TELLING STORIES ON THE LONG TRAIL
Hiking eleven hours a day is hard, but it was never boring, because my hiking buddy and I took turns telling stories.
Jan and I met in college and have been living apart ever since: she in Alaska and me in Vermont. We’ve kept in touch with infrequent letters before email and Facebook, rarely saw each other, and never phoned.
All I can say is: we were busy. We had careers and jobs, husbands, children, and nearby friends. Nevertheless, the friendship we formed in college has sustained us through long periods of separation. Hiking the Long Trail was a chance to catch up.
Jan started by narrating the story of her recent divorce, ending a marriage that appeared rock solid for thirty-seven years, until he fell in love with a co-worker. It took about five days to tell it from beginning to end, during which time we covered fifty-five miles over two significant mountains. But who noticed? I was too busy listening.
Generally, I walked ahead and set the pace while Jan served as my live audiobook, telling me a story that’s rich, complex, heartbreaking and wonderful. Yes, wonderful. While the process of decoupling was at times harrowing and heartbreaking, Jan is on a new path of enormous personal growth. And in addition to the through line – the divorce – Jan filled me in with lots of backstory about her last thirty-odd years in Juneau, stories about her children, her siblings, parents, co-workers, and friends.
Eventually, Jan’s story caught up to the present and it was my turn. I told Jan about my work “advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change,” about my life in small-town Vermont, my children, my brothers, my parents, my friends. I also told Jan about my surprising thirty-year marriage.
Right after college, I was the one who decided I’d rather be single than marry one of men I’d dated and dumped. In July of 1984, I’d decided I’d probably never get married or have kids, and I was okay with that. In August, I met Tim. Jan’s never dated, so I told her the stories that led me to develop my rule: the worst thing about a partner had to be better than the worst thing about living alone.
Since we were walking the length of Vermont, I also told her stories about the Green Mountain State – history, personalities and politics – topics I’ve researched for two novels, countless commentaries and many public lectures.
MOMENTS OF SILENCE
Occasionally, one of us would ask for fifteen minutes of silence. It never lasted that long. Almost all the time we were walking, we talked. This may help explain while we never saw any charismatic mega-fauna like deer or moose; they would have heard us coming. But once we made camp, we stopped. Off the trail, we retreated to quiet reflection.
STORYTELLING AND ENDURANCE
We quickly realized that storytelling helped us endure the effort of hiking nearly 300 miles in 25 days.
Once we’d run out of autobiography, we told stories about mutual friends, about books we’d read, about movies and plays we’d seen, music we’d heard and other adventures we’d had in different parts of the world.
And because we’re both the sort of people who like to find meaning in what we do, we carried on a meta-discussion about the hike itself: what we were learning from walking day after day over challenging terrain. This led to Lessons From the Long Trail, a series of essays which you can read on my blog.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STORIES
Storytelling is a distinctly human activity. It’s how we make sense of the world, and how we connect with others. Telling stories shapes our experience, and hearing them expands our knowledge. Knowing the same stories creates community.
Telling stories is central to the human experience. Being a storyteller is an honorable job. Keep writing your stories.