The Big Epic

Connecting with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

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What’s in a Name? (Part 1)

When backpackers meet another hiker on the trail, they commonly stop for a few moments to chat. Rather than ask “Where are you from?” or “Where do you work?” conversation tends to be hiking specific. “How long are you out here?” Or, “How far are you heading?” If coming from different directions on the trail, the hikers often exchange info about upcoming obstacles, how well the water source is flowing, or what wonderful restaurant is in the next town. They also exchange names. But these are not names you would overhear in your local coffee shop!

Long distance hikers use “Trail Names.” This allows a level of privacy or even protection when meeting strangers. Eventually, if hikers run into each other again and again at evening stopping places, they may share contact information to catch up with each other in an upcoming town or to keep in touch post hike. Sometimes they reach a point of sharing “real names.” It’s funny, though, that there are a few hikers I text with occasionally off-trail, but still have no clue what they are called in real life!

There is some controversy about whether a trail name must be given by others or whether it can be personally chosen. In the long run, however, the origin really doesn’t matter. Once the hiker starts using the name, it becomes their identity on-trail.

Finding the perfect name for characters she imagines is very important to my daughter. She gets very upset if a name doesn’t match her ideas of what is proper or right. Because of this, we decided to choose our own names before starting our first long-distance hiking adventure. She chose “Andowen,” an elven name from a Lord of the Rings role playing game she enjoys. She felt the name perfectly fit what we were doing because, of course, “Elves belong in the woods, Mom!” 


It took me longer to choose my name. For years, I used “Mama Duck” on-line because when my kids were little I was like a mama duck with a line of ducklings following behind. I thought about using “colorfulheart,” my current online name. Neither of those quite fit my imagined role while hiking. Finally, I decided on “Story Seeker.” Wherever I go, I look for stories—ones I make up about what I see and do, and ones I hear from others. Time in the woods gives great scope for discovering new stories to share with friends like YOU! (This Native American story-teller figurine was given to me years ago by a friend who recognized my role as story-collector and story-teller…) 

 
This explains how we got our names. In a future post I will tell stories of the trail names of other hikers we have met on our adventures.

Which Movie Clip Fits You? 

It’s the holiday season and some folks are struggling. They don’t feel much joy but they “should” be excitedly celebrating, right? Nope! Don’t let myths and stories fool you. Every “big epic” has highs and lows.

Every adventure in life has moments like this: 

Times of bumbling, wandering, following ever changing paths. But, keep moving and eventually you get to somewhere else! 

I’ve written about some of those raw moments before. (One example is found HERE) Read any gripping book about adventure and you will discover there are always difficulties and challenges. That’s reality…and that’s okay! 

Of course, we alway prefer the dancing on the mountaintop moments. The joy of Christmas. The besotted love for a new baby. The wonders of a new house (or new job, or new relationship, or new place to go on vacation.) 

Go ahead and dance! But don’t expect to stay there. Life is never that simple. The title of this blog post was actually a trick. We never live in just one movie. Some days we are crawling in a bug’s life. Other days we are twirling like Maria in Sound of Music. 

A more accurate title for this post would be “Which Movie Clip Fits You…RIGHT NOW?” Whatever you are feeling at this moment is okay. You haven’t lost your way but you also can’t stay on that mountain forever. As another movie says, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!” And this holiday season? I wish for you at least a few moments to twirl. 

(I’d love to hear your answer to the question in the title–from these movies, or another one that fits your life better right now!)

Walking in Beauty

The Appalachian Trail offers relatively few overlooks with stunning mountain views. Much of the time, the hiker follows the trail through the “Green Tunnel,” surrounded by woods. Occasionally, the trail wanders through pastures or over grassy “balds.” Wherever that simple path goes, however, the hiker is surrounded by splendor.

When I’m backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, I often think of this traditional Navajo blessing: “In beauty I walk, With beauty before me I walk, With beauty behind me I walk, With beauty above me I walk, With beauty around me I walk, It has become beautiful again.”

