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Wanderlust

Wanderlust

On the other side of the waterfall

August 24, 2017

We pulled up the drive to a sparsely lit cabin, the sound of stones popping under our hot tires, dragonflys and moths dancing drunkenly together around the nearly blinding porch light. It was after 9 o’clock. We’d arrived later than we’d planned, but we were here. The girls faces, cast in a muted bright blue from the small screen playing Cinderella, were peering out of the fingerprint-smudged windows, Sweet Nightingale crooning in the speakers.

The property owner, Bridget, walked us quickly around the house. Her husband, Conor, decided to take up building cabins as a hobby years ago. There were two others up the road. This pastime, of course, came after he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

“Have you done any of the trail?” Bridget asked, sincerely interested.
Just a couple of sections,” I conceded. “Ya know, with young kids we don’t get out there as often as we like. But eventually, in our lifetime, we hope to complete the whole thing.”
“You will,” she said, nonchalantly.

I asked about restaurant recommendations, though I had some from a facebook post I’d put up earlier that afternoon.

“Those are a bit of a drive. You’d have to go all the way to Brown County,” she said. (Just so you know, I thought I’d booked a cabin in Brown County. Turned out, I had no freaking clue where we were in southern Indiana. But I didn’t want to tell her that. Or Hank. This trip was a birthday gift to him from me and the chicks. I played it off.)
“Oh, yeah, I wasn’t sure just how far they were.”
“You can totally do it! It’s just a bit of a haul.”

Quick, change the subject. You reek of rookie airbnb user.

“It said in your bio you’ve been to Ireland?” I inquired.
“Oh, yeah. A few times. Actually Conor has family there, so he’s been more than me.”
“Ya know, Ireland is at the top of my bucket list. I want to go backpack around there for my 40th maybe … I don’t know … it’s so overwhelming.”
“If you want to, you will.” she said. Again, unflinching.

She took the girls up to the loft, lined with perfectly made twin beds. The setup was a vision straight out of a Three Little Bears illustration. She showed them the books she’d set aside for them, a worn, treasured copy of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein among them. She invited the babes to dig around in the drawers for treasures and games she’d stowed away for young visitors. She was so relatable and transparent and warm, a true traveler’s soul, I’d say.

She opened the creaking screen door and wished us a good weekend before slipping out into the darkness. I surveyed our space for the next 48 hours and smiled. I was instantly enamored with Bridget and Conor and their rustic log cabin. I felt soothed by the smell of simplicity and optimistic talk of wanderlust. And I wasn’t even planning on going to Solsberry. (That’s where we were.)

The next morning, we went to the local “greasy spoon” Bridget recommended. It was one big open room of locals, and as out of towners, we were certainly the minority. The girls ate the ears of their Mickey Mouse pancakes while Hank and I tried to enjoy cups of diner coffee between Sloppy Joan’s 500 trips to the potty. Public restrooms are as entertaining as playgrounds at this point.

Bellies full, we went back to gather supplies, change shoes and head out to McCormick Creek State Park, which was just 10 miles away. We picked the trail the woman at the guard station recommended; the one that led to “the waterfall”.

Shortly into our hike, I realized I’d left my phone in the car. As had Hank.

“Aw shoot! I don’t have my phone.” I said.
“That’s OK, Mom,” JoJo responded. “Sometimes it’s good to leave it behind. You just have to protect your memories in your mind. Or your heart.”
“Yeah, it’s OK,” Spike chimed in.

I turned to my husband and exchanged the look I often shoot his way when I get absolutely schooled by our 8, 6 or 3 year old. Too often to feel good about myself as a grownup.

We came to a flight of stairs that led down to a small river. Crossing was an exercise in calculating risk, as one by one we worked our way from shakey stones to more reliable boulders that wouldn’t budge. Eventually we came to the other side, and more rocks to navigate, just on land this time. As a self-proclaimed future American Ninja Warrior contestant, JoJo was like a pig in slop. She pulled her Cheryl Strayed boots off and wrapped her bare feet boldly around the stones. No fear, just adrenaline. This was her ultimate obstacle course.

We closed in on the waterfall. It was a petite pour, though it splashed thunderously onto the rocks below. The bedrock was coated in a natural oil slick. The girls would timidly waddle across the river, slipping sporadically and crashing to their knees with a cautious giggle.

I sat on a boulder off to the side, their little muddy shoes and soaking socks lined up to my right. My mama bear commentary echoed in the hollow of the mineral slabs that enveloped us. “Careful, Spikey!” “JoJo … not so far.” “Girls, help your sister.” As their bravery swelled, they got deeper into the stream and closer to the waterfall. While watching them, I started to notice people climbing down from the top of the cascading water.

JoJo noticed, too. Before I could make it that far, she was halfway up the jigsaw puzzle stones on the side of the waterfall. A kind man stood behind her, coaching her while simultaneously searching for her parents.

“Now she’s got it,” he smiled at me, relieved this child belonged to someone. “You really should try to go up there. It’s pretty cool.”
“OK, gotcha,” I said. Thinking there was no way in hell, kind stranger, I would be pulling my 34-year-old ass up the side of a slippery waterfall.

Then Spike showed interest and I knew I was screwed. I stood behind her, a tiny tush in the palm of my hand. I had no choice but to follow now. I tempted gravity, placing my foot about 12 inches off the ground on a bulging rock. The stones were dark and slimy, promising a concussion, or an embarrassing slip as best case scenario. Now it was my tush in Hank’s hand.

As my eyes crossed the crest of the downpour, I saw what the stranger had seen. A shallow stream laid out before me, curving off into the horizon. My JoJo was there, bouncing back and forth across mounds of sand and shards of stone. Spikey was following less confidently in her sister’s shadow. The trees formed a whimsical canopy over their heads, creating an intricate masterpiece of sun and shadow on the shore. I took in the scene, inhaling it into my memory.

I leaned over the ledge to Hank. “You should probably come up here,” I conceded. “It’s pretty cool.”

I grounded my feet on a patch of dry rock and reached for Sloppy Joan, who was determined to reach the summit all on her own. As the pads of her two little feet pitter pattered into the water beside me, Hank’s hand reached the top.

We spent the next hour splashing and stomping and jumping in and out of the afternoon sun. Each set of footprints was different. We all went to the same place, but took a unique path to get there. Five souls, connected by love and blood and the most important stuff, just going on an adventure before summer escaped entirely.

There weren’t many people here; A couple trying to find some alone time. A trio of exchange students. We sloshed our way past them, a disorganized circus on parade.

Eventually, we came to a large stone bridge. Hank decided to hike back the way we came and collect the girls’ shoes and the car. He would meet us on top of the bridge. I found a significant, sturdy rock in the shade of the overpass and sat down. I watched the soldiers in my little tribe. One always going too far, out of my sight. Brave and bulletproof. Another the observer; Always dipping her toes into the water rather than catapulting herself all the way in. And then my baby. Unaware of anyone but the reflection staring back at her and the bug inching toward her toes. So in the moment. So breezy and independent.

I felt gratitude. For this stone, for this time, for these humans. Everything that came after the climb, brought such unexpected peace. Such beauty. Such natural curiosity. And we weren’t even planning on going past the waterfall.

We tackled a 2-mile hike to a small cave next. I wore Sloppy Joan on my back like an impatient gorilla. She rested her head between my shoulderblades, only lifting it to ask, “What was that?” each time a woodpecker went to work. We came to a cave and Hank volunteered to take them through. My claustrophobia was ranking at Code Brown just thinking about it, but through they went. They loved the cool, black cavern, and begged to go through once more on their own. Why not? This was a day for exploring.

And then, the thing they’d been waiting for since the moment we descended the wooden staircase earlier that afternoon. We went back to the waterfall. We let them take off their shoes, their socks, their fear of reprimand, and we just let them go all in. After all, how often do you get to swim in the plunge pool of a natural wonder, small as it may be?

