Dirty Laundry

Long-distance hikers have a dirty little secret. Unlike day hikers, we wear the same clothes day after day after day. Laundromats are in short supply out in the woods, which means those hiking clothes get sweaty, smelly, and stiff. “Acceptable” and “normal” are different on the trail!

We carry a set of hiking clothes which we put on every morning–wet or dry, clean or smelly. (Synthetic t-shirt, capris or hiking skirt, bra, shorts-style undies, and hiking socks.) We also carry a set of camp clothes–dry items that keep us from getting chilled when we stop the heavy, sweaty exertion of hiking. Obviously, these camp clothes get less grubby than the hiking clothes! (Synthetic tank top, leggings, thin undies and camp shoes. Plus a long-sleeved synthetic shirt in case it gets cold.) As soon as we get out of our hiking clothes at the end of the day, we hang them up to (hopefully) dry. Sometimes we adorn nails around the shelter. Other times we decorate a nearby tree. At nightfall, we often shove the clothes in our sleeping bags. Even if they are still damp in the morning, at least they won’t be cold and clammy! When we get to town every 4-7 days, we wash all of our clothes. Some hostels have “loaner clothes” to wear while doing laundry. Otherwise, two rain jackets work like a mini-dress while I stuff all the grubby clothes into the washing machine. (Andowen wraps up in her sleeping bag while I do laundry if there are no loaner clothes…) While we are hiking, we rarely notice how smelly we are. After all, everyone stinks! Occasionally, if we get to camp early on a sunny day, we might wash out a few of the most offensive clothes. We use the most basic of laundry facilities…

We dig out the “washing machine” from my pack: a gallon size ziploc bag and tiny bottle of biodegradable soap. Fill the bag partway with water from a stream or spring. Move a few hundred feet away from the water source. Squirt some soap on the clothes and put ’em in the bag. Shake and squeeze the bag, mimicking the agitation of a washer. Dump out filthy water. Add clean water and repeat until water stays clear of dirt or suds. (Yes, it is time consuming. This is why most hikers don’t bother…) We only go to this much effort if our clothes are particularly nasty…and if there is enough sun and a breeze to hopefully get the clothes dry by morning. A short line strung between trees helps. Obviously, we prefer to hike in dry, clean clothes. Sometimes after washing out clothes on the trail, we have to put on still-damp (but clean) hiking clothes in the morning. Ugh! Smaller items can be hung on the outside of our packs to dry by the time we get to camp that night. This dirty little secret of long-distance hikers might sound terrible to you. It’s really not so bad once you get out there. In-town standards of fashion and cleanliness give way to realities of weight and space available in the pack. We might not look or smell like day-hikers…but we hike with a smile on our faces. We love living in the woods…and that’s no secret!

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Adventure…some days it’s HARD!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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…

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!

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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.)