The first time I met Jim Brett at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary he was doing the very unromantic job of emptying trash cans. I was fresh home from hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and I decided what I needed to be truly happy was to live near my beloved trail. When I heard the banging of trash cans, I approached this man with the curly hair, wild eyes and sharp wit and asked if he knew anywhere nearby that I could rent. “Go over to the other side of the mountain,” he chased me away, and so I did. I found Kenny Wessner’s farm house at the intersection of Hawk Mtn. Rd and 895 in Schuylkill County and have not strayed from this ½ mile on low-lying Red Mountain for forty years.
Although Jim was not warm and fuzzy to me that first meeting, our friendship grew stronger with every year that passed. Jim’s entire family embraced me like their own: Dottie, Jim’s wife, and children Christy, Andy, and Matt. Jim & Dottie’s kids were my playmates when I moved to the area, especially the boys. We went on regular hikes and camp outs. We went sledding, kite flying, and one particularly memorable day when Jim gave me his jeep to adventure on the dirt roads across the Blue Mountain to the fire tower, we got caught in a downpour with the top down.
When I showed my journal from the trail to my old friend Jean Cashin, who worked at the Appalachian Trail headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, who was a trail mom to us all, she encouraged me to write a book about my adventure. Since I had my formal education in a Fine Arts school of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, the oldest art school in America, and only had one writing class at Indiana University of PA and scored a C in it, I needed some help. Jim was a good writer and had published the classic book in 1973, Feathers in the Wind- The Mountain and the Migration. Jim agreed to help me.
I was pretty religious back then. When you long distance hike by yourself (after your best friend and hiking partner leaves you and you’re an extrovert, and you break your foot because you hiked too fast to run away from your pain and loneliness), it’s easy to buddy up to God in the wilderness. Jim knew I had to keep “the God talk” toned down so I didn’t turn readers off. He would yell at me when I argued, but my skin was thick and I knew he cared, and I listened to him. There’s “just enough God talk” in it today, thanks to Jim!
Once A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail was published, (I can still remember running back from the mailbox when I received my acceptance letter from the now defunct, East Woods Press, skipping and smiling and filled with joy),
Jim told me to continue with this path I was now on and make plans to hike the 2,600-mile National Scenic Pacific Crest Trail and write and illustrate a book about that trail. I didn’t know about that. That trail was much longer and wilder and more difficult, but I heard Jim’s advice and decided his direction was wise because he believed in me.
The rest is history. I dedicated my life to adventuring and traveling, sharing this life of learning with our children, and writing many books and articles about it. And the best part- it has brought me and my family tremendous joy.
Over the years, Jim began a travel company, Treks, where he shared his beloved Africa with hundreds of folks. About ten years ago, Jim asked me to accompany him on one of the trips to Tanzania and help with a local Kempton family who had a load of children. Jim wanted me to teach them about journal writing, photographing, sketching, to help them record and remember this life-changing trip, and to help entertain them during slow times when the wild animals were not around. This family, the Schorran’s, went on to become close friend of my entire family. One of their daughters, Renee, pursed a career as a photographer and shot my daughter, Sierra’s wedding, five years ago. The inspiration continues!
Jim was extremely instrumental in setting me down this wonderful path in life which I have been following for four decades, with much success and even more happiness. I love you Jim Brett, and I am eternally grateful for the spark you saw in me, that you blew on it and turned it into a bonfire. Perhaps on some level you knew what St. Catharine said, (the saint’s name I picked when I received Conformation as a rug rat), “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
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