The “AT Experience”

I recently read the Summer 2017 issue of AT Journeys magazine from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). One article included the official ATC policy on the AT experience. I found these policies interesting to ponder…especially as they relate to the therapeutic value of hiking the Appalachian Trail with my daughter “Andowen.” (Read more about how hiking helps her HERE and HERE.)

“Integral to the trail experience are:

–Opportunities for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world.

Time for contemplation when camped beside a waterfall along the AT in Virginia

–A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization.

The world disappears when sitting atop a mountain above the clouds!

–Opportunities to experience solitude, freedom, personal accomplishment, self-reliance and self-discovery.

Writing in a journal and making drawings is a great way to record and process our experiences

–A sense of being on the height of the land.

Sometimes it feels like “on a clear day, you can see forever”

–Opportunities to experience the historic and pastoral elements of the surrounding countryside.

If only the ruins we pass could talk…what stories we would hear!

–A feeling of being part of the natural environment.

Hugging Keffer Oak–the second largest tree along the AT. It has an 18′ diameter and is over 300 years old!

–Opportunities for travel on foot, including opportunities for long distance hiking.”

“The mountains are calling and I must go…” –John Muir

I’m sure many of these experiences can be found in other places in nature…but they certainly are part of why we continue to return to the Appalachian Trail for more backpacking adventures!

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Adventure…some days it’s HARD!

The number one rule of successful adventure is–Never Quit On a Bad Day! As  John Denver sings “Some days are diamonds, Some days are stone…” It is important to remember that there WILL be sparkly, bright days again, even when this particular one feels dark and heavy. 

Most days we can celebrate the “diamonds” found by spending extended time in the mountains/woods. We enjoy seeing the beautiful views, hearing stories from fellow hikers, and feeling tired pride at the end of the day–the pride of a job well done.

On other days, however, this all feels like a heavy, cumbersome “stone.” We wonder why we are out here. We get teary and angry and just want to quit. (Take a moment of silence in sympathy for my poor hubby when we finally have cell coverage after a few hard days in a row….)

A few days into our trip, daughter Andowen pulled off her backpack and plopped down beside a cross-trail. She was adamant that we were going to hike down to a hostel, call daddy and go HOME right then. I insisted that we would talk about it two days later–after a night in a soft bed and a belly full of town food. We argued about it…but eventually she grabbed her pack and angrily stomped off down the trail. 

Another day I was exhausted. I was physically tired of hiking day after day…and mentally weary of worrying about whether or not there would be water at the next shelter. (The drought in this area causes us to have to carry pounds of extra water each day…ugh!) Being careful to save water so we can make dinner even if the water source near the shelter is dry causes us to skimp on drinking while hiking. Dehydration is a terrible thing! The unrelenting steep climb at the end of that day made things worse. By the time I got to the shelter, all I wanted to do was crawl in my sleeping bag and give up. 

On hard days, adventure comes down to attitude. It is important to acknowledge and feel the full range of emotion. But then, we need to choose. We remind Andowen to reframe the negatives–and look for the positives. This is the first time she has felt homesick—but that also means she finally has friends and roots in our new location. For me, I remind myself to let go of worrying about things I can not control (my daughter’s emotions, the lack of water, how much my muscles ache).

And we remind each other on those hard days—Never Quit on a Bad Day!

Climbing Mountains

I am frequently reminded on this current backpacking adventure of a saying I heard this summer: 

“Stairs are just organized mountains”

Mountains are beautiful, but can be intimidating to hike up and down. 

(Can you find “Andowen” starting up this mountain?)


Sheer rock faces or slippery steep dirt are intimidating. It sometimes feels like we will fall off the side of the mountain! 

It is always easier if there is at least rock jumble or tree roots to help us keep our footing. 

And, of course, rock steps or log steps are a huge help. (Thanks, volunteer trail maintainers!) 

 

So next time you see a set of stairs,  whether rustic or fancy, remember to say thanks for those “organized mountains” that make life easier! 

 

Coral of the Forest?

This backpacking trip we have seen amazing variety in the fungi found along the Appalachian Trail. Every imaginable color, shape, and type is represented.

When we noticed this one, Daughter made an interesting observation: what if they aren’t really fungi but are the Corals of the Forest? Or perhaps, scientists have it wrong, and the colorful collections in the oceans should be called Fungi of the Sea… 

Sometimes the “Coral” are standing tall and proud, in plain sight beside the trail. 

Other times, they are shyly hidden under leaves or in the crevices of tree trunks. 

