There’s a group of individuals who call themselves the “Massachusetts Walking Tour.” They’re both musicians and hikers. Touring the state of Massachusetts on foot, they perform free concerts in the communities in which they walk.
For 4 consecutive days, I had the privilege of hiking with them. Little did I know I would learn more from them in 4 days than I have in 4 months of soul searching. It took about a day after I finished hiking to realize that I had been a part of something really special. Trail withdrawal set in—re-acclimating to life out of the woods—and so did another kind of pining, only it was for more than just pine trees.
Here’s my homage to Momma Duck, Mandy, Crusher, Spanky, Whippersnapper and Bubbles (their trail names.) May you keep on oozing cool simply because you couldn’t care less about cool.
Patience is more than a virtue. It’s a very deliberate practice.
We were told we’d be walking 10 miles but walked 13 instead. On our “8-mile day” we walked 11. Did the MWT kids complain? Ask to rest every couple of hours? I never heard it. Carrying 50 pounds on their backs (oh yeah, they were camping out every night too), they didn’t seem to feel the weight. At one point I asked Spanky if he ever got tired of the whole thing. “We don’t like to complain,” he said. “We don’t want the Mass Walking Tour to get a reputation for being grumblers and difficult to work with.”
Placed strategically on our route from Walden Pond to Wachusett Mountain were “people of interest” – individuals commissioned to give short vignettes on the local history. These alfresco lessons often lasted 20 or 30 minutes. Standing tall with their 50-lb packs, the MWT kids didn’t fret. They listened intently. They swallowed the aches they were feeling in their necks and backs and feet and gave their undivided attention to whoever was talking. Up until meeting the MWT, I hadn’t seen people giving such resolute attention to anything in years, thanks to a handheld menace called a cell phone.
People don’t really need a whole lot.
In 4 days, I don’t think I saw the MWT kids eat anything more than homemade trail mix, power bars and jerky. If one of them snuck a bite of a sandwich, I didn’t see it. They shared a lot and helped put things back in each other’s packs.
They drank a lot of water from their awesome-looking intergalactic backpack tubular water “bladders”—my plastic Nalgene water bottle looking like a cheesepuff in comparison—and when my Nalgene ran low, they offered me some of their own water from Momma Duck’s reserve stash.
They wore the same clothes every day. Smelly? Maybe a little. But we were all smelly. I learned BO doesn’t really matter on the trail. A lot of things don’t really matter on the trail—small talk, shampoo… I learned Crusher did just fine by rubbing a little baking soda in her head.
As it turns out, life in the woods, and maybe life period, can be whittled down to a few basic needs: 1) Faith 2) Food 3) Water 4) Where to squat 5) People 6)? I’m having trouble even coming up with a #6.
We walked through poison ivy, stinging nettles, knee-high brambles, neck-high tick grass (lots of ticks) and a deforested wasteland. We forded swamps, climbed peaks and weed-wacked. We fought off mosquitoes, stepped on snakes and kept on walking. We had meaningful conversations about marriage, health care and student loans.
Among our company was a man named James who came all the way from NYC to hike with us. He spouted affirmations and jubilations from dawn to dusk, never showing fatigue or losing hope. “Look at that sky! Isn’t that wonderful?! What do I have to be upset about when I can look at that sky?!” When one of the historians described something improbable, James yelled, “Shut the front door!” Then he’d laugh a laugh that made everyone want to laugh.
The first night brought torrential downpours, lightening and hail. I asked the MWT kids if they wanted to sleep on the floor of our living room instead of camping outside and they agreed. During their short stay, they asked for nothing, thanked us for everything, and when I asked how they faired on the hard floor, crammed-in like sardines, with nothing but inflatable pillows underhead, they answered “Great!” I think they meant it.
Even quiet Whippersnapper, in his own unassuming way, radiated tenacity and a deep loyalty. He pressed on each day without so much as a groan, saying more in his few words than the chattiest cathy.
So how do they stay so positive? I have been trying to cultivate this same positivity for months now, years. I strive for it each morning, read about it, pray for it, and only seem to achieve it once in a blue moon and with tremendous effort.
Love is everything.
Have you ever felt really cared about? Like someone is looking out for you, concerned for your wellbeing? I’ve felt it from a couple of people—my husband being one, God when I’m centered, a couple of NY buddies— but I would say this sensation is not a societal default. Friends disappoint. Family tries.
The MWT was different. They seemed to genuinely care about the people walking with them. They checked-in, asked questions, paid attention. Perhaps this is what happens when you spend enough time reflecting inward: You get oriented outward, becoming more of a giver than a taker.
When the young girl who was photographing our journey found herself on our day’s hike without any food packed, the MWT banded together and gave her contributions from their own limited rations.
When my boot filled with swamp water, a kindhearted radio disc jockey named Nick Noble handed me a pair of dry socks before I had time to get uncomfortable. Bubbles contributed a plastic baggy (“Newspaper bags work the best!” she explained), and I miraculously had dry feet for the remainder of the trip.
At least once a day Mandy asked me how I was doing, as if I was the one who needed encouragement (which I did.) I wasn’t the one carrying 50 pounds on my back who hadn’t showered in days and who had slept on the ground the night before. Yet here was pensive Mandy asking me how I was holding up.
Most days we had what is known as a trail “sweep”—a person who walks last in the group to make sure no one gets left behind. Let’s pause for a minute to think about this: A person (sacrificially, voluntarily)—who walks last (humility, selflessness, risking self)—to ensure that no one gets left behind. That’s called love, baby. And it made me think it an analogy to the great Sweep we have in real life.
I felt the love. These people barely knew me and yet they somehow cared. They inspired me to be a better person. They’re tuned in without being plugged in. They’re authentic.
I left my journey with treasures galore: A Massachusetts Walking Tour CD (it’s amazing; get it), a signed copy of Robert M. Young’s book Walking to Wachusett: A Re-Enactment of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘A Walk to Wachusett.’” I was lucky enough to get to walk alongside Mr. Young on my last day. And rumor has it, I may soon be in possession of my very own AMC sticker which I have been coveting for at least a decade now, maybe longer. Thank you, Bubbles.
Maybe someday I’ll be fortunate enough to get to walk with them again. Until then, I’m savoring the memories, looking forward to the footage, and trying to put into practice the mammoth life lessons I learned from these hiker musician friends who really have a handle on what’s important in life.
Robert Young’s book can be ordered from: ShopAtWaldenPond.org
Nick Noble’s folk music revival radio: WICN.org