After Spike and Hank spotted a water moccasin that could, as she put it, “kill 99 people with one bite,” we loaded the swamp sisters into the car and made our way back to the cabin to clean up. We decided to take them into Bloomington to see the campus and grab a bite. After 500 more trips to the potty, and a mediocre meal, the troops were fading, and I was adamant about ice cream. Thus began a Google maps goosechase Hank is not likely to let go anytime soon. Every place we went looking for miraculously disappeared from where it was supposed to be. But – and this is a very important but – God had a plan.

The creamery we eventually came to, Hartzell’s, had homemade flavors and a variety of toppings. Including puppy chow. Puppy chow! I had puppy chow on top of from-scratch cookie dough ice cream and the entire world could have fallen away and I wouldn’t have cared. And we weren’t even planning to go to Hartzell’s.

We went home; exhausted, satisfied, full in many ways. I curled up on the couch with the girls and read “The Giving Tree”, and it made me think of family. How I would give everything I had for these people. Everything. Because this love we share is that good. Have you read the book?

“and she loved a boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.”

I fell asleep right there, a daughter in my nook. The smell of lumber in the air. I was so content, there was nothing to fight or contemplate. Just rest, drunk on nature and sentimental thoughts.

The next morning, we woke up to Sloppy Joan announcing her poop in the potty. The victorious No. 2 stirred the four of us and we slowly came to life. The girls played for a few final minutes up in their loft. I went about packing and sweeping the treated wood floor. We all looked out the window and said, “Goodbye, cabin.” with frowny faces as we drove away.

We made it to Martinsville, a small town north of Bloomington before the demands for breakfast rose from the back seat. We pulled off into a diner and followed the friendly hostess to a corner booth. Here, Sloppy Joan would only go potty three times, a record, perhaps made possible only by one very special distraction. An older gentleman sitting at a small booth that backed up to our table felt our hurricane of a 3 year old bumping up against his arm. In a world where we don’t often notice each other and interaction is often viewed as an inconvenience, this man spoke to my little girl. He was playful and kind and smirked at all the same things that make her grandparents smirk.

He was a retired sheriff, we would learn from his friends. And a real softie it would seem. He gave each of our girls a quarter to buy a gumball on their way out. Which they did (chocolate for Sloppy Joan), and held them up against the window to give him a thumb’s up before climbing in the car. Aside from my unforgettable cinnamon roll french toast, that stranger was the sweetest part of our journey home. Such a kind, restorative display of humanity. Such a lovely exchange. And we weren’t even planning on going to Martinsville.

The more we replace things with experiences, the more we let fate be our travel guide, the more unexpected joy is revealed. The more I stop trying to drive this bus, the clearer I see that the best things can’t be planned. They are 100 percent organic. They’re found in modest cabins in cities that don’t make most maps and on long, winding trails. In rolling the dice and twists of fate. They’re in strangers with pure hearts and that rare, generous nature you have to be born with. They’re what you see when you leave the filtered lens behind and protect your memories with your heart.

The best things are just beyond the waterfall. But you have to be willing to climb.

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 14.3-21.1

May 3, 2017

I gradually woke up, cozy and rested on the side o–

Oh, shoot. That’s a lie. There goes my silly mind, romanticizing things again. Let me stop here and throw ‘er in reverse.

I woke up to the adolescent cackles of Just Matt and The General tooting and talking about their high school buddies in the tent above us. None of nature’s alarm clocks – the rose-gold sun, or the prattling river, or the amorous birds – would gently rouse the ledge full of tuckered out travelers from their hard-earned slumber. These two idiots would. When those clowns were up, everyone was.

The best breakfast I had on our trip was the one I had on the side of that mountain. My Trader Joe’s instant coffee with cream and sugar and – what else – freeze-dried Biscuits and Gravy, combined and expanded like a warm sponge in my depleted body and warmed me up. I wanted more than my half.

I sat the Mountain House bag of milky remnants next to the tent and went about my minimal hygienic upkeep. I pulled my toothbrush out first. My hand shook as I forced the very last of my travel-size tube of toothpaste out onto the frozen, matted bristles. I stepped back to pace the trail as I lathered up my gums. Then, something stopped me. It felt like lukewarm vomit spreading out over my foot. But it wasn’t. It was the soupy white remnants rapidly escaping the blue Mountain House bag and saturating my last pair of clean hiking socks; sparing the fabric only where the straps of my Tevas crossed. Frickin great, man. Now my pack not only smelled like 3 days worth of butt, but dehydrated sausage juice as well.

We started up the trail for what would be our final day of hiking. You know when you go for a jog and sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t? Well, on this morning, on this section of dirt, I just didn’t have it. Gravy went up ahead of me, focused on reaching the privy at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, just over a mile ahead. Just Matt kept me in sight for a bit, but eventually his Sasquatch stride naturally separated us. I felt weak and weighted. Every step required more energy than it should have. I started pounding the Rx Bars and Snickers I’d stashed in my waist pack pockets. I sucked on an energy Blok and hoped for the best.

But then, I was reminded of a phrase uttered frequently on our first venture to the Appalachian Trail, and it ignited an important conversation with myself: Hike your own hike, Courtney. Look around you. What’s your hurry? By dinner, this will all be over and you’ll wish you were starting again. My body was sending me signals to slow down and enjoy the journey and I was trying to juice it up and speed things along. And why? So I could breeze past the white blazes I’d been looking forward to seeing for months? I had to listen in the quiet, not rage against the voice. I pried my eyes up off my feet and regarded the tendrils of rich emerald leaves. The birthmarks on the trunks to my left and to my right. The sounds of the forest starting its day and getting down to the business breathing, sprouting, spreading, creating new life.

We stopped at Gooch Gap for a snack. I’d created the perfect trail mix of granola, Traders Joe’s Omega Trek Mix and Simply Almonds, Cashews and Chocolate, and I was now hammering it like a savage by the filthy handful. An elderly couple came down the path behind us and crossed the road to pick up the AT on the other side. “Hey guys, I’m going to go ahead since I’m slower today,” I said. The truth was, I was just happy to see people whose pace I could certainly match. I imagined the stories they would tell me about their time on the trail, their past. Maybe this was their 10th time doing the whole thing. Maybe they were just out for a section.

But it was a story I’d never actually hear. Because, you guys, they dusted my ass. Those two old birds traversed the AT like a pair of mountain lions and I sniffed their burnt rubber for at least a mile. The trails take all sorts of travelers, and the great ones have legs they’ve earned on the backs of boulders and jagged peaks. I had to admit, I’d just been schooled by a set of septuagenarians on making assumptions and respect for those who’ve put in the mileage.

We had a lot of company that morning in Georgia. One gentleman, from Florida, stopped The General to review his map.

“He’ll never make it,” The General said, after the kid walked on. “I can tell you within 3 minutes of talking to these people which ones are going to pull it off, and which ones are out of their league.”

As I write this, nearly 3,500 hikers are en route to Katahdin, and about 500 are heading south to Springer Mountain. Statistics tell us about one-third of these ambitious men and women (and children) will actually make it. This guy seemed to be struggling to navigate both the elements and the route, both of which have the ability to bend you over their knee and break you like a bitch.

After a few brutal climbs, we came to an overlook at Ramrock Mountain. It was sunny, beautiful. A collection of thru-hikers had gathered to eat Clif bars and chat. I saw the guy in a kilt and the woman with a dog who thought I was the other woman with a dog from the day before, a pair of girls clearly just out of college, Just Matt, and the elderly couple from earlier.

“Man, I tried to keep up with you two, but you were too quick for me!” I said, playfully, like a granddaughter would.
And just like a grandmother would, the woman smiled sheepishly, first at her husband and then at me, and said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. We could have waited for you if you were looking for someone to walk with.”

In my mind, they laughed and high fived each other the second I turned away. Thrilled at the fact they’d straight smoked another unsuspecting youngin. I wanted them to be my grandparents so bad.

Just Matt was antsy, and mentioned he hadn’t eaten anything since 3 p.m. the day prior. The promise of real food, namely a cheeseburger, gave him the strength he needed in this moment to push on and persist up the mountain. Before I could put my pack back on, he was gone. Tank was waiting at Woody Gap just over a mile away. He was ready for the reunion, for the road, for the beef.