 Whether we are enjoying a brilliant panoramic mountain view or savoring small details along the way, hiking on the Appalachian Trail IS walking in beauty!

Blessed to be a Blessing

Like everyone, we have had many challenges in life. Through counseling, comfort from God, and encouragement from others, we have learned how to walk through difficult things. It is always inspiring when we can pass these blessings on to others we meet who are struggling.

God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others who are also suffering.  — 2 Corinthians 1:4

As I’ve mentioned previously, our most recent AT adventure was very hard emotionally. Both daughter and I wanted to quit multiple times. Looking back, I realize we would have missed opportunities to bless others and to receive blessings if we had given in to those negative emotions and left the trail early. Here are stories of blessings which occurred after our breakdown moments:

Daughter Andowen has worked with a therapist for many years to gain coping skills to deal with severe anxiety and suicidal ideation. A key technique is “reframing” negative thoughts. One afternoon at a shelter, Elizabeth* shared her struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Before I could say anything, Andowen jumped in and talked about how significant reframing has been for her. She explained the process step by step. It was exciting for me to see my teen daughter teach her hard-earned coping skills to an older adult.

Another day, some first time backpackers showed up at a shelter we were at for a night. They were tired and discouraged. They were baffled as they tried to set up their new tent and use their fancy stove—things they had neglected to practice before leaving for the trail. Andowen went over to introduce herself, and then proceeded to calmly teach them how to use their gear. When I wandered over a little later, they raved about how helpful Andowen was, how wonderful it was that she was so skilled in the woods, and how grateful they were. Because of her encouragement, they said they plan to return to the trail for more adventures in the future. Way to go, Andowen!

One night another hiker and I stayed up late, talking about some of the profound challenges our kids face. David* shared his heartbreak that his young adult son was often in self-inflicted crisis. As is often the case, the anonymity of sitting with a stranger around a campfire allowed deep sharing. I mostly listened, occasionally encouraging David with stories from our family’s life. The next morning, I grabbed a private moment to explain what I’ve learned about grief. We can’t help others or dream of new things until we recognize and acknowledge challenges, and then grieve losses and disappointments. This process allows us to truly accept present realities even as we hope for change. Sharing these things with David reminded me of the progress we have made in our family…and sent him on his way, pondering how these ideas could begin to heal his own broken heart.

Twice on this trip, we were able to attend local church services. Both times, we were accepted, prayed for, and encouraged. Both times, it felt like some of the teachings were exactly the words we needed to hear. God used the people in those little churches to bless us as we headed further down the trail. At the same time, in both settings, the congregations were facing challenges that we have had experience with. I was able to privately encourage leaders by telling stories about what God has done in our own lives in similar situations. Warren Wiersbe, a noted theologian says, “True worship should lead to…the kind of spiritual strength that helps the believer carry the burdens and fight the battles of life.” In these little small town churches, we experienced the mutual blessing of true worship!

Sometimes being blessed and blessing others takes far less effort. Small words can echo for days: “I love spending time with your daughter.” “You have the most beautiful eyes, so full of life.” “You are doing a good job, mama. Keep it up!” Simple actions can encourage: “I picked up two wild apples, would you like one?” “I’ve got some extra water, do you need it?” “This is a tough spot. I waited to give you a hand, if you want…” When we stopped for rest-breaks, I often found myself remembering these little kindnesses.

Occasionally I am reminded of the importance of bravely sharing the lessons we learn as we walk through dark places. We never know where those bits of light might shine. After writing a blog post about “Hard Days” (you can read it HERE), a friend across the country told me the following story: Stephanie* volunteers monthly at an outreach for homeless people in her town. She found herself listening as one man poured out his desperation, telling her of his plans to kill himself after he left the park, too discouraged to reach out again for help that never changed anything. Stephanie grew more and more upset as she struggled to find any words to respond. Suddenly she remembered the closing words from my blog post that morning. When she told the man “Never quit on a bad day,” he burst into tears, and then allowed her to get him to a psychiatric emergency room where he checked himself in for treatment. Wow!

