The first week of winter (and a bit of preamble)

This week I decided to take a break from soul-searching and write about homeschooling, specifically homeschooling high school. It's an exciting time for our family and we've learned lots through the transition into the high school years.

Brienne is enjoying House of Anubis on Netflix, and now likes to dress-up in an improvised school uniform

The older my children get the more I understand about interest-led learning, and its many possibilities and forms.

As I write snippets here and there about our experience and our philosophy, and as we meet new friends locally, I get the inevitable question how does it really work letting your kids have educational freedom? And more importantly for many people - how will it all end? How will Céline get into university, and especially for my Québec readers and friends, how will we navigate Cégep?

These are questions I've been wanting to answer. So that's what I've been doing, writing about Céline's current curriculum and interest-led learning in the high school years, what it looks like in our home, and where it might go from here for post-secondary studies.

Interestingly, the shift in writing focus has rekindled personal passions, dreams and visions in me. All of which have laid dormant for months and months. It is a small rekindling. There is no bonfire burning, I don't have the fuel to keep that going, but a flame of inspiration flickers more brightly inside.

Mid-week, when I realized how deep I was into a three, four, five part blog series on homeschooling the high school years, I had an idea I'd like to try to keep things fresh on the blog while I continue writing.

Going deep in my writing seems to be theme for me right now. I have a need to be thorough and explicit, covering all the angles. For me, this is not the time for short and pithy or sound bite ideas.

But while all this soul-searching, or in this week's case, homeschool writing, is going on, so is my beautiful life. The life I want to share with people on my blog because that is just what I do. Fun in My Back Yard.

I am seeing the beauty and relishing the story, once again, of our lives. And I want to write it. The joy, loveliness, heartwarming moments, laughter, and beauty of the days. Days in a life we have worked hard to build, that we have sacrificed a lot to build.

I feel pain and disappointment from some broken dreams that lie at my feet post-hike. I feel disillusioned and adrift somedays about moving forward. I feel loss at having sacrificed a lot of myself to gain incredible experience for our family as a whole.

Those things are all real in my life. But so is love and joy, commitment and community, beauty and purpose found in each and every day.

I want to tell those stories also.

That my friends, is just a really long introduction to explain something I'd like to try - a weekly post about the fun in my back yard. What we're up to, what I'm loving or doing these days, this is what I used to write about, it's actually the heartbeat of this blog, and it's the writing I always come back to, after various writing forays and blogging experiments.

So, I'll try that again, till I no long feel inspired to do so. Starting now.

Winter arrived this week. Not big winter but definitely winter's hello.

We are happy for winter's arrival but also challenged by it this year because our financial situation is tight, paying off post-hike debt, and we don't have the funds we're used to for outfitting our ever-growing kids for winter sport and activity, specifically backcountry skiing.

Damien is very resourceful, good at finding deals, etc. and I'm good at pinching the pennies, and managing the outflow. This week I found a few extra dollars in November's budget, but not near enough for the needs. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Our financial state post-hike has been a source of considerable strain and tension in our marriage. Thank goodness we're in this for the long haul because sometimes the short haul isn't so romantic, or even fun.

The kids took me on a walk in the woods, on a path our neighbors showed them last weekend. It will be the perfect cross-country ski route for me this winter, assuming we can find me some appropriate boots. Between a small amount of birthday and Christmas funds I have hope I may get the boots I need so I can ski out our door, which would be fabulous.

I only ventured to the beach once this week, at the end of a run. I left the house so frustrated and upset.

Running helped clear my head and by the time I got to the beach I had chilled out significantly. The roiling water and incessant pounding of waves on the shore though was the perfect picture of my previous frustration. I felt giddy with metaphor, nature's perfect reflection of a troubled heart.

I love living so close to the ocean and felt so privileged, and blessed this week, when I considered all the places we've called home in our community here on the peninsula. A little cabin in a river valley. A mountain ski chalet and now our home on the hill, overlooking the ocean.

I try to remember this feeling of blessing when the waves of moving-related frustration wash over me, reminding me that we've experienced all this in only three short years, plus six months away from home on the Appalachian Trail, and one month in Montreal.

It is our willingness to pick up and move, to be homeless for six months, that enabled us the freedom to hike the trail. It is that same sense of homelessness and significant disruption to home life that contributed to pieces of me crumbling and breaking.

I would like to be settled. I have things I want to do with my life besides managing our moves, managing my breakdown.

I am so used to Damien at home now, three years into the work-at-home gig, I take for granted the precious moments that our sacrifices have made possible. This week I was especially aware of the special connection Céline shares with Damien and how crucial his daily participation is in her life.

She is a technical girl. She consumes media, news and information I have no grid for, no interest in. But Damien is there, solid, informed and interested. My heart melting each time I hear her laughter rising from the kitchen in some discussion with her Dad about topics I just don't get.

My girl. Cautious but sure-footed. Confident and sassy enough to buzz cut her hair at fifteen. My heart simply can't contain the affection and respect I have for her.

The kids and I all visited Le Baluchon (rough Québec translation: hobo sack) yesterday afternoon, our local version of Goodwill. We scored big time.

At Le Baluchon they sell most clothing items by the bag. A full bag of clothes costs $5. We came home with stylish, tall brown boots and very practical snowpants for Brienne, a single breasted black wool pea jacket for Céline, and a knit grey winter Calvin Klein dress for me, plus a couple bags of clothes all for less than $20. Thank God for Le Baluchon.

As I finish up this post, I'm watching the snow fall again. Laurent has just come in from shoveling snow. Damien's out and about with Brienne, looking for deals on ski boots and skis, comparing with the prices he's found on eBay. Céline's ensconced in her attic studio/bedroom sewing a gift for Brienne's birthday. And Chocolate Chip Banana cookies - easy, vegan, and whole-food (with a smidge of processed chocolate) - are just coming out of the oven.

The first week of winter.

(Damien and Brienne just came in the door with new skis for Céline, she's bootstrapping the purchase for us, since she has more disposable cash right now than we do. And Damien found a good deal on ski boots for me. We may be outfitted for this season's skiing yet.)

A week of writing and home

It was another week of writing and digging. Walking a labyrinth of interconnected hallways in my heart and mind. Finding new doors, new hallways, following the trail of light through the open doors back to that first open door and asking myself, "now why did I open this door in the first place? What was I hoping to find here?"

I am unearthing what needs to be discovered but man, does it ever take a lot of writing energy to blaze the trails through the jungle thick undergrowth of my hiking experience and post-hike discovery/recovery period.

Nothing writes up easy these days. Nothing. And you reassure me its alright. Because absolutely it is. It is more than alright the work I'm doing. But the desire to publish, to produce, is strong.

Writing and blogging are not "a flash in the pan" pursuits for me. They are passions I will pursue regardless of their profitability or productivity. But gosh, how I want something to show, here, now, for the effort. Proof.

Proof of my worthiness as a blogger, as a writer, by how much I publish. Proof of my worthiness as a homeschooler by the progress of my pupils. Proof of my worthiness as a wife by how much I follow and support.

This artwork will be available as sets of holiday cards, coming to the blog soon.