Gravy had arrived and agreed to wait for The General, so I could go ahead. Truth be told, I kind of liked walking alone for a change.

As a society, we are searching. We think if we meditate, if we unplug, if we administer a digital detox, if we journal, if we cut out sugar, or gluten, or dairy, or red meat, we will unlock the hidden temple of peace. Myself included. I am, perhaps, the deepest worshiper of these beliefs. But honestly, I think the answers we want are already in us – bouncing around somewhere in the landfill of our frantic minds. If you spend enough time digging around up there, if you wait around long enough, and let all the crap filter out, the things you really want to hear will settle at the bottom. They’ll come to you.

Walking does that. Walking gives us enough time.

Somewhere between Moana lyrics and organizing our new camper, unbelievable truths appeared to accompany me on the trail. All the shit that typically gets diluted in the noise of motherhood and my career were suddenly barefaced in the solitude of the woods. I had to listen. Really listen. But they were in there.

I’ve been standing at the edge of the water – Long as I can remember – Never really knowing why … I could pack the girls’ clothes in the collapsible laundry basket and then use it for dirty clothes, and then if I get that 31 tote … I need to challenge myself more. I can’t remember the last time I felt like this. Gosh, Courtney, remember when you used to set big goals? Where’d that girl go? … Every turn I take – every trail I track – every path I make – every road leads back, to the place I know – where I cannot go – Where I long to be … Ah! My ankle just turned. That hurt. OK, we’re good … What should I do next? I need to clean up my diet, that’s what I need to do … Am I a good mother? I wonder what my kids will say about me when they’re older … That girl has those cute pants like Lydia had. Ask her where she got them. Just ask her. Ask her. Ask her. Ugh! Great, now she’s gone and I’m going to have to spend an hour on Pinterest tracking these pants down.

Still wearing my down vest and pants, I was really starting to sweat in the 70-plus-degree heat. I knew I had to be nearing the end of the section, so I decided to stop at a small water source and wait for my husband and The General, so we could finish together. One by one, the thru-hikers came. First, the guy in the kilt and the gal with the dog. They slowed and eventually agreed they’d get water.

“Where are you guys stopping tonight?” the gentleman asked.
“Actually, we’re getting off just up here at Woody Gap.” I said.
“Oh, wow! So you’re really almost done then.” the gal commented.
“Yup! We like to do this for our spring break. Then it’s back to reality and kids and jobs and responsibility,” I whined.
“Yeah, I hear that. I’ve been missing my kids,” the guy said.
“You have kids?” the girl asked, surprised. Which surprised me because I assumed these two were trailmates and had likely already covered this territory. I was also admittedly surprised that a young guy like this who had walked the AT, he claimed, several times had a wife and a kid. I mean it takes the assemblage of a small army and a willing village for Gravy and I to take off and do this for 5 days. And that’s just 5 days. Again, I’d fallen into the pit of assumptions. I had more in common with kilt guy than I’d thought.

After what felt like 40 minutes, I gave up on the rest of my party showing up and decided to walk into Woody Gap alone. I tiptoed over a waterfall, jumped from boulder to boulder, came around a bend in the trail and there it was, the parking lot. I was heartsick that it was over, to be honest. All the preparation and the anticipation and the effort would quietly absorb into the stories I would tell of our time on the trail in just a few steps.

I came upon Just Matt, who’d changed into shorts and a T-shirt, sitting in Tank. The truck was running and he looked like he was ready to hit the gas at the first signal. Gravy and The General came up about 10 minutes after me. The General was quick to tell the story of his run in with the thru-hikers, at the same water source where I’d left them.

“They asked if Hank was your husband and said he’d just missed his wife. Then I said, ‘Who? Biscuits?!’ and they proceeded to tell us that your trail names were too easy, too basic.” I think he felt offended since The General had assigned those names to us about a year ago and a few hundred miles north (as a crow flies). I wasn’t offended. I smelled too bad to take offense to anything. The General went to the public restroom to bathe in baby wipes, and then we all climbed into Tank and started the vomit-inducing road out of the mountains. It was like an evil snake with no tail, you guys. It went on for years. I was green.

Eventually we came to a straight away where a Wendy’s, nestled inside a gas station, sat, waiting for my carnivorous brother. The Masters were on. Not a word was spoken. Just the sounds of bun and burger being shredded by teeth and jostled around between gums and dry lips. They were burgers 3 days in the making. This stop would be followed by dinner at a Big Boy outside of Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m. that night. Only at a greasy restaurant whose mascot is a tubby boy in checkered overalls is it acceptable to order a side of what I believe to be doctored up tartar sauce to dip your french fries in. And you bet your sweet ass I did.

As the space between my body and my typical life shrunk, I felt myself slipping back into my routine. I frantically returned to the 800 minuscule worries and tasks I’d set aside while walking. I sat, curled up in the back seat, watching light poles tick by and thinking about the ground I’d covered. I was smiling, longingly, like the way you smile when you see a new mom with a fresh little baby and you think about your own days of rocking and smelling and squeezing soft little butt cheeks.

My friends think I’m crazy. Acquaintances politely regard the hobby as “interesting”. But it’s so much more than privy pots on cold mornings and rodents. When I think about backpacking, I think about my comfort zone. I think about the reward that comes on the other side of obstacles and the way getting there changes me. Every time I do something that brings me off autopilot and forces me to reconnect with my instincts, I feel stronger, clearer, more awake in this life. When I’m counting my steps, working my way slowly up the side of a steep summit, I feel so aligned. I feel like my mind and body are communicating for the first time in months. Like I can hear the screams that are typically muffled by mundane responsibility and my own self doubt.

And again, there’s that word … perseverance.

I love the concept of perseverance. More than anything, I want my girls to know that they can, and should, always persevere over what hinders, haunts or hurts them. I – and they – have unimaginable strength sleeping just on the other side of fear. If it’s scary, that’s OK. If it hurts, all the better. Sometimes, it’s those feelings that surge in the pit of your stomach that signal it’s all going to be worth it. That’s what backpacking does for me. It frightens me just enough to stretch my limits and takes me to that uncomfortable place where change resides.

I have anxiety, right? And I think people who struggle with the constant dripping faucet of anxiety can understand when I say that a normal day, week, month, sometimes feels like walking through a rose bush. As lovely as the flowers can be, it also leaves hundreds of tiny little cuts. The journey often leaves me bleeding, aching and irritated, but the bouquet in the end keeps me coming back. Being out there, in the unadulterated air, with my thoughts and the crunch of my boots, smooths over the gashes. It heals me. It tastes like sun tea with honey and rose petals and feels like my oldest t-shirt. At least for a few days. It’s the same feeling I get when I put my ear to my daughter’s chest and listen to her heartbeat. Each thud sends purpose surging through me.

And it’s the culture of the trail, the people. To be frank, there are times it’s hard to be a human in this world in its current condition. I panic about our future and the abuse of basic rights I’ve taken for granted. But with no phone, no push notifications, no “breaking” anything, it all feels a lot simpler. The current events of the trail are related to weather conditions and record setters, not press conference blunders and cruel, unthinkable acts that my heart just can’t seem to process. I feel safe around this species. The people you pass (98 percent of them, at least) want to know how your journey is going, and help if you need it and encourage you and stand under the majesty of what God gave us with you. It’s the softer, more digestible version of humanity.

We’ve been off the AT for about a month now. The chicks ask about the mountains a lot, and tell us they can’t wait to join us on the Appalachian Trail, and every fiber of my being hopes that day comes. Nothing would make the path sweeter than having my daughters’ footprints beside my own and their fingers against the white bark of a blaze.

Until we meet the path again, I’ll go in search of smaller, closer trails, and that same revealing quiet. I want to thank everyone who asked about our small adventure and followed these posts. I hope it awakens your wanderlust and leads you to a corner of the world that heals what aches in you.

Read about Miles 6.2-14.3

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 6.2 – 14.3

April 26, 2017

Morning came.

