Candice Brownmiller’s Appalachian Trail name was “Montana”. PHOTO COURTESY CANDICE BROWNMILLER

A path forward in remembrance

The Appalachian Trail was a grueling trek of healing

Over 2,000 miles in a little over five months, placing one foot in front of the other through every kind of terrain and enduring whatever Mother Nature threw at her. With every step north on the Appalachian Trail (AT), Candice Brownmiller found renewed faith in humanity.

People from Big Sky were sending packages to her stops– boxes filled with notes of encouragement and goodies for the trail.

Plus, there are people called “Trail Angels” who set-up stands of treats for through-hikers. Those kind gifts from strangers provide extra inspiration along the grueling trek.

“At days 57-59. Yesterday was emotional. This monument [“If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven and bring you home again.”] made me into a puddle of tears. While stopped at an overlook on
Blue Ridge Parkway I met the sweetest couple from Chicago, Debbie and Jim Castello. Rockstar Trail Angels!,” she wrote on Facebook from Virginia last year. “They fed me fresh fruit and apple juice, cried with me about Harbor, and slipped me
a 20 spot for a beer in the next town. Thank you guys! Super blessed by their Trail Magic!”

Brownmiller said she will always miss her son. Taken from her by a virus in 2015, not a day or an hour goes by without her thoughts turning to him.

After the loss of him, additional traumas started stacking – the loss of her longtime boss and Montana father figure Mark Robin – for whom she was caretaker until the end – and a painful breakup.

She was at one of those gut-wrenching, heart-searching moments before casually mentioning hiking the AT to her roommate, who took the opportunity to encourage her with a base belief that she had to do something, had to have something positive to see in her future.

Brownmiller started planning.

Like the El Camino de Santiago in Europe, the AT serves as a pilgrimage for many. Countless people who take the trail do so in an attempt to surface from some sort of life trauma. The physical process of moving no matter what translates to other areas of their lives.

While some folks find specific rituals to allow them to process a loss, to her – the very act of getting out of bed everyday, putting her clothes on and facing the world – is her way of honoring her son. Both he and Robin would want her to live – and want her to live well, she said. Not quitting on the trail – no matter what occurred – was also her way of honoring their lives.

While many people tell her she is the strongest person they know, the way she sees it, she is just dealing with what life dealt her.

She met other “Angel Parents” – people who also lost children – on the trail. The AT also introduced her to a therapist who became a hiking buddy and a friend. Now, she insists her counseling sessions take place while walking. A proponent of using mental health services and a big believer in therapy, she said everyone should have it and also noted that Big Sky is lucky to have such resources. Brownmiller’s parents followed her progress on the trail, her dad tracked her on his own map. Big Sky resident Heather Morris sent her a superhero cape to wear when she summited Katahdin – her mission accomplished – the end of the AT’s northern route. Her parents wore their own capes when they picked her up – a gesture of remembrance for a little boy who had a big smile and a love of superheroes.

“What will you do to be a superhero today? Help a friend? Pick up trash? Call an old friend that you have not talked to in a while? Buy someone a coffee? Check in on your grandparents/parents? Donate to a local charity? Harbor would love that for his birthday gift!,” she posted on Facebook.

Her friend Morgen Ayers said that Brownmiller has used her pain the best way she can– to become one of the most caring and compassionate people in the community.

Through-hiking, grueling as it can be, also proved restorative for her. So much so that after hiking the AT in 2019, she is slated to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020 – before COVID-19 hit.

Now, she waits, but she waits in the company of supportive friends and a community who loves her – and also honors her son.

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