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.

Best Mother's Day ever on the Appalachian Trail.

The weekend started off like any other thru-hiker weekend, indistinguishable from the rest of the week. On the trail, hikers don't think about time in terms of days of week rather days between resupply. Our hiking stints between resupply are four or five days.

We got off the trail to resupply on Thursday afternoon in Roan Mountain, Tennessee (the name of the town, not the mountain which we climbed two days earlier). For this resupply we were hosted by a wonderful family who lived literally one mile off the trail. They were incredibly gracious and hospitable, driving Damien to get groceries and stove fuel and feeding our hungry family.

By early Friday afternoon our food was packed and the laundry was done. Damien and I were just finishing up our internet work and online food orders for our next resupply in Damascus Virginia

In this benign environment, sitting safely in a chair, Damien incurred our family's first trail injury - a yellow jacket sting. It didn't seem too serious at the time, we've all had bee and wasp stings over the years and none of us are allergic. And though it ached something fierce it wasn't serious enough to delay our plans to get back on the trail. I poulticed it with plantain and we left early afternoon to get back on the trail.

The weather was overcast and grey, a bit muggy. Our packs were especially heavy with an increased amount of food from our last resupply. The hiking was pretty easy though and for the first time since the start of the trail there was a significant amount of flowing water - rivers, creeks and small waterfalls. It was beautiful hiking.

Damien's foot was in pain but he's not a complainer so he didn't mention it but he was quieter than usual.

The next day was Saturday of Mother's Day weekend. I was not expecting anything for Mother's Day, except another fourteen mile day of hiking.

The AT guidebook we follow showed a cluster of several hostels and hiker services in the area. Since we had just resupplied and stayed with a family for free we had no need to pay for an off-trail accommodation. But still I had a small tinge of "missing out" feeling. The area was full of unique opportunities and mountain hiddie-holes which I knew we weren't going to experience.

Saturday dawned grey and proceeded to rain as the trail rolled over some rather uninspiring wooded terrain. Late afternoon we came to a decrepit barn, which we thought was pretty cool. We were coming up on Dennis Cove Road, where two hostels are located within about one mile of each other. I was sort of disappointed we wouldn't be able to check them out. Hostels can be a great place to relax, meet other hikers, and often get cold drinks.

Then we smelled the grill. The smell of a grill near a road crossing is the fragrance of trail magic. We didn't want to get our hopes up but sure enough, there it was. A kind family, right off the trail, feeding hungry hikers on a Saturday afternoon. All of a sudden, it felt like a real weekend.

The couple hours reprieve from hiking was much needed for Damien. By this time his foot had swollen significantly from all the miles of hiking. The trail angel who was providing the meal also found a tenser bandage for Damien in his medic kit and Damien spent the next couple hours with is foot propped on the porch railing. We ate like trail kings and queens before moving on to our evening campsite.

The rolling rhododendron forested terrain of the previous day did not prepare me for the beauty that lay ahead. And because it was so unexpected it was that much more amazing.

The trail coming out of Dennis Cove Road took us to the most beautiful waterfall and river trail we had yet experienced on the trail. Some people say Laurel Falls is the best waterfall on the trail. I was totally unprepared for its grandeur, which is hard to capture on camera.

The beauty of the waterfall and the constant sound of gushing water through the valley gorge was accentuated by newly blooming rhododendron, mountain laurel and unidentified berry brambles. Delicate lady slippers bloomed precariously close to the trail.

We set up camp along the river at one of our nicest camp spots yet and fell asleep to the lullaby of rushing water.

The next morning was Mother's Day but I felt I had already received my gifts. Trail magic, Laurel falls, the blooming flowers and the river campsite had overflowed my well.

The trail took us out of the valley with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet up Pond Mountain. It was tiring but there were so many more gifts along the way. A snake, a turtle and blooming azalea trees. It was a beautiful Mother's Day morning.