That’s right … By the grace of God, the sun rose sheepishly above the trees just beyond the pavilion and each of us had all of our limbs, and a pulse and a different theory about the headlights from the night before. It’s funny, in those startling moments when the lights crept in and filled the thin fabric walls of the tent, no one had uttered a word. But now, come dawn and the promise of another day, we were discovering that each of us had been awake. And each of us had entertained our own demented impending plot twist. (Granted, some more dramatic than others.)

After a few minutes of lingering in the sticky, sour-smelling warmth of our sleeping space, we emerged, one by one, out onto the cement carpet. When you’re frozen, everything feels hard, unyielding. I turned my face toward the morning sun, which was doing everything in its power to heat the pavilion where our dewy gear laid about on high picnic tables, and sipped my coffee. Maybe if I imagine a beach … if I focus on each stream of light, I can fabricate warmth, I thought.

My mind was weaker than my coffee.

History told us that movement is truly the only cure for numbness, and my lifeless extremities were screaming, demanding, I take my first steps. When we left Hickory Flats, we had just over 8 miles ahead of us. It was our third day on the trail and the first time we would walk without rain.

As our frigid, pathetic parade made its way down the path and past the white blazes, my fingers and toes slowly came back to me. I can’t say for sure, but it seems as if almost every morning on the AT begins with an incline. I see it as Mother Nature’s bitch slap to your lungs, heart and legs, and a great way to get the blood pumping. This ridiculously crisp morning was no different. As I put one heavy foot in front of the other, I felt my internal temperature rise and sweat start to gather under the lining of my wool cap. One extreme to the other. Perfect.

Not long into our walk, we came to a breath-taking babbling stream. It was the kind people write poems about. The current made the water twinkle and wink beneath my feet. I stood on a rock and looked down to chaperone the elements’ dance. As the guys went about attaching hoses and filling water bladders, I observed the incoming traffic. It was a busy morning at the stream, as thru-hikers who stayed at nearby Stover Creek Shelter came by in pairs to fill up.

A pair from South Africa stopped first. The one had just finished a temporary position as an auditor in New York and hit up his buddy, who was currently residing in Canada, to try the trail before he had to return. They’d made this plan just two weeks ago on a whim and the idea that it “looked neat”. My eyes were wide with astonishment and jealousy. Next came a cavalcade of lively, starry eyed youngsters. Most of them just two or three days into their attempt to cover the entire AT, optimism clung to their faces like shiny makeup. They were high on the newness of their endeavor … the buzz of this temporary and rugged minimalism. I got it. I was rooting for them. We indulged their chatter about breakfast and trail legs before parting.

The warmer I got, the more I relished this dry, sunny day. We came to a crossing with a wide log, and I decided to express the turn in my mood through the universal language of dance. I hopped up, Gravy and Just Matt behind me, The General already across, and started recreating one of my favorite scenes from the iconic, never-to-be-forgotten chick flick, Dirty Dancing. “Heeeeeeey, hey, baby! I wanna know-oh …”. I gingerly maneuvered back and forth with the necessary pep to really sell it. “Do you have your phone out, Matt? Are you getting this?” I asked, like a 6 year old attempting her first cartwheel. “No.” he said. Flame completely extinguished, I dismounted the log on the other side. “Dick.” I whispered to myself but also, I kind of thought, loud enough to reach The General’s ears. But the face I found when I looked up was not that of our dear old family friend, like I’d been expecting. It was a stranger. Dressed in neon yellow. A stranger who had been waiting for our group to cross and witnessed my Baby moment in all its glory.

The boys had a field day with that one.

Whatever. My performance was on point, and everybody knew it.

We stopped at The Hawk Mountain Shelter for breakfast. Hank and I whipped up some oatmeal while Just Matt raised the waterline in the privy. The General sipped on a mug of hazelnut instant coffee as we chatted about the logistics of ick spreading on the AT. See, hikers’ hygiene isn’t exactly a gold standard out there, and if one person gets sick, and they stay in a shelter, and what comes with a sickness comes out inside the three walls, chances are someone else is going to come into contact with that mess. Then they get sick and the gift goes on, and on and on. I remember talk of a nasty strain of the stomach flu going around the Tennessee and North Carolina sections when we went out last year. Nasty stuff. I stood down on the ground, out of the shelter that morning. I mean, I only had so much toilet paper and tolerance for bodily functions behind tree trunks.

It was windy, but a beautiful day to walk in the woods. The temperature seemed to rise with the mountains’ inclines, causing me to peel off layers, and drop as the wind whipped through, bringing my hood back up to intercept the chill. We stopped for lunch at a clearing along an access road called Coopers Gap. The strong breeze bullied my empty mayonnaise packets as I pulled my jacket up around my face to shield my skin.

The magical thing about being out on the AT is the diverse landscapes. You never know when you turn a corner or come to the top of a mountain what you’re going to find on the other side. After several miles of pretty-but-predictable mountainside woods, we came upon a Secret Garden-style labyrinth of lush greenery. The trunks of the trees twisted and jutted up against each other, flirting, mingling. The roots rose out of the ground, each set forming an enchanting wooden helix. The verdant leaves were a deeper hue than any of the growth we’d seen up to this point, drawing our eyes upward with their rich, emerald presence. The sunlight poked through keyhole openings of various shapes in the canopy covering this charming section.

We worked our way through the maze, admiring its intricacies, until we came upon a clearing. Below us, a stream rushed across perfectly distributed stones. It was picturesque, perfect. This was Justus Creek, where we would be camping tonight. It was a pleasant upgrade from the cement slab we merely tolerated the night before. We crossed the water and marched our way up a steep elevation to the campsites; six flattened planes on the side of the mountain. We picked our square and went about setting up. The sun was bathing us in luxurious heat now. A branch that died months, maybe years, ago cracked and fell about 4 feet from our spot on the ledge. A good sign, indeed.

I changed into my sandals, grabbed a mug full of red wine and my notebook, and ventured back down to the steps beside the stream. I sat to collect some thoughts, the comforting soundtrack of the stream in the background fueling my recollection. This, I thought, is why we do this. This is the prize.

I felt silent inside. Clear. Calm. For perhaps the first time in months.

“Where’s your dog?” an approaching thru-hiker inquired.
“Me? Oh, um … I don’t have a dog.”
“Oh, sorry! You look just like this other girl on the trail. She has a dog.”

I wish I was a thru-hiker out here with a disciplined, friendly pup, I thought to myself. But no. I am a suburban mom with a corporate job and an old bitch of a dog who whines at the wind and drags her butt on my carpet. Close, but not quite there. They moved on and I disappeared again into my stream of consciousness.

I loved to listen to the waves of wind crashing through the forest. The tops of the trees, still barren from winter, would rub together like a group of bucks locking antlers, generating the most peculiar sounds.

About 20 minutes later, a young woman and older gentleman approached the stream. She was wearing a blue raincoat and coaching her adorable little shepherd dog, Maggie, across the rocks.

“Hi there,” I greeted.
“Hi!”
“You must be the other me,” I joked. She just looked at me indulging my eye contact out of sheer kindness. “A couple that came along earlier mistaked me for you. We must look similar.”
“Oh!” she sighed, and smiled.
“You look tired. Come a long way today?”
“Kind of. We go pretty slow because my dad has bad knees. We stopped for breakfast at the Hickory Flats Cemetery, but didn’t linger.”
“We stayed there last night.”
“You did? Was there a young guy there?”
“Actually, yeah!”
“Well, he was still there. He kept packing and unpacking his gear.”
“He was doing that when we were there!”
“Yeah, I teach mentally challenged kids and that’s a huge sign that something’s going on. My instinct was to move on, and my instinct is usually pretty dead on.”

Oh. My. Lanta.

I knew it. I knew there was a Stephen King vibe coming off that lil fella. I would say 98 percent of the people you meet on the trail are a delight, but the other 2 percent are scary AF, my friends.

Biscuits No. 2 walked up the trail to the campsites, my mind like the exploding car behind the badass in an action film in her wake, still reeling at her observation. I sat for a few more minutes, until the sun touched the top of the treeline and threatened to disappear completely. I walked back up to have dinner with Gravy. And maybe two more mugs of wine. And maybe a chewable melatonin.

