I could never quite tell when it would come: a flutter in my chest, a shakiness radiating through my fingers and knees. A scooped-out empty center at my heart, heat flushing my cheeks and forehead. As a child, I didn’t know what to call it. But I knew how it felt. I have language for that feeling now—anxiety—and more tools for managing the flares, but I still experience them. When I set out to write The Wild Path, I knew my main character did too. Though my life doesn’t inspire all aspects of a story, pieces of it inevitably work their way in; and when I developed Claire’s “flutter feeling,” all I had to do was tap into my own muscle memory. Why write about difficult issues like anxiety, or like the fight against addiction that consumes Claire’s brother Andy? Like so many others, I have loved ones who have shared Andy’s struggle. The fact is: our young readers have too. As I share in my Author’s Note, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2017 alone, 19.78 million Americans aged twelve and older battled a substance abuse disorder. There’s power in recognizing a problem; doing so enables forward movement, facilitates solutions. I wanted The Wild Path to acknowledge the very real problems so many young people face. But I also wanted the story to have hope. That hope is why I gave Claire something else I knew by heart: horses. From the time my parents first let me ride as a preschooler, I felt a sense of simultaneous peace and strength whenever I was able to spend time around horses. However, as prey animals reliant on the herd, horses are keenly attuned to potential threats, and if their handler feels nervous, uncertain, frightened—they’ll pick up on that. My young daughter rides now too, and I’m always telling her to lead with confidence, to look in the direction she wants to go even as she asks the horse to do the same. I know from experience that in every phase of my life, horses have been there to reflect, like mirrors, what’s really going on internally. They’ve forced me to take a hard look at myself and, always, to become better. Equine therapy, which I learned a lot about while researching for this book, explicitly recognizes and leverages the healing benefits of horses. I also gave Claire her meetings, where she meets new friends who can relate to her pain. The growth she experiences in those meetings helps her tune in more sympathetically to her brother’s plight, and to the challenges her best friend Maya faces as she watches her father deal with the stress of his job. Working on ourselves is good for everyone. When young readers pick up The Wild Path, I hope they recognize that whatever their path involves—anxiety, addiction, horses, therapy, or an entirely different set of barriers and gifts—they are not alone. Difficulty is not insurmountable. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Claire’s father points at a mountain near their home, asking if she knows what’s on the other side. Of course she does; she’s hiked all the way up to the top and back down again. Still, from where she stands, in that moment, that other side is invisible. She has to trust it’s still there, behind all the rock that fills her vision. “Sometimes when you’re right up close to something, you can’t see the whole of it,” Dad says. “But there’s always more. I promise.” That’s the promise I’d share with young readers too. There’s always more. It’s waiting for you, just a little further down the path.
Sarah R. Baughman taught middle and high school English in the United States, China, Bolivia, and Germany. After six years in rural Vermont, Sarah now lives with her husband and two children in her home state of Michigan, where she spends as much time as possible in the woods and water.