Yeah, so all that. That's what I'm working through. I thought it was about being depressed on the trail. That was just a symptom of something deeper. Surprise, surprise.

Needless to say Brené Brown's work is a beacon in my labyrinth of digging and discovery.

Every fear, joy, truth, hope, lie, disappointment, pain, goes deep. And getting to the tip of that taproot to investigate the health of the soil in which I'm rooted is a bit arduous.

I am still surprised that the hike brought me to this point, which is a totally different place than I thought I would be, but clearly is the place I need to be.

I went into the hike knowing it would change me. That the intensity of the experience would peel back layers to reveal a core me. I had expected to find this distilled truth on the trail. I didn't know it would be a post-trail discovery and I certainly didn't know this is what I'd find.

So that was the writing week.

In other news, having found a home for kitten number one, we kept his sibling and christened him Pippin. It is completely unexpected that I, formerly on the antagonist end of ambivalent towards cats, would be the one to say, "let's keep him".

This week's music of choice was Switchfoot, Vice Verses and Fading West. Each song touching my experience, my heart, in the way only music does. Songs that have me reaching for my guitar, googling chords and playing along with.

I finished researching and writing out Céline's fall 2014 through summer 2015 curriculum. It was already happening, she was learning and progressing without a written document, but I don't feel peace about the process until I've written it down. Some of you have expressed interest in her job and I hope to write about that in a "this is what Celine's 10th year of homeschooling looks like" post.

I finished The Good Daughter, Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life (Seeds of Another Summer in Canada), and am savoring my way through Shadow Child, also by Beth Powning. (Yes, you should check her out).

I can't wait to pick up Louise Penny's first Inspector Gamache book at Wednesday's library pick up, having devoured The Beautiful Mystery and The Brutal Telling. I think Louise Penny will be a perfect windswept Gaspesien winter companion.

The beach sunsets this week were fabulous (so you may have noticed already). The sun sets earlier each day and it's a fast scramble to get out the door in time to make it there, but the rewards are worth it.

In spite of shorter days, and the rush to watch the sun set, I am relishing the steady advance of winter. I know full well it will be a long one, and I have a history with SAD but my body, spirit and mind see this winter as my time to hibernate and rest. To sit by the happy lamp in the morning as I write my way to understanding, cuddle with cats, drink tea, and on a daily basis brave the wind and snow for an afternoon excursion into the elements to remind me that I'm alive and why I love summer so much.

I finally replenished my depleted lotion stock with my tried and true recipe but I used shea butter this time instead of cocoa butter which resulted in a runnier lotion. This consistency would be perfect for a pump bottle, which I don't have. So I just make a drippy mess on the counter each time I use it.

The kids and I went to a Remembrance Day service on November 11. I felt so Canadian, surrounded by other Canadians remembering fallen family and community members in the world wars, Korea and our peace keeping missions. In a service conducted in English, French and Mi'kmaq I felt like I belong here. After three years to the day, of living on the peninsula, and a lot of struggle with insecurity about my place here, that is a feeling of inestimable worth.

Two Saturdays ago now, our dear friend Springfever, one of our biggest Kickstarter supporters and trail enthusiast (having done the trail 3 times himself) came for supper with his wife to swap hiking stories and look at our (still unedited) photos. I'm always amazed that on our peninsula, with few people clustered in small communities over many miles of coastline, we have a thru-hiker friend living nearby.

This past Saturday we went to the neighbors, the house just behind ours, for a gourmet tapas-like supper prepared from Plenty. We came home with ski boots to fit Céline's growing feet and a better snowboard for Laurent. Have I mentioned yet how much I love it here? Not just the house we are living in right now, but our community and our friends.

Yes, I have a lot of personal work to do right now. And some of it is painful. But there are so many beautiful, solid, and reassuring things in my life. The ocean's tides, which I never get tired of (whoever gave me that advice in a previous post was right); friends who aren't even aware of the blessing they are in our lives; a cuddly kitten, rock music, supplements, books, a happy light; and a community that, after three years living here (seven months of those in other places), truly feels like home to me.

Home, where we are known. Home, where we belong. Home, where we want to be.

Anyone want a kitten?

In the early years of marriage Damien wanted a cat. He grew up with cats and genuinely felt affection for them.

I did not grow up with cats, nor did I feel affection for them.

When the kids were little I finally relented to getting a cat. I didn't naturally feel drawn to animals and had no affinity for them so a cat seemed like a messy inconvenience to an already full family life I was trying to keep tidy and manageable.

I agreed to getting a cat under the following conditions.

I didn't want it to shed. I didn't want the cat on our bed. I didn't want it scratching our furniture. I didn't want it pooping in my flower beds. And with three pre-schoolers to take care of, I wanted no part whatsoever in taking care of the cat.

Damien found a breed that didn't shed, the Devon Rex. But of course I wasn't going to spend money to get a cat either. So Damien worked a barter with the breeder, who lived in Georgia (we lived in Maine at the time). He did computer work for her. A litter of kittens was born. We got one. Pixel, as we named our orange haired tabby, was delivered on a plane to Portland, ME.

I have laughed about this story since the very beginning. We are unpretentious people and here we have a "fancy" cat delivered on a plane.

I remember the August morning that Damien, Laurent and Celine went to pick him up from the airport. Brienne was still nursing, and too little at the time to accompany them. My mom was visiting, she remembers too, the children's squeals of delight as Pixel romped on the living room futon.

With my children's obvious affection and delight, my heart started to soften a wee bit. What I remember most about Pixel's kitten-hood is that he loved to sit in Brienne's blue vinyl highchair seat. And second to that he loved to lay on top of my open homemaker's binder next to my computer in the office.

It soon became obvious, mostly because of how cute he was, that Pixel was not going to be "true" Devon Rex. We were told before he came to live with us that new blood had been introduced into the family line a generation (or was it two?) before his birth. Pixel had the inquisitiveness, personality, and voice (they are loud!) of a Devon but decidedly longer hair, that shed.

Over time he came to sleep on our bed, much to my dismay, but by this point the battle was lost anyway.

Pixel, sensing who's really in charge around here, comes to me when he's hungry, pounces on my head in bed when he's needy and generally seeks me to meet his needs.

Staying true to my original terms and conditions - I don't change litter or do the feeding but I make sure someone does. And I guess Pixel knows I'm the one who makes sure things get done around here.

Pixel is an old man cat now. A fat old cat. We switched him to a raw meat diet over a year ago to help address his obesity and that was working until he stayed at our friend's house during our hike and binged on dry cat food. In spite of all the exercise he got terrorizing their two cats around their farm, he gained a lot of weight. He is back to his raw meat diet but I think it might be too little too late for him now.

Like Pixel, I am getting soft in my old age. So when we found two pre-teen aged kittens (they aren't babies but they aren't young adult cats either) on our daily walk, abandoned on the road to the beach, I couldn't very well leave them there.

The first day we thought it was kind of "random" to find a small cat on the road, unattended. Such a playful fellow following us, begging us to pick him up, which we did.

Our next walk to the beach the cat found us again, and we found its sibling meowing in a tree. Skittish as all get out, that little fellow was.

