Nature Snob

Hi, my name is Jill, and I discriminate against boring views. I’m addicted to changing scenery and epic locations. Do you also belong to this group for recovering Nature-snobs?

I long for the beauty of walking in the mountains. I’m homesick for the brilliant blue skies and the mysterious fog-bound trees found along the Appalachian Trail. At least give me a beach with crashing waves! I hate the flat farm fields and always overcast skies that have surrounded me in Central Ohio. Such a Nature-snob!

It helps that we recently moved to a small town in a hilly county northeast of Columbus. As I explore local parks and wander trails in nearby forests, I am challenged to change my snooty attitude. There truly IS beauty all around me when I look for it! 

“Finding beauty here or there; Finding beauty anywhere!”

The beginning of a new year means it is time to organize the thousands of photos on my computer. This year I found interesting similarities in the views I have captured as I explore Nature-places both “here” in Ohio and “there” on the AT. Take a look… (In the following sets of photographs, the first one is along the AT; the second photo is close to our new home.)

Enjoying early morning light streaming thru the trees:

Noticing farmland shrouded in fog; waiting for the rising sun to bring crisp, clear views of the hills:

Walking along a stream, listening to it burbling and gurgling along its merry way:

Stopping to wonder at the roar of rushing, cascading water falling over boulders:

Looking for small pleasures and tiny bits of beauty:

Reflecting on the beauty of seasonal changes:

Taking time to notice the colors of sunset over nightly shelter:

I’m working hard to stop being a Nature-Snob by “finding beauty anywhere.” What have YOU discovered near you? I would love to see your favorite nature places. Please leave a photo in the comments!

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The ABCs of Nature’s Healing

Have you noticed how you feel better in your daily life after spending time outdoors? As we immerse ourselves in the natural world, we become more whole physically, mentally, and emotionally. Plus, the better we know the world around us, the more we enjoy spending time outside. Continue reading to learn about the three different levels of connecting with Nature…

A – Have an ADVENTURE in Nature

“Nature” refers to the outdoors, the natural world, the places not made by humans. Everyone has an emotional response when they hear that word. For some of us, it is a place of comfort or adventure or pleasure. For others, it is a place that is dangerous or boring, a place to avoid. At this level, Nature is something separate from the adventurers, something to be explored or enjoyed in and of itself.

We enjoy extended backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail

So exciting to see wild ponies up close and personal!

B—Use Nature as a BACKDROP for Therapy

There is growing interest in adding nature to traditional counseling or psychotherapy practices. In this case, the natural world is seen as a beneficial alternate setting for client/therapist interactions. There are variations in how this is applied, with names such as Ecopsychotherapy, Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare, and Nature Therapy. Although these activities are set outdoors, the focus is on the therapy itself as it is directed by the specialist. There is acknowledgement of the ways Nature lowers stress but this is merely seen as complementary to the traditional health practices. A few individuals participate in specialized programs that push them to their physical limits to more quickly and radically change their emotional and behavioral choices.

Daughter is proud of the survival skills she has learned–including building a fire

Being in the mountains is a good place to practice meditation and self-calming skills

C—Make a Deep CONNECTION with Nature

There is growing research focused on the therapeutic value of connecting directly with Nature, not merely pursuing beneficial activities in an outdoor setting. Scientists are learning that Nature itself can fill the role of “therapist.” Most of us aren’t comfortable interacting at this level on our own. We aren’t sure what to do or how to build these relationships with the natural world. It can be helpful to have a “Forest Therapy Guide” facilitate a personal connection to our environment by using all of our senses to immerse ourselves in Nature.

Close your eyes and focus on what you feel and hear and smell in the woods

Taste wild fruit; Feel the ferns when making and wearing a “crown”

What’s Next?

Stay tuned! I’ve been accepted into the Forest Therapy Guide training and certification program. In the coming weeks, I will share more about the specific health benefits of immersing oneself in Nature. I can’t wait to tell you more about why this is my “dream job” and how you can help me start this practice in my online and local communities!

