When I Grow Old

When I grow old…I wanna be like my mama. She turned 79 years old yesterday, and she is still adventuring. She is, obviously, slowing down. But she won’t let that stop her from still living fully, stretching herself occasionally to the limits of her physical abilities, whatever those may be at a given time.

For many years, my mom has looked for an epic adventure to celebrate another year of living. For her 70th birthday, she and I went downhill skiing in Portillo, Chile. Another year, my middle sister took Mom for a hot air balloon ride. Two years ago, Mom learned how to use the old wind-surf board as a stand-up-paddle board. (Don’t ask how many times I fell in the river trying that, okay?!) paddleboard grannyMany years, Mom celebrated her birthday by taking a long canoe ride on the river she lives beside—sometimes solo, sometimes with a friend. She spent a few hours to paddle upriver to a park, had a snack, then paddled home, approximately 14 miles round trip.

Years ago, Mom enjoyed backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. Our first time hiking together, we were joined by her sister-in-law and a friend. Later, she took a number of trips to introduce grandkids to backpacking. mom and I, first AT tripAs her strength has declined, Mom has been able to carry less and less gear. For the past few years, my youngest sister and Mom have day-hiked together, meeting at Shenandoah National Park. By staying in a lodge or at a campground and driving to different sections of the park, they have gradually completed most of the 104 miles of the Appalachian Trail located in the park. One more trip should finish their self-imposed challenge.

(photo taken by Joanna Fischer)

(photo taken by Joanna Fischer)

This year, Mom and my middle daughter met my youngest daughter and I near the end of our 5 week section-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Mom joined us for the steep climb beside Crabtree Falls in Virginia. At the top of the falls, she walked back down by herself as daughters and I headed back to the AT for another 5 days of backpacking. crabtree falls VA, hiking grannyThe story of Mom’s continued adventures was told around campfires and passed on from hiker to hiker along the Trail. Everyone applauded her spunk. One southern backpacker said, “I wanna be like Granny when I grow up!” So do I, so do I…

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Who Should Be “Allowed” to Hike?

I am passionate about backpacking. I feel fully alive when I’m living in the woods. My daughter feels the same. Beyond simple pleasures, however, hiking is a key therapy to manage her anxiety and mental illness challenges. Nature brings her peace. So we return to the woods again and again, no matter who questions the risks or suggests we should pursue “safer” activities for her. We continue to backpack because of her disabilities, not in spite of them. hiking partnersThere are many of us who love outdoor activities and love someone with disabilities. Because we understand both worlds, we must be the ones who speak up. We need to stand beside those who might be discriminated against. Anyone who dreams of taking a walk in the woods should be encouraged. Outdoor adventures should be available for everyone.

I am passionate about backpacking. I have also become an advocate.

Advocate: 1. a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc. 2. a person who pleads for or in behalf of another; intercessor. Synonyms: champion, proponent, backer.

When a hike is successful, everyone celebrates the courage and perseverance of the blind thru-hiker or the one with artificial legs. But what happens when things go wrong? Do tragedies or close-calls “prove” that the nay-sayers are right? How does the outdoor adventure community find an appropriate balance between personal freedom and personal responsibility for participants?

This year alone, a variety of incidents along the Appalachian Trail have provoked strong opinions and arguments among hikers in online forums. An older man with Alzheimer’s got confused and was lost for a few days. A person with brain cancer wanted a friend to take her on a first-ever backpacking expedition. A young man with Multiple Sclerosis needed intervention when he overheated. Parents are taking very young children on an attempted a thru-hike (walking almost 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine in one long trip). Are these “okay?” Or should the mythical “someone” intervene and prevent such risky behavior? And, if prohibition is such a good idea, then who decides which situations are okay and which are too dangerous?

Whenever there is a close-call or a tragedy, fingers are pointed at the ignorant adventurer, at the family, at the doctors, at search and rescue personnel. Online discussions grow heated. It seems so clear to some readers that the person with mental illness or with physical disability should be protected (even from themselves) by not allowing them in the woods.

Usually, I step away from contentious arguments. However, in a recent online discussion, I realized I can’t just run away from conflict and find peace in the woods for myself and my daughter. I must not just write posts about the adventures I am privileged to take. I must also build bridges for everyone to pursue their own passions. It would be a sad day if the only hikers on the Appalachian Trail were those who were young, perfectly fit folks carrying perfect gear. (Hmmm…that would eliminate both of us and most of the hikers we meet!) With proper precautions and an attitude of taking personal responsibility for one’s decisions, even those with disabilities can continue to enjoy outdoor adventures.

I am passionate about backpacking. I am also an advocate. passionate hiker, I am an advocateWhat about you?

Watch Your Step!

Last week I shared the truth about the Appalachian Trail: it is not merely a walk in the woods. There are more “secrets” about backpacking the AT: hikers must stay alert and watch their step. There are often obstacles to be crossed along the way.

For a footpath in the forest, it is surprising how often the AT crosses roads. Sometimes there are nice road signs that alert passing motorists to slow down for hikers. Roads_Hiker CrossingOther times hikers have to cautiously watch for passing cars whose drivers have no idea that there is a trail crossing the road. Roads_crossingAlong the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, the AT often comes out on one side of a pullout or parking area. It can be hard to figure out where to re-enter the woods on the other side. Sometimes the trail maintainers are kind enough to add arrows to the pavement to point the hiker in the right direction. roads_arrows to the trailThere is something scarier than road crossings, however. There are times when the hiker walks into a clearing and has to cross a railroad track. Daughter and I practiced listening and feeling through our feet for a rumble around the curve before safely crossing in the silence.  (We often wondered what it would have been like to be standing that close to the tracks when a train rushed past!)railroad crossingSometimes, the hiker feels like a rat in a maze. In jumbled rocky areas, side trails can be confusing, especially if there are no clear blazes. obstacles_maze trailsThe first time a hiker encounters a fence crossing can be intimidating. How in the world does one climb a steep stile ladder with a pack on the back? And then there are the tight gates that keep cows or horses from escaping a pasture. They can be difficult to navigate with a bulky pack.  obstacles_fence crossingEven when the trail stays in the wilderness, there are obstacles for hikers to navigate. In the previous post, the various styles of water crossings were discussed. (See post HERE).  Sometimes the obstacles in the path are living critters. Other hikers tell of surprising a bear or deer in the trail or having to carefully navigate around a rattlesnake. Happily, we have only seen (harmless) black snakes… obstacles_snakesFinally, nature herself sometimes puts challenges on the trail. There are giant boulders to conquer, such as this landmark: The Guillotine. (Actually, it is far easier to walk under than its name implies.) obstacles_guillotineAny time there is a big storm, trees may fall across the trail. Eventually, trail maintainers will cut through them to clear the path. Until then, it may be possible to walk around the fallen giant. (This one almost beat me: it was too steep to climb around; it was too tall for me to step up onto and jump down on the other side;  it was too wide for me to manage a sit-and-swivel. I finally took off my pack and crawled over. I’m so glad daughter didn’t think to take video of my awkward performance!)obstacles_fallen treeOther times it’s the over-under dilemma! (Daughter crawled under with her pack on, getting her knees dirty. I took my pack off, tossed it over the log, then crouched and duck-walked under.) obstacles_fallen logHikers have to be ready to conquer any obstacle. Don’t forget to WATCH YOUR STEP!

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