POWNAL, Maine—The clear trill of gold finches fills the air as Stephen and Anna Hyde walk down the drive to a shingled barn. Inside the weathered building, father and daughter tend to an aged horse that's going blind. Anna, who is 25, pats the bay's pink muzzle and declares, ''nose!" Having gotten the right word, she beams, her face breaking into a radiant, toothy smile.
Physically and mentally disabled since birth, Anna later that morning joins 10 men and women gathered at the family's kitchen table. They, too, are dealing with life challenges. Laurie is battling ovarian cancer. Rupert continues to survive leukemia. Jen is stricken with a deep, inexplicable sadness. Elisabeth lost her mother to breast cancer. Alix is going through menopause. An older woman is a recovering alcoholic. One young man escaped a harrowing existence living homeless in Manhattan.
Outside, a dog softly slumbers under the cherry table. The scene is still as each person takes a turn and speaks about themselves while the others listen intently. The stories are followed by silence. The room is quiet, but the air is abuzz, humming with energy.
Laurie, who spent the winter undergoing chemotherapy, acknowledges that facing cancer is frightening. Still, she says, the chance to confront her disease and her fears with others has made her more open to life.
''There are people I could share this dialogue with in a way I never knew was possible," she tells the group, reflecting on her previous experience with Two Roads. ''It brought me so much hope of where I could go."
Another woman likens her demons to a wall. ''In this moment, I feel so full of everybody and everything I've heard," she says. ''There always is a wall. It is about listening and daring to speak and daring to be who you are in a given moment."
Everyone at the table has taken time out from their everyday lives and traveled to this southern Maine town to participate in ''Contemplative Practice in Nature: Illness and Initiation." Two Roads Maine, a nonprofit organization based in Pownal, offers the four-day retreat as part of its mission to help people who have experienced a loss or life-threatening illness, or who are going through an important transition in life. The natural world is woven into its programs as a catalyst to spur reflection and healing.
Besides the contemplative retreats, Two Roads Maine leads four- to eight-day trips in other natural settings around Maine and beyond. All trips are co-led with experienced outdoor guides from The Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset. Participation is limited to six to 13 people per retreat.
Whether it's hiking through the Tuscan hills -- the first overseas journey, taken last month -- or snowshoeing into Big Wood Pond near the Maine-Quebec border, the physical environment is a common thread in all excursions. No wilderness experience is needed, however, and outdoor activities are tailored to the stamina and comfort levels of the participants. Care is taken with food, but meals are kept simple and everyone has a hand in the cooking.
Every August, Two Roads leads a 3Æ-mile kayak trip in Maine's Muscongus Bay. Paddling instruction and practice are provided before the group sets out in single and tandem kayaks to largely uninhabited Harbor Island. During the four-day retreat, participants explore the rocky shore and woodland trails and kayak around Crane, Franklin, and other islands. People have time and space to be alone, talk informally, and come together to share their experiences in ''councils" or group sessions held twice daily.
Two Roads was born out of one such Muscongus expedition. In 1999, feeling fit and in good health, David Hyde, then 49, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at his annual physical. Two days later, the father of two lost his longtime corporate position at L.L. Bean in Freeport.
''It was a total shock to me. I didn't know what the doctor was talking about," recalls Hyde, 55, who elected to undergo brachytherapy in which a radioactive seed is planted in the prostate gland. ''There was no outward indication to me that anything was up."
Growing up in Connecticut's Naugatuck Valley, Hyde and his older brother, Stephen, were given the freedom to roam the countryside. As boys, they hunted, fished, canoed, skated, and skied, and that mutual love of the outdoors continued and expanded through college.
So it was natural for Hyde to turn to the outdoors when confronted with cancer and loss of his professional identity. Rather than plunge into a job search, he gave himself time to clear his head and face his uncertain future. He went for long runs and paddles near his home in Pownal. As spring unfolded that year, he was struck by the sight of trout lilies blossoming in wetlands and other signs of renewal.
One fine spring day, he took to the sea and kayaked around Muscongus Bay. As he felt the wind in his face and the current beneath him, he began to think of nature as a metaphor for rebirth and a tool for healing. He thought then of using his own passion for the outdoors to help others at critical points in life.
''It's my place, if you will, where I've gone to and sought solace in those 'big moments,' " he says. ''I recognized that other people facing similar challenges might benefit, as I have, from an opportunity to investigate in community nature's capacity to heal and how much that influences our own."
While working at L.L. Bean, Hyde had forged ties with the nonprofit Chewonki Foundation, which provides diverse educational programs -- a children's summer camp, wilderness trips, high-school academic semesters -- to foster an understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
Hyde, his wife, Sarah, a former hospice worker, and Stephen Hyde, an ordained Zen Buddist monk, convinced Chewonki to partner with them to design and lead wilderness trips for people at emotional or physical crossroads. Two Roads Maine derives its name from a Robert Frost poem.
''I learned 'The Road Not Taken' when I was 12," Hyde says. ''It resonated with me then and still does."
In 2002, Newburyport resident Regis McDuffee found himself at a critical juncture in life when his 22-year-old son, Morgan, was stabbed to death while trying to break up a late-night fight between locals and Bates College students in Lewiston. Shortly after Morgan's death, McDuffee lost his job as New England sales manager for a Swiss office-seating manufacturer.
McDuffee, 54, is an outdoorsy guy. But the divorced father of three boys didn't have the heart to go hiking, sailing, camping, whitewater kayaking, or pursue other pleasures in the months after his son's death. It was Morgan's fiancee, Susie, who persuaded him to accompany her and her mother on a Two Roads Maine kayak expedition to Harbor Island in Muscongus Bay.
That sunny August day, paddling and chatting with the Hydes, Chewonki guides, and other participants, McDuffee felt his mind and body ease for the first time in weeks. The bay's wild beauty and the sensation of being on the sea lifted his spirits and gave him a respite from his grief.
''It was the first time since Morgan's death that things were right with the world," McDuffee recalls in a phone interview, likening the experience to rock-climbing during his ski-bum days in Colorado. ''When you actually went out on the rock, the world ceased to exist. It was you, your partner, and the rock."
On Harbor Island, feeling as if he were among family and friends, McDuffee felt comfortable expressing his own pain and took comfort and strength from hearing other people's stories. The intimate sessions, he says, take on a life of their own and roles blur within the group.
That's true in the Hyde kitchen back in Pownal. In the room, morning light strikes the cherry cabinets. Bouquets of pastel-hued statice, Queen Anne's lace, and other dried wildflowers hang upside down from beams. The cast-iron Elmira range is stoked.
Stephen Hyde shares a poem by Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jiménez. ''I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down in the depths, against a great thing," he reads, his voice resonating in the quiet.
It is Anna who breaks the ice in the council. The young woman clinks her chunky acrylic rings, smiles to herself, occasionally laughs outright, and plants a spontaneous kiss on her father's cheek. Her warmth and lack of self-consciousness lighten the pensive atmosphere and convey the message that it's OK to be human, that life is not a perfect process.
''She's a much better meditation teacher than I am," Hyde concedes, reflecting on the sometimes hard journey since doctors pronounced his daughter retarded. ''She knows when someone is suffering and has an ability to touch that."
Letitia Baldwin is a freelance writer in Maine.