of a fatal undiagnosed condition seemed impossible. Last year, Brittany bravely documented her journey through grief to a deeper sense of faith as she did what she and Brian loved to do together — she went hiking. And she really went for it — she quit her job and set out alone on the Appalachian Trail. In a two part conversation, Brittany shares her experience hiking through the valley of the shadow of death.
How did you make the decision to hike the Appalachian Trail?
I had wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for a long time. In fact, right after I got married, I tried to talk my husband into doing it for our honeymoon, but his voice of reason said the bills needed to be paid.
Then, a year after we got married, he passed away. I dove into work, immersing myself in it until I reached a tipping point and realized I needed to take a different approach.
I left for the Appalachian Train on what would have been on Brian’s 40th birthday, March 4th. I thought to myself, this is the perfect way to “march forth” in my own life. So that’s what I did, I started walking north. My approach was that this is an experience I’m doing for me; I’m not in a race. I went at my own pace and walked as far as I felt like walking each day and then set up my tent. I met some incredible people on the way and saw some amazing things. Four and a half months later, I was 2000 miles north and thought, ‘What just happened?!’
Four and a half months, 2000 miles, that’s one incredible adventure that you hiked primarily on your own. How did you do it?
I hiked solo, but people do it different ways. Some people meet up with others and they form what is called a trail family and they might hike together for a long period of time, or maybe the whole trail. For the previous few years, I had been following the direction of others, what others expected me to do, and I needed the freedom to follow what my heart was telling me to do. I met some incredible people and a lot of us hiked at the same speed, so we crossed each other’s paths. We got to know each other really well and we still stay in touch today.
But at the end of the day, I set out every morning with my own agenda.
The common saying on the trail is “Hike your own hike.” Everyone makes fun of it at some point, but it’s so true. We get so focused on pressures that are coming in and what other people’s miles look like, or what other people’s trials and tribulations are. At the end of the day, we were out there to hike our own hike and take the path that was going to work for our journey.
How did it feel being out in the vast, wide open all alone?
In some ways, it’s so much easier than just being out in the world, because everything on the trail is fixable, because it has to be. If something happened to my tent, I had to fix it, or I’d be cold and wet that night, and that’s not really an option. If my food got messed up, I had to fix it. The priorities in my life became elevated. As long as I had food, water and shelter, I was good. My needs were met. Everything else was just the cherry on top.
I thought about that so much after I got off trail. What if I just focus on the bare bones things that I need to survive in this world? Then everything else just seems like more of a blessing. And it also made it a lot less intimidating to be out there solo. When I was walking out there alone, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong. Everything from physically to emotionally to mentally to… just go down the list. But when I was focusing every day on maintaining my bare necessities and being satisfied as long as I had food, water and shelter, it was a much easier challenge.
Is that something that you come back to regularly? How often do you think about the trail and what you experienced out there?
Every single day.
How does it influence your life now?
I moved from a four bedroom house into a one bedroom apartment. I sometimes still feel like one bedroom is too big. It shifted my focus from being so concentrated on work and putting myself in a good position for the future and all that stuff. When I let the idea of controlling the future go, then I had all this freedom to explore. I had the freedom to do what really brings me joy, which is getting outside. Now I don’t have to spend my weekends mowing the lawn. I can spend them out hiking.
It was a huge life transformation for me to be okay with less. There’s so much satisfaction that comes with that because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in material stuff. I was reading a book about hoarders and it explained that hoarders don’t necessarily just love stuff. It’s that every piece is tied to a memory and that’s how some people’s memories are triggered.
My memories aren’t triggered by material things and I struggled with that after Brian passed away. Sometimes his family wanted to hold onto physical pieces of him, and to me it was about memories and experiences and photographs, rather than his old high school jersey or a shirt he wore. As soon as I started to understand that about myself — that I was okay breaking away from some of those things, letting go of them — it was a much more powerful frame of mind.
That makes me think of Cheryl Strayed in Wild when she’s trying to set out on the trail and she can’t lift her backpack, so she ends up leaving most everything in the hotel room.
Exactly. It’s funny because I relate to that so much. I started and thought I needed so much stuff. I had a bowl for my food, but after carrying my pack for a while I realized, I can eat straight out of the pot. I don’t need all this extra weight! I started breaking it down to the essentials.
My pack started at about 40 pounds, and now I can carry 10 days worth of food at 28 pounds. I learned what I actually needed and what was just a luxury. As soon as I really just pared it down to only what was needed, I could go farther and really get to some cool places. It’s kind of a cool thing to think about in life too– what if you really just strip out all that extra stuff? Where can you go?
