For two months, inspirational speaker Audri Scott Williams and a handful of spiritual travelers hiked nearly 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
On a rainy April day in Fayetteville, Pa., they began heading toward Georgia on their Trail of Dreams, which they describe as a walk for hope, peace and reconciliation.
That day they hiked about eight miles up South Mountain, spotted a huge cavern and decided to sleep there for the night.
Standing atop the rock, the inexperienced hikers took in a panoramic view of the valley and neighboring mountains - but failed to notice a nearby sign.
When they awoke the next morning, they looked up and read: "Do Not Sleep Here - Bear's Den."
Undeterred by their experience, the hikers continued on their trek, crossing paths once taken by runaway enslaved Africans and Native Americans.
Two hundred years earlier - before there was an Appalachian Trail - slaves crossed over the Appalachian Mountains and headed north toward freedom or in whatever direction necessary to reunite with family members sold to far-away plantations. During the 1830s, Native Americans escaped into those mountains seeking refuge as they were forced by the United States government to flee their homelands in Tennessee, Florida, the Carolinas, Mississippi and Georgia to settle in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The path the Native Americans walked came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Dreams walk, envisioned by Williams a year ago, sought to reunite African American and Native American teens with a part of their history. "The driving force behind this is the connection of young people with the experience of our ancestors," Williams said five weeks into the hike. She believes that if African American and Native American youth make a spiritual connection with their ancestors who survived the horrors of oppression, they too can survive.
"Today, the most oppressed group in our society is young people," Williams says. "All you have to do is look at the statistics - poverty statistics, crime statistics, health statistics. This walk is representing a freedom from a kind of oppression that they're feeling, and we really need to pay attention to this."
Williams, a 45-year-old Washington resident, had intended for the five adults to hike Mondays through Thursdays and, on Fridays, to speak at schools and community centers before being joined by teen-agers each weekend.
As it turned out, speaking engagements did not materialize and only three teens spent several days hiking a portion of the trail with the adults. Eighteen more teens, from Washington and Philadelphia, spent several hours with the hikers both on and off the trail.
"I wanted to have more teens, but we didn't," Williams says. "It didn't happen that way. I worked really hard to get the word out, and when it came time to let the actual walk begin, I had to let that go."
Glimpse into a struggle
In May, Michael Ware and Summer Williams, both 16, and Siddeeqah Sharif, 21, spent seven days on the trail. Ware, who studies visual arts at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, was the youth coordinator for the walk. He's also Williams' son. Summer Williams, no relation to Audri, is studying vocal music at Duke Ellington. Sharif, a native Baltimorean, is a junior at the University of Maryland studying African and Middle Eastern history.
Ware not only spent a week on the trail, he also began the march with his mother. The experience, he says, was transforming.
"For me, it was really about getting in touch with myself and realizing the struggle that our people went through because, before I went on the walk, the Underground Railroad and the Trail of Tears were just a part of history to me," he says. "They probably had blisters on their feet and dogs running after them, and they didn't have much food probably, and it really made me appreciate what they went through. It kind of made my self-determination higher."
Like many teens, Ware struggles with school and peer pressures and the everyday issues related to growing up. He says many teens are angry because they don't have parents or parental guidance. Too many, he says, are forced to raise themselves. His parents have been divorced four years. And for the past year, Ware says, he's felt not angry, but alone, as each of his parents has taken on more out-of-town work.
"Like I've got to get myself up in the morning, I've got to clean the house up. Sometimes younger people get messed up with that," he says. "I need somebody to be there - somebody that's already been through what you're going through. It's not until you don't have [guidance] that you realize what you're missing and what you really need, I guess."
Williams also wrestled with family matters. Three weeks before the walk, she experienced a crisis of faith, wondering how she could leave her son behind and how the walk would affect her financially. But shortly after, Williams began to make peace with her decision when she saw two eagles ascending, their outstretched wings touching to form an archway.
"I knew then that a doorway had opened," Williams says. "I had to understand what it meant to surrender."
Power of ancestors
Sharif met Audri Williams in 1994 when she joined Uprising, Williams' youth dance and theater group. She now calls Williams "Aunt Didi."
Like Ware, Sharif felt the power of the ancestors as she crossed the mountains of Appalachia. The two young people convinced Williams to do a night hike because they wanted to experience how it felt to be a runaway traveling under cover of darkness.
"I really wanted the experience of what the runaway slaves felt like," Sharif says. "I didn't want all the comforts that came with 21st-century technology."
On their week-long Trail of Dreams walk, Ware and Sharif spent a lot of time together. Because participants progressed at their own pace, Ware and Sharif often walked in tandem because they were the fastest.
"There was one time where I thought I was really going the wrong way," Sharif recalls. "For us to have all this technology and have no idea how to use the Earth, you appreciate [the ancestors'] intelligence. Me and Mike, we sat around and talked about it so much - how they did it. You just appreciate the intelligence of those people and what they came here with and what they passed down to their children."