New You, New Name…What’s in a Name? (Part 2)

It’s a new year. Sometimes that brings a longing to become a new-you. It can be a long process to radically change who you are. But if you head to the woods, you could quickly gain a radically different name! Perhaps this post will give you some ideas…

In a previous post (which you can read HERE), I explained the significance of “Trail Names.” I told the story of how we got our names as “Story Seeker” and “Andowen.” Now I want to share some of the names we remember from other hikers we met on the Appalachian Trail.

Trail names often have entertaining history behind them. Usually, they give insight into a hiker’s personal journey. Tales are often told when sitting around a campfire in the woods or at a table in town. “How did you get your name?” is a good way to get the stories flowing…

Campfires…heart of conversations and gatherings

Trail names are given (or chosen) for many reasons. Perhaps the hiker is similar to a character from movies: Elle (from Legally Blonde), Long John Silver (complete with swirling cape and sword!), Gandalf or Frodo (from Lord of the Rings). Sometimes the trail name is a related to the hiker’s real name: Comet (Hailey) and Sunrise (Dawn). Physical characteristics are often commemorated: Big Foot, Long Legs, Tiny, Bean Pole. Trail clothing can also affect names: Blue Bandana, Green Knight. Favorite foods might also become a trail name: Honey Sticks and Java. Most common is probably hiking style or mishaps which occur in the early days of the hiker’s adventure: Jack Rabbit, Strider, Stumbles, Wrong Way, Muddy.

Here are a few of our favorite Trail Names and the stories behind them:

BEETLE started hiking with her daughter who was named Spider for how quickly she climbed steep sections of trail. Mom struggled in those same sections, legs and arms and hiking poles flying every which way. Daughter said she looked like a beetle…and the name stuck!

(from iNaturalist.com)

BLAZE headed to the trail without map or guidebooks. He found his way by following the white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail. In addition, he carried no stove and made fires each evening and morning to heat water and cook his food.

IRON HEART has a striking story of transformation. His life was in chaos and he was in terrible shape when he had a massive heart attack. He died and was revived multiple times on the way to the hospital and in the operating room. As he recovered, he made radical changes in his lifestyle. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to take on an epic adventure, and he headed to the Appalachian Trail. He didn’t finish the first year, but went back again this year and hopes to finish the entire trail by next season. He has an Iron Heart—in the physical implants that saved his life and in the determination that has changed his life.

OLD SCHOOL is a dentist who headed to the trail during a time of transition. He hadn’t hiked for years but still had his old gear. It worked fine decades before and he saw no reason to waste money upgrading everything. Younger hikers were bemused at the metal frame visible around his pack and at his old-school stove. Thus a name was given…

(photo from an ebay listing)

PROMETHEUS… We thought this might have been because he liked to light a campfire most evenings. Wrong! Early in his thru-hike the alcohol stove he was using blew up and lit the picnic table at the shelter on fire. He was the hiker who brought fire to the people… HA!

So, if you are longing for a change this year, what “trail name” would fit you on your journey? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Become a Warrior Woman

My daughter, Andowen, spends much of her time as a Warrior. At first glance, folks might think she is just a quirky teen. If they bother to spend time talking with her, they discover this is more than childish costume play. Here are some of the reasons that each one of us should be like her and choose to become a Warrior (Man or Woman) this year.

We have always had a big box of dress-ups around our house. Some of our kids rarely used them, others spent years wearing costumes. As a mid-teen, Andowen still loves imagination play accompanied by appropriate outfits and accessories. We figured out a few years ago that spending time in costume helps Andowen lower crippling anxiety levels. As she explains, “when I’m in my own world, I choose the rules, I always know how to respond, and no one picks on me.” Even when she and I take long backpacking trips (which also lessens anxiety), she still wants time most days to retreat into her imagination. The woods are a fabulous setting to make her pretend worlds feel more real!

Recently, she and I had a deeper discussion about what she gains by becoming a Warrior Woman. She described how acting as a particular character helps her practice the positive traits they have. In many ways, those imaginary humans, elves, and time-jumpers have become her mentors for how to handle real-life. Andowen described the following characteristics of a true Hero-Warrior:

A Warrior Woman must be STRONG, physically and mentally. It is good to be physically fit. But when you aren’t, it is even more important to become strong in your thinking and decision-making. Don’t let anything stop you from becoming who you want to be! Andowen spends time making weapons out of sticks and string, then becoming an “expert” by using them in imaginary battle and hunting scenarios. She practices being focused, ignoring any outside distractions.