I love that. How did your faith impact the hike and how did the hike impact your faith?
I would do the Appalachian Trail a million times over. I would do it every year if I could, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t parts of the experience that were just really hard. It’s hard to describe how much my feet hurt. It took almost a month after getting off trail before I could stand up out of bed, and I would have to hold on to the edge of the bed and try to walk.
There’s a verse in 1 Thessalonians that says we’re called to be grateful in all things and I applied that to the trail, but also in grief I’ve taken that up as a kind of calling, if you will. God never asked us to be grateful for everything that happens. I never have to be grateful for the fact that I lost my husband at 28 years old. I didn’t have to be grateful that my feet hurt every day. God never called us to be grateful for those things. He asked us to be grateful in all circumstances. While I can’t be grateful for the fact that I lost my husband, I can be really grateful for the things that he gave me. As soon as I started turning my attitude towards that of gratitude, the whole world shifted for me.
I found gratitude in the fact that grief gave me boldness. I don’t know that I would have hiked the Appalachian Trail had I not realized that at 36 years old, like Brian, you could have a heart attack when you’re otherwise healthy. Life changes in an instant — middle-age can’t be 36, retirement can’t be when you wait to do the things that you’ve been dreaming of your whole life, because you don’t know if something could happen when you’re 36. Or if at 58, you get rheumatoid arthritis and all of a sudden, all that stuff is taken off the table. Those are things that we have to grasp onto now. And that’s a new reality that I am extremely grateful for.
Was there a specific epiphany moment for you on the trail?
One of the moments that really hit me was in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the beginning of the trail, down in Tennessee. There’s this peak called Charlies Bunion. Brian and I had hiked it years ago, and we had a perfect day for it. We climbed up to the top and got to this little knob and could see the world. We could see the entire world. It’s like sitting on top of it. It’s gorgeous. It’s perfect.
I’d been looking forward to this view for the first 200 miles of trail. And I camped two miles from it so that I could get up right away and see it at sunrise. I planned my mileage for weeks. I set up my tent that night thinking “this is going to be great, I get to see Charlies Bunion. Tomorrow it’s going to be emotional because I miss that Brian wasn’t there to see it, but this is gonna be great.” I woke up and it was a blizzard. I mean, a complete blizzard. I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me. There were six inches of snow on the ground. I couldn’t see anything.
As they say, I had to keep hiking on, so I packed up everything thinking maybe it would clear up by the time that I got there. I arrived at Charlie’s Bunion and could hardly even see the edge of the cliff. I was emotionally devastated. I asked God, ‘Why can’t you just give me this one thing? This is what I have been looking forward to for so long. Why? Why do you have to make all of this harder?’
I was alone, and the world was quiet. When snow is laying on the ground it insulates all noise. Animals aren’t out and there’s a beautiful silence after a blizzard like that. I hiked out of Charlie’s Bunion and I kept thinking about missing that view. All of a sudden the storm started to clear and the clouds were barely parting, and I could see the outline of the snow covered trees. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And I thought you know what? Nobody else has this view. Because who in their right mind would go out into the middle of a blizzard?
Then it popped into my head, oh, I get it. This is what God means. I don’t have to be grateful for all of this. But I can find gratitude in the fact that I got that view. I carried that with me the whole trail. Once the snow went away, it started raining and when you can’t go inside to dry off, you’re just constantly soaking wet. I hated that rain, but nobody else got to see how bright the leaves were when it’s raining outside. I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to see what happened when the rain dries up that next morning. I woke up and saw the edges of the evergreen leaves were bright green because they grew overnight from the rain. That growth, it’s just absolutely amazing. That was one of the big spiritual lessons that I took with me.
One of the other verses that always stuck out to me is Hebrews 12:1, where we’re asked to run the race before us with endurance. A lot of people will put that verse on their mirror or on t-shirts. I have a shirt that I run in and I wore a bracelet that said it too. But then I started picking up on a really key part of that phrase, which is, we’re not just asked to run with endurance, we’re asked to run the race set out before us with endurance, right? We don’t necessarily know what that path is gonna be. We’re just asked to keep running through it. It was a really important moment for me to see we don’t necessarily determine the path. God determines that path. He gives us the tools to make sure we can get through it.
And in Northern Virginia, when I was getting really tired and was 1000 miles into the trail, it was a great reminder that endurance is not for no sake. There’s a purpose to this. There’s a northern end that we’re going to and we can apply that to our faith journey. Mount Katahdin is that sense of eternal life. God put us on the path that heads north, heads towards that eternal place. We don’t get to determine what that path looks like. We’re just called to be on it and push through it and bring as many people as we can along on that journey.