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!)

Advertisements

Lost and Found

Life changes when one takes on a “big epic.” A significant part of adventure is moving out of one’s comfort zone. Obviously, during that time frame, life is different than the usual routines of home. However, with most good epics, some changes are longer lasting. They continue even after returning back to “normal” life. Here are some of the things we lost…and found…on our backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail earlier this fall.

LOST:

  • Fears (of snakes, of spiders, of walking in rain, of the dark, of getting lost!!)
  • Long to-do lists
  • “Need” for lots of “stuff” (except books…we still need books…)
  • Weight (if you find it somewhere, please don’t send it back…)
  • Tastebuds (everything tastes great when you are starving and tired at the end of a long day of hiking…fortunately we have regained these now that we are home!)
  • Need to be in control of even small details (okay, so this is an ongoing battle…) LOST

FOUND:

  • Outdoor Skills (reading a topo map, making a campfire, pitching a tent, and more)
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Perseverance (gotta keep walking until there’s a flat place to camp!)
  • Muscles (and hip bones…who knew I actually have hip bones?! HA!)
  • New Friends
  • Attitude of partnership and companionship between daughter and me
  • Enjoyment in simple pleasures
  • Ability to reframe frustrations by choosing a different attitude
  • Need for regular exercise (We are working hard to not lose this one again. Hubby asked this morning what I had planned for the day. I was shocked to hear myself say that I *needed* to get out and walk, that I was feeling jittery without exercise. What a stunning change from the couch-potato I was before this hike!) FOUND

We look forward to returning to the Appalachian Trail for another long-distance adventure. (Is it spring yet?!) We want to reinforce the attitudes and life skills we found this fall.

Have you taken on the challenge of a “Big Epic” recently? What things were lost and found for YOU along the way??

Life is So Much Simpler in the Woods

True Confession Time: daughter and I are experiencing culture shock. We didn’t expect it to be such a challenge to readjust to life at home. Everything here moves so fast. And there are so many choices. Although many folks have commented that they can’t imagine living in the woods and doing without so many amenities, while hiking on the Appalachian Trail for six weeks we discovered that life is so much simpler in the woods.

This is because travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe this, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimalism that travel requires.” – Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

There is no set daily schedule in the woods. We paid attention to what our bodies were saying: eating when we were hungry and taking breaks when we were tired. Each day we simply covered the miles needed to reach the next shelter or campsite without needing to organize where to go in what order to accomplish a long to-do list of errands and appointments. By choosing a long-distance hike, we were also choosing to avoid the tyranny of an external calendar or schedule. rest break

Even the days of the weeks began to blur together while hiking. Weekends were no different than weekdays (other than a sudden influx of a zillion dayhikers on Saturdays and Sundays!) Although church defines the weekend for our family when living in town, while on the trail we sang worship songs and enjoyed God’s creation every day. It became a joke between us—when someone asked “what day is it?” we could always tell the section hiker from the long-distance hiker. The former wanted to know the date while the latter was curious about the day of the week. (Daughter’s watch included both which kept us from getting confused.) The biggest difference between one day and the next was the weather.

There are fewer choices in the woods. We wore either our hiking clothes or our camp clothes (with extra layers for warmth as needed.) Each morning we put that day’s snacks in an outer pocket of our packs, merely choosing throughout the day which snack we wanted to eat during each rest break. We ate the same basic meals for dinner every night—based on either instant potatoes or dehydrated rice. Our choice was limited to which flavor meal we wanted to eat each evening. I’m still not back to cooking a widely varied menu of meals at home—there are entirely too many choices to overwhelm me when I enter a huge grocery store and can fill the cart to the brim with food that will not have to be carried on my back until it is ready to be cooked and eaten! meal time

Finally, we lived from sun-up to sun-down in the woods. Occasionally, we used our headlamps to read a few more chapters of a favorite book on the kindle before going to sleep. But most hikers went off to dreamland shortly after the sun went down. Very occasionally a few hikers would stay up past “hiker midnight” (8 or 9 pm) to enjoy telling a few more stories around a campfire. Here at home? The lights are on for hours after dark before we finally wander off to bed. But then we are tired when the alarm goes off the next morning.  Life is ruled by clocks and schedules.sunset