We took "Munchkin" home, and brought the skittish cat, "Pipsqueak", food. When we checked on Pipsqueak the next day he was still there, but the food sure wasn't. We managed to grab him and I carried him, trembling, under my arms back to our house.

We have asked all the neighbors if the cats are theirs. They aren't. We have Facebooked their availability, and put up posters in our community, looking for a new home for these adorable cats, whom we have grown to love. Pipsqueak has come out of his shell, enduring himself to us with his vigorous play. Munchkin is curious about all things and very cuddly.

Two cats came with the house, a pair of long-haired young spayed females, mother and daughter. We brought our own cat, old man Pixel and now these two kittens join the mix, temporarily.

Collectively these cats sleep on all the beds, shed like crazy (especially the long haired females), raise the dead (or in our case, the sleeping) with their occasional nocturnal howls and hisses, generate an awful lot of litter mess, chew through expensive earbud cords and inexpensive USB cords indiscriminately, and sometimes cough up the most disgusting hairballs imaginable (that would be the long-haired cats again).

They have made the house interesting and lively, the kittens especially adding much needed levity and love during our re-entry period. I have never been this smitten with a feline before.

I can't say I have a lot of affection for cats in general, but my feelings have grown over the years, mostly because my children love cats and the things our children love tend to grow on us, over time.

Last night we said goodbye to Munchkin. Our poster at the animalerie helping us find a family for this sweet kitten. There were tears and plenty of goodbye cuddles and kisses, even from me.

Checking in

We've been off-trail now for six weeks. One of those weeks we went to visit my parents in Nova Scotia.

In our five weeks at home I've been orchestrating our household routines, re-establishing old rhythms and establishing new ones.

As the kids take on more cooking and food prep duties I'm down to being responsible for two snacks, two lunches and two suppers a week. As kitchen manager I oversee the show, write the shopping lists, and make sure the cupboards are stocked, the almond milk is made and the beans are cooked but my work in this domain is waning. And as it wanes my inspiration and enthusiasm for cooking has increased. Can I hear an Amen!?

With the help of a local doctor friend I've started a run/walk routine and my foot is doing well. I can exercise without pain and as far as I know I'm healed but I'm still taking it slow. The nearby beach in on my daily route.

I'm reading tons. I have more books on the go and have worked into my schedule more time for reading than I've had in years. Books, my first love, have replaced the Internet as my source of escape and inspiration. Memoirs, mysteries, fantasies, non-fiction. I adore these piles on the nightstand and a full Overdrive bookshelf on my iPad.

I'm working on my shawl, with a goal to complete it by the end of winter. Winters are long in Quebec, I think I might just pull it off.

My guitar is out, I downloaded a tuner app, and I've started making music again, singing for all I'm worth. I've found new-to-me francophone folk musicians on Spotify, have listened to more ABBA in three weeks than I have in the last 15 years combined, and in the rest of my listening hours I have soaked myself in Steve Bell.

We started going to church. I've been making an effort to re-connect with local and not-so-local friends.

The kids have returned to their studies. Celine has a job. Out of necessity we hit the ground running with homeschool and I've had to build our curriculum as we go. I prefer to plan then execute but there was no time for that so I'm constructing the pieces as we go.

I'm studying French again, in earnest. So are the kids. We are fostering two adorable kittens which we found (rather, they found us) on the road to the beach.

Early-to-bed, early-to-rise, I find immense comfort in the punctuation of my days. The anchoring of The Morning Office and Evening Compline, the sound of surf on my afternoon walk. Morning coffee, post-lunch reading, afternoon tea. Routines that give definition, structure, and regular breaks to my industry.

I could write a blog post, or more about each of these things. I could talk about how to get kids in the kitchen. I could talk about how I loath to push myself out the door each day to exercise but I do it anyway and I love the way I feel when I get back, my hate-love relationship with regular exercise.

I could write reviews about the books I'm reading and new authors I love. (See the sidebar on my blog where I keep an updated list of recent reads.)

I could talk about the importance of pieces of my past in my present, why we stopped going to church many years ago and why we are returning.

I could talk about how our introverted, homeschool teenager has a job, location-independent, just like her dad. I could write about our goals-based curriculum, a schedule for project-based learning, and the kid's owning their own education.

I could write about Canadian history homeschool studies, self-directed second language learning (and the programs, apps and resources we're using), knitting as a meditation, playing guitar, and the recipes I'm loving these days.

I could also write about the excruciatingly frustrating moments and days I have on this path to post-hike recovery. How I seem to have little bandwidth in my life right now for failures and glitches but life is full of those anyway. (Someone didn't get my memo.)

I could write about our trail debt and our austerity budget to get ourselves out of that, which means no funds for homeschooling, among other things. I could write about how, after years of pushing the boundaries and walking the edge, right now I need to live in the safe middle of a very well defined box, with firm boundaries on time, resources, and ideas.

Each morning for a couple hours, or maybe just one, I write. Haltingly. Sometimes with tears streaming down my face and a rumble of anxiety in my belly.

I don't write about recipes, or homeschooling, or books - even though those seem like bright shiny objects. Tidy posts.

Right now I need to write about what happened to me this summer, to try and make sense of my trail depression and post-hike anxiety (which is thankfully subsiding). I'm going back even further to understand subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that have happened in my heart and psyche since leaving Maine in 2011.

This is hard work. Some days it hurts like digging out a splinter and other days it feels like rays of sunshine into dusty, dark corners. This is the focus of my writing time, which is the same as my blogging time. I need to write my way to understanding and discovery. I need to write my way to healing.

This is how I process with writing. I write, talk, write, read, write and maybe cycle through the whole thing again, and eventually I publish. But this kind of writing does not lend itself to a fast turn around on the blog. I do plan to publish, I have always published what my heart feels compelled to write and this is no different. It's just taking a lot of time.

I want to publish fun and beautiful things here. Some bloggers are very explicit in their purpose to use their blog to focus on gratitude, beauty, goodness. I want to share the joy of homeschooling life and homemaking and creativity and yes, even adventure, but a more important writing task calls to me.

My writing time looks like yielding to that call and then resisting. Walking boldly for a few steps then retreating. And in the resisting and retreating I am so tempted to publish "aren't these kittens adorable" or something like that. Maybe I will. But in reality publishing even a simple post takes hours and I don't have those hours to give.

I have always used my blog as a place to not just share ideas and a family story, but as a publishing platform to process and work through things.

In my pre-hike life there were steady and small eruptions, usually corresponding with times of transition and seasonal shifts, of navel-gazing and introspective writing, that would bubble up from the subterranean lava that constantly flows beneath the surface.

Now as I write my way through the last ten months I feel like I'm trying to harness a volcano. I'm not going to write one post and resolve this. I do believe the lava will cool, it will give new shape and structure to my life and eventually, fertile soil. Maybe it's already happening.

But writing my way through this is time-consuming and emotionally difficult. There is no turnaround time I can rely on for publishing to the blog.

