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…

“The Peace of Wild Things”

Last week, we were living a favorite poem by Wendell Berry. We always enjoy the peace of walking in nature along the Appalachian Trail.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, head to the woods_seek peace

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. AT hiker_into the woods

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. wild ponies_AT_Grayson HIghlands

I come into the presence of still water. AT_Laurel River_Still Water

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. AT sunset

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” AT_mountain ranges

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!

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?

Hide and Seek

Everyone expects the beautiful views enjoyed while traveling in the mountains. But how many of us discipline ourselves to focus on the tiny details along the trail? Daughter and I were challenged to search for Nature’s Hearts on our recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail. (You can see a blog post with photos of our finds HERE.) In that quest for small treasures, we discovered many other camouflaged creatures. Here are a few of our best tips for playing hide and seek with nature:

Look for Movement. The shapes and colors of critters often blend in with the background. Flutters and flickers are an invitation to look closer. More than once we found groups of butterflies gathered in a heap on the ground. butterfliesSometimes there will be a burst of movement, then the creature freezes. Patience will pay off when the critter eventually moves again. Or perhaps you will notice the tiny quiver of a lizard breathing. lizard

Listen for Sounds. Trills and songs might help you find a bird in the underbrush or in the treetops. (These are usually hard to photograph…unless you are carrying a heavy telephoto lens.) Dry leaves crackling or rustling might eventually reveal a snake, or a chipmunk, or a BUG! centipede

Look for the Wrong Shape or a Different Color. Snails are the same color as the leaves or rocks they hide among. However, their rounded shells stand out against angular backgrounds.  snailsThere were many times we noticed bright colored fungus or lichen on trees and rocks. Often, if we looked closer, we would find drab slugs. lichen, fungi, slugThis is one of my favorite photos from the entire trip. We actually saw a group of deer wandering across the campsite, nibbling at bits of grass. When I walked closer to get a better photo, this young deer put the trees between us, and then froze, hoping I wouldn’t notice him… deer in trees

Walk in Silence.  I’m sure some of you wonder if we encountered bears. Not this time, although other hikers had problems with Yogi trying to steal food sacks at some of the shelters we had stayed at earlier in our trip. We tend to make noise when we hike: laughing, singing, talking, telling stories. Most animals, including bears, will move away if they realize a human is nearby. So, if you WANT to encounter more critters, move silently through the woods.

I’m curious. What’s your favorite critter sighting? We would love to hear your hints for finding more tiny treasures in Nature’s game of Hide and Seek.

Moving to Our Summer Palace

After finishing our spring adventure on the Appalachian Trail, daughter and I are in the process of moving to our summer palace. It’s located in hilly country at a family-oriented campgrounds an hour and a half from our home. We will have plenty of scope for outdoor adventures with walking trails, a creek to play in, a swimming lake, and plenty of time to socialize with other campers. We will live there full time, with a trip back to town midweek for appointments, friends, and shopping. Dog and Guinea Pig will live there as well. Hubby will join us on the weekends. rv camping

What? You don’t consider an RV to be a palace?! After backpacking for 5 weeks, it certainly feels like one to us…

Unlike a shelter along the AT, our RV has four walls, windows, and a door that closes. Plus, the RV has 3 rooms and 400sf of living space compared to one “room” of approx 100 sf. RV palaceAT shelter

We have soft beds (rather than throwing our sleeping bags on a hard wood platform). RV comfy beds AT shelter sleeping space

We have a comfy couch and a full kitchen (much fancier than sitting at a picnic table to boil water to rehydrate a meal). RV couch and kitchenAT backpacker kitchen

There is running water, including a flushable toilet and a shower! (Almost double the size of an AT privy, and much nicer than peeing in the woods!) RV bathroomAT privy

And our patio has chairs with backs on them (see post about this comfort HERE) which facilitate conversation, reading or lounging. Plus these comfy chairs are easily moved to sit around our fire pit. RV patioPicnic table

Now you understand: we really WILL be living in a “palace” this summer!

(PS–don’t worry, I will soon return to posting stories about our backpacking adventures…)

Lessons Learned…

This was our second long-distance adventure on the Appalachian Trail. We quickly remembered many lessons learned last fall: neither of us like hiking on hot sweaty days, bear poles really are human torture devices (read about that HERE), and we always enjoy meeting other hikers and hearing their stories.