As we readjust to life off the trail, we are trying to lessen the number of choices we have to make each day–getting rid of extra clothes, shortening our to-do lists, making a master list of meals. We look forward to returning to the woods in early summer—happy to live once more with fewer choices. That’s not a hardship but a gift! Life really IS much simpler in the woods…

“Oh, the People You Meet…” — Helper Version

Many folks assume that spending weeks backpacking the Appalachian Trail will be a solitary experience. That might be true on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. However, during our six weeks on the AT, we were passed by multiple hikers every day. In addition, the only way to experience a solitary night is to camp away from shelters. There was only one night that daughter and I had a shelter completely to ourselves.

As extroverts, we delighted in this level of social interaction. Time alone while hiking balanced nicely with social time. I introduced you to some of our favorite hikers HERE. In today’s post, I want to introduce you to some of the non-hikers we met along the way.

Some folks who help hikers have been thru-hikers themselves. After completing his epic hike (along with his college age son) a few years ago, Scott began searching for a property that he and his wife could turn into a hostel for hikers. They bought a historic home with outbuildings near Front Royal, Virginia. The property had been abandoned for more than a decade. Many would have ignored it as a ruin. Scott and his wife saw the possibilities and are pouring energy and money into restoring the home to its former glory. The hostel is already up and running—a cozy brick cottage which sleeps up to 8 hikers. The big house will eventually hold living quarters for Scott and his wife plus 3 fancy bed & breakfast rooms. Scott is passionate about history and has uncovered many fascinating stories about the lives of those who lived here over the years. (If you are a hiker, definitely stay at the hostel. If you are looking for a B&B, keep an eye for when those rooms open sometime next year! Facebook link HERE ) Mountain Home "Cabbin"

Mountain Home B&B

Storyteller Scott

Some folks have little or no hiking experience but enjoy meeting and helping AT hikers. In two different towns, we paid for someone to shuttle us to another part of the trail. (Phone numbers for these folks are found in trail guides or on lists at visitor centers in towns along the trail.) Debbie saved our trip by letting me avoid a very steep 6 miles of hiking with a broken toe. Sharon drove us to a Walmart on the far side of town to resupply fuel and buy some warm gloves. On a gray rainy day, Shellie took us to a parking area that was a hop, skip, and jump away from a shelter for the night. This also meant we could carry a fellow hiker’s gear so she could “slackpack” a long day of hiking. And then Shellie rescued us the next day and came back to evacuate us to town to more easily meet my sister for a few days off trail during bad storms. (See post HERE)

Other folks are “Trail Angels.” (I explained about “Trail Magic” HERE) In the Shenandoah National Park, we discovered that the campground where we were hoping to spend a zero day was full for the second night. We decided to try to catch a ride and get there a day earlier. Lori talked with us at a picnic area and agreed to give us a lift to the campgrounds. She is from Victoria Island, British Columbia and is traveling with her little trailer for 4 months of exploring the US. She asked a zillion questions which we happily answered. She took our photo to add to her memories of interesting people she meets along the way. We took her photo to remember some of the Trail Angels who helped our trip be easier. helper Lori

Many folks are easily forgotten—the ones who move to the other side of the street when we are walking in town, the ones who ignore us in park campgrounds, the ones who are unfriendly or unhelpful. The folks who are Hiker Helpers will be remembered for a very long time!

(Note: We finished our hiking for this year on Oct. 21. We continue to share photos and posts from our adventure for the next few weeks.)

A Touch of Home

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.”—Miriam Adeney

As I have said before, I thrive on adventure, on the next big “epic” in life. It truly is exciting to go new places, meet new people, and try new things. No matter how much I love these new experiences, reality soon sets in. I begin to miss home: friends and family, pets, and “normal” routines. My heart is pulled in many directions at the same time!