My entire body was a pool of content, peaceful jelly. I was on the side of a mountain with some of my favorite people on the planet, dulled by a few mild sedatives and downright jubilant. We sat, the four of us, chatting and giggling. Just Matt from his sleeping bag inside the tent. The General balancing in his squatty, collapsible chair. Gravy and I perched on a log dressed in an inch of dirt. Our faces were pink from wind and early spring rays, and the blush that comes from sipping a cheap red blend dispensed from a bladder that once lived inside a box.

The boys were having the same argument they’d been having for three days now: What do you call a group of bears. We’ll call it 45 bears, for good measure. We asked Ridgerunner Lydia, who guessed a pack. I, too, guessed a pack. Herd was thrown out there as a suggestion. Still, the debate raged on for the entirety of our time in Georgia, and via text all the way back to the Midwest. (The answer is actually a sloth, in case your curiosity is killing you.)

A tiny mouse scurried by and earned a huge reaction from our group. People always shudder when I mention the critters known to make their way into the shelters and campsites. But truth be told, they didn’t bother me much, because they weren’t much of a bother. This little guy was the first true wildlife we’d seen up close, and he was gone as fast as he’s arrived.

He was turning in and, after a walk down the trail for a potty break and tooth brushing, so were we. I nestled in next to my husband. “Do you hear the water?” he asked, a few minutes after we’d settled. I did. And that was the last thought I had before I drifted off.

Read about Springer Mountain + Miles 28.3-30.7

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 0 – 6.2

April 19, 2017

“When I os taken him up pear, he told me he a, he had the cancer. So, I stopped anduh got him a gallun a whiskey anda carton a cigarettes and I took him up air to-a the mountain anda I’m not sure but I think he died in August dat year … Me and my partner hada motel we ran and it was fulla, pardon my french, prostitutes and druggies when we bought it and a, we bought it on April 2, 2009. And we ran it and that. And then a, my partner, he died on April 2, 2011, see. … Now, you guys look strong, but they call me Don’t Give a Damn Sam and ifya need me to come getcha, I’ll come up ear and getcha. Just not when I’m fixin to go to bed, em k? I take 5 Benadryl and 3 Unisoms, and I ain’t gettin’ outta my bed once I’m en dare. … Oh yeah, we had a guy die of a heart attack right dare and a girl hung herself on a tree right over dare and uh, yeah, the trail can be a lonely place. I mean, I’d be lyin if I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it myself. Well, y’all member that girl and her dog, dontcha? Someone took her from the mountain and, uh, well, he cut her head off. Yup, he de-cap-a-tated her.”

I could hear Sam Duke, our colorful chauffeur through the mountains, from the back seat, where I sat staring at Just Matt’s hairline trying not to vomit. Sam was from Louisiana, and his personal slogan was, “Let er rip, patata chip!”, a phrase we uttered no less than 89 times over the next three days. He’d picked us up at the Woody Gap parking lot, where we left Tank with the promise we’d return at a reasonable hour on Saturday. In our 45 minutes with Sam on the winding service roads of the Appalachian Trail en route to Springer Mountain, we discovered that everyone who had ever come into contact with Sam Duke had, shortly thereafter, died. Small talk with the Grim Reaper was not how I’d envisioned starting the rest of our section hike. Nonetheless, here I was.

Despite the disheartening development that we were now destined to be eaten by a bear or snatched by an escaped serial killer, it wasn’t all bad news for us. Because of our last-minute change of plans, Gravy and I were able to unload some clothing items and a day’s worth of meals from our packs. When you’re shouldering 30+ pounds and 50+ pounds, respectfully, every ounce dropped is cause for celebration.

Here’s what we ended up with:

And:

Gravy carried much of the same, plus our tent and water pump. We split the weight of the food right down the middle. There are always things you’d adjust after the fact. I would have upped my coffee game, especially given the afternoon I was walking into. A few extra packets would have been a real morale booster; the more toxic sugar, the better. Speaking of, I picked up some Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee with Cream and Sugar and those packets were like drops of what the angels drink. Much better than the straight Via packets, in my opinion.

We exited Sam Duke’s mini van and stepped out into the parking lot at the trailhead. It was 30-something degrees, blowing and sleeting. It’s never good when you hold your hand out to gather precipitation and ask, “What is this shit?” Of course, I had to pee. I wandered off down a trail to find the widest tree and watched Sam drive away. Ah, fudge. We’re really doing this. The rest of my crew was standing by the Springer Mountain map, filling water bladders and situating gear. Lydia, a young female Ridgerunner, walked up from the general vicinity of the grass I’d just watered. Lydia’s role on the trail was to stay on a section to answer questions about gear, shelter and strategy, and educate hikers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiative, Leave No Trace, their effort to minimize damage to the natural environment along the AT. (The jobs you wish you’d known about 12 years ago, right?) As she engaged in polite small talk, all I could hear was the sound of my inner girl crushin’ on her pants. They kind of looked like equestrian riding pants, but stretchier and warmer; Much cooler than my traditional cargo mom hiking pants. They must be a thing now because a bunch of chicks we saw had them. I was putzing around in farty fashions, showing my age for sure, at least from the waist down. It all felt very first day with a headgear to me.

We started down the trail and took our first steps in a three-day adventure. I followed behind Just Matt and The General as they perfected their Sam Duke impersonations and tallied the body count. The laughter worked as a warmer to counteract the piercing snow-water sludge diving at my face, and I was thankful. Not far in, we stopped at Stover Creek Shelter to make adjustments and get a little snack. Lydia was there. As were her cute pants. Just Matt made no adjustments and just looked on annoyed as we made small talk about bear canisters, the weather the night before and traffic on the trail. See, Just Matt didn’t like this part of it. He packed only bars (no “dehydrated bullshit”) and reminded all of us regularly, through both his verbal and nonverbal communication, just how much he hates to stop for any reason other than sleep or shit.

Lydia predicted the Three Forks Shelter, where we’d planned to stay, would be pretty crowded that night given the chilly temps they were predicting. She mentioned the Hickory Flats Cemetery and Pavilion as a better option. It was just a couple miles away and we were making great time. I mean nothing will motivate you to move your ass like numb fingers and perilous mud puddles.

I disappeared into my head a bit, thinking about everything and nothing at all, and before I even found my stride, I came to The General at a service road crossing.

“What’s up?” I asked.
“That pavilion is right over here, if you want to check it out.”
“K.”

It was 1:40 pm and 36-or-so degrees.

I started counting the hours on my bright pink fingers as I shuffled toward the cemetery. If we left at 8 o’clock the next morning, we would be here for 18 hours.

18 hours.

At a cemetery and open-air pavilion.

In 30-degree weather.

We walked under the roof to assess our accommodations for the evening. There was a young gentleman sitting in a plastic chair facing the trees. He turned and acknowledged us in a polite but minimal way. At this point, the rain was really starting to pick up, so I assumed our pavilion mate was waiting out the storm. I set my pack down and walked over to the bathroom. It had four walls – four walls! – and stood as a literal symbol of the term, “built like a brick shithouse”. I stepped in, out of the wind and into an eery silence. It was a silence that almost had to precede something horrific. I more than half expected to find a friend of Sam Duke’s propped up in a stall. But spooky as it was, it was easily 10 degrees warmer than outside. I stood in the sturdy privy not sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have to use the drop potty, necessarily, but I didn’t really want to stand around with the frozen sausage fest in the pavilion, either. So, I stood. I stood in a brick potty and just stared at the wall. I stared at the cobwebs in the corners. I stared at the names carved into the plank over the stall built for those with shower bags. I stood and let my frozen mind thaw out with concocted tales of terrible scenarios that played out within these walls. I just stood.

Eventually, I found my big girl parachute panties and pulled them up. I strolled out to the pavilion and started going about the business of making lunch. It was 2 pm and we were strategizing tent setup so we could – what else – turn in for the night. During a break in our chat, The General turned to the young guy sitting next to us, still staring off into the woods.

“You start the trail yesterday?” he asked.
“No,” the kid said.
“Tuesday?”
He shook his head, no.
“Oh man,” The General said. He then turned back around and gave us the big eyes.

