trail stories
trail stories
In the Footsteps of the Ancestors
By Michelle “Northstar” Holmes
Photos by Derrick Z. Jackson

“Your trail name is very pretty, Northstar,” a hiker complimented me, “what does it mean?”

“The North Star — it shows us the way to go,” I said simply. Later, I lay in the dark, anxious about my journey. I was visited by a waking dream from a woman I call ‘The Ancestor.’ She was a fugitive from slavery, traveling north.

Like me, she was worried about her physical capability, injury, bears, and rattlesnakes. But the similarities end about there. I lay in a simple but sturdy shelter. She lay in a cellar. If lucky, she had a “sleeping pad” of straw. I wait for daylight to make my journey easy. She waits for nightfall to obscure captors. I mourn sending my dog companion home because she could not handle the cold. My Ancestor fears dogs that track her. I put on my wool socks in the cold and lace up my sturdy boots. Does she even have socks and shoes? I long for my family members. But I can reach them with a cell signal. She does too, but it will be months before she knows if they are dead, alive, or captured. I eat some beef jerky that I prepared. When I’m running low, I can call my family for mail drops. Surely my Ancestor prepared food for her journey too. But she does not know where her next supply of food will come from.

Oh Ancestor, I realize I am only a shadow and a whisper of who you are. I wish that I could have an ounce of your strength and a pound of your fortitude.

These words were adapted from my journal in March 2007, five rough days after starting the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia. Not only had I sent my too-stressed dog home to Massachusetts, I had completely (and expensively) revamped my pack contents and fallen and gashed my arm. Not for the last time, I questioned the sanity of my quest.

What business did a middle-aged black woman with bad knees have hiking the A.T.? The image of The Ancestor kept me moving forward, along with Psalm 121 that a friend shared with me at my going away party for the Trail:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains;
where is my help to come from?
My help comes from Yahweh
That and my dream reminded me that nothing is impossible and that I belonged here. In fact, my real ancestors told me I was meant to be here. The most notable ancestor was my late mother, Mary Holmes. My journey to the A.T. began with her belief in the value of the outdoors for children. She enrolled me in sleep-away camp at the age of six, and in Scouting.

I continued those traditions with my own children. I became a Scout volunteer. One of my sons became an Eagle Scout. I engineered co-ed Scouting in our local Boy Scout troop 15 years before the B.S.A. made it official. I’m so proud of my Scout “nieces.” Two are now climate resilience directors in Boston and New Orleans. Another is in the Peace Corps in Togo and another still was a 2019 volunteer of the year at Yosemite National Park. One is herself an A.T. thru-hiker.

In 2007, at age 52, I embarked on the A.T. looking for answers in life. My science career was stagnating. I felt like a poster child for the National Institute of Health’s own findings that an African American woman had a 50 percent less chance of winning research grants than white males. I was weary from parenting adolescents. My supportive husband told me that since my creaky knees weren’t getting any better, this was the right time to take a break, a very long break.

The “break” turned out to be a 13-year quest. I began as a thru-hiker. But six weeks in, despite many pleasant evening conversations at shelters, I was lonely in the daytime, as I never found someone walking as slow as me. I switched to section hiking, which allowed me to share many miles with friends and family. Much of it was done by my husband dropping me off at a road crossing and picking me up at the next road. Even my knees “got better.” At 1,100 miles, I had two knee replacements. I only missed one season in a miracle of modern medicine.

Hiking at Michelle's completion party in August 2019
Michelle's completion party in August 2019
Above: Michelle’s completion party in August 2019; Bottom Left: With her husband Derrick Jackson, and son Tano Holmes on the Katahdin summit; Bottom Right: Michelle with her mom, Mary Holmes in their Scout volunteer uniforms
Above: Michelle’s completion party in August 2019; Below: With her husband Derrick Jackson, and son Tano Holmes on the Katahdin summit; Bottom: Michelle with her mom, Mary Holmes in their Scout volunteer uniforms
Michelle with her husband Derrick Jackson, and son Tano Holmes on the Katahdin summit
Michelle with her mom, Mary Holmes in their Scout volunteer uniforms

Section hiking allowed me to slow down and enjoy the splendor of the A.T., from slopes of trillium in the south to moose crashing through the woods in the north and vistas I could linger longer at. When people ask me what my favorite part of the Trail was, I tell them about the day I heard a raucous drone in the forested distance that became louder with every step. I wondered with chagrin if I would find workers harvesting trees. Instead, my jaw dropped upon reaching a vernal pool from which the sound emanated. At the sound of my footstep, the roar went to dead silence. I saw hundreds of little heads dropping below the surface. They were wood frogs making mating calls. The pond was on a part of the A.T. only 30 miles from New York City, symbolic of Benton McKaye’s dream of a green respite within a day’s reach of the urban masses of the Eastern Seaboard.

The biggest lesson I learned in switching from thru-hiker to section hiker is to focus on the process and the journey, rather than rush to the finish. Most of my last sections were in the South. As we drove for two days along I-81, paralleling the Appalachian chain, my husband would say, “You’ve walked ALLLLLLLL that!” All that, at 64, with two artificial knees, from putting one foot in front of the other.

I saved one flattish seven-mile final section of Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness to share my official finish with friends who hiked with me over the years. On August 24, 2019, 14 friends came up and for the last 20 feet, created an arch of trekking poles for me to walk under. At base camp, my dog, now 15 and frail, awaited as a final feeling of closure. I picked the nickname “Northstar” in the spirit of Harriet Tubman, who liberated hundreds of enslaved black people on the Underground Railroad and as a spy for the Union in the Civil War. At Trail’s end, surrounded by friends and family on a remote pond in Maine where moose grazed and loons wailed, liberation was exactly what I was feeling.