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?

Watch Your Step!

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

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

Save

Save

Save

Bridge(s) Over Troubled Water

The Appalachian Trail wanders beside many beautiful creeks.  I could sit for hours in the cool air near a fast-flowing stream and relax to the sound of water splish-splash-burbling as it hurries down the mountainside.

The AT, however, rarely stays sedately beside the waterway. For some reason, the trail-builders move the trail from one side to the other of far too many streams. If shallow, the hiker just splashes through the water, hoping to keep boots dry. No stress…just one more trail experience. fording, stream crossingWhen the stream is deep, there may be stepping stones. It can be challenging to hop from rock to rock or to carefully navigate teetery, tippy stones. This adds an element of uncertainty to a hike. (Will I fall in? Will I get wet today?!) However, after days of heavy rain, those wobbly rocks are submerged. With rushing, roaring water, fording a flooded stream can be a dangerous adventure. ford, flooded streamIn my opinion, it doesn’t happen often enough, but it’s a relief to find a sturdy bridge over tumbling water. bridge over rapids, mountain streamWhile hiking this spring, with 23 straight days of rain in May, we often had to slog our way through swampy, boot-sucking mud. Sometimes this was on the trail itself. Other times the trail crossed areas that collect  run-off without becoming flowing streams. In locations that frequently have muck, the trail-builders sometimes erect a simple bridge which is greatly appreciated. bridge over swampThe volunteer trail-maintainers do amazing work. However, some structures are low priority and gradually fall apart. In this particular swampy area, it was hard to choose between getting wet, muddy boots, balancing across a big log or risking a rickety bridge. (I tried the bridge, daughter braved the muck. It all ended well…) obstacles_rickety bridge_log_swampFortunately, wonderful sturdy bridges have been built to safely take hikers across major streams and rivers. (I loved the irony of this: the James River Foot Bridge, designed only for foot traffic, was actually named in honor of long-time AT hiker/maintainer Bill Foot.) James River Foot BridgeEven the sickening sway of a suspension bridge is better than swimming with the fish while juggling a heavy pack overhead. (And let’s not talk about the probably poisonous snake we saw in this river when we walked to the banks to refill our water reservoirs, okay?!) suspension bridge_river crossingMountain streams are beautiful to walk beside…but it certainly eases a hiker’s mind when there is a bridge over any troubled water! ford_flooded stream

Yikes! Beware the Creepy Critters!

Oh sure, some reptiles found along the trail are harmless. It might be startling to almost step on slow-moving, bright orange eft, but it probably won’t hurt you. critters_orange eft

Seeing a huge snake in the trail is another matter. First, it makes one’s heart stop! Then there are mind-racing decisions to be made: what kind of snake is this? Is it poisonous? Will it be aggressive? What should I do? EEEEK! (We saw a number of harmless black snakes and racing-striped garter snakes crossing the trail this spring. Other hikers found rattlesnakes in the path.) critters_black snake

But the scariest critter of all? Be very, very careful if you head for the resupply town of Glasgow, VA. There is a giant dinosaur in a field in the middle of town! critters_apatosaurus_dinosaur guard

Fortunately, I hike with a elven warrior. She usually carries her (stick and string) bow. But she’s had plenty of practice fighting with her staff. Whew! critters_dino attack_elven warrior

(Check out a news story about the Dino April Fool’s prank HERE.)

Finding Food in the Woods

Before we left on our most recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail, a friend asked if we ever forage for wild foods. I admitted that I was nervous to do so, afraid of mis-identifying plants and eating something poisonous.

Last fall, we happily enjoyed windfall apples and pawpaws. Mmmm…sweet and juicy. What a treat while hiking! And we hear rumors that early summer offers plenty of opportunity for picking wild strawberries and wild blueberries while walking. Fresh fruit

This spring we tried a few delicacies from the woods. Daughter asked why it smelled like home-cooking while hiking one day. I realized we were walking past huge amounts of wild onions. She picked some to try. wild onions

After pulling off the outer layer/leaves, she tore them up and added them to our dehydrated rice meal. They added a lovely bit of spice and we were excited to find them many other nights to add to our dinners. dinner with wild onions

One long hiking day, I was tired of eating trail mix and sweet candies. I really wanted some fresh veggies or fruits to crunch. Then I remembered that violets are edible flowers. And I happened to be surrounded by those wildflowers at that moment. wood violets

Pick one from each plant and pop a handful into your mouth. Voila! Tiny bits of tangy, moist refreshment! wood violet snacks

I’m certain it will be a very long time (if ever) before I pick fungi or mushrooms on my own for us to eat. These are the most risky to identify correctly. Another hiker described her family’s tradition of picking morel mushrooms each spring to feast on. She explained where they were most often found and which plants usually grew nearby. I THOUGHT this was a morel mushroom when I saw it, but chose not to risk picking it. Besides, we had no frying pan nor butter to saute it properly! A few hours later another hiker came walking into camp, carrying a few of these same mushrooms to eat for his dinner. morel mushroom

At another shelter, a fellow hiker arrived with a big clump of bright colored, hard shelled fungi. He called it Sulfur Shelf Fungus, sometimes called “Chicken of the Forest” because of its texture. sulfur shelf fungi

This hiker was confident of his identification so after he chopped it up, soaked it in boiling water, rinsed it, then cooked it with his pasta, we tasted a tiny bite. It was still a little bitter but the texture was definitely like chicken. (He soaked it longer and rinsed it more times the next day and said it was sweeter.) chicken of the forest with pasta

I found more of the fungus the next morning on a nearby stump. I wasn’t interested in carrying it to add to our supper, but hiker-dude was excited to put it in his food bag. sulfur shelf fungus on a stump

Our usual hiking-food gets boring after eating the same thing for weeks at a time. It was certainly nice finding extra flavor to add occasionally to our meals.  I think we will do some research this summer and see what other things we can add to our hiker-pantry on our next backpacking trip.