It would appear this little guy was having a really hard time getting himself up the AT. Granted, the weather hadn’t been great, and there are a million factors that can crush people at any point in their hike, but one would likely be farther than this 3+ days in. Whatever his deal, it seemed like maybe his meditation was coming to an end and he would be moving on soon. He slowly, quietly stood and started meticulously packing up his gear. He rolled his sleeping mat smoothly and snugly. He checked his food bag and then reclosed it, twice. When all was said and done, he spent 2 hours pulling his shit together. Two hours. Then, he grabbed a water bottle and started off down the road. Huh.

Just Matt was antsy. He’d misplaced his gloves back at Woody Gap and, after finishing a mug of coffee (and sharing his extras with the group), he was ready to hibernate. He and The General put their tent up in about 15 minutes. Gravy, on the other hand, spent a good deal of time strategizing over our sleeping arrangements, since our modest two-person tent required ground for staking into. This was more of a concrete slab situation, so … And I’m not entirely helpful in these situations when I’m not frozen, so …

After several minutes of contemplation, it was decided that Princess Biscuits and Prince Gravy would be resting their royal heads in a makeshift tent under a large picnic table. Gravy draped a hammock tarp over the wood structure and used concrete blocks to hold it down around the outside. We put a tarp down on the ground, our mats on top of that, and we were all set.

Somehow we’d made it to 5 pm and so my counterpart and I decided to go ahead and start dinner. Just Matt and The General had been in their tent for almost an hour already, but Lawd knows I don’t skip meals. They’d turned into a mumbled screen of farts and giggles. (We’re talking about two 40 year olds here.) We boiled water for our freeze-dried Southwest Lasagna, cupping our hands around the scorching dew of the device for pleasure. The rain and snow had subsided, leaving just a straight up cold to harden the cemetery ambiance.

Our neighbor came back.

And then, just as carefully as he’d begun, he initiated the tedious process of unpacking his gear.

Yes, unpacking.

See, he packed it. And now he was unpacking it.

It was time for me to go to bed. I crunched on a 10mg chewable melatonin, brushed my teeth, and had a nonverbal conversation with my husband about the strange behavior playing out beside us before crawling under the table. I put the tarp door back into place and zipped myself into my wine-colored sleeping bag, secretly wishing I were drunk. I was wearing my wool cap, down accessories and long underwear. A sliver of early evening sunlight rubbed against the end of our “tent” to remind me it was approximately 6 pm.

But the sun’s light was a liar. I started to shiver about 20 minutes after I laid down, and began having flashbacks of Roan Highlands Shelter, also known as “the night mama almost died”. I inch-wormed my way backward out of our tent. Gravy was still cleaning up camp. Just Matt and The General were generating a massive amount of heat in their tent. I knew this only because I heard the expression, “sweating my balls off,” a handful of times from my icy cocoon. I stood up and looked at my husband, my trailmate, my life partner, and I told him the thing no one wants to have to tell their loved one.

“I’m getting in there with them,” I said.
“Like, for the night?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”

His feelings of abandonment sliced through my whiny tone as I crouched down and unzipped the door to my brother and my almost-brother’s temporary bachelor pad. It wasn’t warm. But it wasn’t freezing, either. I claimed a spot on the very edge as the two nudged up against each other in their nylon encasings. After 34 years of friendship, I was confident this wasn’t the first time they’d spooned (heads on opposite ends, of course) but it was certainly the only time I would remember.

About 40 minutes later, Just Matt had to pee. Since he was the patty in the hamburger, we all decided to get up and try. After that, my chill started to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep. My husband’s head was just a tent wall, tarp and picnic table leg away from mine, so I could quietly check in on him. When everyone was finally settled, I drifted off to sleep. The crack of a grown man’s fart piercing the peace of the pavilion jolted me awake every hour or so, but still I was warm and mildly content.

At some point after the sun went down, the tent filled with the vibrant muted yellow tone of car headlights and the familiar sound of gravel popping under tires. Someone was in the pavilion parking lot. My mind started firing.

Oh my gosh, they’re looking for that kid. I wonder if he’s still out there. Or, maybe he called a shuttle to come pick him up because he’s freezing and ready to get off the trail. Or maybe it’s the police coming to get him because he’s wanted. Or maybe they’re looking for another hiker who got off the trail and is in trouble. Or maybe they’re workers using the bathroom. Or maybe that kid was a scout and he called some serial killer who is now here to kill all of us and leave our bodies in the cemetery. I hope he doesn’t look under the picnic table. Damn you, Sam Duke! Damn you.

I found myself again just praying to make it to morning.

To be continued …

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 and Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

April 14, 2017

Despite the magenta and neon red splotches with flashing cores parading behind the weather gal delivering the national forecast with an exaggerated drama she’d clearly practiced the night before. Despite the warning from Sam Duke, our would-have-been shuttle driver that morning. Despite the daunting, lead-colored sky, on a Wednesday morning in early April, a humble but determined band of hikers found themselves scaling modest boulders on the side of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

I was the lone woman among this modest herd. Carbon fiber poles in hand, I heaved my weight up staggered rocks and scurried down slippery flat stones as drunken strings of the day’s downpour ran across and spilled over the bill of my hat and dropped onto my raincoat.

Oh, hello there, Mother Nature. It’s been too long.

The uncertainty of Her mood makes the vast wilderness both a magnet and a menace to me. She throws violent tantrums and then lures me back with fiery sunsets and soothing streams and masterful arrangements of stars. I liken her to the college roommate who said really beautiful things when she was stoned, but broke a lotta stuff when she drank.

So, why don’t I just break up with Her? Well, because as much as that bitch can break me down, she heals me, too.

If you’ve followed DSS for awhile, you might remember our hike on the AT last April. After nearly freezing to death in a tent on top of Roan Mountain, we made the collective decision to journey further south this year and knock out the start of the trail, beginning at Springer Mountain, in Georgia.

“I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the weather in those parts,” The General had said in February. “Real happy …”

As the week drew closer, we gathered our gear and laid out our freeze-dried dinners and watched helplessly as the conditions down south grew worse and worse. First, it was rain all four days. Then the declaration of downpours lessened, but the temps plummeted to the 30s. I thought we picked Georgia so we could get away from that shit! When you get one section a year, you hope to heck it’s a good one. It was definitely shaping up to be a long underwear kind of trip.

I pacified myself by cursing the Weather Channel app every day until the Tuesday we loaded our gear and our hesitant bodies into Just Matt’s big Ram truck (“Tank”) and hauled ass out of the Midwest to find solace in the great outdoors. Said solace wasn’t going to come easy. An accident on the interstate brought traffic to a halt for several hours around lunchtime. An eternity in Hell has nothing on the agony of spending that much time in crawling traffic with a full bladder, a Joe Rogan podcast where he’s more stoned than usual, and an impatient driver with a grounded lead foot. After a lifetime of slugging and snaking, we came to civilization again. Starving. Of all the options and all the restaurants, the men in the front seats chose White Castle for our late lunch. White Castle! Since I have tastebuds and my mother’s cantankerous intestines, I took it easy. But the boys didn’t hold back – a decision that would come back to haunt Just Matt the next day, to the surprise of no one.

After a quick REI stop in Knoxville, we pulled into Blairsville, Georgia around 11:30 that night. With lots of talk about town of tornado warnings and predictions of softball-sized hail, we knew it was time to check in with The General.

“Well, I called Sam Duke,” he said. (Sam Duke was our shuttle driver, scheduled to pick us up at 8 am the next morning.)
“Yeah?”
“He said, ‘I wuyundt duy it!’”
“He did?”
“Yup. He said, ‘Y’all can do whatcha whant, but the trail is alays gonna be dare. You won’t if ya dead.’”

And with that, the decision was made. We would meet Sam Duke another day.

Wednesday morning, over a cardboard continental breakfast Belgian waffle, The General, Gravy, Just Matt and I sipped small cups of coffee and listened to the local weather guy instruct Georgians to, “work from home if they could.” But we saw some windows, and gosh dangit, we came to hike.

