Guest Columnist

When you give your wife the gift of time

Mountain Marching Mamas on the trail. (Photo Courtesy of James F. Burns)
Mountain Marching Mamas on the trail. (Photo Courtesy of James F. Burns)
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What’s the nicest thing you can give on Mother’s Day? Answer: A week off — a week away from alarm clocks, cooking, cleaning, laundry, lunches and endless to-do lists.

I have given my wife this gift for 40 years. What she did with it was surprising.

Her sister hatched the idea: “We’ll call it the ‘Mothers Mountain March.’” Six women wilderness hiking and camping with minimal experience? One took her makeup kit, though I told her the bears didn’t care what she looked like, only what she tasted like.

When they made plans and T-shirts reading “Mothers Mountain March,” I knew they were serious. And since our three sons were ages five, eight, and 10, it truly was with a tear in my eye that I watched a white station wagon become a small speck on the horizon in 1978 as the six mothers headed for the Smokey Mountains.

The original cast was my wife, Charme, her sister, Bunny, plus four more — Sylvia, Grace, Ellen and Joanne. They learned from their mistakes, becoming skilled minimalist hikers over the years.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail became a goal in 1982, when Bunny had breast cancer. “She needs a goal, something to aim for in the future,” said my wife.

Section-hiking a hundred miles a year, the Mountain Marching Mamas — their eventual trail name — accomplished that goal in 1998. The makeup kits were long left behind, but the MMMs were literally cover girls when they appeared on the cover of Appalachian Trailway News.

Even with 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail behind them, the MMMs couldn’t stop hiking; their adventures soon took in other trails, including some in Europe, as well as car trips with hikes in 15 states, selected by throwing a dart at a map.

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But the real story of the Mountain Marching Mamas is not hiking but camaraderie. They bonded as women, people, mothers, and problem-solvers. There were trials on the trails. They got separated once on the Appalachian, one group going south and the other going north.

But it was the quiet evenings around the campfire when they shared their lives that centered them. They discussed family issues, children evolving into adulthood, and literature, art, culture, even politics. They were women of religion, reality, and diversity — one taught deaf children, another special-ed students, one was an Indiana farmer, others had citrus groves in Florida and soybean farms in Illinois.

The Mountain Marching Mamas bonding with nature and with each other was epitomized by the sheer joy of singing on the trail. Their favorite hymn had the perfect words: “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze, Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee.”

Their vocalizing once attracted a moose in Maine who seemed totally mesmerized by the sound.

The cast changed slightly over the years. Joanne was replaced by cousin Mary from Indiana and Grace had to retire. But the core four — Charme, Bunny, Sylvia, and Ellen — are joined by Mary in celebrating the 40th anniversary of that first hike, the one where I watched a white station wagon shrink to a speck.

Conversely, it was the Mountain Marching Mamas — trail names Mother Superior, Gypsy, Mama Kazoo, Orange Blossom, and Hoosier Mama — who grew as people, wives, women and mothers over the years.

The greatest gift you can give a wife, mother, or female friend, be it Mother’s Day or any other day, is the chance to fulfill her potential and chase her own dreams. These gals did just that.

• James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

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