Hiking a thousand miles, on trails of transformation

Danelle Hallenbeck, and a heart-shaped stone

Danelle Hallenbeck, and a heart-shaped stone

This fall, we’ve been profiling hikers new to the trail. Most of the hikers you’ll read about are participants in Hike NC! a new statewide hiking program aimed at beginners and sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North CarolinaN.C. State ParksFriends of State ParksN.C. Recreation & Park AssociationGreat Outdoor Provision Co. and GetGoingNC. Today, we spend a few minutes with Danelle Hallenbeck, whose thousand-mile journey has been transforming.

We hike for different reasons. For Danelle Hallenbeck, the reasons were complex and personal.

“I went through the dark night of my soul,” says Danelle, who is 49. “I started hiking and amazing things started happening.”

Those “amazing things” started on Nov. 30 of last year when she decided to take a 5-mile hike at Hagan-Stone Park, just down the road from her home in Pleasant Garden. The hike did what a good hike is want to do: it gave Danelle time to think.

“A friend had told me that she had committed to hike 1,000 miles in a year,” says Danelle. Commitment, she adds, has always been a bugaboo. Still, she needed help out of her dark night, which she knew wouldn’t be easy. Committing to hike 1,000 miles in the coming year seemed fittingly uneasy. She made the commitment.

Despite heading into the cold of winter, Danelle began hiking, nearly every day. She further committed herself by posting her goal on Facebook, then checking in with progress made on her hikes. She later created a spreadsheet to keep accurate tabs on her distance and where she’d hiked.

Slowly, the hikes began to work their magic. Though she had camped some with family, she was far from a backpacker. Yet one weekend she loaded a pack and drove to Stone Mountain State Park. She put in on the Widow’s Creek Trail, which starts with a steady, punishing climb up the face of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. You can reach the first backcountry site off Widow’s Creek within a mile and a half. Danelle continued climbing another mile and a half, to the last site, Campsite F, at the end of the trail.

“I wanted to be alone,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone walking past my tent.”

There was a good omen at the site. Since the beginning of her hiking quest, she had made a habit of collecting heart-shaped rocks; dominating the hearth surrounding her fire pit: a heart-shaped rock.

During her Stone Mountain vision quest, she realized that hiking and being in the woods was helping with her emotional and spiritual recovery. She decided to help others, primarily women, dealing with personal issues by taking them on nature escapes. On that weekend, Whispers of Nature was born. It’s motto: “Hiking Trails of Transformation.”

Meanwhile, Danelle kept hiking.

“I had been hiking about 5 miles a day,” she says. “Then, in the last month I realized I needed to step it up.” She did, hiking between 8 and 10 miles each day until she eclipsed the 1,000-mile mark — on Nov. 30.

Having Hagan-Stone Park handy helped with her goal: she estimates she hiked about 800 of her 1,000 miles on its 9 miles of trail, primarily on the 4-mile Chatfield Trail, which circles the 409-acre park.

Along the way, Danelle lost 35 pounds and generated an impressive collection of heart-shaped rocks. And, she found what she’d set out seeking from the start.

Her soul.

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