As we in American have just finished Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time for all of us to ponder:  How have I been helped in my own life, especially as I have walked through hard things? But let’s not just stop with gratitude for ways we have been blessed. Let’s start a chain of encouragement as we pass those blessings on to others!

*These stories really happened, but names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Don’t Know What to Say (to a grieving friend)

The Holiday Season is looming. For those of us who are missing a loved one, this time of year can feel like being flattened by a runaway truck. Everywhere we look, there are stories and images of (mythical) happy families celebrating together. In the midst of grief, this can increase feelings of isolation and despair. So…what can you say or do to support a grieving friend? Here are some things to remember, whether their loved one died last week or last decade:

“Showing up, in whatever way you can is what really matters most.” – Jodi Whitsitt

You probably don’t know what to say. That’s okay. There really are NO “proper” words for dealing with death. Simple acknowledgement of that fact is helpful. I recently discovered a CD about grief by Olivia Newton John and others. They perform a song about this uncomfortable lack of words. You can listen to it HERE. (The rest of the songs are excellent reflections on grief, as well.) Just BE with your friend. After our son died, I have a special memory of a dear friend who came over a few weeks later and just sat in silence with me on my couch, both of us curled up under cozy blankets, drinking mugs of hot tea.

It might make YOU feel better to spout platitudes: “he’s in a better place;” “God works everything for good;” “she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Don’t do it! Find ways to make yourself feel better on your own time. When you are with your grieving friend, it is better to say something like this: “I have no words to say” or “I’m so sorry.” It might feel inadequate…but you really can’t “fix it” so don’t try! I have forgotten what most friends said after my son died…but I always remember the co-worker when I finally got back to work who said “there are no words” then gave me a long hug.

Wanna help in practical ways? Please do not make the vague statement, “if there’s anything I can do…” Folks who are grieving have foggy brains. They have no idea what they need help with! Pick a specific task that fits that friend, then do it. THIS ARTICLE tells a story of the significance of polishing shoes. For me, the friends who took turns picking up my younger kids for playdates were an invaluable help. Bringing a meal for the family is traditional…and helpful. But one friend thought of something others hadn’t. She brought us bags of useful paper products: TP, Kleenex, and paper plates/napkins.

THIS ARTICLE makes suggestions for 13 practical ways to help a grieving friend. As she says, “Just Show Up!” Awkward is better than disappearing. Remember to continue reaching out to help in the months and years after the funeral. More than just asking how we are doing (which at least acknowledges that we are not forgotten), give opportunities for us to talk about our loved one. We long to know they are not forgotten. I treasure the occasional photo or anecdote about my son that my friends continue to share with me (like this one, posted on fb eight years after his death).

There aren’t many resources for using art and words to process grief. From my experience, I have written a few online classes. Consider sharing this information with a grieving friend—or check it out for yourself! The first class I wrote is relevant right now: “Hope for the Holidays.” You can find a link HERE including a description and a code for free access for the first month.

As I have written in previous blog posts (HEREHERE and HERE) death and grief are perhaps the greatest (unwanted) adventure. Please reach out and encourage others who are in the midst of a life-changing grief-journey, especially now as the holidays approach.

Hiking with Friends

“But doesn’t she miss her friends?” This is one of the first questions asked when I tell folks that I take my teen daughter with me on extended backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. The short answer is “yes!” But it’s not a complete answer. I think most of us out there miss friends and family back home. That doesn’t stop us from hiking. In addition, as we meet others on the trail who share our passion, we often discover new friends.

“You’ve got a friend in me, When the road looks rough ahead, And you’re miles and miles, From your nice warm bed, You’ve got a friend in me” – Randy Newman

It is common to spend most of our days hiking alone in the woods. Because Andowen and I  choose to stay in shelters whenever possible, we find social time in the evenings. (Click HERE to read a recent post I wrote about this.) It is surprising how often deep conversations happen around a supper table or a campfire. Part of the reason is likely the natural intimacy that occurs because of shared trials and triumphs. We understand each other in ways our friends back home do not. In addition, there is a sense of confidentiality. After all, we may never meet these hikers again. Even if we do run into each other further down the trail, everyone introduces themselves with “trail names” which allows us to keep our personal identity private. (I will write more in a future post about these names we use while hiking…promise!)