Watauga Lake was our midday break destination. We arrived weary and backpack laden, experiencing a taste of Sunday picnicker culture shock; our scruffy attire, hiking boots, and bags of dehydrated food out of place on a beach of bathing suits, flip flops, and grills.

Damien took off his boot and his foot did not look good. We could literally see the blood pulsing beneath the swollen skin. Our hard hike that morning hadn't helped. "I think we should rest here for a day" he said, "while we still can".

The stretch of miles we had just hiked were populated with hiker resources - hostels, trail angels, shuttle services and a small town. All the services I felt bad the first time through about missing out on. Most of the areas we've previously hiked through have been much more remote. If we were going to take time off the trail to recover from an injury, this was the perfect place.

While the kids swam in the lake and Damien rested, foot elevated on the picnic table, I called hostels and hotels inquiring about rates and making plans. After a quick and friendly shuttle from the folks at Black Bear Resort on Dennis Cove Road we had found a place to rest and for Damien to heal.

Here we were, returned to the very hiker hostel I felt bad about missing the first time around. This time with a good reason to get off trail.

We secured an inexpensive, small private cabin for our family and settled in.

With Damien laying down in the bottom bunk, foot iced and elevated with a rolled up Thermarest I was free to attend to something that desperately needed taking care of - taking a rest.

Long distance hiking is a very physically demanding undertaking. Our regular resupplies are intense work of a different sort. In fact, at one resupply I was advised by a friend to actually sit while eating. There's just so much we have to do each resupply that going into town or to a person's house is not really a break, it's just a different kind of work. The change is nice but it's not a rest.

I hadn't taken one afternoon nap or experienced a stretch of non-sleep relaxing hours since starting our hike. I was overdue.

Damien's swollen yellow jacket sting afforded our family two of the most relaxing days we've had in 40 days on the trail.

The kids and I went swimming in the creek in the hot afternoon sun, and I don't remember the last time I've had so much fun with them. I told them it was my best mother's day yet because it truly felt that way. I was expecting nothing and instead I got a mini-vacation at a creek-side, mountain resort.

In our thirty six hour break while Damien's foot was iced, elevated, compressed, and peppermint oiled, we watched movies, ate camp-store food, read books, swam in the creek, played games and plundered the hiker box for extra free meals of ramen noodles and microwaveable pasta dishes. (We couldn't eat too much from our food supply bags since we needed those for our trail miles.)

I sat (sat!) and watched the many butterflies, hummingbirds, red cardinals and yellow finches fly around the property, thoroughly enjoying the Tennessee mountain spring and my Mother's Day weekend.

Ironic how a misfortune gave us the permission we needed to take a much needed break.

If you go: The section of Appalachian Trail from Roan Mountain, Tennessee to Watauga Lake, Tennessee is both beautiful and very accessible. There are many road access points. Dennis Cove Road in Hampton, TN is one of those. Black Bear Resort is on Dennis Cove Road and as a home base for local adventuring you can't go wrong. This family-run resort is clean, affordably priced, and friendly.

Laurel Falls is an amazing hike and relatively easy (there are some steep rock stairs to access it though). You can walk in and out or camp out further along the river, which is a great experience. If you were planning a first backpacking trip with your family this area offers great hiking, beautiful scenery and natural features, with easy access road crossing and shelters not too far from road crossings.

Your best bet for healthy food is stop at a large town like Elizabethton or Johnson City before arriving in the area. There isn't much in the way of great grocery stores or health food stores nearby.

This post was published from the Appalachian Trail, in Marion Virginia. To follow the story of our hike subscribe to the Beyond our Boundaries video series (to see what resupplies, rest days and everything in between look like). See also FIMBY Facebook for thru-hike photo albums.

Follow along

It’s only taken me 3 weeks but I’ve finally figured out how to keep FIMBY readers informed of our progress. Each time we get to an area with wifi or cell access, which for us is approximately every 3–5 days, I will tweet and or instagram our location and trail miles completed.

