It took Amy Kohut and Carol James 21 days in 2016 to hike the 268-mile Pennine Way National Trail from Derbyshire, England, to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland, with only the supplies and shelter they could carry in their ultra-light backpacks.
But the most arduous part of the journey came afterward – in the 45 minutes they spent visiting James’ mother and her mother’s second husband at the home James had left 38 years earlier. Through that visit, they gained wholeness and hope and the culmination of the quest they had undertaken.
At the Feb. 8 Soup & Hope talk in Sage Chapel, Kohut, director emeritas at the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, and James, university crisis manager and director of Willard Straight Hall Programs, took turns narrating their journey, using history and metaphor to paint the landscape they walked through, and the weather and animals they encountered.
“Our walk began in mid-May, the trail unfolding in front of us, winding around our first peak of the 39,370 feet of elevation we would travel, up and down, all total,” said James. “We encountered beauty and lived in the contrast of the craggy, the rugged and lush, the desolate and uninhabited. My mind wound into all the nooks and crannies, while my footsteps resonated on stone slabs, dropped by helicopters to protect the tender peaty earth from the many long-distance walkers who traipse the path annually.”
“If we walked quietly,” recounted Kohut, “we would not disturb the rabbits until the very last minute and then as if they were one blanket that rippled out, they would barge off, towards their rabbit burrows in the ground. It was as if those holes had not existed until the rabbits arrived at them, and poof, they were gone. Magic.”
But their journey was as much an inward one that differed for each of them, as well as an outdoor challenge they shared.
For Kohut, it was being James’ companion of 19 years as James struggled with her past; the journey with James reconnected Kohut with her own “unsurpassable belief in love and courage.”
For James, it was facing her past so she could get on with her future. “You can put yourself in exile and never get away from the thing you left behind,” she said. At the end of the Pennine Way, she and Kohut returned to James’ childhood home in Essex, England, which James had left at the age of 12.
Initially, they were welcomed into the home, but as the visit unfolded, James again was faced with unprovoked and familiar antagonism from her mother and escalating threats from her mother’s husband.
This time, “fully inhabiting the self I came home to meet,” James stood up for herself. She told her mother she would not leave until she had the family photographs she had come for and she ordered the husband to the kitchen until she and Kohut had left.
As they departed, James recalled, she felt complete: “All the parts of myself formerly left behind are aligned, they are in position and have correct proportion.”
And now, James said, by recounting her journey to the Soup & Hope audience, “I feel the last vestiges of exile fading away … I am grateful; exile no longer serves.”