This hike was in spring (rather than fall) which meant we had new lessons to learn. When we started, there were few leaves on the trees. This gave us good views…but also meant there were no leaves large enough to use as tp or kleenex. (We bought toilet paper at our first resupply, and used our extra bandanas for nose-blowing.) Spring hiking, few leaves

Tiny spring leaves also meant we had no shady protection from the sun. (Until it started raining every day for the second half of our trip…) Sun burns, ouch!

We had decided to try to carry less water and filter refills along the way. Mastering this skill saves weight to be carried. (It adds up fast since each pint of water weighs a pound.) April had unusually low precipitation  which left us rationing drinks when water sources were dry so we quickly went back to carrying plenty of water. Of course, heavy rains in May took care of that problem.

Those heavy rains also gave us the added challenge of crossing flooded streams. The usual dry rocks to hop across were often underwater, adding to the adventures of each day! Flooded creeks, challenging crossings

More moisture also meant more bugs. The biting clouds of no-see-’ems were particularly bad. They especially loved Andowen, poor girl! Full of bug bites

We saw some of the same critters as in the fall (deer, squirrels, chipmunks, black snakes, and reports of bears). But we also saw hundreds of lovely butterflies and these really cool orange efts (baby salamanders). Orange eft, baby salamander

We learned that views at overlooks were entirely dependent on the weather. Beautiful layers of mountains if it was clear: Beautiful views, clear day

Or walking in an invisible world when the clouds touched the ground: No views, hiking in clouds

Finally, we missed the brilliant colors of fall leaves. But that loss was balanced by the hidden beauty of spring flowers, such as this lady slipper.  Spring flowers, lady slipper

We learned new lessons…now we are ready for future hikes in both spring and fall!

 

Are we THERE yet?!

Those dreaded words intrude on every family vacation: are we theeeerrre yet? But this whine is not limited to cross-country car trips. Nor is it limited to kids. Some days these seemingly innocent words sneak into a hiker’s brain, then play on repeat.

The day starts off brilliantly: blue sky, strong legs, happy thoughts. The trail goes up (and up and up), but there are glorious views and sun-dappled forest glades to enjoy along the way. Every hiking day should be like this one! Happy blaze

Eventually, the clouds descend, the misty drizzle begins, and the murmurs sneak in. (Shhh! are we there yet? Hmmm?) Surprise! Even the trail betrays the hiker: getting steeper, and steeper, and steeper! No fair! We are carrying heavy packs…not bounding along like mountain goats!

Surprised blaze

Ahhh! The trail finally relents and heads back down. Surely things will be better now! We should get to the shelter soon (won’t we?) But…the trail is unrelenting. It goes down, down, down…steeper and steeper. Blergh! Hurting knees, aching ankles, fiery feet. This is not the plan… Blah blaze

ARE WE THEEEERRRE YET? When will we get there? Will this day never end? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! (please stop soon…)

(PS: I know these faces scratched into the painted blazes on the trail are graffiti…but they made us smile on a very long hiking day!)

Goodbye, Comforts!

We head back to the Appalachian Trail this weekend to backpack for a month. We love being in the woods and are excited to set off on another adventure. However, this time we aren’t newbies. We know we are saying goodbye to many comforts of daily life at home. Before leaving, we chose to consciously say goodbye, reminding ourselves that we will enjoy these things even more deeply when we return home again.

aughter will miss the stuffed animals she sleeps with every night. She will spend even more time than usual outdoors, but on foot rather than on her kick-scooter. While backpacking everything must be as lightweight as possible since it all gets carried on our backs. This means daughter has limited access to costumes and her “weapon” collection. Her “gandalf” hiking staff, sticks and imagination will have to do…  stuffed animals_comfort_friends

kickscooter_outside fun

costumes_imagination

I said goodbye to my art supplies, carrying only a few nice pens and some sketch paper. I will miss my cozy chair near the window with a big pile of books at hand. Somehow the hard ground and limited time on a kindle just aren’t the same! And extra clothes stuffed in a sack doesn’t really replace my comfy pillow on a soft bed.  creativity_art supplies

comfy chair_stack of books

soft pillow

Both of us will miss taking a shower and choosing from a large selection of colorful, clean clothes every day. We will miss seeing my folks each week, including organ lessons from Grandma. And our form of sweet treats and location of rambling conversations will certainly be different!  daily shower

colorful clean clothes

sweet treats_rambling conversations

In the morning, we will say goodbye to our dog. She is already sad because we filled our packs. She knows we are leaving again. After our drive to the trail, we will say goodbye to hubby/dad.  sad dog

Partings bring sorrow…but adventures are sweet. Goodbye daily life…see you in a month!

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.