Ideally, I would love to post little snippets of our life, whether those are homeschooling, creativity, homemaking, or adventure related, while I keep working on the heart writing. I love that when I look through the archives I see this blog as a record of our family life (according to mother) and I have a strong desire to maintain that somehow, while I'm doing this personal work.

I honestly just don't know how to do that. Each post I publish here takes hours of work. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed or proud of that. It never used to take hours and hours to write, edit and publish a post. Reading the old archives, I can tell. (She writes with a smile.)

This is not an answer post, or a planning post, or a "you can expect such and such for me" post.

This is me, just checking in.


Couchsurfing with a family

This week, we had the privilege of hosting four young people through Couchsurfing. We fed them supper and put them up for a night and in exchange they shared stories of their studies, travel and homelands with us. And helped us practice our French.

Sophie and Véronique are from France, Lorena from Spain and Rowan from Canada's British Columbia. They are young and adventurous (closer in age to our kids than us), interesting, vibrant, and multilingual.

If we can't travel the world right now we can bring the world to us.

Hosting them reminded me that I had written a post about Couchsurfing years ago on Outsideways, our family's third and now neglected blog. The following post is adapted from that original published in January 2010. Which is why the kids look so much younger (they were) and why the landscapes are so snowy (welcome to Québec in winter!)

In January 2010 we made our first reconnaissance trip to the Gaspé peninsula. We had read it was a beautiful natural area on Québec's East Coast where mountains meet the ocean. Having decided to move back to Canada in 2011, we wanted to know if the peninsula might be a place we could move to and make home.

We decided to go investigate the area directly following our Christmas trip to Nova Scotia, where my parents live. But we didn't have a lot of funds for a post-Christmas trip.

Thank goodness for Couchsurfing.

My parents joined us for this adventure but did not couchsurf. Not for lack of trying, but our family had already booked whatever homes were available by the time they looked for a couch.

Couchsurfing Basics:

The Couchsurfing organization is a social network that helps people find free places to stay while traveling.

  1. To participate you become a member (also free), post a profile to the site and go through a verification process. Obviously this doesn't weed out all loonies and scary people, there are small risks involved, but as soon as people start "surfing" or hosting they leave feedback for both guests and hosts that helps build a level of credibility and confidence. You can sign up to host, surf or both.
  2. A traveler searches in the area they are planning to visit for available "couches". They send a request to potential host(s) and arrangements are made via the Couchsurfing website, personal e-mails, and phone calls. There is no standard level of accommodation or length of stay.
  3. The traveler(s) brings their sleeping bag and is willing to sleep wherever their host puts them up. In exchange they are given free accommodation and often have access to the host's kitchen and other amenities.

Those are the details of how to find and give free accommodation but Couchsurfing is so much more than that.

This is how Couchsurfing describes their vision (beyond a free place to sleep):

We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation, and respect."

That was true in our experience. Saving money was just the added bonus.

Our Couchsurfing experience:

When we talked about making this trip we started looking into hostels in the area, as there are many. Gaspésie is a popular tourist destination... in the summer. The hostels we contacted were all closed during the winter. So Damien started looking for couches instead. Of course for a family of five you aren't really looking for a couch but enough floor space to throw down your sleeping mats and bags.

There weren't that many people on Couchsurfing who could accommodate a family our size but we found two households who were willing and we made our travel arrangements based on their availability.

The first household was a young single man who put us up in his bedroom (of his small one bedroom apartment) while he slept on the couch. We stayed here for two nights.

The second willing household was a family who was eager to host us but they lived on a private road that was not guaranteed to be plowed on the day of our estimated arrival. Instead of chancing it we reserved a suite with a kitchenette at a local auberge (inn/hotel). The week of our trip the road was plowed so the family invited us to their home for a meal.

Couchsurfing is not just about finding a free room. It's about meeting and connecting with people in unique places. It's about friendship, breaking down barriers and making this big world a little smaller and friendlier.

Couch One

Yannick, our first host, is a young man who has studied some, traveled lots and come back home to Québec to finish his studies. Because of his travels and world outlook he spoke English and was eager to practice with us.

In fact everyone we met in Québec was able to speak English with us and we did our best (Damien's skills were much better than the rest of us since he spent a year in France after high school) to return the favor speaking French as much as possible.

Staying with Yannick was not without challenges. The day we arrived his kitchen sink backed up, his little icebox freezer defrosted without warning, and his washing machine broke down.

We arrived to a somewhat disheveled kitchen but with a very warm and gracious host. Wow, did I ever learn something about hospitality from this young man! But those inconveniences were solved and we shared parts of the next day and half with him discovering the area's cultural gems and "places to be". One of which was the local boulangerie, where we joined in the kids' open jam session.

His apartment was our home base for our next day's drive along the very windy, cold, and hauntingly beautiful St. Lawrence River on the north side of the peninsula.

When we left, Yannick gave us gifts from his sparse household, expressing the affection he felt for our family. He praised our children (what parent doesn't like that?) and said he hadn't met a family like ours. We proved, in his words, "that it is possible to travel with children and have adventurous experiences", something he hadn't seen in families he knows.

After leaving Yannick's home we drove through the Parc de la Gaspésie crossing to the other side of the peninsula, on the Baie des Chaleur.

Couch Two

Arriving an hour later than planned, we met our second Couchsurfing contact, Isabelle and Danny and their family. These were the hosts that said we could stay the night but the road might not be plowed and so we didn't want to commit to that plan.

However, earlier in the week when we checked the weather forecast, it was determined the road would be passable so they invited us for a mid-day meal at their home. Our family of five, plus my parents. We were told to not bring anything. Talk about hospitality!

Isabelle and Danny live in an intentional community of individuals, couples and families, building sustainable dwellings, community, and livelihoods. They were an inspiring bunch to be around. Members of their community had also come to meet us and contributed to the potluck feast of homegrown turkey, potatoes, gravy, tourtière, salad, squash and apple crisp.

The whole experience at Isabelle and Danny's house blew us away, almost literally. The wind never ceased gusting, but their kindness, warm wood stove, and conversation knocked our socks off. Although the adults spoke fairly decent English their children did not at all. But after "moving around each other" for a couple hours the kids breached the language barrier... with play. Hide and seek, paper airplanes, Lego and drawing.

Crossing the border back into Maine, through the snow and wind of winter, Damien and I talked about the friendliness of the people, the cultural vibrancy we saw evidence of in the towns (we weren't there long enough to explore that), the obvious raw natural beauty of the peninsula and decided the Gaspé was worth another look in the summer.

The end of that story is that we did come back in summer 2010 and moved here permanently in the fall of 2011.

Couchsurfing with a family:

Couchsurfing is a great option for travelling if you enjoy meeting new people. Obviously though it can be a bit more tricky with a family.

Things to consider when Couchsurfing with your family:

  1. Be willing to plan your travels according to who can host you and where. Yannick was the only host we found who responded to our request for sleeping space for a family of five so we based our itinerary around that.
  2. Have great kids. A few traits that come to mind are fun-loving, inquisitive, and respectful. Obviously these are character traits we want to grow in our children regardless of whether we couchsurf or not.
  3. Safety comes first. If it doesn't feel right, don't stay. Have a back up plan, just in case. Don't sleep in separate rooms. Common sense stuff.
  4. Bring along a few comforts from home. Sleeping in a strange situation can be unsettling. We had our familiar sleeping bags. I personally like to bring along my mini titanium French Press (the same one I use camping) because you just never know if your host drinks coffee.

