WATER…we need water…

Hikers have to think about water all day long. Out in the woods there is no magic tap to turn for water to come pouring out whenever we want it. We have to find a water source, filter the water, carry water back to camp, and carry water in our packs for while we are hiking. (Read more about this process HERE.)

It felt weird at first, but we have gotten comfortable with using a “bite-valve” to have water at the ready the moment we are thirsty. We have been happy with the water reservoirs we have carried in the past. BUT…sometimes they leak when we don’t get them tightly closed. This means we run short of water when we need it…and it means the stuff in our packs get wet. Blergh! There is a nifty interior pocket for a water reservoir in our packs. BUT…the full bladder must be put in the pack before our other stuff and it is impossible to refill the reservoir without pulling it back out of the pack. That’s hard to do when the pack is filled to the top! And carrying a full day’s supply of water gets heavy. 2-4 pounds may not sound like much but it’s HEAVY to a backpacker! So…this trip we are trying a new method of carrying water. We bought a “Blue Desert Smartube” kit for each of us. This has an adapter to connect with any water bottle.

This solves the above problems with a reservoir: Bottles are easier to tightly close. They fit in exterior pockets, so no leaking inside the pack. In addition, we can carry less water and stop to filter more at water sources we pass during the day. This lessens the weight we have to carry–which always makes us happy! 

Now that we are a few weeks down the trail, we can report that we LOVE our new system! We have made only one change to it which is to carry an extra bottle cap to use (rather than the tubing) when carrying both bottles back to the shelter from a water source. 

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Bear Food…

When we are in the woods, it is important to protect our food from bears…and protect bears from our people food!

The most common way to do this is by hanging a “bear bag.” This involves putting all food (and other smelly things such as ointments or wipes) in a bag, slinging a rope over a tree branch, and hauling the bag high enough in the air that a bear can’t reach it. (I’ve written about the challenges of this process HERE.)

This can be a very frustrating process. There might be no appropriate branches (trees too tall or branches broken off from overuse by so many hikers near shelters). The rope might get stuck in the tree. Last time we tried, we had to cut off the rope and leave part of it dangling (bad for the woods and worse for my temper)! Enough is enough! Bears are getting bolder in some areas. And we are getting tired of hanging a bear bag.

We considered a “bear canister” — a plastic bin that supposedly prevents bears from getting to the food inside. This sounded like a great idea–and I was willing to carry the extra weight for the convenience of not hanging a bear bag each night. BUT…it took up most of the room in my pack. And I wasn’t about to figure out how to strap it on the outside of the pack. So back to the store that canister went… This trip we are trying out an “ursack.” It is made of kevlar–claw and fang resistant. There have been cases of a bear slobbering all over the sack and pulverizing the food inside, but by morning the bear will still be hungry and there will still be at least crumbly food for us to eat!

Because it protects the bear from getting to the food, it does not need to be hung from a branch. It can be tied to a tree trunk. 

A few weeks into our trip, I have only one regret about switching to Ursacks to protect our food. I only wish we had done so sooner!

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

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Meet Our New (tiny) Hiking Pals!

We have new companions who are joining us on this backpacking trip. Andowen and I had fun at the Lego Store, each choosing the pieces to make individual “Tiny-Me”s. Andowen is named after an elf from a Lord-of-the-Rings role-play game. Tiny-A is an elven character who carries a wizard-y looking staff and wears cool sunglasses. We aren’t sure what magical things the staff might be able to do–and Tiny-A isn’t talking right now. Story Seeker (that’s me) loves to meet new people and hear their stories. Tiny-S does the same. She also carries a mug–always wishing for more caffeine. Besides, she claims stories flow more easily over a shared drink!

Our tiny hiking pals took time to study the guide books and get familiar with the planned itinerary. They paid close attention to the elevation maps, confident they can handle the steep climbs and descents, but wondering how we will fare.  They checked out our backpacks, making sure we have all the clothing, food, and gear that we need for our first week back in the woods. This morning, they joined us in saying Goodbyes–goodbye house, goodbye friends, goodbye park, goodbye books. We won’t say goodbye to daddy/hubby yet. He’s driving us to the trail-head to start our adventure.  By this evening, Tiny-A and Tiny-S will celebrate heading into the woods with us. All of us are excited about the opportunity for adventures over the next six weeks. We promise to tell you all about it!

(ps…thanks to British friend, Jill Playfair, who gave us the idea to add hiking pals to our outdoor fun!)

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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

It Must Be TIME!

Hmmm…my head is full of trivia about shelters and distances and water-sources. My mouth aches from grinding my teeth in my sleep. The gear closet is mostly emptied. And the chaotic mountain of hiking “stuff” has been organized and contained in two simple backpacks.

It Must Be TIME! Time to head back to the woods. Time to get one more extended-release dose of nature before winter hits. Time to explore another piece of the Appalachian Trail.

We looked over our gear list. We set aside warm-weather clothes. We gathered a variety of layers for staying at the right temperature as we hike. (Goal: put layers on and off as needed to limit sweaty clothes. This helps us stay warm when we stop for a break or for the night.) We put together a cozy outfit for cold nights in camp. (By now, it is approaching freezing temperatures at night in the mountains down south.) AT hike_warm clothes

We went on a shopping expedition to the grocery store to fill our packs with 6 days of food. We like the foods we have tested on previous trips, so the shopping is quick and easy. Grab this, snatch that, pay the bill, out the door. But then the big job begins… repackaging this big pile… AT hiking_food supply

…into two food bags. (Daughter carries breakfast and dinner, I carry lunch and snacks.) Heavy bags right now, but lighter each day as we devour more and more of the supplies. AT hiking_food bags

This will be a short trip—just 6 days of hiking. We are wimps who prefer to avoid cold, rainy days. We even pushed back our departure so we will be driving on this gray, wet day instead of backpacking in the pouring rain. gray fall in Ohio

See you in a week! It IS time! We are headed to the woods!

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?