Last weekend off trail

I met Stephanie through Jill. I met Jill through blogging. Sight unseen, Stephanie hosted our family and four YWAM friends in her Canaan, CT home when we were hiking through the area.

We all fell in love, well, at least fell into cozy friendship. Nine of us and five of them, ages 4 through 40 something spent 36 intense hours together of eating, drinking raw milk from their cow Sylvia, laughing, and eating some more.

They insisted (actually hounding us with emails) that we come stay at camp when we reached Monson, ME. They found a cow-sitter and cleared their calendar, called Nana and said "let's have a party with a bunch of thru-hikers". And then they welcomed us with open arms, an open fridge, and open hearts.

This time there are thirteen of us, plus six of them. Our family of five, my parents, three YWAMers, the three Amigos, Stephanie's family of five, plus Nana, the generous soul who owns the camp.

This weekend was our last hoorah with the thru-hiker friends who have become so dear to us. We have cried together, we have walked hundreds of miles together, we have laughed - a lot, we have prayed together, we have seen each other at our best and our worst. We have sacrificed for each other and we are committed to supporting each other, seeing this adventure through to the end.

Next weekend is the end. The end of this epic family journey. A journey shared, with unexpected intimacy and dependency, with strangers, friends and family.

I can't begin to explain the importance of the relationships we've made while on the trail. It is relationship that has brought us this far and relationship that will bring us to foot of Katahdin next weekend. It is our relationships that will take us to the top, and down again.

The friendships we've formed on the trail, the things we've learned about our family, and the people we've met are, perhaps, the meaning on the trail. Of course there is the importance of nature and the time for self-reflection and assessment, but even those lack depth and their raison d'etre, without the context of relationship.

Why else do we evaluate ourselves and think of how to be the best version of ourselves if not to experience greater richness - love, understanding, acceptance, joy, kindness - in our relationships?

I have suffered a lot during this hike. (There is no thru-hiking without suffering.) I've ached physically and emotionally. But with Katahdin in our sights, watching the sun rise on the shore of this Maine lake, basking in the warmth and love of friendship and hospitality, I think it was worth it.

It was a bittersweet weekend, but mostly sweet. Maybe the end will feel the same.

There's this too

When I got off the trail officially, two weeks ago (after being off already for two weeks of "recovery"), I gave myself permission to mourn my loss. I was going to mourn it regardless. Instead of trying to feel better, or even trying to hide my disappointment, I let myself cry - in public, in private, with friends and around strangers.

I tried not to concern myself with how these outbursts made other's feel. It is hard to watch someone grieve, to be at a loss for words to express your sympathy. But I didn't want any words of wisdom, or advice. I wanted nothing but a bit of space and maybe a listening ear (if you ask how I am doing be prepared to hear how I really am doing), and from good friends, a shoulder to cry on.

In a few days the crying was done. And when that was done I gave myself permission to experience something else - the pleasure of personal freedom.

Family thru-hiking is a constant exercise in compromise and team work. The team work part I knew going in, that was part of the appeal. What was unexpected for me was the unrelenting compromise and give and take required to move five unique individuals 2,180 miles north, on foot, in the space of 177 days.

Setting aside, for a season, things I enjoy and value, while living an intense experience driven by other values, was one of the contributing factors to my mental struggles while on the trail. The lack of personal freedom, "I don't want to hike today so let's stop at 2pm instead of 5pm" wasn't an option but for a handful of times. There was a distinct loss of personal choice, for all of us, as we worked together to reach a difficult goal.

Last month, in the final days of my hike before knowing the final disappointing outcome, Damien and I discussed the options for me moving forward. "If you get off the trail I want you to start writing again, return to doing the things you enjoy", he encouraged.

I didn't need much prompting in this direction but I appreciated the sentiment and the heart behind it. If I got off trail I was to enjoy myself as much as possible. I resolved to make lemonade out of lemons. (I mentioned this in passing to another thru-hiker, and I think his calorie-deprived brain interpreted the metaphor literally, imagining me at roadside crossings serving homemade lemonade trail magic.)