Like I mention in my introduction, Couchsurfing is not just about "going", but also hosting.

If you can't travel the world right now with your family, you can bring the world to your home.

You can find our family's Couchsurfing profile here. And if you're a FIMBY reader visiting the peninsula just send me an e-mail if you need a place to stay.


The Von Trapp Family on the Appalachian Trail

In the winter, before we left for our thru-hike, we gave ourselves trail names. This is not a conventional practice. A lot of hikers acquire trail names on the trail. They are given to them by fellow hikers.

We were leery of strangers naming us. We wanted to name ourselves, pre-trail, based on how we wanted to be known, how we perceive ourselves. And we certainly didn't want to be named based on an infamous trail incident (a common practice).

The kids especially had fun choosing their names.

The trail names Otter, Tenacious Bling, and Padawan were such good choices to represent their individual personalities, interests, and thru-hike perspectives.

I chose the name FIMBY for the very pragmatic reason that should a fellow thru-hiker ever want to find me in the future, googling FIMBY is the best way to do that. And maybe hiking the trail would be a whole lot of fun in my back yard. (The answer to that is yes, and no.)

I hadn't even considered that we'd be christened with a family trail name. Which would pretty much render my pragmatic FIMBY null and void since on the trail I became known as "the Von Trapp mom" for the simple reason that we were the Von Trapp family.

By our best recollection it was The Mailman and his crew of female family companions who named us that way back in North Carolina. (By the way, if you read that Trail Journals entry I linked to you might be interested to know that Red Hawk and Bloodroot started the same day as us, met the kids that first night at Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia and remained good friends throughout the entire hike, summiting one day after us. They acquired their trail names the old fashioned way, on the trail.)

The origin of us becoming The Von Trapp family is not completely clear, but somewhere along the way the name stuck.

Why the Von Trapp family?

We have asked ourselves this question often. We don't know the lyrics to Edelweiss and Padawan is the only one of our children who even remembers watching The Sound of Music.

As far as we can tell we picked up this name because Tenacious Bling liked to sing in the early days of our hike, mostly songs from Disney's blockbuster movie Frozen.

And we also dressed similarly back in Georgia and North Carolina - black Sole Runner boots, wool socks, and dark shorts - which may have inexplicably brought to mind Austrian children in lederhosen.

The rest is a mystery to us. We are not a musical family singing our way to freedom through the Alps, nor do we reside in Stowe, Vermont.

Once we realized the name was permanent however, we did attempt to teach the kids Do-Re-Mi. Due to laziness on our part and a musically challenged child (I know, I know, all the more reason to persevere), we gave up that endeavor opting instead for our usual alternative-progressive-pop-rock music mix broadcast through our bluetooth speaker.

An aside: Yes, we were those thru-hikers who played music, and later audiobooks, out loud on the trail. With our music and audiobooks, specifically books in the Ender's Game series, we attracted groupies, other bored-out-of-their-brains thru-hikers desperate for a diversion from rocks, trees, roots, and mud.

Toesalad became a Pied Piper of sorts, leading the children of the AT astray from a pure wilderness experience (which it isn't to begin with so I say this tongue-in-cheek of course). Seriously though, audiobooks saved the day, saved many, many days on our hike and we did try to be sensitive to others by turning it off as soon as we saw day hikers or weekenders approaching.

Though unclear about its origins, we appreciate our family trail name because it was given by the trail community and is now a part of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker history.

Off trail we are known as the Tougas family but our trail community knew us as the Von Trapp family. In fact, we had a few funny incidents with thru-hikers talking about the "Von Trapps" to people off-trail who only know us as the "Tougas family", not realizing they were talking about the same people.

The Von Trapps was our cover name while accomplishing amazing feats of physical and mental endurance. It was the name that took our family across a threshold of immense personal and familial growth, an experience in which we all became Jedi Knights, not just Padawan Céline. It was a code name bestowed by a community of people who like to tell legendary tales.

The Von Trapp family - our superhero identity.

Tenacious Bling

Three years ago I published a little ebook for mothers about nurturing creativity, an encouragement mostly to explore, develop and play with creative practices in our busy lives as moms.

I listed a few examples, mostly from my own life, of easily accessible creative activities and expressions we can explore, even if we don't feel very artistically gifted. I am truly disappointed that I failed to mention one so glaringly obvious.

If I had written that little book now I'd have a richer understanding of one of the most readily accessible creative outlets for women. Fashion.

I have to smile when I write that because it's taken raising a fashion conscious, clothes loving, and sometimes makeup obsessed pre-teen to show me what many women already know and appreciate in their lives: personal appearance can provide the canvas for a wellspring of creative expression.

Because I am a casual/sporty, spend no more than 2 minutes doing your hair type gal this little nugget of wisdom remained largely buried to me. It took my growing daughters to help me unearth it.

(I think living in Québec around fashionable and incredibly creative women has also helped.)

I have unfairly judged women who are well made up in their clothing, hair and makeup.

I wondered, "are they not comfortable and happy in their own beautiful skin?" Maybe. Maybe not. That's not for me to know or judge.

What I do know is this. My almost twelve year feels comfortable with her physically-fit and athletic body. She loves her curly hair and strong, muscled calves. She is proud of her widely spaced toes and broad feet, healthy after years of being barefoot and minimalist-shod. She marvels at her green and grey tinted eyes, unique in our family of blues. She appreciates her dominant bottom lip. (I guess that's why she could produce such a good pout as a two year old.)

And she loves expressing her appreciation for this body, as it is, by embellishing it. Wearing clothes that are fun and fancy. Using her skin as a canvas for makeup art and design.

While we were hiking people liked to ask our kids, "what do you miss most?" Without skipping a beat Tenacious Bling always answered, "clothes".

Her wardrobe when we started the trail was as utilitarian as the rest of ours. But it soon became apparent she was not happy with the situation (i.e.: she complained a lot) and she spent the rest of the hike devising ways to add bling to the blah.

It's not just contemporary fashion she loves, as contemporary as hand-me-down fancy dresses and thrift store finds can be. She loves dressing-up to play a role. Girl on the town for when she runs errands with us. Peasant or servant girl when she's on meal prep. And the perennial favorite Princess.

As Brienne comes into her own creatively and artistically in a family whose other members are accomplished artists, programmers, photographers, writers, and sewists (and dabblers in a lot more), I can see fashion being a key part of Brienne's creative pursuits, and maybe theatre.

She is sparkle and bling; verbally expressive, persistent, and physically flamboyant. Equally confident on a sports award podium or dressed up to go grocery shopping.

She is who she is, our family's very own Tenacious Bling. And I couldn't love her more.

About the makeup

Brienne is wearing Cheeky Cosmetics on her face and Bite Beauty on her lips. Finding natural and less harmful makeup has been getting much easier in recent years but I'm always on the lookout for better products for my girls' skin.

