Bonnie Simpson taught Home Economics/ Family & Consumer Sciences at Alton Central School from 1969-1993.
This is a story about Bonnie Simpson. As it turns out, a woman recognized the name, Bonnie Simpson, on a McDonald’s placemat last June (2013) because of the NHAFCS, Teacher of the Year Award. She looked up my name on the NHAFCS website and emailed me. I answered by telling her I would catch up with her later, being so busy closing out the school year. Two weeks ago I came across Sammie’s email again. Needing something to write about on the “past president’s report” for the upcoming NHAFCS meeting, I asked a few questions about Bonnie. Although I feel like I know her, having cleaned her files and used many of her lessons, no one I know knows anything about her. Sammie was a best friend. In fact, after reading the McDonald’s placemat last June, she decided to write this story and just won a writing award for it. JS
Patches for Part One
By Sammie Wakefield
The sun was bright for a New Hampshire December day. It was that raw time between a death and the burial of the body. Driving south on Interstate 93 between Exit 23 and 22, a thought came to me. The realization of what I must do filled me with such sadness I could no longer see. I pulled to the shoulder of the highway and wept.
“Are you OK, Moose?” Bonnie asked looking out at the gray drizzle of yet another rainy day on the Appalachian Trail.
“I don’t know. I haven’t stopped falling yet.” Moose replied, as he tried in vain to get his footing on the peeled sapling bunk surfaces made slick by wet boots and humidity. He hung briefly between the bunks and finally came to rest on his back on the muddy floor of the open-front trail shelter, looking like a big upended turtle. He rolled over, picked himself up, took stock, and determined that the heavy backpack had cushioned most of his fall. He was unhurt.
Meanwhile, his wife, Bonnie, slapped at mosquitoes hungry enough to eat through pungent layers of Woodsman Fly Dope. Eight-year-old son Scotty was happily splashing in a puddle formed by drips from the lean-to roof. Sixteen-year-old family friend Scott was rummaging in his pack for snacks.
Sherry and I had stopped to have lunch under the shelter roof, one of the only dry places in the hundred-mile wilderness south of Mt. Katahdin. We had met this party of four earlier that day while making our way through a watery maze created by beaver dams, but it wasn’t until lunchtime that we exchanged names and began to get acquainted.
It was the summer of 1973 and the Simpsons, from Alton, New Hampshire, were on their way to the state line in order to finish the Trail in Maine. Moose would hike with them for the first week then go back to work leaving Bonnie, Scott and Scotty on the trail alone. Sherry and I were on a more strenuous schedule with the goal of Springer Mountain in Georgia by late September. Sherry, from California, was a backpacking friend I had met at a camp in North Carolina. I was living in Texas at the time and we had both arranged time off from employment. The two of us were on tight budgets of both time and money. We were starting our adventure in late June, the end of the black fly season and the beginning of the mosquito season. We also had the bad luck to hit the third week of a three-week rain. It was not the best arrangement but was the one our work schedules allowed.
Our first impressions of the Simpsons were not that positive, nor theirs of us. Bonnie appeared rather grim and seldom smiled. She was a stern disciplinarian of Scotty and this did not set well with me at first. Her affect belied a person with a generous heart and a wonderful dry wit. What Bonnie confessed later about meeting us is “One person talked okay, but the other woman had a disgusting southern accent.” That would be me.
Sherry and I would have happily gone on and not share shelter space with what we perceived to be a disagreeable crew, but the weather, my boot problems, and the spacing of the shelters dictated otherwise. We ended up spending the next three nights together. We soon learned that Bonnie had a passion for stories and she began grilling me for them as well as relaying some of her own. This sharing of stories became a major part of our evenings.
One of the themes of Bonnie’s stories was about a man in Moultonborough, New Hampshire who served as town moderator, was a story teller, and had hiked with them since Scotty was a baby. She did not say how old he was but his name was Dick and I had the strong impression that he was at least sixty years old.
After our time together, the ford of the Kennebec River, and a change of boots for me, we picked up speed and left the Simpsons behind. But not before we had exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and received strict instruction to call when we got into New Hampshire.
We had completed Maine and were partway through New Hampshire, when we needed a shoe repair shop as well as a new back-band for my pack. We reached Kinsman Notch, found a public phone, and called the Simpsons. They picked us up, treated us like family with food, showers, laundry, and a trip into Laconia for our needs. A day later they put us back on the trail.
Sherry and I would only get as far as Pennsylvania before homesickness and lack of money caused her to give up. My pack needed welding, and I did not like the thought of continuing alone after Labor Day when the trail is mostly deserted. I left for that season disappointed, but had in mind someone who might hike with me another time.
“What is that I smell?” Bonnie said as we topped a rise on an open heath bald near the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Bonnie and ten year old Scotty and I were again headed south, working our way through the miles. The previous summer we had hiked together and finished 250 miles. This summer of 1975 we were back on the trail and planned to get to the north end of the Smokies.
“That is a nylon plant,” I said.
“Oh,” she replied, and we continued on.
Several days later this same conversation was repeated. By the third time, the odor of chemicals wafted to us, we were sitting by the side of the trail in an open meadow. Bonnie asked.
”Is that the nylon plant?”
“Yes,” I answered,
“Show me that plant and what the bloom looks like.”
I burst into laughter and said, “It is not a flower. A nylon plant is a factory where they make nylon.“
“Then why didn’t you say it was a nylon mill?”