All my Instagram updates go to FIMBY Facebook also. I hope to do this a couple times a week.

I started last Friday with our arrival at Fontana Dam shelter. This morning we arrived at Clingmans Dome, which I also tweeted/instagrammed. After a night off the trail hanging out with the Meyer family, doing laundry, and resupplying our food, we’ll be back on the trail tomorrow morning (today if you’re reading this from your e-mail subscription).

Some people have asked how to track our progress, in real time, since the production cycle of our video series is three weeks slower than our actual hike.

If you’d like to track our real time location, or close to real time location, you can use those status updates to place our progress on a map, if you like.

A few people have mentioned to me they are using our hike for geography lessons. I think that is so cool! I hope these updates will help you with that.

Here’s a few tools you might find useful for tracking our hike:

  • Appalachian Trail Parking - This is a site, divided by state, with trail access by road crossings and parking lots. What is especially helpful about this information is that almost all the places I will tweet/instagram from will be listed on this site.
  • The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has an interactive map which I am unable to comment on because I can’t seem to see it on my iPad.
  • Appalachian National Scenic Trail - This is the US National Park Service website of the trail. Look for the map in the left hand side bar under Park Tools, or click here for the official brochure map.

Other places to follow our progress:

  • FIMBY Facebook is where I’m posting the majority of the photos from our hike. I plan to add a new album every 10 days or so. My last photo album contained 100 photos (yikes!), which are a real pain to upload from the iPad I might add.
  • Toesalad Facebook. Damien is publishing trail journals from time to time here. They are written on trail, on his iPad, and uploaded and scheduled at town stops.

Our video series is the story of our hike, which will include how-to’s and hiking help for other families and individuals. We’ll start filming the how-to’s next month once we really know what we’re doing. This month we’ve been filming the “first-month” experiences of being on the trail.

That’s all I can think of for now. I miss the ease of communication, and writing and sharing I have from home, but I love the distance from social media I have on the trail. I feel very grounded, very present and attuned to physical living. I like it, most days :)

Are you kids having fun?

Every once in a while the kids are asked “the fun” question. And they’re never sure quite how to answer.

Are you kids having fun?

Yes. No. Sometimes.

Not right now. Ask me around the campfire after a hot supper and chocolate for dessert.

Are you having fun is not a question hiking adults ask other hiking adults, so I find this a curious question to ask a child/teen long distance hiker.

Anyone who is out here for more than five days knows this isn’t always fun. Not even close.

I had some email correspondence with another mother whose family did a three year sailing trip when their kids were younger. She mentioned something to me about family adventuring, something we have found to be true on the trail also. The high’s are high and the low’s are low.

We’ve all (except Damien) have had a turn with tears. But this is no different from our experience in the course of two weeks of normal life. We’re not on a vacation, where we seek relaxing pleasure experiences every day. We’re on a long distance hike, and we’re all adjusting to that.

These past two weeks have been filled with moments that were beautiful, rewarding, boring, happy, warm, disappointing, dry, melancholy, tiring, cold, exciting, rainy, challenging, sunny, and relaxing. Fun doesn’t begin to describe the experience and could never do it justice. Nor does it tell the whole truth.

Amazing life adventures are so much than fun. They are high’s and low’s, mountain tops and valleys - literally - woven together to create a rich, life changing, relationship building experience.

Sixteen days in, our hike has been amazing. It has been challenging and rewarding likewise.

Are we having fun? Why yes we are. Fireside with new friends, sunsets, sunrises, trail magic, excursions off trail, a zero day at the NOC, funny conversations, and new discoveries are all fun.

Hiking when we are tired, wet, cold, sore, (fill-in-the-blank) is not so much fun. And we experience the not-so-fun moments every day. Sometimes hour by hour.

But in those moments, all the moments fun and dreary, we’re growing, we’re learning, we’re having deeply enriching (life-changing) experiences.

Fun is not a word I’d use to describe our hike. Amazing is more like it.