Céline recently purchased a Bare Minerals foundation kit and tube of mascara for her cosplay makeup needs. At our recent (and first) visit to Sephora in Halifax, we used the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to help use navigate the labyrinth of products.

If you have any favorite natural makeup brands please share as I'm sure there will be more purchases in our household in the future and I like to be in the know about the best options available.

Already laid bare

I mourned the passing of summer, while it was happening.

I missed gardens and farm vegetables. I missed berry picking. I missed relaxing at the beach. I missed relaxing, period.

Summer is my recharge season. It is the time of year I feel most vibrant, healthy and alive. Each season has its own way of enlivening me. The crystalline brillance of winter, autumn's sharp tang, and the greening of spring all energize me. But summer, with her long light-filled days, is a sustained season of vibrancy.

I had anticipated having a heightened sense of wellbeing while hiking because I'd be outdoors so much, a place that usually invigorates and inspires me. But as I hiked my way through the summer, steeped in more fresh air and heart-pumping exercise than I'd ever known before, I experienced a disconnection with those activities that speak "summer" to me.

It wasn't that we didn't experience summer stuff, we did. But there was very little relaxing into those moments, they were fleeting and often rushed and whenever possible, Damien and I would bear the burden of "the rush", doing the work so our kids could enjoy their non-hiking (and hiking) time as much as possible. On our resupply days they swam while I did laundry - that sort of thing.

Because I felt I "missed" summer I was reluctant to welcome early fall. The change of leaves in Maine was beautiful and fitting for where we were in our journey but coming home I ached knowing I could not partake in fall's bounty during a difficult period of re-entry and transition. Re-settling and re-starting life took all the energy I had.

I watched the pears fall off the tree in the backyard, to be eaten by the deer. The apples in the abandoned orchard next to our house remained where they were, un-sauced, un-dried, un-harvested by me. The waste seemed scandalous.

Mid-autumn finally feels like a season I can settle into and find my bearings. The gardens are laid to rest. No one is swimming at the beach. There is not much left to pick from field or tree.

I am ready for bare branches and I do not mourn the falling leaves. I am already laid bare.

After a season of steadily moving moving north, and before that a hyperdrive season of getting ourselves south, this fall and winter I am staying put and slowing down.

I am ready for a time of simple beauty, of finding refuge in coziness and warmth, finding refuge period. Just like the raised beds and perennials I am preparing for winter, I don't need to grow right now (I don't want to) and I feel a quiet autumn and still winter provide the perfect season to gain strength, not in pushing forward, but in reflection and rest.


For Thanksgiving

My prime objective right now is to get settled, to re-establish the patterns, routines, and life-organization that makes me feel secure. It's a need to nest at full-term pregnancy proportions.

Then along came Thanksgiving and a pre-arranged trip to Nova Scotia to be with my parents and visiting aunt and uncle for the holiday.

My mom, the consummate party planner also wanted to host a celebration for the completion of our hike. So we came and celebrated.

In addition to the fabulous food, Mom's speciality, we gave a mini-presentation about our hike to Mom & Dad's friends (whom we all know personally from our many trips to NS and six months of living here three years ago).

It was fun to share stories of our hike and answer people's questions. Good practice for the future speaking we hope to do about our experience.

My sporadic roiling belly anxiety followed me here, plaguing me at times. But I am loved, just as I am in this home, in these relationships. This is a safe place.

And then there's the music.

I come from a family of musicians and singers, mostly talented amateurs but some professionals also. Music is my roots and returning to my roots is one strand in three of the post-hike wellness strategy I've mapped out for myself.

I have plans for how to incorporate more music making in my life but this little trip brought the gift of family music back to me. After a few piano-less years my mom recently bought a keyboard because she too wanted to bring more music back into her life and my uncle bought a guitar last week in Mahone Bay, his Nova Scotia guitar, to leave at my parents for their annual trip out east.

Singing together old church choruses, with the rich alto harmonies and male tenor I've known since the womb, is like coming home for me. I am so very thankful for my family, my heritage.

Yes, I have some post-hike anxiety. And I am struggling with lost confidence and self-doubt.

But I also have this. I have love and acceptance. I have my mom hugging me in my tears, reassuring me that I may not have it all together (in this season) but I have her, always. I have music in my blood, and a voice that loves to sing. I have a history, a loving family, roots.

I have security in these relationships.


The beach at high tide

Before our hike we lived at a ski hill, about 20 minutes away from our current home, at the base of a small mountain. Now we live by the ocean. I can walk there but when my foot hurts I take the car.

To make the most of this beautiful location I've been going to the beach every day.

If my foot feels tender, and not up for walking the length of the beach and back, I sit and knit, listening to the waves gently lapping the shore. (I'm actually trying to work on my meditation skills.) Other days I explore the beach with the kids finding sea glass and fossils.

I'm not knowledgeable about the tides but yesterday there was no beach to walk or sit on, only wind-whipped waves crashing against the rock walls.

As a regular haunt, this beach is new to me and in all my previous visits the water has been languid and gentle. So this aggressive surf was unexpected and honestly, exciting. The kids and I laughed in nervous delight, as the waves crashed close and closer to our dry perch. Laurent, seeing a lull in the waves ventured beyond his small promontory rock to a sheltered, and invisible from my vantage point, strip of sand behind some driftwood.

Watching him race back, just ahead of the incoming waves, was like watching a good sports game, complete with raucous cheering.

I'm not sure what I'll do about my daily beach outing when winter comes. We'll figure that out when we get there (one day at at time), but I'm certain the beach will offer new discoveries during that season also. And once I've exhausted or grown bored of that, I'll take to the woods behind the house. I hear there's a good trail back there.


More than a fuzzy feeling

I am so proud of my kids.

I know there are all kinds of parental warnings these days against too much verbal affirmation, or the wrong type of verbal affirmation. We're not supposed to tell our kids they are smart, gifted, or inherently talented. We should praise them for their efforts, for working hard, not simply for being.

I missed the memo. I have been praising my kiddos for years for both outward and inward traits. I think it will turn out ok in the end because the main point of all that affirmation is to communicate my unconditional love for them, and to make sure they know, in their heart of hearts, that they are wonderfully and uniquely created by God - talented, gifted, and intelligent.

I know I'm completely biased but my kids are amazing.

In becoming Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, through their own blood, sweat and tears they have accomplished something that very few adults have enough fortitude to do, never mind children.

As thru-hiker kids they are at the top of an elite class. And yes, I am dang proud of them for their incredibly hard work to achieve that. Something I told them often on the trail, minus the dang part (the kids reprimand me when I swear).

Family thru-hiking was a difficult endeavor and in those moments (and months) of self-doubt about why we had taken on something so monumental I sought a sliver of reasoning to hold on to, something to justify why we'd willingly putting ourselves through these trials, and conscript our kids to come along. (What kind of parents are we??)

The words of encouragement that came most readily to me were ancient and true. They were the Apostle Paul's perspective about trials, perseverance, and character.

But I was mixed up because, without a Bible handy for reference, I kept thinking that character was the highest aim. That we struggled through sufferings, to produce endurance in our lives which in the end, develops character. End of story.