And so in between the road crossing meet-ups, our once a week grocery store resupply, shuttling other thru-hikers to and from town, driving north, shopping for my family (socks, nail wraps, audiobooks), managing our video series, and planning trail logistics and Sunday zeros, I am resting, recovering and "retreating".

I haven't had this much alone time since before Celine was born. And even though the heartache is real, especially when waving goodbye, going to sleep, and many moments in between, so is the freedom I am experiencing in being responsible only for me.

While Damien carries the weight of moving our family north on foot, I am carrying the weight of supporting him in that endeavor. But the weight is very light spread over six days and with the aid of a vehicle. It isn't a weight at all but a nice anchor in my otherwise self-directed days.

Self-directed days, something I sorely missed on the trail.

I have time to read, write, and linger. Time to eat my meals, slowly. Time to go to the farmer's market (if I'm in town on the right day), time to sit and chat with new friends, time to wander a quaint downtown main street and window shop for a new pair of earrings, time to picnic in the town common. Time to do each activity, separate, unto itself, savoring the experience of easy walking, beautiful sunsets, and eating fresh vegetables once again.

Expectedly for me, thru-hiking was a multi-tasking experience, with very little time to do much else besides hiking. And our time off trail was multitasking to the extreme, fitting in two days worth of town chores into a precious few hours.

Time, days and days to be exact, of savoring one experience and then the next, on my own schedule and according to my own needs, has been a much needed retreat and rejuvenating experience.

I've enjoyed hostel stays with trail legends and new hostel owners alike. I've camped in the woods with friends and family (I can sometimes drive into the woods or camp with my family at a late afternoon road crossing), and most recently I've been given a three night stay in a furnished apartment, in downtown Rangeley, overlooking the lake. (Thank you so much Laura, you have blessed me incredibly.)

Yesterday my mom joined me off trail for a couple day to help heal an IT band inflammation, her presence adding to my joy and vacation-like experience.

Yes, my heart aches each day with my family in the woods, a separation unexpected and difficult. But there's this too. An unexpected rejuvenation for me, having time to do my own things, on my own schedule and at my own pace.

When, since becoming a mother, have I had such an opportunity? Never.

It is an unexpected blessing - the loss of one thing making space for the gain of another.

This year especially so

The early days of September are tinged with melancholy, a nostalgia, a heaviness in my heart that predictably returns each year in late summer. I didn't think this month could be more melancholy that it already is - leaves turning red, yellow school buses rumbling, droopy sunflowers festooning gardens, and apples hanging low in the orchards. I was wrong.

This September, supporting my family as they finish their thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, feels like my most melancholy late summer.

I have never said goodbye to my children with a schoolbus waiting in the road but this year I say goodbye to them several times a week, watching them walk into the woods, faces turned back, blowing kisses, waving trekking poles in the air. My heart aches knowing I won't see them till tomorrow, or the next, that their night may be spent in chilly rain and their days will be hard.

Waiting at a trailhead for them to come out of the woods is the best. Having not seen my family for twenty-four hours, or more, I am hungry to hold and behold, nourish and nurture. There is the joy of anticipation and the sweet relief, "thank you Jesus, they're safe", each time they walk into a road crossing.

Inevitably, way too soon, we must say goodbye for they have miles yet to walk before calling it a night. Trailhead meetings are the very definition of bittersweet, though mostly bitter, in the end.

In between yesterday's roadside meeting at South Arm Road and today's reunion at Height of Land I sought shelter and friendship at The Cabin in Andover, Maine. A legendary trail hostel, the hospitality of The Cabin's owners Honey and Bear is bar none. After serving hikers for nearly 20 years of their "retirement", Honey and Bear will soon retire from running the hostel.

As I cooked with Bear last night and chatted with Honey this morning (such friendly people - always willing to lend an ear, tell a story, or help a hiker) this seasonal melancholy tugged at my heart again. Just as I am making my first acquaintance with these octogenarian trail angels, they, like late summer, are transitioning into another season of life.