To become a true LEADER, it is not enough for a Warrior Woman to be brave or to step out in front of her companions. She must also know how to encourage others. She finds ways to bring out their best in both actions and attitudes. She leads by example.

Andowen is learning how to be SMART as a Warrior Woman. This includes knowledge—learning the wood-lore and skills needed for survival. But it goes beyond facts. Being truly smart means knowing how to choose your battles. As she says, “you must know when to do what, and what to do when!” Because Andowen sometimes struggles with navigating human culture and relationships, it helps her to practice being an elf. Because this lessens her anxiety, she better remembers expected behavior and responses!

As always, becoming the expert at something takes PERSEVERANCE. Andowen has learned this on long distance hiking adventures—never give up on a bad day. She also practices this trait when making “weapons.” Sometimes she creates the look she envisions. Other times she has to try over and over until she gets it “just right.” At home she uses cardboard, duct tape, wood, and cut-up clothes. (As seen in this year’s Halloween costume when she dressed up as Link from her favorite video game.) While on the AT, Andowen practiced how to safely use a pocket knife to smooth and shape sticks into desired “weapons.”

A real Warrior Woman moves through her world with CONFIDENCE. She knows what she needs to do and knows she has the skills capable of fulfilling her responsibilities. She faces new situations with courage. She builds on her strengths and past successes, knowing she can conquer any challenges that come against her. (Andowen was quite excited to meet a thru-hiker who was carrying a “real” sword! She claims owning a similar one would give her even more confidence…..)

Apparently an effective Warrior Woman is never surprised. She KEEPS CALM and thinks clearly no matter what she encounters. She studies each character she meets to determine if it might become an ally or if it is an enemy to be vanquished. In addition to regularly dressing up as a Warrior character, Andowen sometimes uses her creativity to experience life as other imaginary creatures. She decided it is awkward having a huge weighty horn on one’s head as a unicorn! Haha!

At the start of this New Year, as we set intentions and make resolutions for positive change, perhaps more of us need to consider how we would benefit from becoming Warrior (Men and Women)! Let’s listen to my quirky, costumed teen…and choose to pursue becoming better people.

Here’s to the WARRIORS—may we see them, may we raise them, may we be them!

Christmas Gifts–All Year Long!

The presents are opened; the food is eaten; the relatives have gone home. The Christmas holidays are over. But the very best gifts of Christmas don’t have to be packed away until next year. We can enjoy them all year long—especially by spending time outdoors!

May HOPE, LOVE, JOY and PEACE be yours, all the year through!

Some families and churches celebrate Advent in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Each week an additional candle is lit on the wreath, reminding us to focus on the true gifts offered to us: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. Even for folks who follow other religions (or no religion at all), each one of us longs to experience these qualities in our personal lives. Daughter and I have discovered that being in Nature gets us away from the hectic schedules and to-do lists of daily living. Time in the woods brings us  these simple gifts:

HOPE: Anything feels possible when we head outdoors for adventure. Even when the trail is difficult and we have a bad day, we comfort ourselves that tomorrow will bring new beauty and fresh challenges. Out here there are always reminders that nothing is so dark that light cannot shine into the shadows…

LOVE: Being outdoors helps us experience different facets of this gift. We better love the earth itself when we spend time in Nature. For us personally, our love for the Creator God grows when we experience the beauty around us. We deepen our connections with others as we overcome challenges together. (Yes, even when we want to kill each other…we are still building relationship! Haha!)

JOY:  We are often reminded of this verse while we are hiking on the Appalachian Trail: “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice; (Let the sea roar and all that fills it); Let the field exult and everything in it; Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy!” (Psalm 96:11-12) One particular morning, we were in awe to find this tree, singing for joy with arms raised toward the sunlight!

