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…

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The Pursuit of Happiness

“Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot.” – Aristotle

According to the founding documents of the United States, along with Life and Liberty, the “Pursuit of Happiness” is an inalienable right. Common wisdom says each of us needs to find our happy place: the place where we feel at peace, where we relax and let the worries of the day slip out of our mind. For some this renewal is found at the beach, for others it is felt in the mountains or the woods or the barn. Sometimes we need to retreat to our happy place alone. But other times, we want to share that joy with our loved ones. But what happens when my favorite pursuits are “meh” to my partner…and vice-versa?

By now you know that I love to be in the woods. I am invigorated by a day hike. I find peace by backpacking for weeks at a time. I am fortunate that my youngest daughter finds restoration in nature. (I’ve blogged about that HERE and HERE.) We are a good hiking team together. happiness_hiking partners_zaleski state forest

For me, there is something hopeful about seeing a path leading to unknown destinations, heading further and further into the woods and mountains. I enjoy the anticipation of what lovely things I will see around the next corner or over the next hill. I love to feel the ground under my feet and see the details of trees and rocks as I slowly hike on by. happiness_hiking trail_zaleski state forest

For my husband, walking in the woods is a means to an end, a way to get to the destination. His mind tends to focus on the goal. Even though it brings him no great pleasure, he occasionally joins me on a day hike, knowing this is my happy place. He supports me in my pursuit of happiness defined by weeks in the woods, driving daughter and I to our starting point, taking care of things while we are gone, and picking us up when we are ready to return home. happiness_hiking together_my passion

On the other hand, my hubby loves to explore the world by flying his small plane. Many times he takes to the air for only an hour or two. Occasionally he takes an epic adventure, flying across the country to see new places from above. happiness_flying_cessna 172

When hubby is flying, he finds freedom in knowing that he is not accessible. When the night is clear, he loves the feeling of flying among the stars and watching the lights twinkling across the horizon. When the winds are calm, he finds peace as farmland or mountains or canyons slowly unroll under his wings. happiness_flying_farmland

Unlike some wives, who are afraid of going up with their pilot husbands, I don’t mind climbing in the cockpit with my husband. I know this is his happy place and he wants to share his joy with me. From the air, I notice the signs of humans, a very different feeling than being comforted and awed by nature itself. I don’t often choose to fly with him, but I support his pursuit of happiness defined by flying above the world. It may not be an inexpensive hobby, but it is worth the cost for him to find peace and happiness in a stressful, busy life. (And I love that our youngest daughter is discovering the joy of flying with him. She is gaining the best of both of our worlds!) happiness_flying together_his passion

It seems to me that this mutual respect is part of the inalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence. I can’t define his happiness and he doesn’t define mine. We each have the individual right to our own pursuit of happiness. And we gain joy as we support and encourage each other along the way.

Wandering Women

I am a wanderer—sometimes physically, sometimes in imagination. Somedays I wonder where this nomadic, gypsy gene came from. And then I realize my mom has always enjoyed travel—with her family, with her husband, or alone. I guess it is no surprise that the wandering hasn’t stopped with me. My daughters have been well trained and continue the tradition: exploring the world near and far, physically and in imagination.

My oldest daughter recently sent me this poem. It describes our family well…

Among Women By Marie Ponsot

What women wander? Not many. All. A few. Most would, now & then, & no wonder. Some, and I’m one, Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother Bought from every peddler Less for the ribbons and lace Than for their scent Of sleep where you will, Walk out when you want, choose Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had High blood, runner’s ankles, Could endure, endure. She loved her rooted garden, her Grand children, her once Wild once young man. Women wander…As best they can.

(source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/245898)

Here are some photos of the wandering women in my family:

My mom backpacking with her grandson, Summer 2000

My mom backpacking with her grandson, Summer 2000

My mom backpacking with me, a decade ago

My mom backpacking with me, a decade ago

My mom continues to dayhike on the Appalachian Trail with my sister (photo by Jo Fischer)

My mom (in her 70s now) continues to dayhike on the Appalachian Trail with my sister (photo by Jo Fischer)

I've been in Europe with each of my daughters.