Here are some of the most interesting we have found so far. What do you think they should be called–Coral or Fungi?

These look like budding plants…but they are slimy.

This tree wears a skirt full of ruffles!

This one must be related to jellyfish…it’s translucent!

According to Mario, this is a mushroom. But perhaps that is just another type of “Coral”?

We still aren’t sure what classification these things should be given. We found Sponge Bob’s pet snail the other day.  If his Pineapple appears in these woods, we will all know that these should properly be called the CORAL of the FOREST! 

UPDATE: by the time we finishe’d our hike, we found two more connections to the sea: suckers from octopus tentacles, and another jellyfish wanna-be. AT_fungus_octopus suckers

2017-10-21 11.48.23

The Last Adventure

Life can be filled with adventure. Or it may be spent quietly at home, in a gilded cage of routines and responsibilities. We get to choose how we live. Eventually, however, we run out of choices. We face the last adventure: Death.

The mighty tree has fallen…new life begins…

I haven’t written any blog posts in the past six months. It felt like I had little to share. I wasn’t pursuing epic adventures nor was I making much art. I was staying involved with my folks as my Dad’s time here on earth was coming to an end. His heart beat its last rhythm on April 28, 2017

It felt like this was a time of small deeds, of simple words, of loneliness and isolation. Looking back, however, I realize these same things are elements of what makes an adventure “epic.” It is in overcoming obstacles large and small that humans are stretched beyond daily routines. According to the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, an epic adventure is “any task of great magnitude.” Looked at through that lens, these past six months have indeed been a big epic! What can be greater than helping a loved one move on to the next world even while helping oneself and others grieve that loss here on earth?

My dad lived a life filled with adventure. He traveled many places around the world, both for pleasure and to help others. He adventured on the water and on long road-trips across the United States. He finally fulfilled his dream of taking epic motorcycle trips—to all four corners of the USA and even in the back country of The Gambia, West Africa!

In the past year, Dad gradually lost mobility. Other health issues limited the time he could sit in a plane or in a car. His last trip was to visit family in Montana (my son and his brother) and in Idaho (his nephew). He treasured the memories of that adventure, even in his last few weeks.

Although his health was declining rapidly, Dad enjoyed a family gathering at the end of the year. He was “tickled pink” to welcome a new grandson-in-law to the family and meet the fiancé of another grandson. A few weeks after the party, Dad realized his prayers had been answered: he had the opportunity to see his family members all together one last time.

During the winter, Dad’s world continued to shrink. He could no longer go to the airport to say hello or goodbye to traveling family members. With the cold weather and his limited mobility, Dad enjoyed the few days that were sunny enough to sit outside. Eventually, even getting to church became too much for him.

I sat with Dad weekly through the winter and early spring. Talk meandered here and there: sometimes reminiscing, sometimes talking about practicalities of medical issues, sometimes just sitting together in silence. I treasured those times…and so often I cried myself to sleep on those nights. How can you bear seeing your dad struggle more and more with life? How do you say goodbye to your dad?

In the last ten days of his life, Dad’s world closed in around him, even though he was still at home. He was confined to bed. He needed help to eat or drink. He couldn’t even move without assistance. My siblings stayed at the house twenty-four hours a day, helping Mom to care for Dad. I came in each day, to give the caregivers a break. During this time, my sister and I spent hours playing his favorite hymns. He took comfort in the music just as he found moments of calm in prayer.

And there was waiting, lots of waiting. Dad dozing and crying and begging for the waiting to be over. His family staring out the window, taking walks, seeking the comfort to be found in nature. All of us asking God for hope and comfort and a peaceful passage for him into the next world.

At one point, near the end, Dad asked “When will this trip be over?” Finally, he took his last breath, and started his new journey. We are still grieving his loss…but this photo summarizes the last adventure quite well:

The mighty tree has fallen…new life begins…

“The Peace of Wild Things”

Last week, we were living a favorite poem by Wendell Berry. We always enjoy the peace of walking in nature along the Appalachian Trail.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, head to the woods_seek peace

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. AT hiker_into the woods

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. wild ponies_AT_Grayson HIghlands

I come into the presence of still water. AT_Laurel River_Still Water

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. AT sunset

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” AT_mountain ranges

Wand’rin’ Star

“Not all who wander are lost” — JRR Tolkein

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a Wanderer. Sometimes I can fake “normal” and stay in one place for months at a time. But then the compulsion hits and off I go.  Even a houseful of kids never stopped me: traveling with a large family just meant more logistics for this queen-of-lists to organize.