All around me the season is communicating hanging on and letting go, sweet hellos and aching goodbyes. Living that pattern myself right now might explain why I am experiencing, so deeply, the season's natural shift in that direction.

Twisting through the western Maine mountains, into the Rangeley Lakes region, the roadsides are adorned with neglected apples trees, gnarled branches heavy with harvest, littering the gravel shoulders with their pale yellow fruit.

In a nostalgic instant these forlorn apple trees take me back to our years of living in Maine when, every September, I took the kids apple picking at our favorite orchards. And as the country roads wind through small towns, fields, and familiar mountain terrain I am flooded with memories of summer camping trips and weekly hikes.

My family's view on the trail is one of mountain vistas and lake jeweled lowlands. My own view, driving as I am to support them, are the roads and towns of backwoods Maine. And even though we never visited many of these places while living here, their names are familiar and known. Driving through them feels like coming home.

Home, and yet not home because home is where my family is. And tonight as I sleep snug in the pine paneled bedroom of a quaint Rangeley apartment my family is pitching camp somewhere between route 17 and 4.

With only twenty days left to go before we reach Katahdin we are saying goodbye to our adventure with each step north and every road crossing rendezvous. In truth, we have been nearing the end since the halfway point, just like summer's steady march to fall after the June zenith.

I eagerly await the finish but this is a very special, if emotionally difficult, late summer and I don't want to speed it up.

With each roadside crossing, the heady hello and aching adieu, we are closer to that final goodbye at Katahdin. A goodbye not to each other this time but to this most adventurous, challenging, and life changing season of family life.

Yellow wildflowers against azure blue skys; chilly nights and sunny days; Maine's mountains rising from lakes; happy hellos followed by heart tugging goodbyes; and green leaves turning red - late summer seems to be a study in contrast and transition. A season of bittersweet experiences and memories. This year especially so.

Off trail

Tenacious Bling and I spent yesterday off-trail together. We hung out at Pinkham Notch, before driving into Gorham; while Toesalad, Padawan, Otter, and Hot Pepper hiked north over the multiple peaks of Wildcat and Carter Mountain.

It was a completely relaxing day for the two of us. Chatting with thru-hiker friends at the Notch, taking a few into town, hanging out at the library (free wifi with a better atmosphere than McDonalds - which also has free wifi), eating ice cream, and finally going swimming at the local pond.

The day was a rare gem in our push-for-the-miles hiking schedule. In the late afternoon as the sun illuminated the first crimson leaves, sirens of fall, I swallowed a morsel of regret that more of our summer wasn't like this. Swimming and sunshine. Cool libraries and afternoon ice cream.

I can't speak for other people's thru-hike experiences and I don't know what it's like for other hiking families, but for me thru-hiking is hard, hard work. It's a daily grind. I assume for thru-hikers who are dissatisfied with off-trail life the daily grind of trail life is more appealing than the one at home, but I can't say the same is true for me.

I also think that there are many ways to hike the trail and some probably bring more joy, and restful days, than others.

The trail broke me, emotionally, mentally, and finally physically. Never before have I felt as broken as I did while hiking the Appalachian Trail, and this was before my injury.

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

I didn't hike the Appalachian Trail to be broken. I hiked it to be strong. Instead, once the honeymoon period ended, I mostly felt weak and overwhelmed, irritable and out-of-control (which largely explains my irritability).

I am not the poster child for thru-hiker happiness. I've met a few of those on the trail and am thankful to call them my friends (and my son) but it still puzzles me how some people find real peace from an experience that caused me deep inner conflict and at times depression.

The irony is that I grieve being done. I grieve this final brokenness that takes me off trail and away from my family. I grieve the memories we will not share - the Whites, the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the Bigelows, the 100 Mile Wilderness.

