Off trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

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

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

Not how it was supposed to end

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

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

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

That dream was not meant to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Summer Sabbatical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Is Family Thru-Hiking like Family Bootcamp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also FIMBY Facebook for thru-hike photo albums.

Best Mother's Day ever on the Appalachian Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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