Mere days after completing my thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, I was back on it, day hiking, reconnecting to the place that defined who I now was- a long distance hiker. My parents lived in an old suburb of Reading, PA and the closest trail section was at Port Clinton, about a half hour away. So I borrowed my mother’s car and went up for a hike, probably wearing the same torn and soiled gym shorts I wore to hike in. After 2,100-miles of following the white blazes, I subconsciously did it again, only this time, I got distracted and detoured onto the PA State Gamelands blazes which border the AT in this area and allow the trail to use them. Both are white paint blazes only one is more oval in shape as opposed to a rectangle. I lost the trail and ended up in the backyard of a rustic wooden home on Hawk Mountain Sanctuary property. The man I saw there, Jim Brett, curator of the sanctuary at the time, was emptying the trash cans.
“I want to live around here,” I announced.
“Go on the other side of the mountain,” he told me, clearly not interested in helping a 20-something hiker find a new home.
And so I did. I crossed over Hawk Mountain, went down into the valley below on Schuylkill County’s side and the sleepy village of Drehersville, and there at the bottom of the hill was a sign, “For Rent.” How fortunate. I crossed Rt 895 and drove up the dirt drive and knocked on the door.
Kenny Wessner had an apartment for rent in his wife Skip’s family home on the same property- the downstairs apartment. I checked it out and said, “I’ll take it.”
I drove home and immediately made a plan. This was where I wanted to be, near my beloved trail, not in a suburb, although I loved my parents. I was twenty-five years old and wanted to paint pictures. My parents had no room in their home to give me my own studio and so I painted in my tiny bedroom, sometimes dumping my palette full of paints face down on the rug. It was time to move out. I wanted to have my first art show of paintings from the trail. I wanted to put together a book, of drawings from the trail and excerpts from my journal, handwritten in calligraphy. I couldn’t be who I now was at my parent’s home and I had big dreams. I needed the space to explore and grow. I stopped at The Peanut Bar on the way home and got my old waitressing job back. I stopped at a used car dealer and made arrangements to purchase a used little pick-up truck. No moss was going to grow under me. I had dreams to accomplish.
Ken and Skip Wessner never had any children. I was their “first.” As a tenant, they embraced me as their own and welcomed me into the family. Pappy, Skip’s grandfather, lived above me in the old farmhouse as well as Skip’s parents. They all embraced me, had me over for dinner, helped me manage life and basically helped me make the big transition to living on my own. It was a fabulous way to ease into adulthood.
My father was not happy about me moving out and when he said good bye to me on the front porch at the Wessner’s rental home after moving my things, he asked me, “Is this really what you want?” He was hurting and knew he would miss me.
I said, “Dad, I still love you. I need my own space to paint and I want to be near the trail. I’ll come home a lot,” and I did. I worked at Jimmy Kramer’s Peanut Bar on Penn Street in Reading and slept over night at my parents. Next day, I would cruise back through Port Clinton and stop and see if there were any hikers who wanted to come home and get fed, as so many did for me only a year before.
That was how I met my husband, Todd. He had just turned 19 on the trail and was very quiet and shy when I picked up him and his two buddies and took them back to my apartment.
Ken and Skip did not care who I brought home. They were always seeing me pick up hikers and bringing them home. I was secretly hoping one would stay forever and he did, my husband of 34 years.
I lived at Ken Wessner’s apartment for a few years. During that time, I had a very successful one women art show with 45 paintings from the trail; worked on creating A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail ( in print for 35 years) while I lived there and will never forget the day I received my acceptance letter that the publisher would print my book. Ken and Skip Wessner were the first to share my joy as I ran up the hill to their home to share the news.
I moved out when I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and Kenny got very weird when that time came. He was a retired Sergeant Major in the Army and was a lifer for over 25 years. He began to yell at me from his home on the hill, “Ross, police up that front porch!” and I thought, why is he behaving as if I were in the army and he was in charge of me? He decided to inspect my apartment when I was leaving and although my mother and grandmother, who are excellent cleaners, helped me clean my apartment, Kenny took his finger and slid it underneath the baseboard hood and showed me dust and told me I had to clean better. I couldn’t understand at first why he was acting like such a dick and then I realized that he too, like my father, did not want me to leave and it was coming out sideways.
Todd and I were fortunate to buy land just a half mile from Ken’s on Red Mountain and build our log home. Here, we raised our children in the shadow of Hawk Mountain and The Appalachian Trail. Skip died years ago, but Kenny lived alone on strong black coffee and Camels for years afterwards. I would stop in from time to time and he always gave me a hard time, teasing me. I loved Kenny Wessner as he was the person who played a big role in helping me make the transition into adulthood and independence. He and Skip loved me like their daughter and I loved them and that first home at Hawk Mountain gave me a true place to call my home permanently.
I meant to stop and say Hey! To Kenny before I left on my recent mountain bike trip to the Rockies but I did not make the time. The day before we reached Pennsylvania on our drive back east, I saw on FB that he has passed, as well as another good friend, Bud Cole, both who had been on my list to stop and see before I left. I had just missed them both.
When I was having a particularly bad day on my bike ride, I would periodically look up to the heavens and call on my angels who passed for help: my mom, dad, grandmom, and a handful of friends. I always feel like they are beaming me down strength when I am low. Now I will have to add Kenny (and Bud!). The list of those loved ones who are gone from this world will only sadly lengthen as I get older and time passes. I will remind myself now, when the impulse hits to stop and visit, to not put it off. That may be my last opportunity. Then I will only have the break in the clouds to chat with them and it is not nearly as satisfying as face to face over a cup of coffee.
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