One of the delights of backpacking the AT is that we meet people from every walk of life. Beyond the shared passion for being in the woods, there is great diversity of age, experience, values, and beliefs. At home they are CEOs or custodians who would never talk to each other but in the woods it is refreshing to discover that there is rarely a “hierarchy.” There may be different levels of experience, but everyone out there faces similar challenges and carries comparable gear. This equality contributes to feeling both free and empowered.

It is not uncommon to run into certain hikers again and again as we leap-frog each other down the trail. Sometimes this just adds friendly faces to our trip. Other times, we choose to exchange “real-life” information so we can connect off-trail. On our first trip in Fall 2015, we evacuated to my sister’s house to avoid a hurricane. (Read about it HERE.) We brought two hiking friends with us. We are still in regular contact with both Blaze and Beetle. One of these years, we hope to visit and/or hike together again!

Sometimes we meet a hiker just briefly but still choose to exchange information to keep in touch. Diva is someone we met on our first trip and kept in contact with via facebook. We have tried a number of times to meet each other on the AT, but busy lives are hard to coordinate. Finally, Diva helped us take my mom on a birthday adventure this summer. And we spent a week with Diva and her friend at the end of our trip this fall. We have a few other hiking friends we hope to someday join for backpacking fun.

We like to talk about our AT adventures. (What a surprise, right?!) Occasionally, a friend wonders about joining us. Usually, they don’t have time or don’t have gear or don’t have support from their families. Sometimes we just smile and nod…knowing we have a good friendship off-trail but that it probably wouldn’t work well to be in the woods together. Other times, a friend or family member does indeed join us for a week of adventure. We loved having my middle daughter with us in Virginia in Spring 2016. We enjoyed the companionship of a new friend for a week this fall. And we are trying to coordinate schedules to introduce another friend to backpacking on a possible trip to Maine next summer. Wanna join us? Let’s talk!

Back to the opening question in this post…”don’t we miss our friends back home?” Yes, we miss them terribly sometimes. But we know our family and close friends are strong supporters of our wandering. They patiently listen to us blather about the trail when we are home. They follow our adventures as we post photos and stories online (and call when we have cell coverage). And they sometimes visit or send packages to encourage us along the way. We couldn’t do any of this without the emotional and financial support of hubby/daddy. (Read a post about wonderful support HERE.) We can’t wait to get to the woods for a new adventure…and we can’t wait to get back home to our friends and family. 

AT Memories and Possibilities–Final Words from the Tiny-Mes

When we are on a long backpacking trip, we are homesick for friends and routines left behind. And when we get home, we are homesick (trail-sick?) for the adventures and the simplicity of backpacking.

Our (tiny) hiking pals regularly remind us of favorite places we enjoyed along the Appalachian Trail.

Tiny S most enjoyed the challenges posed by jumbled boulders or fallen trees. It was a fun puzzle to figure out whether to go over, under, around, or through the obstacles. (See another blog post about this HERE.)

Tiny A frequently talks about the fun she had playing near the streams. The rocks and roots overhanging the water were perfect to climb on. The cold water was a great way to cool off at the end of a sweaty day of hiking. And the sound of flowing water lulled us all to sleep at night.

Both Tiny-Mes agree that they don’t want to miss next year’s adventure in the woods. They plan to join us again when we head back to the mountains to hike more miles of the Appalachian Trail. There are rumors of a trip to Maine to complete the 100-mile Wilderness. Or possibly a repeat visit to see the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands. Or maybe the new challenge of a few days of winter camping.

We have been home for a few months now. We love our small town in Middle America. We treasure chatting with friends when we unexpectedly meet them running errands around town. We enjoy reading books, lounging near the cozy warmth of our fireplace.

Memories and Possibilities. We cling to them as the weather gets cold and winter approaches. Time to plan our next adventures!