Not so. When I finally took the time to check the verse I was a bit surprised and puzzled that character was not the end goal or "prize" when we suffer tribulations, hope is.

As Christian homeschooling parents, good character is high on the list of our child-raising goals. (I'm not saying non-Christians don't have this same value but Christians tend to place a high value, rightly or wrongly, on character.) Throw in my innate tendencies as a rule abiding, authority respecting ESTJ, and you can see how raising kids with responsible, solid character is something I naturally uphold as a good goal. And so I think I took the bit I knew - trials produce perseverance produce character - and stopped there because for me, often, character is the highest aim.

So when I read the verse again, and wrote it this time in my trial trail journal to ponder further, I was challenged by Paul's idea that hope is the highest aim.

I spent the rest of our hike asking myself the question, "why is hope the highest end, not character?"

I perceive hope as risky, sometimes a bit naive, and almost always too trusting. There are no guarantees.

Character on the other hand is more solid. It's a firm foundation, it's stalwart and steady.

As I wrestled with this I remembered discussions Damien and I have had about our parenting goals for this season of family life. We want our teenagers to be invigorated by hope, ideas, and inspiration for their future. We want them to experiment with creative ideas to solve problems, to take chances and not be afraid.

Yes, we want them to develop good character. We've been working on that since they were toddlers. But maybe that's not the end aim and is only the foundation for the real goal, having the courage and inspiration - the hope - to move forward with living, loving, and learning.

You need both.

If hope is the audacious belief you can fly, then character is the firm footing from which you jump.

Last weekend I picked up and resumed reading Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly. I had started it before our hike but just couldn't get into it with all our efforts and preparations. It's a timely read to get back into. Funny how it was the book most accessible and handy to reach in our many boxes of "life" stored in the basement.

I started near the beginning, where I had left off, but right before closing the book for the night I flipped to the end, to the chapter on Wholehearted Parenting. And this sentence in bold jumped off the page for me.

Hope is a function of struggle.

A new take on ancient wisdom, wouldn't you say?

Brené goes on to say a few things about hope.

If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.

hope isn't an emotion; it's a way of thinking or a cognitive process... [it's] a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.

Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They've been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.

Our kids came off the trail full of ideas for their future. Hope. Their enthusiasm built on experience and personal knowledge (in their aching muscles) that they have what it takes to accomplish dreams, goals, and vision. Character.

I am proud of my children for their accomplishment. (I am proud of my husband, beyond words, for holding the whole show together.) I am proud of myself for following through on my commitment to our hike even though I felt broken and weak. It didn't actually break any of us. Instead, all that hard work grew our character.

I am extremely gratified at the character traits I see in my children. Determination, tenacity, long suffering, responsibility, sacrifice, kindness.

Equally though and perhaps more importantly, I am thrilled that hope is the fruit of that character growth. That from the foundation of character springs hope and inspiration for their future, hope and inspiration for my future.

Hope. Not a fuzzy, feel-good emotion, or wishful thinking, but a faith rooted in the soil of adversity and perseverance through trials. The confidence that you have what it takes to move forward with your dreams and goals.

That is something to feel good about.


An unraveling of sorts

Reading all your e-mails and comments was hard. It was encouraging and affirming on so many levels but it was hard also.

Sharing my hurt opens the path for healing but also the chance for judgement, misunderstanding, and assumptions. The chance for more hurt. The worst part is that I know I have inflicted this type of hurt on other people in their own times of vulnerability. Unintentionally of course, in my self-righteousness ideas, answers, advice and more benignly, in my general enthusiasm for intentional, values-driven living.

It probably takes a certain amount of personal hurt for an ESTJ to be truly softened to the pain of other people. The compassion I feel for other people's suffering is a gift of my own suffering, and I don't mean that in any cliché kind of way. Some people need to feel hurt themselves in order to have empathy for others. I am one of those people.

I'm pretty vulnerable right now (duh) and in order to protect myself emotionally I'm filtering everything very carefully. I don't spend much time on the Internet these days. I have no desire. A new lovely habit in my life, a carry over from living six months mostly in the woods.

Wading through all your loving assurances and advice has taken me some time. And as soon as something starts to make me feel anxious, you'd be surprised how low that threshold is, I close the computer and make progress on the many projects going on around here. The completion of each one making me feel more at home, more at ease.

I feel incredibly blessed to be loved by so many people. I have friends across the globe. I have friends down the street. I have friends who hosted our family in their home as we thru-hiked the AT. I have extended family who have reached across the continent to love and relate, adding their prayers and"family history" insight to my struggles. I have the four people I share my days with who have been so generous in their love and understanding.

I feel so loved right now. This is a good place to be.

I feel incredibly blessed to be living in and caring for our friend's home. Given that I don't have my own home to return to after a life changing adventure, I see now this was the softest landing possible. Thank you Julie and Tony.

Whenever I share a vulnerability, or a dark place where I'm struggling I am tempted to qualify (I'm not "that" depressed), justify (it was "such and such" that caused this), and otherwise explain all the nuances of my tender heart.

As a thinker, trying to understand my feelings, digging down to the roots is something I need to do, something I am compelled to do. But teasing apart this convoluted, yet beautiful, ball of yarn that is my post-hike life will take time and requires the gentlest of touch. Yanking is not going to unravel those knots but careful diligence and time will.

An unraveling to sort things out.

I've started a little project, which is actually a large scale assessment of my life and plan of action for moving forward. Planning, acting, doing something about it makes me feel better and moves me in the direction of healing and resolution.

I had thought it would be cool to share the outline of that project here, she shall go forth and conquer, but it's an outline in progress, like life itself. And so I think my blogging time is better spent chronicling and sharing the individual pieces of that plan and then at a future point, weaving those threads together into the tapestry they have created.

(In organizational speak I am starting a new personal venture called Project: Home and Healing. Based on my aforementioned life assessment I am creating a three part strategy consisting of mental health work, a return to my roots, and a vision quest to, for lack of a better phrase, "figure things out". As the different pieces of this strategy, the colorful threads of yarn if you will, play out in my life I will share them here. And eventually, hopefully, I will publish the outline as a summary of action, the tapestry. Though the outline may publish itself simply as a list of posts. We'll see.)

I am doing what comes naturally to me, what I am strong at, and feel confident in: creating a structure to help me solve a problem. There are holes in the structure, it isn't complete yet, and it will evolve. Therefore I can't really write it out here. Nor do I want to, it's kind of personal.

But as the pieces of the structure come together, as I recognize and celebrate them, or struggle to build them, I want to share those here as part of my project.

That's the plan.


Where I'm at

I don't staycate well. I'm sure there are ways to do it but coinciding a "break" with a desperate, frantic really, desire to get your life back in order doesn't work so well. Trying to ignore 6 months of paperwork, curriculum planning, and finances was a low simmer stress, that occasionally boiled over. Unfortunately scalding those in nearby vicinity.

I worked my way through last week like a spring under tension. Snapping frequently at my husband, or trying my hardest to stay silent so I wouldn't say one more awful thing. Staying silent has never been my strong suit.

