For some, the turning of the leaves and crisp cool mornings means pumpkin spice lattes and cozy oversized sweaters. Or if you’re Janet Ainsworth, the coming autumn means it’s time to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails in one of Connecticut’s 109 state parks. That is exactly what we did last week.
Janet is a Connecticut native who grew up in the Northford section of North Branford, the area which she conveniently pointed to on a trail map as we sipped our pre-hike coffee at Starbucks (yes, I had a pumpkin flavored coffee!).
As a kid, Janet referred to herself as “a ‘ tomboy in a rural town.” She spent most of her childhood days roaming the blue blazes (trail markers) along the Mattabesett trail, which starts in Guilford and is part of the New England National Scenic Trail (Mattabesett-Metacomet-Monadnock Trail), which travels all the way to the New Hampshire state line.
“My parents weren’t outdoorsy,” Janet said. “I grew up in the 1950s, when we were largely unsupervised during the day. I thought it was neat to just be in the woods.”
That love of being in the woods continued throughout her adult life, hiking and down-hill skiing (with the same skiing buddy since the 1970’s!).
For 11 years, Janet was a journalist at the New Haven Journal-Courier, which became the New Haven Register. She followed that career by attending law school at Quinnipiac Law School, which was then Bridgeport Law in 1984. Now, Janet is a staff attorney for the State of Connecticut, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
But, Janet lives a double life. Okay, well maybe not a full-on double life like a Clark Kent or Diana Prince. But Janet lives a life sitting at a desk longing to be in the woods – an indoor vs. outdoor life. Which has translated to her spiritual life as well.
Janet and I got up from our spot at Starbucks, and headed to Wadsworth Falls State Park and set out for a casual autumnal hike.
Janet grew up going to St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in New Haven, where her mom was a very active member, then she moved to Grace and St. Peter’s in Hamden, before moving to Guilford and finding a home at Zion Episcopal Church.
While Janet was sharing this bit of history of her church-going, her eyes were focused on the natural world around us, along the trail, looking at the changing of the leaves, the critters scurrying across the forest floor, and the several families out enjoying the holiday. “I see the face of God in nature,” Janet said.
As we hiked, I reflected on Janet’s words. The ever-changing renewal of life that happens with seasons, the chorus of birds and water and critters, and then the silence embedded in the deep woods – the natural world unravels the Gospel before us.
Death and resurrection, chorus of saints, and intimate reflection – the face of God is in nature, the Gospel is revealed in nature, and the Good News can be found in the witness of nature.
We passed a family with small kids, and Janet said out loud, “Start them out young, enjoying and respecting [nature].” It is apparent that passing families on the trail brings a lot of joy to Janet.
She took a bit of a hiking hiatus when her kids were quite young. “It is hard to go out [and hike] when you have to go grocery shopping, and raise a family,” Janet said. Now her kids, especially her youngest son who lives in Seattle, sends her hiking updates often.
Janet’s respect and joy of nature, which started as a kid, has led her to take leadership roles within hiking clubs and share her passion with others. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Janet has been a member of AMC since 2001, and before serving on the board, she was an active chapter volunteer for Connecticut.
She served as the regional director, as the families activity chair, and the co-chair of education. However, apart from all of the official and formal roles Janet has held with the Appalachian Mountain Club, the role of hike leader seems to be the one she enjoys the most.
Janet leads hikes all throughout Connecticut advertised through AMC and the site Meetup. The hikes are generally 3-5 miles and vary from easy to moderate, and all ages are welcome to join. She also trains fellow hike leaders.
“I have made some great friends [through leading hikes],” Janet said. People seem to buddy up on the hikes, and conversations are free flowing. This same model was used in the South Central Region for several hiking Eucharists, and Hiking with the Rachel’s (which is now a hiking ministry and group with the Rev. Rachel Thomas, SE Region Missionary, and Maggie Breen, NE Region Missionary.)
As our hike ended at the Wadsworth Falls, and our conversation drifted (as hiking conversations do), Janet told me she plans to retire soon and move to New Hampshire with her husband. There, she can spend her days hiking and skiing.
Find one of Janet’s hikes on meetup.com/AMC-CT-Chapter.