- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE | It was time to see America.

Time to hear the song of faraway trees and feel the notes vibrate the soul. It was time to feel the chill of a north-country stream, and look with wonder at the purple mountains of the pioneers.

As Melanie Perl turned the ignition key in her car and left her Madison County home May 15, it was to do all these things and much more. During the span of three months the 45-year-old mother of three visited 30 national parks in the United States as well as Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Having just received her associate’s degree from Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC), Mrs. Perl took a much-delayed summer break to indulge herself in one of her supreme pleasures - hiking. During the adventure her boots carried her through deserts, forests and onto stone-hard glaciers.

“Doing something like this has actually been a dream of mine since I was a teenager,” Mrs. Perl said a few days after returning home. “In high school, my best girlfriend and I would talk about having a Winnebago and driving across the country.

“But I got married very young and had children. Then about a year-and-a-half ago, I met two young men who were hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“They shared pictures of their trip with me, and one of the guys had pictures he had taken in Alaska as well. I was awed by their pictures, and a few days later it dawned on me that I could do this.

“My children are grown, I’d recently been divorced, and I’d have a break between finishing at PVCC and starting classes at the University of Virginia. My main objective was to see as much of the country as I could and have an adventure.”

Mrs. Perl didn’t get bogged down in obsessive planning and logistical concerns. An experienced camper, she knew what essentials to bring.

“I’d stayed with family and friends here and there, but for the most part when I woke in the morning, I didn’t know where I would be sleeping that night.”

During a 15-mile hike through a part of Glacier National Park in Montana, Mrs. Perl met a kindred spirit.

“It was a long day of hiking, and when I had about an hour to go I met this 80-year-old woman named Margaret,” Mrs. Perl said as a smile came to her face. “She lived in Fresno, California, and had driven from there to Glacier, which is two full days of driving.

“She was camping in a tent by herself and hiking by herself. She was full of energy. I’m a fast hiker, and she didn’t hike quite as fast as me, but she was someone I could hike with on a regular basis.

“I told her, ‘Margaret, you are my hero. I want to be just like you when I grow up.’ I always say I’m going to die young, even if I live to be 100.”

Mrs. Perl said there were a few occasions when she felt lonely but never afraid. What she found was a nation chocked full of good people.

“I even picked up hitchhikers. I said I wouldn’t, but it goes against my nature to pass by someone in need,” she said.

Mrs. Perl trusted her instincts during the trip, and they didn’t fail her. When she couldn’t find a place to camp at Rocky Mountain National Park, someone she had met on the trail came to her aid.

“Through a series of events, I had met this man at a trailhead,” Mrs. Perl said. “He said he lived five minutes away and I was welcome to pitch my tent in his yard, or if I wanted a real roof over my head, I was welcome to stay in his guest room.

“I had a good feeling about him, so I took him up on his offer, and we had a great time. I learned that he was an Australian living in the U.S. His wife died in the first plane that hit the World Trade Center, and she was pregnant with their twin daughters.

“He had me in tears telling me this heartbreaking story. He’s another example of the truly good people I met.”

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