I grieve that while I sit here in this clean and and kindly hostel with fresh sheets and hot breakfast, my family is pitching tents for the hundredth time, scrubbing dirty feet in cold creek water, falling asleep exhausted to get up at 6am and do it all again.

I don't miss twelve hour days on the trail. I miss my family. I miss the beauty you experience only when you're "out there". I miss identifying as a thru-hiker, even a reluctant and at times ornery and depressed one.

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

Even with my grief I am stronger emotionally than I have been for a long time. I'm finally on solid-ish ground instead of the constant shifting reality of long distance hiking. I'm rested, and no longer ravenous. I have control over my days and I'm not so physically taxed.

Even so, I can't help but feel sad that I'm not hiking these miles with my family. It's a mixed bag of emotions these days.

Not how it was supposed to end

Two months ago I stopped posting on the blog. Our thru-hike schedule didn't allow me the time to write and publish. My summer sabbatical was the first time in many years that I haven't maintained a writing practice.

As I struggled with closing shop for the summer I imagined what it would be like to start posting again at the end of September, at the end of our thru-hike. I knew the featured image I would use - our Katahdin summit photo - all five us smiling, exaltant and exhausted, happily clustered around the famed brown northern terminus signpost of the Appalachian Trail.

That was to be my re-entry to blogging, my re-entry to regular life.

That dream was not meant to be.

I re-enter blogging and "normal life" one month earlier than planned, alone, heartbroken and body broken. There is no jubilant photo.

There is just this: sitting in a cafe in New Hampshire while my family carries on north through the formidable Presidential range of the majestic White Mountains.

My injury, which as best as we can determine is a stress fracture in my foot, was sustained somewhere back in Connecticut. Not knowing, I hiked on, but only a little bit as the pain was too uncomfortable to continue. An aching, searing pain so unlike the muscle soreness I had grown accustomed to. This was a pain I could not walk off in the early morning hours, but one that intensified through the day till I was hobbling into camp.

And so I got off the trail and rested, applying comfrey and ice; soaking in warm epsom salt baths; wrapping my ankle in a compression sleeve. I saw a doctor who compassionately wanted it to be a soft tissue injury as much as I did but professionally advised me that it probably wasn't. He supported my plan of more rest, followed by a gentle trial hike and ultimately listening to my body.

Hearing my body speak "stop" and choosing to listen was not an easy decision, but I do feel it was the right one.

I cried for days. Not at the pain in my foot. That only hurts when I shoulder a pack and start climbing.

I cried for my loss and disappointment. Bawling in the Hanover coffee shop, sitting next to the college student and advisor discussing course options for the fall. Blubbering when greeting the friends and strangers who came to our aid in getting me off trail and back to our car in Maine. Choking on tears while my mom comforted me over the phone. Crying in my husband's arms before he shouldered north in the company of dear trail friends and our three dependent children. And at the end of it all, the final decision made, weeping in the shower, hoping the running water would muffle the sob.

My journey now is not on the Appalachian Trail, but beside it. Driving our car and meeting my family at road crossings, supporting them and others with the perspective of a former thru-hiker, someone with intimate knowledge of what a thru-hiker needs and wants. I want to meet needs where I am able while I meet this most basic need of mine to heal. Taking care of my people, my community; taking care of me.

This was not how I planned to come back to writing. On a late August morning in New Hampshire, the leaves of the mountain maples just starting to turn, and the grey clouds obscuring the ragged mountain tops from my view in the driver's seat.

The triumphant photo on Katahdin is still in my grasp. Not because I will have hiked this whole trail, at least not this year, but because this is, and always has been a family journey. A journey of discovery and personal growth for each of us. And when I join my family in late September to summit Mt Katahdin I will have completed the mission. I will have given my very best to see this through to the end.

This post was published after shuttling my family (plus Nana) back to Crawford Notch from North Conway, New Hampshire, where all of us (and 6 hiking friends) took a zero day hosted by the the wonderful and generous Potter family.