More Adventures for the Tiny-Mes

It’s all well and good to have (tiny) hiking pals who are remarkable similar to each of us. They love being in the woods, they crave adventure, they enjoy meeting new people, and they thrive on trying new things. But…sometimes similarities can cause problems. Tiny A and Tiny S are also outspoken, persistent, and strong-willed, just like us. (Some might even say sassy, stubborn and rebellious!) On this trip, they occasionally got bored with hiking day after day and wanted to go off on their own to explore new possibilities.

The first sign of trouble was when we reached the Eastern Continental Divide along the Appalachian Trail on the top of a mountain in SW Virginia. Tiny A has always wanted to learn Spanish and insisted she was going to take a boat down the streams and rivers, cross the Gulf of Mexico, and head for the Yucatan. Tiny S wanted to spend time at the beach and decided to follow the waterways until she reached the Atlantic Ocean. We told them it would be too difficult to build a boat up on a mountaintop. They gave in but sulked the rest of the day…

A few weeks later, Tiny A and Tiny S decided to prove us wrong. They found a lovely stream and jumped aboard a leaf-boat while Story Seeker was getting water. I caught them just in time, before they were swept away from shore into the swirling current.

At one point, the Tiny-Mes decided they wanted a break from a forest filled with tree after tree, all looking the same. They were tired of the drought and resulting severe lack of drinking water. They were grumpy about the noise and the dangerous footing caused by so many dead leaves on the ground. Tiny A and Tiny S found an area of luxurious leafy plants, sat down and refused to move unless we promised to take them to a jungle. Sorry, Tiny-Mes! Perhaps that’s a trip for another year!

Eventually, the Tiny-Mes tried a new tactic—appealing to our interests outside of backpacking. Knowing how much Story Seeker finds peace when walking through deep caves, Tiny A and Tiny S found some caverns to explore among the tree roots along the Appalachian Trail. We had to remind them that size differences prohibited us from joining them for their hours of spelunking. (They supposedly found wondrous stalactites and stalagmites…but we will all just have to take their word for it! Maybe next time they will take a camera with them!)

Tiny A watched Andowen making fantasy weapons out of wood. One afternoon when we got to camp, we discovered Tiny A taking sword-play lessons from a local elf. She claimed that when she got as good as Andowen, they could get off trail and spend time at a Renaissance Fair. Andowen loved that idea…but I meanly insisted we had to finish our current adventure before going somewhere else.

Next, Tiny A and Tiny S tried to convince Andowen to join them on a fishing expedition. They had forgotten that she had no proper gear to catch a fish, so she was able to avoid getting caught in that particular fantasy. She has wondered if we could bring some hooks and fishing line on our next trip. Tiny A is certain it would be an excellent alternate use for Andowen’s sturdy staff!

We thought we had finally convinced the Tiny-Mes that this trip was all about backpacking. They seemed to regain pleasure in our trek. But one day, the Tiny-Mes disappeared again. After some backtracking, we found them in a rocky area. They were enjoying some climbing and rappelling. When we asked them why they ran off without telling us, they reminded us that unlike them, we are both afraid of heights. True! We had absolutely no interest in joining them for that type of adventure!

Eventually, the Tiny-Mes quit arguing and disappearing on a search for new adventures. They claimed they would stay with us and hike without complaints. After I bribed them with the promise of publicity, they agreed to let us know next time they found an exciting distraction. That’s why I took these photos and am publishing their exploits on my blog!

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Alone in the Woods?

If the idea of spending months alone in the woods intrigues you, backpacking the Appalachian Trail is not the right choice for you. Contrary to what worried friends and family imagine, you will not experience day after day of dangerous solitude. At times, you will be surrounded by people…

The original vision for this trail was a place of respite for the many big-city dwellers along the East Coast. It certainly meets that goal. In the past few years, 2-3 million people set foot on the AT annually.  Popular sections get downright crowded on weekend days when visitors come out for a few hours or a simple overnight.

