Have you ever done something that surprised yourself, in a good way? I recently finished something that I never thought I could actually do, and I have to admit I’m kind of proud of myself. If you’re in the mood for a quick story, I’d love to tell you about it.

A year ago, as I sat by a beautiful river near my home, I had what Wildflower in my latest novel would call “the secret sense,” that if I didn’t make some kind of grand gesture in terms of becoming more physically active (writing is very sedentary, after all), I was going to make it harder on myself down the road and perhaps even shorten my writing career. Since I have many more books I hope to write, I began to walk that same day.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Davidson River is a picturesque river in Pisgah National Forest located in the mountains of Western North Carolina. My goal was to try to walk 365 consecutive days and experience four complete seasons of the river and surrounding forest. I made this ambitious goal about creating a relationship with this river, because I knew if I made it about losing weight or an exercise program that I would fail, as I had many times before.

Davidson River is an old friend to me. Like many people who end up settling in this area, my daughters and I used to camp by the river when they were girls and we lived in Charleston. It was where I took them for a vacation as a single mom. The campground felt safe and met our needs. That was 25 years ago.

When we moved from Charleston to Asheville in 1994, we visited even more often, walking the same trail. As the years passed, I also took anyone I cared about to Davidson River, as if introducing them to my family. It felt more like “home” to me than any place I’d ever been. (I grew up on the other side of the Smoky Mountains in Knoxville, Tennessee.) Through the late 90s and early 2000s, my dog, Grace, and I walked along this river, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. After she died, I released her ashes where she loved to swim.

When I started my daily walks back on August 12th, 2012, I’d had years of chronic back pain and could only hobble down the trail for about 20 minutes. I had tried everything for my aching back, except surgery, but I kept hobbling, day after day. It took months and months of walking, gradually increasing my distance, but now I am up to an hour a day and I am pain free. I never thought that was even possible.

As I write this, today is day 365. I did it! To mark the occasion, friends and family gathered for a celebratory picnic by the same river.

Walking by the river hasn’t been easy. The weather was a constant factor, and I thought about quitting many times. We had record-setting rains in July and one of the rainiest years, in general, in decades. Needless to say, I have been making peace with mud puddles. At the same time, I have marveled at the beauty and resilience of this lush forest and the creatures that live here.

Friends have asked me if I’ll continue walking now that the year is up and I always say yes. I plan to keep going, although I will probably stay home on the really bad weather days in the year to come. And even on those rare days when I may choose to stay home, I imagine the river awaiting my return.

I’ve written several novels, and I have thought of more than one new story I’d like to write as a result of my time spent walking by the river. It is a very fertile place for ideas.

I have also kept a river journal, where I have documented every day with observations and my progress. I may turn that into a book someday, too. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.

So what began as a hope for future fitness by walking by the river evolved into an accidental pilgrimage. A time that proved to be incredibly challenging, as well as rich and full of creativity. At the end of my life, I imagine I will look back on this moment not only with gratitude, but with a sense of satisfaction for the year I dedicated to walking along a river.

So while I continue to be a writer, I am not a sedentary one. A river runs through my life now. With that in mind, I encourage you to consider beginning a pilgrimage of your own, whatever that may look like.
Author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower and Seeking Sara Summers
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