A Summer Sabbatical

For reasons personal, logistical, professional, and spiritual I have decided to take a writing and blogging sabbatical for, what I anticipate will be, the duration of our hike. A summer sabbatical.

As it is, the blog has been very quiet but I have been trying to "keep a presence" at FIMBY Facebook with photo albums and hike updates.

When Damien and I first decided to do this thru-hike I assumed writing and publishing was out of the question. And then we got iPads and we established a writing workflow for me and I was thrilled that I would, theoretically, be able to hike and write. Long distance hiking and writing, in practice, has proven much more difficult.

One complication is the simple matter of time. We spent eight to ten hours a day hiking. Some days more. Hiking is my full time job. Then there's camp chores followed by my favorite time of day, bedtime at 8:30 pm. Life is simple in the woods, but very full.

For several weeks I tried a 5 am morning writing practice but it was hard to maintain with the physical, and for me emotional, intensity of a thru-hike. My body needs sleep more than it needs the creative outlet of writing.

I also find it hard to publish during this "extreme" life season. This hike is nothing like I've experienced before, physically or emotionally. Writing about that and writing my way through that is just not in the cards right now.

The depth and breadth of this experience is frustratingly impossible for me to express right now. I feel like my job out here, right now, is to "simply" live the experience. To photograph it, record my thoughts, reflections, and memories in my personal hiking journal, and to someday publish about it here. Someday, but not now.

Since early on in the hike I felt a writing sabbatical was necessary but I fought the inner tug to take a break (oh did I fight it), because I was scared of losing something. My voice, my online identity, my readership, I don't know. It just felt like a loss to me. But the longer I'm out here the less I care about my online identity and the more I care about who I'm meant to grow into through this experience. And perhaps to grow into the next stage I need to have a period of online quiet.

And so what initially felt like a surrender has now become a sabbatical.

Will I still be a writer if I'm not writing regularly? A blogger if I let the blog go silent for a few months?

I believe that, yes, I will still be a writer and blogger if I take a break. In fact, I think I'll be better at my craft. Already I can see I'll be more focused and disciplined when I return to writing. I also know I will have an amazingly deep writing well to draw from. A deep well to live from.

And that's really what it's all about for me, and always has been. The living comes first, the writing second.

The fireflies in Virginia are magical. I've been trying hard to capture their ephemeral beauty.

What this means is that the blog will be quiet now till fall. I also will not be maintaining photo albums on Facebook like I had been during the first month or so. Which I regret deeply since I love sharing photos. Our time is town is just too busy and internet connections too sporadic to keep that up.


I will continue to take Instagram photos, as often as possible, with our current mileage.

Our video series Beyond our Boundaries is alive and well and publishing the story of our hike every ten days or so. That remains the best place to follow our hike and get a peek at what a family thru-hike looks like.

This post was published, in between laundry loads, from the Blue Dog Art Cafe and Hiker Hostel in downtown Buena Vista, Virginia.

Is Family Thru-Hiking like Family Bootcamp?

The rain had just let up when we came into the shelter clearing. It had been one of our longest days of hiking to date. In the late afternoon we crossed an exposed, rocky ridge with rain clouds threatening and we had hustled over the terrain. When we got to camp we were tired, wet, sore and hungry.

There was no space left in the small shelter, the sleeping platform packed with middle aged people already cocooned in their sleeping bags. Damien started preparing supper on the picnic table which had been pulled under the shelter roof.

While he started our evening meal the rest of us got to work, making camp in the sloped clearing behind the shelter. Brienne fetched water, and Celine and I set up the three person tent while Laurent staked out the two person tent. We blew up air mattresses and laid out dry sleeping bags. I even managed to heat a cup of water to give myself a quick sponge bath, washing away the grime, mud and sweat from the day's endeavor.

When supper was done Damien called us all back into the shelter to eat. Whatever he cooked that night was delicious, it always is. The dry and cozy middle aged folks were friendly and remarked, as usual, what an amazing experience this was for our kids. One of the men commented to his shelter-mate approvingly that, "it wasn't till I was in the military that I experienced anything like those kids are". This was a compliment of sorts from someone who saw value in their own disciplined and rigorous military experience.