The General went to work rerouting our course. We would get on at Neel’s Gap and slackpack Blood Mountain (which was intended to be on our fourth and final day) as a day hike, 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles out. Once we conquered this summit, if there was still enough non-life-threatening minutes left in the day, we would drive over and complete Springer Mountain, which is technically, and I did not know this before that day, not part of the official AT mileage. It’s before Mile 0. The more you know [shooting star].

So, now we’re all caught up. The crew. Slippery rocks stacked on top of each other. Polls. Lightening.

One of my favorite things about hiking is the disconnect. I work in marketing, and I am responding to email, following up on Facebook messages, retweeting, typing, posting, fire extinguishing all day long. When you have to climb all the way to a mountaintop to get a signal, it’s really refreshing. But there, on a hill called Blood Mountain, under the ominous clouds of an unpredictable storm, these typically separate worlds collided. Up ahead of me I heard the distinct tones of a weather alert scream from Just Matt’s phone, followed by the rumble of thunder in the distance. It was so polarizing. We had made the decision to walk at the mercy of nature that day, but our modern day devices pulled and pleaded at us to rethink the vulnerability. We didn’t.

As we climbed up, it felt like the clouds came down to meet us as light fog enveloped our path. Eventually, we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a magical-looking structure that rests in the shadows of Blood Mountain’s intimidating rubble. I used the privy and snapped some pictures of the overlook. My brother was ready to get moving. See, Matt was experiencing his White Castle sliders for a second time. I believe the comment was: “I’m scared if I fall on my ass diarrhea is going to shoot out of my mouth.”

I should have known better than to laugh. I mean, karma has gotten me before. But laugh I did. And on our squirrely descent back down the way we came, I ate shit. I felt my feet start to go, then there was a brief battle between my upper and lower bodies, and then, a second of serenity in that moment when I accepted the fate. I braced for contact. The group got quiet in anticipation of my ass’s connection with the stone below it. Had I been struck by lightning? No, oh no. Just a private demonstration of the grace God gave me. I made some indistinguishable noises in the space of their halted conversation. Then I crashed down, sending my poles flying off in both directions. My right hand and butt cheek took the brunt of it. Since people falling down is my favorite thing, I enjoyed a good laugh before I gathered up the puddle I had become and carried on. Then I laughed 50 more times as I replayed the scenario in my head.

Another window in the weather opened the door for a climb up Springer Mountain. But first we had to drive there. Every road in Georgia that leads to a trail takes 40 minutes or more and has more curves than a Playboy. Left … right …. Left … right … I took two dramamine and it didn’t put a dent in the dizzy. Every 5 seconds a yellow triangle with that damning squiggly arrow. Turns ahead. More. Turns. Ahead. I would pick a point on the horizon, but I was no match. The transportation part just destroyed me. Maybe that’s the cost of yellow blazing.

The rise to Springer was steady and manageable – Just one mile up and then back down. We posed next to the same plaque that Grandma Gatewood and Scott Jurek stood by. It felt like one of those moments where you should move something only semi-significant out of your memory so there’s room with extra padding for this moment, just to be sure. We lingered a bit. The smoky skies and gentle dew kisses suddenly felt fitting, rather than burdensome.

How do you end a day like that? When you’re going back to civilization to hide out from tornadoes rather than tent it? If you’re us, you eat 20 tons of Mexican food, clean up and climb into bed to watch My 600-lb Life with a king size Caramello. The rain and the cold and the fall all felt just fine given the promise of a hot shower, cable and two hotel pillows before sundown. Sleepless nights were tomorrow’s worry. And oh what a worry it would turn out to be …

Wanderlust

It’s Tampa bay for this buccaneer

February 9, 2017

I love my husband.

I do.

You won’t find a better human walking this earth. But homeboy is one lucky son of a biscuit that my love language isn’t gifts.

In our 15 years together, he’s gifted me on various birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases and Valentine’s Days with such treasures as a rubber ducky from his school bookstore, long underwear (a few times), a mini muffin pan and, most recently, Microsoft Office. Now that’s not to say he hasn’t had some real winners in there, too. He has. But none sexier than Excel. I mean … you guys, merging cells, sorting, formulas …

And here I am giving him lemons like this:

“Why didn’t he just say it out loud?” a coworker and mutual friend asked.
“Huh?”
“You should always say things like that out loud. ‘I got my wife Microsoft Office for her birthday.’ I feel like he would have done things differently.”

Every holiday is caked in suspense. What will he come up with next, I wonder. He’s a thinker, my husband, and he lives in a literal world. It’s part of what I love about him.

So, this year, on Christmas morning, when he excitedly handed me a small cardboard box and told the girls Mama was going to open “the one,” I immediately started running through the possibilities in my head. An attachment for the Kitchenaid? A bug net? A set of encyclopedias? No. It was a foam airplane. Taped to the bottom of the box was a picture of me and my friend, Nissa.

“Oh, is Nissa coming here?” I asked.
“No, you’re going there.”
“What?!”
“In February.”
“I am?!”
“Yes.”
“But, I’ve never flown by myself …”
“It’s a direct flight. Really easy.”
“But … oh my gosh!”
“Well, I asked the girls what we should get you and JoJo said, ‘Mom needs a break,’ so we decided to send you away for a weekend.”

Does this make my child incredibly observant and sensitive to others, or has all of my bitching and yelling over her seven years of life resulted in her recognizing my borderline psycho personality, thus prompting her to suggest shipping me off? I’m still not sure.

I immediately picked up my phone. I wasn’t sure if the time was different in Florida. I wasn’t thinking clearly.

“I’m coming to Florida!” I messaged.
“I know! Are you excited?!” Nissa replied.
“Yeah! I just can’t believe it!”

I thought I’d seen every play in Hank’s playbook, but this was entirely unexpected. One of my resolutions was “less things and more experiences,” so my old man’s yuletide treat was right on time. But I was admittedly nervous.

“Your mom and brother told me you’d hate it.” Hank said.
“Really?”
“Yeah. They said you’d feel guilty and hate the travel.”
[both true.]
“Oh, gosh, no I love it.”
[also true.]

How does a woman go 34 years without taking one of the most popular forms of long-distance transportation alone, you ask? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve just always had someone with me. And I prefer it that way. You might recall I have special eyes, so navigating the unfamiliar can be tricky. I also have another disorder I don’t talk about much. Chickenshitosis. I’m often frightened by things that are generally completely harmless and part of being a grownup.

The weeks passed quickly, as all weeks do after your third child, and soon I was packing my carry on for my long weekend in Tampa.

A bit about Nissa. I know this pretty gal from the Sunshine State through my previous employer. After my first day on the job, I went home and told my husband that there was a girl about my age, but I didn’t think she was necessarily interested in making friends. Turned out, she was just monotoned! We grew close as crossed eyes pretty quickly. She was the graphic designer. I was the copywriter. We pitched a blog and then spent months taking trips where we found creative ways to expense food crawls around New York City (“It’s what our target demographic would do!”) and attending conferences with castmates from Laguna Beach and the likes of Rachel Zoe.

After about four years collaborating during work hours and bonding over Bachelor finales in our free time, Nissa told me she was moving back to her home state. I hated Florida for a hot second. She came in for a visit shortly after I had Sloppy Joan, but that was it,aside from emails and SnapChats, for years. In fact, she had a whole child in the time that passed since our last meeting. She became a mommy. And has another on the way.

The most important thing to know about Nissa is she loves food. This Scandanavian can throw down on some grub, lemme tell ya. If I had to pick someone to plan my last meal on this planet, and I got absolutely no say in it, I would pick Nissa. She’s the girl who knows which restaurant specializes in sardines three ways and which one makes pasta strictly from the hair of angels, and so on. I’ve gone on at least six trips with her that I can think of off the top of my head, and she picked the restaurants we dined at in every single city. She never misses. She started sending links to restaurants about 3 weeks out. I couldn’t wait.

I arrived in Tampa without incident Friday afternoon. It’s always so surreal when you set eyes on someone you haven’t seen in awhile. Like your pupils have to adjust to their familiar face. Not surprisingly, she told me we were heading to South Tampa for tacos and margaritas (just for me, because, you know … bun, oven) at bartaco.

