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.