The kids relaxed, as much as possible with a stressed out mom in the house, and thoroughly enjoyed unlimited hours on the xbox and large screen TV.

I barreled around the kitchen mostly - organizing, rooting through our kitchen boxes that were stored in the basement, pulling out my kitchen must-have's, doing the final purge I meant to do this spring, finally re-boxing it all to be stored for our next home. Our next move, the thought depresses me.

No doubt hike re-entry is a big part of my stress.

Our family thru-hike was amazing in so many ways. The experiences we had, wholly unique to the Appalachian Trail, which cannot be re-created or re-lived and are hard to even explain to the uninitiated, were life changing and life enriching. The growth we saw in our children was phenomenal. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is now a part of their personal story and a foundation stone for their adult lives. It is a permanent marker of guts and glory in our family story. And it was worth all the hard work it took to achieve it.

But making that dream happen took more out of me than I ever imagined it would. You could say all that "glory" left me gutted. It was a sacrifice. It challenged me in ways I had not expected and pushed me to the edge, and beyond, of my comfort zone again and again. I feel tender and vulnerable from that experience. Bruised actually.

I feel bruised from life in general right now. Moving so many times in recent years (six separate moving transitions in three and half years), finding my place in a new community and new culture, adventuring well beyond my comfort zone, two periods of depression, and the financial uncertainties of self-employment (and a large adventure) have all drained me emotionally, physically, and creatively.

People tell me how strong I am, and maybe looking back I'll see that, but right now I feel weak, broken, sad, and stressed. I feel a heartbreaking loss of essential "me" elements in spite of everything we've gained in our lives in the past few years, the past few months.

Is this death before re-birth? Is this just a really difficult period of transition? Is this re-entry? Is this a sign we need to change course? What is wrong here? How do I find my way back? What am I finding my way back to?

This is so hard. It's hard to write about. It's hard to publish. It's hard to live. It's hard to talk about with my husband.

When I was on the trail I would often have the overwhelming desire to crawl into a cave and curl up in the fetal position. Not a real cave, we didn't see too many of those, a metaphoric cave. A safe and solid place to lick my wounds.

I have struggled so much with my self-worth in the past few months. In my moments of deepest despair I thought that maybe I just wasn't cut out for living. That I inherently "don't have want it takes". These were dark thoughts no doubt precipitated by the mental, emotional and physical intensity of my thru-hiking experience. And I didn't have a grid for that kind of self-hurt and loathing. That was a new level of low.

After nine months of pushing in directions that were uncomfortable for me, growing because of that, but also reaching my breaking point, I don't need a staycation. What I need is to return to Renee affirming and Renee building routines, activities, and relationships, a way of living, that makes me feel strong, healthy and happy.

That is my work right now. And my rest.

First things first

Sunday was our last day on the trail. We summited Katahdin. We did it. Our joy, our sense of accomplishment, is something I want to bottle and sip from all the live long day of our family life. The taste of "we did this in spite of so many obstacles, and with the help of so many friends and strangers" flavoring the rest of our family story and journeys together.

It is sweet. Delicious really.

There are photos, hundreds from Sunday alone, thousands from our entire journey. There are words. Some I've started writing and others that will be spill out in time.

But first there is this. We arrived to a new home this week. A home our friends are sharing with us while they have their own family adventure. Our first family housesitting gig, which will last approximately ten months, give or take a bit depending on when our friends want to return.

Earlier on the trail, in the days, weeks and months that we longed for a vacation from our hike, we decided to take a staycation upon our arrival back home. A time to rest physically and unwind from the unrelenting pace of thru-hiking.

Damien's computer didn't get the memo about our staycation plans because when we arrived home we discovered the battery had exploded, cracking the trackpad and bending the frame in what appeared to be a forceful exuberance to end its useful life.

Thankfully, the hard drive was not damaged, or anything else important. And though this was not a pleasant surprise, after a bit of stress, research, and an order of parts from ifixit we should be back in business, literally, some time next week. Until then, Damien will use my computer.

Even on a staycation you have to eat but because I haven't done any serious cooking for six months making meals is not a hardship. The crisp fall days call for soup, potatoes, lentils, beans, and casseroles.

The kids each have their own room, Celine a private loft. We're not sure what to do with all this space but there is an air of discovery as the kids roam the yard and peek in closets finding treasures and claiming space for their own.

Having hiked for six months, many twenty miles days up and down mountains the kids are ready to completely veg and do pretty much whatever they feel like doing. Video games, movies, maybe some outdoor time, but it's not required. This break was part of the deal.

I'm not thinking yet about all the things I have to do now that we're home. School, paperwork (six months of mail!), business accounting, re-establishing household routines in a much larger space (who will clean three bathrooms?), editing thousands of AT photos, and sorting through all of our belongings in the basement.

First, I am soaking in our safe return to the peninsula and our good fortune to live in this home right now. I am reveling in everyone under one roof again.

For my staycation I plan to read and hopefully publish a few posts. And in between cooking our fall favorites, organize the kitchen to my liking. First things first.

The road to Millinocket

My family is in the 100 Mile Wilderness now.

It's not a true wilderness. The land is owned privately, mostly by Plum Creek logging as far as I can tell, and is a managed forest area. I suppose what makes it a wilderness is that there are no towns or paved roads. But there are access roads, if you're willing to pay the daily fee. Which of course I am to see my family.

It's ironic that during this hiking week through the 100 Mile Wilderness, with its two paid access roads, I will see my family every day. Something I haven't experienced since the beginning of August.

At yesterday's road crossing on Katahdin Ironworks Road I delivered pizza to a crew of twelve hungry thru-hikers. Pizza delivery in the wilderness. See what I mean about wilderness?

They were beyond appreciative and I heard from more than one of them that earlier in the day they had been thinking about pizza. This is less serendipitous than it may seem, thru-hikers think about food, especially pizza, an awful lot.

It was grey, chilly and raining yesterday. When my family finally came through, two hours behind schedule at 4:45pm, Tenacious Bling was suffering from a head cold. With six miles to go before Carl A. Hewhall Lean-To and the wide and slick bottomed West Branch Pleasant River still to ford, I played my Mom card and pulled Brienne off the trail for the night.

Off we drove to town, finding a warm dry bed and thru-hiker camaraderie at The Appalachian Trail Lodge; a comfortable, clean and mercifully quiet hiker lodging in downtown Millinocket.

We met trail friends who had just finished their hike, summiting Katahdin on the previous day. I made (open package, add hot water) soup, rubbed oregano oil on Brienne's feet and DoTERRA's Breathe on her upper chest and tucked her into bed. As other hikers were coming back from their pizza suppers she was sound asleep and I was on my way there also.

Today is a beautifully clear late summer day. Off trail, it's a day for jeans and sweaters and hanging out The Appalachian Trail Cafe.

This afternoon it's back to the wilderness to camp with my family at Jo-Mary road and to resupply them in the morning for their last two 20 mile days. Tenacious Bling will hike again and I'll return to Millinocket for one last night on my own.

Only four more days, given or take one, of this adventure, where the road to Millinocket is nearly the road home.

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.