PEACE: Even science affirms that we need time in the woods to lower stress and counter the noisy, hectic world in which we live. It is never completely silent in the woods, but the sounds of birds singing, insects buzzing, wind blowing, and water flowing are calming, soothing noises. Sometimes we talk or sing while we hike together, other times we savor the peace that surrounds us when we walk in Nature.

As we put away the decorations of the Christmas season and look toward the beginning of a New Year, let’s make more time to get outdoors. Let’s celebrate the real gifts of Christmas all year long.

(I would love to hear which gift you want more of in the coming year. Please share your plans for spending time in Nature in the coming year by commenting on this post!)

What’s in a Name? (Part 1)

When backpackers meet another hiker on the trail, they commonly stop for a few moments to chat. Rather than ask “Where are you from?” or “Where do you work?” conversation tends to be hiking specific. “How long are you out here?” Or, “How far are you heading?” If coming from different directions on the trail, the hikers often exchange info about upcoming obstacles, how well the water source is flowing, or what wonderful restaurant is in the next town. They also exchange names. But these are not names you would overhear in your local coffee shop!

Long distance hikers use “Trail Names.” This allows a level of privacy or even protection when meeting strangers. Eventually, if hikers run into each other again and again at evening stopping places, they may share contact information to catch up with each other in an upcoming town or to keep in touch post hike. Sometimes they reach a point of sharing “real names.” It’s funny, though, that there are a few hikers I text with occasionally off-trail, but still have no clue what they are called in real life!

There is some controversy about whether a trail name must be given by others or whether it can be personally chosen. In the long run, however, the origin really doesn’t matter. Once the hiker starts using the name, it becomes their identity on-trail.

Finding the perfect name for characters she imagines is very important to my daughter. She gets very upset if a name doesn’t match her ideas of what is proper or right. Because of this, we decided to choose our own names before starting our first long-distance hiking adventure. She chose “Andowen,” an elven name from a Lord of the Rings role playing game she enjoys. She felt the name perfectly fit what we were doing because, of course, “Elves belong in the woods, Mom!” 


It took me longer to choose my name. For years, I used “Mama Duck” on-line because when my kids were little I was like a mama duck with a line of ducklings following behind. I thought about using “colorfulheart,” my current online name. Neither of those quite fit my imagined role while hiking. Finally, I decided on “Story Seeker.” Wherever I go, I look for stories—ones I make up about what I see and do, and ones I hear from others. Time in the woods gives great scope for discovering new stories to share with friends like YOU! (This Native American story-teller figurine was given to me years ago by a friend who recognized my role as story-collector and story-teller…) 

 
This explains how we got our names. In a future post I will tell stories of the trail names of other hikers we have met on our adventures.

Walking in Beauty

The Appalachian Trail offers relatively few overlooks with stunning mountain views. Much of the time, the hiker follows the trail through the “Green Tunnel,” surrounded by woods. Occasionally, the trail wanders through pastures or over grassy “balds.” Wherever that simple path goes, however, the hiker is surrounded by splendor.

When I’m backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, I often think of this traditional Navajo blessing: “In beauty I walk, With beauty before me I walk, With beauty behind me I walk, With beauty above me I walk, With beauty around me I walk, It has become beautiful again.”

 Whether we are enjoying a brilliant panoramic mountain view or savoring small details along the way, hiking on the Appalachian Trail IS walking in beauty!

Blessed to be a Blessing

Like everyone, we have had many challenges in life. Through counseling, comfort from God, and encouragement from others, we have learned how to walk through difficult things. It is always inspiring when we can pass these blessings on to others we meet who are struggling.

God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others who are also suffering.  — 2 Corinthians 1:4

As I’ve mentioned previously, our most recent AT adventure was very hard emotionally. Both daughter and I wanted to quit multiple times. Looking back, I realize we would have missed opportunities to bless others and to receive blessings if we had given in to those negative emotions and left the trail early. Here are stories of blessings which occurred after our breakdown moments:

Daughter Andowen has worked with a therapist for many years to gain coping skills to deal with severe anxiety and suicidal ideation. A key technique is “reframing” negative thoughts. One afternoon at a shelter, Elizabeth* shared her struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Before I could say anything, Andowen jumped in and talked about how significant reframing has been for her. She explained the process step by step. It was exciting for me to see my teen daughter teach her hard-earned coping skills to an older adult.