NOTE: when picking wild foods, please remember to only take a small amount from any given plant. That way there is plenty left for other humans and for wildlife! This limited foraging also allows the plants to thrive and produce more food throughout the remaining season.

 

ouch…Ouch…OWWWCH!

What do you do when you realize you have a badly infected tooth while you are in the back of beyond, miles from any town? Whine a little, moan a little, panic a lot, and try not to bawl or cuss. (Don’t want to scare daughter…or other hikers…or woodland creatures!) Infected tooth

1. Assess your options. Miles of walking and a hundred dollars or more for shuttles to and from a town with medical care seems prohibitive. (Plus, odds are good there will be little help available on a weekend.)

2. Make a plan: call family dentist to request antibiotics be called in to local pharmacy back home. (Explain more than once where you are and why you are wandering in the woods!) Call hubby to ask him to pick up meds and mail them asap to the next town you will reach. (No extra explanations needed for him…)

3. PANIC when there is poor cell coverage, even at an overlook. Whew! Say a thank-you prayer when both calls get through and help is on the way (“only” a few days down the trail). Overlook, still no cell coverage

4. Try to distract from pain while hiking. Look for beauty, hum, kick a few rocks, etc. Soak bandana in cold stream and hold to swollen cheek. Cold stream

Not cold enough

5. Throw balled up bandana across the shelter when it isn’t cold enough to help. Try holding water bottle to cheek. (Better, but still not much help… waaaaa!) Cold water 2

6. Try using tea bags as a compress. Isn’t that a folk remedy? At least it’s DOING something…and the tea is soothing. Hot tea, cold compress

7. Nighttime are worst: laying down increases swelling which increases pain and crying isn’t an option. Gotta let the other hikers get their sleep.

8. At least there are other hikers smart enough to carry both Tylenol and ibuprofen…and generous enough to share their stash of Tylenol. By alternating, one can safely get some level of pain relief every two hours. (Is it terrible to confess a wish that someone had some percocet to share?!) Pain meds for hikers

9. Finally reach town three days later. Go to post office, saying lots of prayers that meds are already waiting for you…do a happy dance, hug the package, and hum the hallelujah chorus when the clerk brings out the little envelope. (Would have jumped the counter and given her a hug…but didn’t want to cause an incident!) Happy for meds

10. Hopefully by tomorrow, antibiotics will be working, swelling and pain will disappear, and we can get back to ENJOYING our walk in these lovely woods!

 

It’s Raining! It’s Pouring!

What’s a gal to do when the forecast calls for rain while hiking in the woods? Whine a little, moan a little, and reassess one’s plans, of course!

Others happily camp in the rain. But I am horribly afraid of my sleeping bag getting wet. So whenever possible, we make sure to be at a shelter early in the afternoon to make sure we have a dry space on rainy nights. Everyone piles in

for the evening, at least until they head to their tents to sleep. Rainy evenings, at shelter

And if it’s still raining in the morning, we often choose to take a “zero” day (2 nights in the same place, no hiking). There’s something delightfully cozy about watching the storm through the open side of the shelter.  We sit propped up against our backpacks, legs in our sleeping bags, listening to rain on the sturdy roof, happy to be warm and dry!Rainy day, AT shelter

Somehow, I never mind getting caught in a shower in the middle of the day. After all, my sleeping bag will stay dry, wrapped in multiple layers of protection from the elements. (It’s in a dry bag, inside a large trash bag, inside my pack, inside the rain cover…yes, I’m paranoid!) The trail might turn into a stream, but I’ll be fine… Trail or stream

I choose not to put on rain gear, which just makes me soaked with sweat. As long as I keep walking I don’t get chilled. Sometimes I laugh at myself, as I’m bouncing down the trail, singing in the rain. Yes, hikers ARE a crazy breed, why do you ask?!Singing in the rain, hiker style

Time to head back on the trail. The weatherman is calling for sun. But if he’s

wrong, and we see a storm headed toward us across the valley, I guess we’ll just pick out our favorite silly songs and keep on walking… Storms across the valley

It’s raining! It’s pouring! …

Exploding Packs!

BEWARE…backpacks may explode!

Too many wanna-be hikers are unfamiliar with the true dangers of backpacking. They imagine injuries or encounters with bears. They worry about stranger-danger or about getting lost in the woods. They eventually purchase a pack and fill it with everything needed to walk in the woods for weeks at a time. It seems so simple while still at home: find a pocket or place for everything, then bring order to the chaos of the piles of supplies. first explosion_at home

They are quite proud of how neatly everything is finally stowed in that oh-so-innocent bag.

But then…that newbie hiker gets to camp, tired and weary after a long day of hiking. The backpack is dropped into the tent, or onto the floor of the shelter…and…BOOM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in tent

Oh sure…some folks try to explain away the dangers. They claim organization and patience are all that are needed to maintain order. And sometimes their pack plays along. For a few days, belongings are neatly stowed and retrieved by the complacent hiker.

Even with the best of intentions and keeping meticulous habits, the day comes…the trekker is excited to catch up to friends and hurries to grab dinner ingredients…or is cold and just wants to quickly change to dry camp clothes. Then, suddenly…WHAM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in shelter

This dangerous situation can occur anywhere: in a tent, in a shelter, in a hostel. Explosions occur in the woods…and happen while in town. Backpacks_in town

Please protect yourself and your hiking companions. Anytime you touch your pack, do so gently. Patiently lift out each bag and stuff-sack. Avoid the dangers of a pack explosion…