I’ve been in Europe with each of my daughters.

My oldest daughter has lived and worked in Central Asia and has wandered in Europe.

My oldest daughter has lived and worked in Central Asia and has wandered in Europe.

My middle daughter has wandered Europe and parts of Asia.

My middle daughter has wandered Europe and parts of Asia.

And as you know, my youngest daughter and I have been adventuring on the Appalachian Trail!

And as you know, my youngest daughter and I have been adventuring on the Appalachian Trail!

Walking the Trail…of Grief?

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. ~John Burroughs

I expected physical challenges when my daughter and I set out on our Big Epic to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 weeks. I understood we would, at times, be stretched to our limits, and that this would require mental stamina to overcome physical obstacles. I knew there were things I was hoping to sort out for daily life back home: how my primary role might change, how to best help daughter overcome disabilities, where to focus my time and attention, and more. It seemed to me that this “discovery process” was the healing and order I was going to find while my body was busy with hiking and my mind was free to wander. A rough hiking trailOh, I knew there were many who headed to the trail to find deep healing from trauma or overwhelming grief. That is a common reason to leave civilization behind, at least for a while. I even met some of those folks: a fellow who left everything behind when his mom died, a pair of older women reeling from difficult divorces, a young man who was basically homeless. But, obviously, this was not MY reason for going to the trail. Me? I was seeking adventure!

And then…I found myself sobbing when I saw a walking bridge over I-70 in Maryland. So many times, I had driven under this bridge, wishing that I could be hiking the AT, not really believing it would ever happen. Now we walked across this bridge. As drivers below honked and waved, I smiled through the tears, happy that “my turn” had finally come. It freaked my daughter out to see me cry, but it was easy to write it off as a funny sort of joy. AT Bridge over I-70The more tired I became physically, the more often I found myself with tears running down my cheeks while I hiked. I cried after chatting with a red-headed thru-hiker…who could have been my red-headed son who died almost eight years ago and who never had the chance for this sort of adventure. I cried when my hips ached…because that son could never have managed the stresses of backpacking after injuring his hips with competitive figure-skating. I cried to see how stable my daughter was while in the woods, unlike the debilitating anxiety she faces in town. After all, how can she live forever as an elf in the woods?

What was WRONG with me? I was a hot-mess, riding a roller-coaster of unexpected emotions. Typical of my usual way to attack life, I hesitantly started talking to other hikers we met along the way. (Okay, so the hesitation wasn’t usual for me!!) I asked why they were on the trail. As mentioned above, a few were running away from trauma or seeking healing from grief. Most were simply taking a break, were fulfilling a dream, or were looking for the “what’s next” in life. On the surface, THEY didn’t seem to be dealing with a wild ride of emotions… AT roller coasterBut as I confessed my struggle with unexpected emotions, these hikers slowly shared a similar story. Almost every person I talked with had been surprised by tears. This strong man sobbed at the beginning of his thru-hike because his mother was no longer alive to follow his adventures. That young man had cried in his tent on many lonely nights, after the break-up of a long-term relationship. There was a woman who was sad at the distance between herself and her grown children; another one with tears over dreams she had put aside to raise her family.

Since returning from the trail, I’ve searched other blogs. I’ve read more trail journals and autobiographies. I don’t see this effect of the trail mentioned anywhere. I’ve tried to stuff it down, burying these memories under all memories of celebration and achievement. After all, we had an Epic Adventure! But…this story keeps coming back, over and over. Apparently, it needs to be told. Sometimes, when we go to nature for other reasons, we discover grief we weren’t looking for. I’ve spent months processing on this…and I realize this isn’t a “beast” to be feared. It isn’t an indication of something “wrong” with me that must be fixed.  With a change of perspective, these wild emotions morph into something positive. Although it certainly doesn’t feel soothing in the moments that tears run down my face…this experience is gradually bringing more order to my emotional world.

Beauty? Beast?

Beauty? Beast?

I’m finally ready to share this story…and, as I start to plan our return to the Appalachian Trail in the late spring, I recognize I will most likely find more tears along the way. And…that’s okay.

“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.)