The Big Epic

Connecting with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Tag: Secrets

Lessons from my Mama

In January, I participated in a snail mail group. Each week, we were given a topic to exchange notes with our assigned partner. The final assignment was to summarize life lessons we have learned from our mothers (or other women/mentors in our lives). Here is some good advice for anyone dreaming of living a life filled with “Big Epic” adventures:

Never Travel Without Your SwimsuitBe prepared to say yes to unexpected opportunities!

If needs be, Travel Cheap! There’s always a way to reach for dreams, even if you have to adjust your expectations to make it happen.

Spread the Love—Invite Friends to Join YouOne year even the mailman came to Thanksgiving dinner! … yes, really! (It’s a long story… )

Here’s the summary of Big Epic Advice I have learned from my mama: Be ready for unexpected opportunities to reach for your dreams—and invite others to join you along the way. THANKS, MOM!

(Click HERE to read another post about my adventuresome Mama! And click HERE to read about my family’s heritage of women who love to wander.)

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!

Secret Fun

Many of you enjoyed the recent post where I shared the hikers’ “dirty little secret” (about laundry).  Today, I thought you might like to hear another secret. Shhh! Don’t tell our family and friends…but we do NOT spend every day plodding along, up and down mountains, following the AT in the woods! Sometimes we find other ways to entertain ourselves.

Here is photographic proof of the non-hiking fun we find on-trail and off:

While still out in the woods, I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that we sometimes have enough energy to gather wood and enjoy a campfire in the evening. When we walk past (or through) streams or waterfalls, it is to be expected that we might stop to splash in the water or soak our feet. 

Anyone who knows us is already familiar with our long-term “vices.” Andowen loves to pursue imagination play, whether she is in the woods or on a playground in town. She is constantly drawing—so a lightweight journal is included in her backpacking gear. Some trips she has carried a deck of playing cards to play solitaire or to practice card tricks. She didn’t choose to carry the extra weight this trip—but the trail provided some card fun at one of the shelters.

Story Seeker (that’s me!) can’t survive for long without something to read. An actual book with pages to turn is weight-prohibitive on the trail, so I carry a kindle. (Yes, it got destroyed in my pack last year. I quickly ordered another one to be shipped to me in the next town. Don’t separate this gal from her books!) Naturally, lounging goes along with reading…

I’ve posted in the past about the joys of resupply days in town. (You can read about that HERE and HERE.) In addition to rest at a hostel/hotel and buying more food, we usually enjoy a meal or two at a nearby restaurant. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be within walking distance of a library to spend a few hours reading. Damascus VA even had a “Little Free Library” so we could take a book back to the hostel for bedtime reading. Occasionally, the hostels have pets that we can spoil—missing our dog back home. (Okay, I really didn’t want anything to do with this cat…but couldn’t seem to kick him off my lap…)

We found some unexpected fun on our backpacking trip this fall. (Don’t tell anyone, okay? They might start thinking we didn’t actually spend any time hiking in the woods but were on a luxury vacation instead!)

We were surprised with some colorful fun. Friends sent Andowen finger-lights that gave hours of after-dark fun in various shelters. (They also included some color packs to throw in the campfire. If you look closely, you can see blue and pink flames in the first photo above!) In one town, we were invited to a fun-fair at a local church. Andowen loved climbing the inflatable wall as a nice change from clambering up a mountain!

One of the hostels had table-top games and outdoor activities available. At another hostel, Andowen and her daddy (who visited us for a few days) borrowed bikes and helmets for a ride along the river.

We found some great music. One of the hostels had a genuine juke box, refurbished to play original 45 records. Andowen was entertained listening to music from the 50s and 60s. This trip, we took some extra days off trail. In two different little towns, we visited a local church. The old fashioned country-gospel hymns were delightful!

The most unusual entertainment we had on this trip? At a hostel located on a small farm, we spent more than an hour chasing hogs that had escaped their pen during the night! Yee-haw!

There’s never a lack of fun on our adventures…and that’s no secret!

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Dirty Laundry

Long-distance hikers have a dirty little secret. Unlike day hikers, we wear the same clothes day after day after day. Laundromats are in short supply out in the woods, which means those hiking clothes get sweaty, smelly, and stiff. “Acceptable” and “normal” are different on the trail!

