Bunny was literally between a rock and a hard place. Her hiking group, the Mountain Marching Mamas, had come to a steep rock cleft on the Appalachian Trail, a challenging granite ascent that Charme, Ellen, Mary, and Sylvia had traversed — but not Bunny.
Bunny — with her 28-pound backpack — was stuck, stretching upward as far as she could reach but failing to connect with the outstretched hands reaching down to pull her up to the top. They just couldn’t connect. What to do?
A tall man with reddish-blonde hair and hiking boots suddenly appeared, dropped to one knee, and, reaching downward, locked wrists with Bunny and yanked her up to the top. Bunny breathed a sigh of relief, the other Mamas all cheered, and the man — well, he disappeared into thin air. Gone. A trail angel you might say.
Bunny was the one who had given this group of middle-aged mothers a goal. They had been doing meandering one-week hikes on the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, the AT, in the late 1970s. But when Bunny got breast cancer, Charme, Bunny’s sister, said, “We need a long-range goal to focus us on the future.” Mount Katahdin, Maine, was two thousand miles up the trail. Bunny would live to see it.
Some 42 years later, the Mountain Marching Mamas are still going strong — perhaps a bit slower and more often in a car or canoe than with boots and backpacks on the trail but still going. Charme (“Sharm”) is Bunny’s sister, two transplanted Ohio Buckeyes who raised families in Florida while teaching school. The Mamas all have hiking names, trail labels for the AT. Bunny is Mother Superior while Charme is Gypsy.
Ellen is yet another (now retired) teacher who came to Florida, from Kalamazoo, Michigan — and thus has trail name Mama Kazoo. Mary moved from Ohio to Indiana and is Hoosier Mama — without a question mark. She replaced Grace, Amazing Grace, when knee problems took her off the trail. Sylvia, a native Floridian in the citrus business with her family, goes by Orange Blossom.
We seem to be living in cantankerous times, so lessons of camaraderie from the Mountain Marchin’ Mamas could be useful. They do have a system. Rule one is fairness. They take turns in everything, from rotating the bad sleeping spot in a trail shelter to who gets up early to make coffee on a cold morning or who pumps gas on car trips. All for one and one for all.
In the early years, there were bumps on the road. They once got separated on the trail, the two groups having to pitch tents for the night and try to reunite the next day. The only problem was that one group had the tents and the other group had the poles. So thereafter each hiker took her own small tent, poles, and food, establishing independence just in case. Rule two — learn from experience.
The Mamas hiked eight to fourteen miles per day, depending on the terrain and weather. Hiking uphill in a hard rain was the worst. But once they got off the trail for the day, shed their hiking booths, and gathered around the campfire, it was mostly fun, gossip, and giggles. Each one had a night in which they gave their “state of the family report.” Topics varied from current events and global politics to their children’s progress in school — which went from K-12 to college to omigosh, I’m a grandmother. But it was all just that, grand.
The Mountain Marching Mamas all became life coaches for each other, a bonding that’s kept them best friends for four decades. After finishing the AT in 1999, they took on trails in Europe and the western U.S.
The Fairness Rule they followed became known as “the Mama way.” In this time of divisiveness, we all could use a good dose of that. And maybe that Trail Angel who magically appeared to pull Bunny to safety really was an angel — someone who comes along to help at just the right time. That would be the Mama way.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida. He is married to a Mama.