Until we hiked together Bonnie had never been out of New England and spoke with a central New Hampshire accent. I said early on, that she needed a translator for southern appalachianese. I was joking but we were to have several experiences that demonstrated a need for exactly that. In restaurants she seldom got what she ordered, as waitresses became so fascinated with her accent they would forget what she wanted.
Near Whistling Gap north of the Smokies we were setting up camp when a couple of local boys approached us. We had seen them earlier at a road crossing and had heard something crashing around in the brush near our tent. I was a little concerned about their intentions, however, I was relieved when they reappeared and asked if we had heard the “painter” that was said to be around these parts. I laughed and said “No”, and they went on their way. Bonnie was left puzzling about what a person who paints had anything to do with what we might see or hear in the woods. I explained they were joshing with us about the supposed presence of a mountain lion or eastern panther, locally called a “painter”.
One afternoon after crossing Watauga dam, a grizzled older man drove up in an official looking TVA car. He seemed open to conversation, so we asked questions about directions, chatted a bit about the weather, and walked on up the road. It might have been our patch covered packs or that we were two women hiking with a boy, but something about us intrigued him because when we reached a small cemetery, the man drove up, stopped, opened the door of the car, spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the ground, and said in an effort to start another conversation, “The man buried over there was remarkable.” He paused, thought a bit and said, “Namely because he had a son by his daughter.”
We were startled by this revelation but then he revealed the real reason for his interest. He looked at Bonnie, jerked his thumb to point toward me and said,” She talks right. What happened to you?”
We chuckled over these and other examples of regional differences in language the rest of the summer. I learned some useful New England vocabulary as well. “Pucker brush” is a great way to describe a dense thicket that probably has thorns.”Gone-by” can be used to communicate that a blossom is past the peak of beauty or that food is spoiled. Removing peanut butter from a knife is to “lap” it rather than “lick” it off.
As we hiked Bonnie quizzed me about my life and experiences. I had cut the hard back cover off a copy of Swiss Family Robinson to save weight. In the evenings I would read aloud from the book to Scotty and her, as well as others who listened in at the trail shelters. She loved hearing stories and to be listened to by Bonnie was an esteem building experience. Her love of stories was eclipsed only by her passion for learning new things. She taught what is now called Consumer Science (formerly called Home Economics). She was constantly on the watch for methods that might contribute to her teaching as well as how she lived her life.
I began to appreciate how important this was to her the first night we hiked together the summer of 1974. We had made camp south of the Shenandoah and I was about to step into the woods with my canteen and a toothbrush when she said, “Wait, I need to watch you brush your teeth. I might learn something.”
Bonnie and Scotty and I would all complete the trail during 1976. I would do it in January with another hiking partner and they would finish in the summer. When they finished, I flew to Pennsylvania and joined a bunch of friends all connected by the experience of knowing Bonnie, to celebrate their hike.
She was such a people collector and, as I was to learn, a shameless matchmaker. The “Dick” in her stories turned out to not be sixty years old but was, in fact, the same age as me. In January 1977, I moved from Texas to New Hampshire. A year later Bonnie would design and sew the dress I wore when I married Dick Wakefield. Over twenty years later our daughter Esther would wear the dress for her own wedding.
But Bonnie would not live to see that day. In spite of a remarkable physical capacity that enabled her to do marathon running, bicycle across the country, complete the AT and the Long Trail, in 1993 she died of ovarian cancer at the age of forty-seven. During her illness when we visited, she would demand stories, said they helped keep the pain at bay. She especially enjoyed reminiscing about our trail adventures. She told how at night she slept on the downstairs couch pulled over to an open window. She put her head on the windowsill, look up at the silhouettes of trees against the night sky, and imagine herself once again in a trail shelter.
After I composed myself, I pulled the car back onto the highway, completed my errand, and drove home. I opened the closet where we keep camping gear and dug out a well-used green Kelty backpack from where it had been stored. In the seventeen years since the completion of the Appalachian Trail, it had retained its thru-hiker patina, the welded repairs had held, but the cloth parts were more worn. The threadbare AT patch was centrally located on the pack where it had been since the summer of 1973. Below it was a less worn 2000-mile rocker symbolizing completion of the whole trail. I took scissors, cut the patches free of the pack but left them attached to each other.
At the calling hours that evening I approached the open casket with some dread, knowing how difficult her last days had been, but knew what I had to do. After getting a nod of approval from Moose, I slid the patches under her hands and beneath the rosary entwined in her fingers.
Email from Sammie Wakefield 11/18/2013
Yes, Maurice* goes by Moose. No I have not sent him this. I only recently wrote it. I think it was finding that award on the placemat at McDonalds that got me thinking about her. We are in touch with Moose especially around Thanksgiving. One of the traditions we did for 15 years before Bonnie died was to take our turkey dinner into the White Mountains to a trail shelter. We would have all the trimmings and it was quite a feast then we would spend the night and hike out the next day. It was a group of 7 to as many as 18 and we called ourselves The Turkey Sandwich Society and Bonnie was our President. After she died we did not go again but we always try to re-connect at that time of year. My husband Dick and I always plant a flower at her grave on Memorial Day. She is buried in the Smith Meetinghouse Cemetery in Gilmanton.
*I‘ve written to Mr. Maurice Simpson every year since I began teaching in Alton requesting a donation to our PMHS “Bonnie Simpson” scholarship fund, which he gladly obliges. Perhaps next year, I’ll address the letter to “Moose.” js