We carry a set of hiking clothes which we put on every morning–wet or dry, clean or smelly. (Synthetic t-shirt, capris or hiking skirt, bra, shorts-style undies, and hiking socks.) We also carry a set of camp clothes–dry items that keep us from getting chilled when we stop the heavy, sweaty exertion of hiking. Obviously, these camp clothes get less grubby than the hiking clothes! (Synthetic tank top, leggings, thin undies and camp shoes. Plus a long-sleeved synthetic shirt in case it gets cold.) As soon as we get out of our hiking clothes at the end of the day, we hang them up to (hopefully) dry. Sometimes we adorn nails around the shelter. Other times we decorate a nearby tree. At nightfall, we often shove the clothes in our sleeping bags. Even if they are still damp in the morning, at least they won’t be cold and clammy! When we get to town every 4-7 days, we wash all of our clothes. Some hostels have “loaner clothes” to wear while doing laundry. Otherwise, two rain jackets work like a mini-dress while I stuff all the grubby clothes into the washing machine. (Andowen wraps up in her sleeping bag while I do laundry if there are no loaner clothes…) While we are hiking, we rarely notice how smelly we are. After all, everyone stinks! Occasionally, if we get to camp early on a sunny day, we might wash out a few of the most offensive clothes. We use the most basic of laundry facilities…

We dig out the “washing machine” from my pack: a gallon size ziploc bag and tiny bottle of biodegradable soap. Fill the bag partway with water from a stream or spring. Move a few hundred feet away from the water source. Squirt some soap on the clothes and put ’em in the bag. Shake and squeeze the bag, mimicking the agitation of a washer. Dump out filthy water. Add clean water and repeat until water stays clear of dirt or suds. (Yes, it is time consuming. This is why most hikers don’t bother…) We only go to this much effort if our clothes are particularly nasty…and if there is enough sun and a breeze to hopefully get the clothes dry by morning. A short line strung between trees helps. Obviously, we prefer to hike in dry, clean clothes. Sometimes after washing out clothes on the trail, we have to put on still-damp (but clean) hiking clothes in the morning. Ugh! Smaller items can be hung on the outside of our packs to dry by the time we get to camp that night. This dirty little secret of long-distance hikers might sound terrible to you. It’s really not so bad once you get out there. In-town standards of fashion and cleanliness give way to realities of weight and space available in the pack. We might not look or smell like day-hikers…but we hike with a smile on our faces. We love living in the woods…and that’s no secret!

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Lost and Found

Life changes when one takes on a “big epic.” A significant part of adventure is moving out of one’s comfort zone. Obviously, during that time frame, life is different than the usual routines of home. However, with most good epics, some changes are longer lasting. They continue even after returning back to “normal” life. Here are some of the things we lost…and found…on our backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail earlier this fall.

LOST:

  • Fears (of snakes, of spiders, of walking in rain, of the dark, of getting lost!!)
  • Long to-do lists
  • “Need” for lots of “stuff” (except books…we still need books…)
  • Weight (if you find it somewhere, please don’t send it back…)
  • Tastebuds (everything tastes great when you are starving and tired at the end of a long day of hiking…fortunately we have regained these now that we are home!)
  • Need to be in control of even small details (okay, so this is an ongoing battle…) LOST

FOUND:

  • Outdoor Skills (reading a topo map, making a campfire, pitching a tent, and more)
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Perseverance (gotta keep walking until there’s a flat place to camp!)
  • Muscles (and hip bones…who knew I actually have hip bones?! HA!)
  • New Friends
  • Attitude of partnership and companionship between daughter and me
  • Enjoyment in simple pleasures
  • Ability to reframe frustrations by choosing a different attitude
  • Need for regular exercise (We are working hard to not lose this one again. Hubby asked this morning what I had planned for the day. I was shocked to hear myself say that I *needed* to get out and walk, that I was feeling jittery without exercise. What a stunning change from the couch-potato I was before this hike!) FOUND

We look forward to returning to the Appalachian Trail for another long-distance adventure. (Is it spring yet?!) We want to reinforce the attitudes and life skills we found this fall.

Have you taken on the challenge of a “Big Epic” recently? What things were lost and found for YOU along the way??

Music Therapy

Home-grown music is a significant part of our hiking adventure. Here’s a taste of what we can be heard singing as we walk along…

On misty, foggy mornings, daughter often starts with this song from Lord of the Rings: Edge of Night Misty trees

We sing this song back and forth when we are having fun and hiking with lots of energy: Hallelu, Hallelu Happy hikers

We sing this one when we are intimidated–facing shifting rocks and clambering over boulders on a trail that is not clearly marked: Psalms 56:3-4, When I Am Afraid Rock jumble

Sometimes I am just DONE and it feels like I can’t possibly take another step. This is when I ask daughter to sing for me. Somehow this song keeps me going: Overcomer It's a long trail

When the footing is hard or we are getting tired, daughter likes to sing this song, and sometimes she changes the lyrics to fit our adventure: Brother Stream crossing

One hostel we stayed in had a piano available for hikers to play. Daughter played a few songs she knows. Then I sat down and played through a book of folk songs. Ahhhh, a wonderful way to relax after a long day of hiking! Playing piano

In addition to making our own music, there have been a few times that our spirits have been lightened by music by others. One morning I was having a “gray day”–feeling like I was in a fog, with no energy to hike, but having to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We got to the shelter early and found “Hillbilly” settled in for the night. He hesitantly asked if it was okay to play guitar for awhile. He had written wonderful folk songs about growing up in Appalachia. As he sang, I got teary…and eventually the gray lifted and all was right with the world again. Thanks for the music therapy, Hillbilly! Hillbilly

What is your favorite music to get you through tough times or to give you energy?  We would love suggestions in the comments for us to check out!