The comment was brief and off-handed. There was no following discussion about the rigors of backpacking as compared to boot camp, but it did get me thinking.

This family adventure is the most physically challenging thing our kids have done. It's the most challenging thing I've done. And a lot of discipline is required in our hiking days to pull it off. This is not a vacation.

I started to wonder how does family thru-hiking compare to bootcamp?

And the truth is, I couldn't say. I've never been to bootcamp. We're not a military family, nor do we have a military history.*

I was slightly taken aback with the man's military comparison to our adventure but it made sense. I have little idea of what happens in bootcamp but here's what happens in our day:

The kids are awoken before 6:30. They are responsible to pack up all their own gear and help take down tents. They then carry all that gear and some communal supplies on their backs for the rest of the day (roughly 9 hours with multiple breaks). The packs weigh between 18 to 25 pounds. Celine's pack, fulled loaded with food is at the high end. Wearing these packs, our kids "march" all day from one campsite to the next.

Our day is quite regimented, physical intense, and starts early. We have to work as a team. Our personal time to do "our own thing", whether that is writing, gaming, or reading, comes at the end of the day or early-early morning. And that time is not necessarily guaranteed, like on the rainy day we came to the shelter and it was all we could do to set up camp, fetch water, eat, and hang bear bags before it was time for bed.

This is not to say there isn't time for relaxing and bodily rest every day, there is. But there is not a lot of self-directed time. How ironic.

I've spent the last fifteen years of family life creating a home environment that supports a self-directed, life long learning philosophy.

Our children have never had a morning bus to catch or uninspiring assignment deadlines.

Yes, there are chores and some lessons and other things I direct in our day but over all, the kids have a lot of freedom to direct their own interests and living. We give that to them because that's how we as adults like to live also, with freedom to create our own path.

Our family thru-hike is not like our home life, at least not in a the "direct your own day" kind of way. It's kind of like family boot camp.

Out here we're all for one and one for all in a way we've never experienced in our home life. We work as a team, hike as a team, and camp as a team. From the time we get out of our sleeping bags in the morning till we gratefully crash in them fourteen hours later the day is laid out.

Even though we have years of hiking and weekend backpacking experience, the pace and schedule of long distance hiking, the boot camp dynamic if you will, is completely new.

It was time.

It was time for a change in our days from "what's my agenda?" to ""where's the group going and what's my role in making that a success?". Developing a strong foundation in both is necessary.

I want our kids to grow into adults who live self-directed lives, having the creativity and conviction to do their own thing, to march to the beat of their own drum. I want our kids to grow into adults who live self-disciplined lives, having the character and courage to be leaders, serving their families and communities.

There is a time and season for everything. A lot of our children's childhood has been focused around their individual needs in the context of a loving family environment. Our home life accommodates personal differences, we encourage our children's interests, and we educate them according to who they are are and what they love.

This season of our children's life, and our family life, is about the group. It's about the success of a team endeavor, not a personal mission.

I don't know how backpacking compares to bootcamp. I'm going to guess the natural environment of our experience is more beautiful, the "drill sergeants" are more loving, and the food is tastier (Damien's a great camp cook). We're not trying to recreate bootcamp, we're trying to have an amazing family adventure. Even so, I'm going to venture that after these six months in the woods our kids won't necessarily need to go to bootcamp to become disciplined, mission-focused, and team-contributing young adults.

*I have been surprised how many military people we meet on the trail, ranging from recent war veterans to retired career army folks. A much higher percentage than I encountered in our urban American life when we lived in Maine.

This post was published from the hiker bunkhouse at the Holiday Motor Lodge in Pearisburg, Virginia. To follow the story of our hike subscribe to the Beyond our Boundaries video series (see family bootcamp in action).

See also FIMBY Facebook for thru-hike photo albums.