Another day, some first time backpackers showed up at a shelter we were at for a night. They were tired and discouraged. They were baffled as they tried to set up their new tent and use their fancy stove—things they had neglected to practice before leaving for the trail. Andowen went over to introduce herself, and then proceeded to calmly teach them how to use their gear. When I wandered over a little later, they raved about how helpful Andowen was, how wonderful it was that she was so skilled in the woods, and how grateful they were. Because of her encouragement, they said they plan to return to the trail for more adventures in the future. Way to go, Andowen!

One night another hiker and I stayed up late, talking about some of the profound challenges our kids face. David* shared his heartbreak that his young adult son was often in self-inflicted crisis. As is often the case, the anonymity of sitting with a stranger around a campfire allowed deep sharing. I mostly listened, occasionally encouraging David with stories from our family’s life. The next morning, I grabbed a private moment to explain what I’ve learned about grief. We can’t help others or dream of new things until we recognize and acknowledge challenges, and then grieve losses and disappointments. This process allows us to truly accept present realities even as we hope for change. Sharing these things with David reminded me of the progress we have made in our family…and sent him on his way, pondering how these ideas could begin to heal his own broken heart.

Twice on this trip, we were able to attend local church services. Both times, we were accepted, prayed for, and encouraged. Both times, it felt like some of the teachings were exactly the words we needed to hear. God used the people in those little churches to bless us as we headed further down the trail. At the same time, in both settings, the congregations were facing challenges that we have had experience with. I was able to privately encourage leaders by telling stories about what God has done in our own lives in similar situations. Warren Wiersbe, a noted theologian says, “True worship should lead to…the kind of spiritual strength that helps the believer carry the burdens and fight the battles of life.” In these little small town churches, we experienced the mutual blessing of true worship!

Sometimes being blessed and blessing others takes far less effort. Small words can echo for days: “I love spending time with your daughter.” “You have the most beautiful eyes, so full of life.” “You are doing a good job, mama. Keep it up!” Simple actions can encourage: “I picked up two wild apples, would you like one?” “I’ve got some extra water, do you need it?” “This is a tough spot. I waited to give you a hand, if you want…” When we stopped for rest-breaks, I often found myself remembering these little kindnesses.

Occasionally I am reminded of the importance of bravely sharing the lessons we learn as we walk through dark places. We never know where those bits of light might shine. After writing a blog post about “Hard Days” (you can read it HERE), a friend across the country told me the following story: Stephanie* volunteers monthly at an outreach for homeless people in her town. She found herself listening as one man poured out his desperation, telling her of his plans to kill himself after he left the park, too discouraged to reach out again for help that never changed anything. Stephanie grew more and more upset as she struggled to find any words to respond. Suddenly she remembered the closing words from my blog post that morning. When she told the man “Never quit on a bad day,” he burst into tears, and then allowed her to get him to a psychiatric emergency room where he checked himself in for treatment. Wow!

As we in American have just finished Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time for all of us to ponder:  How have I been helped in my own life, especially as I have walked through hard things? But let’s not just stop with gratitude for ways we have been blessed. Let’s start a chain of encouragement as we pass those blessings on to others!

*These stories really happened, but names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Hiking with Friends

“But doesn’t she miss her friends?” This is one of the first questions asked when I tell folks that I take my teen daughter with me on extended backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. The short answer is “yes!” But it’s not a complete answer. I think most of us out there miss friends and family back home. That doesn’t stop us from hiking. In addition, as we meet others on the trail who share our passion, we often discover new friends.

“You’ve got a friend in me, When the road looks rough ahead, And you’re miles and miles, From your nice warm bed, You’ve got a friend in me” – Randy Newman

It is common to spend most of our days hiking alone in the woods. Because Andowen and I  choose to stay in shelters whenever possible, we find social time in the evenings. (Click HERE to read a recent post I wrote about this.) It is surprising how often deep conversations happen around a supper table or a campfire. Part of the reason is likely the natural intimacy that occurs because of shared trials and triumphs. We understand each other in ways our friends back home do not. In addition, there is a sense of confidentiality. After all, we may never meet these hikers again. Even if we do run into each other further down the trail, everyone introduces themselves with “trail names” which allows us to keep our personal identity private. (I will write more in a future post about these names we use while hiking…promise!)