(Note: we finished our adventure on Oct 21, but still have plenty of photos and blog posts to share with you about our epic adventure!)

Bear Pole?

When backpacking in bear country, it is important to hang all smelly things in a “bear bag” each night. This includes all food, trash, and personal care items. (Don’t worry, apparently even bears want nothing to do with sweaty, smelly, hiking socks and boots!)

In the past, hikers had to try to find the perfect tree…at least 200 feet from the tent with a branch 12 feet above the ground that is strong enough to hold all the items hanging at least 8 feet away from the tree trunk. Yeah, right. Not so easy to find in real life! (See more detailed instructions HERE, if interested.)

Because of the lack of perfect bear trees, most shelters and official campsites along the Appalachian Trail have installed “Bear Poles.” These metal trees have multiple hooks 12+ feet above the ground. The goal is to use the attached metal pole to lift the bear bag into the air and slide it onto one of the hooks. HAH! Bear Pole

I am hardly coordinated enough to do this at chest height where I can clearly see what I’m doing and where the weight of the bag is manageable. Trying to manage this feat with a heavy pole unbalanced by the weight of food bags becomes a comedy of missteps and errors. Hooking bear bag

I’ve decided these contraptions are actually “human torture devices.” Better yet,  they are probably secret “candid camera” set-ups for the entertainment of bears. Hanging bear bag

Yep, I can hear that young black bear snickering right now, and I’m sure granddaddy bear is guffawing at my pathetic attempts to master the seemingly simple “bear pole.” Wish me luck, folks, I think Yogi is about to have a picnic with my food!

(Note one: these photos are not representative.  They were taken at the shortest bear pole we have seen so far. Many posts are more than 12 feet high!)

(Note two: it is stacking the deck against me to have to reverse this process in the morning BEFORE I can get my hands on breakfast and morning caffeine…)

Benches Are Blessings

We have discovered another simple thing that most of us either take for granted or never notice in daily life: benches!

When carrying a heavy pack over uneven terrain, sooner or later one’s joints begin to ache. (Yes, even for teens…it just takes longer for them than for us old ones!) Finding a place to take off the backpack and sit for a few minutes takes on immense significance on a tiring day.

Any stump, log,  or stone will do…but it is better if there is a back to lean against, as with these stone chairs at one campsite.

Stone chair

Even better is a seat that is long enough to turn sideways and prop up one’s feet as with this triple-wide Adirondack style chair at one shelter. Adirondack bench

A picnic table loses points for having no back to lean against. At shelters with tables, cooking gets done here, but lounging is more often done against the shelter walls. On the other hand, when found at a parking area along the trail, picnic tables get high points for being the perfect height to easily get back into the pack when rest time is over. Picnic table

But the luxury of luxuries? Check out this treasure found at the David Lesser Memorial Shelter in Virginia: Forest swing

We will let you know if we find more gems like this. In the mean time, what’s YOUR favorite place to lounge and recover from a tough day?

Hiker Lingo

There are some common terms among AT Hikers that might be unintelligible to others. Just in case I slip and use some of these phrases, here is a translation guide:

  • Thru-hiker: Someone who is attempting to hike the entire 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine (or from Maine to Georgia. ..see next entry)
  • SOBO or NOBO: Southbound or Northbound hiker (We are SOBOs)
  • Trail Names: Most long-distance hikers have a nickname they are known by on the trail. They sign this name in the registers at shelters and use it when asking about each other on the hiker grapevine. These names are also signed on the photo taken at the AT headquarters. Our names are “Story Seeker” and “Andowen” (an elven name from Lord of the Rings)
  • Hiker Box: a box found in hostels and other hiker gathering spots where items can be left behind to be picked up and used by other hikers. “Treasures” for us have included fancy protein bars and hot-pink rope!
  • Zero Day: any day when zero miles are hiked. This is often associated with town days.
  • Near-o Day: a day with limited miles. Efficient hikers manage to hike a few miles to town, complete a resupply, and hike a few miles further down the trail to the next shelter, all in one town day. We have not yet mastered this level!
  • Hiker Midnight: either 8 pm or 9 pm, depending on which hikers you talk with. By this “late” hour all the backpackers are headed to bed after a long day of exercise and fresh air.
  • Hiker TV: There is great entertainment to be found in people-watching, whether in town or when day-hikers share the trail!

Hikers

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