Each year I hike with my cousin, Danny, aka “JD Smith” at Raven Rock State Park–sometime around Veteran’s Day. Our tradition started ten years ago after Danny learned that I’d hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday we met there in COVID 19 gear and hiked about 3.5 miles down the Northington Ferry Trail to the Cape Fear River.
I first wrote about the rediscovering of my cousin during our yearly hikes back in the post “Second Chance to Know You” in Nov. of 2017. This is the intro to the picture and post:
It was 1966 and he (Danny) was home on leave for Thanksgiving. My cousin, Danny and my Grandma Smith hold his fresh catch from her farm pond. He’d just completed boot camp and was ready to serve on the USS Cacapon docked in Long Beach, California. I was an eleven-year-old kid looking up to my twenty-two-year old cousin. Now, fifty-one-years later, I have a second chance to know him.
I love this picture and the joy I remember seeing on Grandma Smith’s face when she talked about getting a letter from Danny. She had a bamboo tea set displayed proudly in her living room that he’d brought her from the Philippine Islands. Back then, I knew him at a distance, much older and off at sea, someone we all looked up to as one of the ‘big’ cousins. Grandma Smith had eight children who produced twenty grandchildren. I was privileged to have nineteen cousins.
Now, at age sixty-five, I’m able to appreciate Danny who is seventy-six and has been hiking every week for twenty-one years since his retirement. He goes with a friend and they now trek an average of 5 miles but have previously done longer distances– like 10 miles, frequently in the Uwharrie Mountains.
On our hikes, we talk about everything from childhood memories, people we dated in high school, politics, issues in our Christian faith, books we’re reading, going to community theater– the list goes on and on. I’ve told him many times that not only is he my cousin, but he’s like the big brother I always wanted. Now that I’m a divorced woman and looking toward a future of dating for the first time since I was 22, I’m sure he will be a sounding board. It’ll be like getting brotherly advice that I would have benefitted from when I was dating back in the day!
Every year I wonder what new thing I’ll learn from Danny, what perspective he’ll give me on something that matters to both of us. We hike at the same park but each time it’s a new experience. To stay in the present and appreciate those moments make all our hikes special.
Danny inspires me by his healthy attitude toward life. He showed real strength over all the years he took care of his wife, Jane who had early onset dementia. I never heard bitterness or complaint from him, only a recounting of his blessings for being able to keep his beloved at home with help from caregivers.
Yesterday, I loved hearing him re-tell the story of meeting her when he first moved to Asheboro. He’d joined the Jaycees and was working one Saturday in 1972 on their Christmas tree lot. He fell for her winsome smile and her ease in talking with him at that first encounter.
“She just came up to me and said, Hi. I’m Jane Miller.” He recognized her as a fellow member of their Quaker meeting.
Danny and I stopped walking and leaned on our hiking poles. He continued.
“Before she left the lot, she had a Christmas tree and we had a date.”
I can imagine that her light-blue eyes were dancing as she walked away from my charming and handsome cousin.
Danny emphasized how easy it was to talk with her from that very first conversation and how they proved to be the perfect fit– balancing each other. He always speaks of their marriage with no regret, seeing that she was truly the one for him, God’s gift and destiny.
Danny inspires me with his healthy lifestyle of eating well and maintaining his fitness. He’s spent so much time in the forrest over those twenty-one years of hiking, that he is truly is at home in the woods. He pays attention to details along the way– seeing things I hadn’t noticed– a tree limb down, change in the flow of the creek, and hearing the sound of an animal snapping a branch. He’ll pick up litter along the path, always one who’s concerned about the environment.
We stopped to eat our lunch that Danny had packed. He took a hammock and spread it on the leaves and we each used a tree as if it were the back of a chair. The sun was shining through the branches and added a bit of mid-day warmth. Danny poured each of us a bowl of cream of tomato soup from his thermos that had kept the liquid steaming hot. With the crunched-up-crackers, the soup added to the cozy comfort of our dining room beneath the bare trees. An occasional hawk flew over and hikers walked by, calling out a greeting through their masks. We finished our soup and then ate our grilled pimento cheese and ham sandwiches.
Danny always takes care of preparing our meal– whether it’s soup and sandwiches or grilling kielbasa back at the parking area. Like him navigating the trail, equipped with a map and watching for the directional arrows and tree markings, it feels like a precious gift of him watching out for me. While I’ve been very independent with going on solo journeys and hiking alone, navigating travel routes in places that are unfamiliar, it’s nice to have this care from my cousin. I can relax, knowing that I don’t have to do it all myself.
We finished our hike and pulled out of the park by three o’clock. I took my customary route through the ‘stomping grounds’ of my adolescence– the countryside near the park. I often ‘rode around’ with my friend, Delores on those rural roads in search of Boone Trail Boys. I passed the home of my ‘first love’ and remembered when I stopped by in 1997. He had long moved away and when his mother came to the door, I used the unoriginal explanation that I just ‘happened to be in the neighborhood.’ My 42-year-old self was restless to learn what had happened to my old flame.
Later, I drove by another cousin’s home and remembered it was the first place I ever went to a ‘boy-girl’ party. Oh, the fun we had! How sad it was to see that the house is no longer inhabitable.
Driving up the road from there, I passed Grandma Smith’s house. It’s still standing but totally changed by new owners who have some type of farming business. There was a huge travel trailer beside the house and lots of vehicles and equipment in what used to be a cornfield. In my mind’s eye, I could see all twenty cousins running around in the yard.
Finally, I drove a half-mile further to the site of Grandma’s Presbyterian Church. There was no sign of that building and now there’s a double-wide in the old church yard. The trees have grown tall that used to be where we tied the volleyball net for youth group–that magical time on Sunday afternoons at 5:00, a bringing together of God and boys. How I wish I could recreate that church that had been central to my Grandma and to all of our family.
It was another memorable day of precious moments with Danny and reminders of how time is moving on. I’m so different from the girl I was back when we drove down those Harnett County roads, but yet so much of that girl remains. I wonder what the day will be like next year when we take our hike–and I always count on there being a next year.
Until then, I’ll look forward to that hike and to the new discoveries I’ll make, when I talk with Danny as we walk the trail.
Last week I told you how much I appreciate you and want to show my thanks by giving away a copy of my memoir, He Heard My Voice every week for four weeks to a reader in the contiguous U.S. Each week I have a question and will ask you to send your response to my email to enter the drawing. All names will remain in the drawing throughout the four weeks–so if you responded last week and weren’t the one I drew–you still have a chance!
This week my question is: What person would you like a second chance to know and why?
Send your response to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a Good Week!