As we started our epic adventure of a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, we happily said goodbye to friends and family at home. It was harder to say goodbye to husband/daddy when we reached the trail. We wouldn’t see him again for a few months… saying goodbyeAlong the way we discovered that many fellow hikers were surprised that we were fully supported and encouraged by hubby/dad to pursue this dream. When we paid attention, we realized most females on the trail were either hiking with their fellow or were single. Wow! What a gift we had been given!

For the first few weeks, we had strong cell phone reception and internet access. We could talk to family back home and could keep up with friends online. The encouragement and support we received was significant in helping us persevere, especially on difficult days. At one resupply stop, there was an unexpected note waiting for us. Yay! That little card kept me from calling it quits when I questioned the wisdom of continuing to hike with a painful, broken toe. notes from homeWe always enjoyed the new places and new people we encountered. We soaked up the natural beauty surrounding us each day. But…we missed hubby/dad more and more each week. One afternoon, we were sitting on a bench at a shelter, feet propped up, watching the access trail for other hikers to stop for the night. Here came a fellow…but wait! He had no pack…and he looked familiar… Hurrah! Daddy/Husband surprised us, found us by our itinerary, and joined us on the trail for a few days! Unbelievable! surprise visitor(We discovered later that stories of this visit were passed up and down the trail along the thru-hiker grapevine. It really was considered an unusual, very big deal!)

Eventually, we reached a long section of trail where we had only limited opportunity to connect with family and friends. It felt like we were miles away and unreachable. Oh how that made us miss home! Eventually we reached another TOWN DAY. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not the same as “home” but each visit to a town includes delights such as a soft bed, yummy food, and good internet/phone connections. On this particular stop, we were greeted by a special package at the post office. One filled with things to make us smile: silly toys, little treats, tiny luxuries, sweet chocolate, survival gear for the trail, and more. But best of all, it was filled with LOVE from friends across the country. trail mailAhhh…the best way to enjoy adventures is to regularly receive a touch of home!

(Note: We finished our hiking on October 21st. We will continue to share photos and posts about our adventures in the upcoming weeks.)

Music Therapy

Home-grown music is a significant part of our hiking adventure. Here’s a taste of what we can be heard singing as we walk along…

On misty, foggy mornings, daughter often starts with this song from Lord of the Rings: Edge of Night Misty trees

We sing this song back and forth when we are having fun and hiking with lots of energy: Hallelu, Hallelu Happy hikers

We sing this one when we are intimidated–facing shifting rocks and clambering over boulders on a trail that is not clearly marked: Psalms 56:3-4, When I Am Afraid Rock jumble

Sometimes I am just DONE and it feels like I can’t possibly take another step. This is when I ask daughter to sing for me. Somehow this song keeps me going: Overcomer It's a long trail

When the footing is hard or we are getting tired, daughter likes to sing this song, and sometimes she changes the lyrics to fit our adventure: Brother Stream crossing

One hostel we stayed in had a piano available for hikers to play. Daughter played a few songs she knows. Then I sat down and played through a book of folk songs. Ahhhh, a wonderful way to relax after a long day of hiking! Playing piano

In addition to making our own music, there have been a few times that our spirits have been lightened by music by others. One morning I was having a “gray day”–feeling like I was in a fog, with no energy to hike, but having to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We got to the shelter early and found “Hillbilly” settled in for the night. He hesitantly asked if it was okay to play guitar for awhile. He had written wonderful folk songs about growing up in Appalachia. As he sang, I got teary…and eventually the gray lifted and all was right with the world again. Thanks for the music therapy, Hillbilly! Hillbilly

What is your favorite music to get you through tough times or to give you energy?  We would love suggestions in the comments for us to check out!

(Note: we finished our adventure on Oct 21, but still have plenty of photos and blog posts to share with you about our epic adventure!)