Going on adventures has always been a guilty-pleasure. I love the planning and the going. I enjoy the coming home. It seems so reasonable…at least to me! But each return brings questions from family and friends: “When will you stay put?” “Did you get that out of your system this time?” “Why can’t you be stable and put down roots like everyone else?” I laugh about being a “free-spirit.” I joke that others need to look outside-the-box. But deep inside, these comments continued to erode my confidence. Obviously, there was something wrong with me. Surely I would “grow up” someday and be content where I was planted. the mountains are calling

There were times I wondered if I harmed my kids by doing so much schooling on the road. (Others certainly thought so…) Sometimes I imagined how my husband’s life would have been different if he had married someone who was more consistent and bound by routines. (Time after time family questioned how I could leave him home alone while the kids and I traveled…) I tried. Really, I did! But then the next adventure called to me; the next location pulled my heartstrings. I had to go, wandering again and again. AT trails

This summer, in an attempt to continue being outdoors as much as possible, youngest Daughter and I lived in an RV at a campgrounds close to a small town. We fell in love with the people and the places around town. We were welcomed and invited to dive deeper into relationships. We began to put down tentative roots. It felt right, but there was a feeling of grief as well. What would these new friends say when they discovered my broken urge to wander? RV travels

In the past few weeks, I’ve had some aha!-moments. Hubby sent me a link to a song and affirmed that I really was born under a wanderin’ star (and implied that this was okay…) See video clip HERE

Last week, I commented to the pastor of the new church we are attending (in the small town we love) that it felt like we are putting down some roots. And maybe I would finally stop running. He firmly told me that there is nothing wrong with wandering. It is a gift and a privilege that so many never experience. A few days later, Daughter’s psychologist affirmed the same idea, telling Daughter that it is a privilege that she gets to wander with her mother. Every time I remembered these words, I cried. Maybe I wasn’t broken after all. Maybe this urge to wander IS “normal”…at least for me. texas river walking

And then…while I was pondering how to celebrate my wandering spirit, an artist friend posted a painting for sale. I’ve wanted to buy something from this artist for quite a while, but couldn’t decide if I wanted a mountain scene, a view of red mesas from Navajoland, or a southwestern landscape. See Sharon Baker’s art HERE. When I saw the title of this particular painting, I just KNEW this was “my” painting. It is called “Wandering Star” and was painted many years ago in response to the same song my husband sent to me. I will hang this painting with great pride in my home, to remind me who I am… Painting by SKay Art

I’m no longer lost. I am a WANDERER!

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…

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?

Lessons Learned…

This was our second long-distance adventure on the Appalachian Trail. We quickly remembered many lessons learned last fall: neither of us like hiking on hot sweaty days, bear poles really are human torture devices (read about that HERE), and we always enjoy meeting other hikers and hearing their stories.

This hike was in spring (rather than fall) which meant we had new lessons to learn. When we started, there were few leaves on the trees. This gave us good views…but also meant there were no leaves large enough to use as tp or kleenex. (We bought toilet paper at our first resupply, and used our extra bandanas for nose-blowing.) Spring hiking, few leaves

Tiny spring leaves also meant we had no shady protection from the sun. (Until it started raining every day for the second half of our trip…) Sun burns, ouch!

We had decided to try to carry less water and filter refills along the way. Mastering this skill saves weight to be carried. (It adds up fast since each pint of water weighs a pound.) April had unusually low precipitation  which left us rationing drinks when water sources were dry so we quickly went back to carrying plenty of water. Of course, heavy rains in May took care of that problem.

Those heavy rains also gave us the added challenge of crossing flooded streams. The usual dry rocks to hop across were often underwater, adding to the adventures of each day! Flooded creeks, challenging crossings

More moisture also meant more bugs. The biting clouds of no-see-’ems were particularly bad. They especially loved Andowen, poor girl! Full of bug bites

We saw some of the same critters as in the fall (deer, squirrels, chipmunks, black snakes, and reports of bears). But we also saw hundreds of lovely butterflies and these really cool orange efts (baby salamanders). Orange eft, baby salamander

We learned that views at overlooks were entirely dependent on the weather. Beautiful layers of mountains if it was clear: Beautiful views, clear day

Or walking in an invisible world when the clouds touched the ground: No views, hiking in clouds

Finally, we missed the brilliant colors of fall leaves. But that loss was balanced by the hidden beauty of spring flowers, such as this lady slipper.  Spring flowers, lady slipper

We learned new lessons…now we are ready for future hikes in both spring and fall!