Story and photos by Judy Fox Cole
For many years I have found great solace on the Greenbrier River Trail. I remember the amount of comfort it provided to me as my move from a large suburb to a small town in 1985 was a difficult transition for young teenage girl. I felt I understood myself there. My trips became more frequent and I continued to hit the trail during my college years. Beginning in Caldwell at Camp Anthony’s lot, I’d reach for the trail via foot or bike, with or without a dog, head north for 5 or 6 miles then turn around and come back.
I returned to Lewisburg with my husband and young son to live over 2 decades ago. I’d walk the trail with our son papoose style on my back. Soon after returning we had a daughter. Her first steps were in summer and I was excited to put her in her new little soft walking shoes and snap pictures of her first “walk” on the Greenbrier River Trail.
Recently, the only copy of that photo was compromised in the late June flood. Upon finding it, I stopped for a long time looking at that little girl, now 22 in her tiny denim skirt, t-shirt and shiny white walking shoes. The triumph of my baby walking, specifically on the trail, came to me knowing that she too, would have a fond love for the trail, river and mountains. She does and it tickles me that when she returns home she’ll shoot me a text of the mountains as soon as she spots them.
Years passed, kids grew and through the years our family would spend a day or two, or even a week hitting the trail in some form. The trail became a part of our life, in good times and for me, in bad.
The day after September 11, 2001, I got off work early and, like the rest of the world, I was grieving, searching for peace, looking for an answer to a question we will never receive. “Why?” I sat on “Cole Family Island” rock on the trail, watched the almost cloudless blue sky and cried and prayed for hours. When I looked up, the only cloud in the sky started to move into a perfect wispy circle. I thanked God for giving me such a beautiful sign, the symbol of unity and togetherness. I left feeling comforted. The river, the trail, took it all away, if only for a brief moment and allowed me to move forward in my own healing process.
In May of 2012 my siblings gathered in Lewisburg to celebrate our Father’s 80th birthday. Our Mother’s memory was fading fast. We all hit the trail. We walked, ran, and looked at flowers. With kids and dogs we shared this magical place together. My last memory of my beautiful Mother with her “four little Foxes” is enjoying what she loved most, being with us and nature, starting in Caldwell and heading north.
In late winter of 2014 I lost my dearest friend, a colleague and my boss. A few short weeks later, my Mother passed away. On the day of her memorial my cousin committed suicide. There are days during these weeks that I don’t remember. It was the greatest emotional pain that I’ve ever endured. From February to May, I had experienced 8 deaths, a child being diagnosed with a life changing illness, and developed a fear of losing yet another person I loved. The morning my husband called me with the words, “I’m ok, but, I’ve been in an accident,” I dropped to my knees and thanked God for not taking him while at the same time questioned my faith and faced horrible fears. Within that week, I lost my job.
Mother’s Day that same year I was gifted money for a bicycle. I traded in the bike my husband bought me 20 years earlier for a shinier, new version. I hit the trail, and I hit it hard. So hard I logged somewhere around 1300 miles in under 5 months. I would start in Caldwell and head north, forgetting I had to turn around and go back. I describe this as what Forest Gump described when he “just kept running.” I longed to keep pedaling. I was challenging myself physically while reflecting on memories with beautiful people and their varied deaths. I cried a lot, I prayed a lot and I longed for the answer to a question I would never receive. “Why?”
I reconnected with an old friend and we rode together frequently. I shared my paramount grief. She was a great listener. I withdrew from most friends because I just wasn’t the same. It was something I couldn’t understand or explain and feared they wouldn’t either. I longed to be alone, but when I was ready to talk a bit, this old friend was there. We agreed we would conquer the trail. Grief wouldn’t conquer me.
That October we left work on a Friday evening at 5:00 pm and hit the trail, starting in Caldwell and headed north. Freezing cold winds, two tunnels, beautiful fall foliage, two nights by the river and 77 miles later, two tired middle aged women spotted the 80 mile marker mid-Sunday morning. My husband sat on the ground on one side of the trail, and a dear friend sat on the other. A doe walked on to the trail from my right, stared at us for a brief moment then walked away, I whispered, “Hi Mom” to myself. Once again I felt the greatest amount of comfort and solace that is gained from this beautiful trail.
Editor’s note: Like much of Greenbrier County, the Greenbrier River Trail suffered extensive damage during the June flood. As we go to press a 400’ x 150’ rock slide blocks miles of the southern portion of the trail, rendering it impossible to “start in Caldwell and head north.” Plans are being made for recovery. If you would like to volunteer to help in this recovery or for more information please visit the Friends of the Greenbrier River Trail or HEAL the Greenbrier River Trail Facebo