The Zen of Cold Water

Why, yes, we DO have running water while hiking in the woods. It pours out of natural springs (sometimes with a pipe installed) and ripples down streams. Oh, that’s not what you meant? You’re right, we only find faucets in “civilization.” Piped spring

Stream

So how do we get clean water that’s safe to drink? We carry a filter with us that turns any water we find into yummy, drinkable water. The biggest challenge is walking to the spring at the end of a tiring day of hiking. Here is the process:

  • Carry empty water containers to water source (ideally a level walk near shelter…but sometimes a steep, long walk away) Water pipe in spring
  • Fill collection bags with “dirty” water "Dirty" water bags
  • Screw on filter and squeeze clean water into containers for use Filtering water
  • Carry water back to camp (reservoirs for drinking while hiking, bottles to pour into pot for cooking, extra in collection bags to filter for later use) Remember, water is HEAVY so only carry what is really needed! Water containers

Because we use a small, lightweight “squeeze” filter, it takes awhile to fill all of our water containers. At first this frustrated me. But eventually I decided to consider this time as “zen time” to relax and simply enjoy the moments. Usually the water locations are scenic, with colorful leaves, rustling trees, and gurgling water. Water zen

Next time you turn on your faucet at home, take a moment to be grateful for instant, clean, safe water…uncommon in much of the world! 

“Trail Magic”

Wreaths and brownies and apples. You never know what magic will be found in the woods!

Trail Magic is any unexpected good thing that happens while you are hiking the Appalachian Trail. Anytime they occur, these gifts add a bit of happy to the day. On difficult, never-ending days, however, these seemingly tiny things can be a HUGE encouragement!

So far, daughter’s favorite gift was from a southbound thru-hiker who thought she “needed” a fern crown as an elf-in-the-woods. A close runner up was a southbound thru-hiker who shared some of the feathers he had found along the way–an excellent start for a new collection on daughter’s hiking staff. MAGIC! Elven queen

Our first day on the trail, daughter’s water reservoir leaked, making us short of water. Unfortunately, the shelter we were camping beside had no nearby water. (It was .3 steep miles down a rocky side trail, then back up lugging heavy water.) We were exhausted and dreaded the thought of having to haul water to fix dinner. But…a local couple who were camping overnight shared extra water plus invited us to their campfire. MAGIC!

We stayed one night at a bunkhouse along the trail. A number of thru-hikers were camping on the grounds as well. Shared dinner conversation is always energizing. But then the caretakers brought out a pan of brownies, still hot from the oven. MAGIC! Hot brownies

We hiked a longer than expected day to get to a hostel and town-day in Harpers Ferry. It was a grueling day of unrelenting inclines. When we reached the ATC headquarters, one of the workers asked how we were doing. I replied, “I’m dead!” She laughed, and said, “Of course you aren’t dead, you are still on your feet and still managing to joke!” Then when we got to the hostel, there was a note from a friend waiting for us. I decided I wasn’t going to quit this crazy adventure after all. MAGIC!

On a hot day with steep climbs and treacherous descents, we were passed by a zillion day hikers. Oh how we envied their light day-packs (or no packs)! We chatted with a few, telling our story, hearing theirs. One dad and sons gave us a variety of yummy snacks. Another couple gave each of us an apple–a luxury we can’t usually afford weight-wise. MAGIC! Fresh fruit

In your day today–look for someone who could use a bit of encouragement and give them a smile or a wee-small giftie. You never know when such little things might be received as MAGIC!

Benches Are Blessings

We have discovered another simple thing that most of us either take for granted or never notice in daily life: benches!

When carrying a heavy pack over uneven terrain, sooner or later one’s joints begin to ache. (Yes, even for teens…it just takes longer for them than for us old ones!) Finding a place to take off the backpack and sit for a few minutes takes on immense significance on a tiring day.

Any stump, log,  or stone will do…but it is better if there is a back to lean against, as with these stone chairs at one campsite.

Stone chair

Even better is a seat that is long enough to turn sideways and prop up one’s feet as with this triple-wide Adirondack style chair at one shelter. Adirondack bench

A picnic table loses points for having no back to lean against. At shelters with tables, cooking gets done here, but lounging is more often done against the shelter walls. On the other hand, when found at a parking area along the trail, picnic tables get high points for being the perfect height to easily get back into the pack when rest time is over. Picnic table

But the luxury of luxuries? Check out this treasure found at the David Lesser Memorial Shelter in Virginia: Forest swing

We will let you know if we find more gems like this. In the mean time, what’s YOUR favorite place to lounge and recover from a tough day?