One of the delights of backpacking the AT is that we meet people from every walk of life. Beyond the shared passion for being in the woods, there is great diversity of age, experience, values, and beliefs. At home they are CEOs or custodians who would never talk to each other but in the woods it is refreshing to discover that there is rarely a “hierarchy.” There may be different levels of experience, but everyone out there faces similar challenges and carries comparable gear. This equality contributes to feeling both free and empowered.

It is not uncommon to run into certain hikers again and again as we leap-frog each other down the trail. Sometimes this just adds friendly faces to our trip. Other times, we choose to exchange “real-life” information so we can connect off-trail. On our first trip in Fall 2015, we evacuated to my sister’s house to avoid a hurricane. (Read about it HERE.) We brought two hiking friends with us. We are still in regular contact with both Blaze and Beetle. One of these years, we hope to visit and/or hike together again!

Sometimes we meet a hiker just briefly but still choose to exchange information to keep in touch. Diva is someone we met on our first trip and kept in contact with via facebook. We have tried a number of times to meet each other on the AT, but busy lives are hard to coordinate. Finally, Diva helped us take my mom on a birthday adventure this summer. And we spent a week with Diva and her friend at the end of our trip this fall. We have a few other hiking friends we hope to someday join for backpacking fun.

We like to talk about our AT adventures. (What a surprise, right?!) Occasionally, a friend wonders about joining us. Usually, they don’t have time or don’t have gear or don’t have support from their families. Sometimes we just smile and nod…knowing we have a good friendship off-trail but that it probably wouldn’t work well to be in the woods together. Other times, a friend or family member does indeed join us for a week of adventure. We loved having my middle daughter with us in Virginia in Spring 2016. We enjoyed the companionship of a new friend for a week this fall. And we are trying to coordinate schedules to introduce another friend to backpacking on a possible trip to Maine next summer. Wanna join us? Let’s talk!

Back to the opening question in this post…”don’t we miss our friends back home?” Yes, we miss them terribly sometimes. But we know our family and close friends are strong supporters of our wandering. They patiently listen to us blather about the trail when we are home. They follow our adventures as we post photos and stories online (and call when we have cell coverage). And they sometimes visit or send packages to encourage us along the way. We couldn’t do any of this without the emotional and financial support of hubby/daddy. (Read a post about wonderful support HERE.) We can’t wait to get to the woods for a new adventure…and we can’t wait to get back home to our friends and family. 

AT Memories and Possibilities–Final Words from the Tiny-Mes

When we are on a long backpacking trip, we are homesick for friends and routines left behind. And when we get home, we are homesick (trail-sick?) for the adventures and the simplicity of backpacking.

Our (tiny) hiking pals regularly remind us of favorite places we enjoyed along the Appalachian Trail.

Tiny S most enjoyed the challenges posed by jumbled boulders or fallen trees. It was a fun puzzle to figure out whether to go over, under, around, or through the obstacles. (See another blog post about this HERE.)

Tiny A frequently talks about the fun she had playing near the streams. The rocks and roots overhanging the water were perfect to climb on. The cold water was a great way to cool off at the end of a sweaty day of hiking. And the sound of flowing water lulled us all to sleep at night.

Both Tiny-Mes agree that they don’t want to miss next year’s adventure in the woods. They plan to join us again when we head back to the mountains to hike more miles of the Appalachian Trail. There are rumors of a trip to Maine to complete the 100-mile Wilderness. Or possibly a repeat visit to see the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands. Or maybe the new challenge of a few days of winter camping.

We have been home for a few months now. We love our small town in Middle America. We treasure chatting with friends when we unexpectedly meet them running errands around town. We enjoy reading books, lounging near the cozy warmth of our fireplace.

Memories and Possibilities. We cling to them as the weather gets cold and winter approaches. Time to plan our next adventures!