Like most overnight hikers, we aim for a shelter each night. We like the ease (laziness?) of throwing our sleeping pads and bags on the wooden floor. Others prefer to pitch their tents nearby. Everyone appreciates the often-found “luxuries” of a picnic table, a nearby water source, and an outhouse.

When hikers gather, stories are told and tips are shared. Some nights there is chatter and joking around a campfire. Mornings tend to be hectic, with hikers all focused on grabbing breakfast and packing up their gear. Occasionally the nightly conversation has been deep enough that new friends gather for a photo together before going their separate ways. For most of us, this social aspect is part of the joy of a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.

Do you need more time away from people? Even when evenings get crowded, it is easy to spend most of the day by yourself. You will only occasionally pass another hiker. You can choose to hike at your own pace. If sharing the adventure with a partner (like daughter Andowen and I do), walk on your own for most of the planned daily miles, then meet occasionally to check on each other and enjoy a snack together. Savor those hours of quiet, immersed by yourself in nature!

Do you long for solitude? Do you dream of traveling alone? Consider a backpacking expedition on a different long trail such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. Both of these trails are much more remote. Hundreds of thousands of people use the PCT annually. Even fewer set foot on the CDT.

If you still want to hike the Appalachian Trail but occasionally need more than a few daily hours of hiking alone, consider backpacking on a more remote area of the trail (such as in Maine). Or simply plan to camp away from shelters for a few nights. We greatly enjoyed the nights we slept beside waterfalls or beautiful streams.

Now you know the truth. Tell your family and friends to stop worrying. When you choose to adventure on the Appalachian Trail…you will rarely be alone in the woods!

Challenges on the AT–Tiny-Me Version

Every hiker faces challenges during a long-distance backpacking trip. It’s much easier to get by with a little help from some friends. In some cases, we have to help the Tiny-Mes. In other cases, the Tiny-Mes help us!

Non-hikers can’t imagine going potty in the woods. Tiny size means it’s really no challenge at all. After all, Tiny-Mes aren’t much bigger than caterpillars and no one hears caterpillars stressing about where to do their business.  Tinies have no worries about someone seeing them. (If anything, Tiny A and Tiny S have to be careful no one steps on them!)

Peeing in the woods is not really a problem for any size hiker. When it’s time for pooping, human hikers hope to be near a shelter. It’s much easier to sit in an outhouse than to dig a hole and squat in the woods. If needed, however, the Tiny-Mes help choose an out-of-the-way spot for our smelly business. Don’t forget to pack out the wipes!

On the other hand, rainy days would be hazardous for our tiny hiking pals. When the trail turns into a river of rain flowing downhill on the easiest path, we merely get our feet wet. Tiny A and Tiny S would be swept away by the run-off. Fortunately, the few rain storms we experienced on this trip were at night. As the rain drummed on the metal roof, we curled up in our cozy sleeping bags to read while the Tiny-Mes watched the storm from the front of the shelter.

The Appalachian Trail is not a level, smooth walking path in the woods. It has steep ascents and descents as it makes its way over every possible mountain. The footing can be treacherous for humans and for Tiny-Mes. Fallen leaves hide rocks and holes and get slippery when wet. Roots seem to jump up and grab boots or unexpectedly slide feet out from under hikers. Jumbled rocks are either exhausting to climb over or twist and tilt to dump hikers. “Watch out!” cry the hikers in the lead.

Luckily for Tiny-Mes, they are so lightweight they don’t have to worry about foot and leg injuries. (Those stiff Lego extremities come in handy sometimes!) Tiny A and Tiny S know, however, that if we get hurt, their adventure on the AT is also over. So they remind me (Story Seeker) to take my preventative medicine—joint meds, nightly tea for joint comfort, and “Vitamin I” (Ibuprofen against inflammation). They also help both Andowen and me wrap our feet—with cloth tape or duct tape to prevent blisters and with K-Tape to support joints and prevent rolled ankles, sore knees, and inflamed Achilles tendonitis.

It’s always good to have friendly helpers when faced with challenges—big or small!

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