“Do you want to sit outside?”
“Yes!” Always yes. I had left 32-degree days behind me and I wasn’t about to stare at the sun through a window.

We got some magical combination that included spicy cucumbers, a special slaw, 6 tacos, 2 tamales and guac with giant tortilla chips. I also treated myself to a pomegranate margarita. While we dined al fresco, catching up and reveling in the fact we were sitting across from each other, my sweet friend informed me she was waiting to hear if she got a new house. She did. We found out around the time we polished off the guacamole.

This was cause for celebration! (Not that we needed cause.)

We left lunch and hit two sweet spots in less than an hour. Don’t show up if you can’t keep up, OK? There was an adorable new gourmet ice pop shoppe across the street, The Hyppo. Prego went for salted chocolate and I picked up an avocado coconut option that belonged in my belly. It was heavenly. I swallowed it entirely within 3 minutes. My popsicle partner, however, was multitasking. I watched, amused, as she held hers in her mouth and texted her mortgage broker. It would melt and drip. She’d curse. Then she’d put it back in her mouth to send a new text and the insanity would repeat. Don’t waste it! Was what felt right to say at the time.

Next stop? Sprinkles … but these were for later. We aren’t wild animals! We opted for Dark Chocolate Banana for Nissa, Maple Bacon for her hubs, and a Chocolate Marshmallow for me. It was 70-something degrees and times were good.

We stopped by her new digs for some proper surveillance of the situation. The house was beautiful. One thing I find amazing about Florida architecture is how much it differs from house to house. You’ve got your beach bungalows, you’ve got your Spanish colonial revivals, you’ve got your modern mansions, you’ve got your Georgian-style homes. Dare I say I even saw Tudors! It’s all just hangin’ out … mingling. I mean, I like it. There aren’t pockets necessarily. It’s just a giant junk drawer of kickass houses.

Just when I couldn’t take the waiting anymore, we went to pick up Nissa’s little girl. She was cuter in person than in the 9 trillion SnapChats I’d seen her in before that day. There’s a magic in seeing a friend as a mom for the first time. It’s like all of the sudden you feel this energy of shared struggles and consuming love for your little nuggets. And it’s beautiful. Nissa used to stay at our house occasionally and JoJo always wanted to sleep with her. She would play with the girls and dance with the girls. She threw me a baby shower when Spike was on her way. She was an honorary aunt made of all the best stuff. So seeing her here, now, with this towheaded toddler made my heart swell.

Saturday morning brought breakfast and nail painting. I slapped some polish on my new little friend’s tiny fingers and took her on laps around the pool so they could dry in the sun. The funny thing about people who live in Florida, is they forget how delightful the sun is. As soon as it appeared, I was like a poodle at the back door. I couldn’t wait to get to it. The warmth on my skin was like sloppy angel kisses. I turned my face toward the glow and soaked in the soothing heat with my new petite sweetheart.

Nissa and her husband Alexis have a boat (name TBD). Their neighborhood connects to a channel so getting to the bay is a breeze. Right before we left their house to ship out, at the very last minute, I decided to throw my bathing suit on, just in case. Nissa packed up some Trader Joe’s truffle cheese and beverages and we made our way out onto the brilliant blue water.

Now, I’m from lake country. We have our boats tied to docks and we take those boats out for a couple of counter clockwise laps around the modestly sized body of water a few times before we tie the boat back up to the dock. When your boat goes into water that feeds into an ocean, there are no laps. We could have sped across the surface forever. We parked for a bit in the bay and broke out the snacks. I had a beer and a glass of wine, while the little one stuffed handfuls of truffle cheese into her mouth. Seagulls came. They told their friends and more seagulls came. I started to feel a twinge of pee moving in.

There were two pregnant women on the boat – Alexis’s sister and husband came along – so I figured it was only a matter of time before someone had to relieve themselves and I could see how it was done here. But no one said a word. We decided to cruise some more. As the shoreline got farther and farther away, my bladder started to scream. We hit bumps, I squeezed every muscle from the waist down. We turned, I clenched. As soon as the deafening noise of the motor went to a whisper, I mouthed to Nissa that I was moments from pissing myself.

“Oh no!” she offered. “Alexis, we have to pull over!”

But we couldn’t just pull over. We were right next to a bridge that was also a highway. And boats were coming up quickly behind us.

For 15 additional agonizing minutes, as we coasted to calmer waters, I battled the urge to just succumb and turn on the faucet. As soon as we reached the canal, I knew the hour was upon me. I darted to the rear end of the boat – nearly taking out Nissa’s pregnant sister-in-law – put my feet on the ladder off the back and let my butt kiss the water’s surface. There, in the Tampa bay, in front of million dollar condos, a pair of people I’d met only hours before, a boat full of old fishermen and my sweet host family, I proceeded to pee for no less than 10 straight minutes. All I could think was A) This would be mortifying if it didn’t feel so damn good, and B) Thank God I put my suit on. No one knew where to look. It was the best of times and the worst of times.

We got home in time to get cleaned up for our lady date. We were putting on makeup and we were going to eat somewhere fancy. We went to edison in South Tampa. If I could actually describe the pork belly BLT appetizer and peanut butter dessert we had there and come even close to doing it justice, I would. But I can’t. You’d just have to taste them. Aside from the bomb ass dinner, we did get a show as well. I don’t know what it was about the table behind us, but it was just full of characters. First up … a couple who was beyond interested in my Korean Chicken and Waffles entree.

“Oh, look at that … she got the chicken and waffles.” the woman said, less than one foot away from me.
“Oh man, that does look amazing,” her partner added for good measure.
“Is that a sauce on there? That’s a sauce on there.”
“It looks so interesting. I bet it’s good.”
“What kind of sauce do you think that is, hon? A sweet sauce? A spicy sauce? I wonder …”
“I don’t know, hon! Sure looks wonderful.”

This went on for a few minutes until I finally turned around, smiled, and said, “I know, I’m pretty excited about it, too.” And they felt satisfied.

At some point, this duo parted and a new pair entered the scene. I don’t know what sparked their argument (I thought I heard him say “sister”?) but the newcomers behind us got into the biggest, ugliest, most brutal fight. She tried to get up and leave, he convinced her to stay and what followed was the most tense series of photobombs in history. (See examples below).

It was a treat sitting in a restaurant, out of our sweatpants, catching up about her trip to Italy, our marriages and our goals. I text and email Nissa regularly, but nothing can replace the lost art of face-to-face chatting with a great girlfriend. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Sunday funday! We went to Ulele in downtown Tampa. Because we are about eating all of the things, I will tell you that I had a beet and pear salad with whipped goat cheese that changed something in my mouth permanently. I then murdered two lobster rolls and polished it all off with maple and bacon ice cream that was coated in cornflakes. If you’re thinking, “That sounds good,” you would be damn right. It was. It all was.

We left to take little Miss to the splash pad next door to the restaurant. The water was straight-from-the-hose cold, and homegirl wasn’t feelin’ it. The sun was relentless, beating down on my reflector-white forearms. I knew I was burning, but I just didn’t care. We took the long way home, down Bayshore Dr., and I enjoyed my zen-like vacation high.

Even more so than deciding who gets to square dance with Ryan Reynolds, the truest test of friendship is whether your girlfriend is willing to get up at 5:20 in the morning and take you to the airport. Mine was, and she did. It was dark and chilly and, knowing my flight anxiety, she even offered to come in and usher me to the right line. “No, Mom, I should be able to figure it out.” I felt turdy for being so scared to get to my gate.

We hugged. Twice. And I felt some hot tears tapping on the back of my broken eyes. Time for takeoff.

I had been reading “Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail” for the first part of my trip, but decided to switch to “The Universe Has Your Back” by Gabrielle Bernstein for the flight back. I read almost the entire thing, which, let’s be real, when was the last time you ever sat down and just read an entire book, cover to cover? “I can’t remember,” said every mom ever.

The premise of the book, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that ultimately you get back what you put out into the universe. If you look at the universe as your teacher rather than this thing you want to control, but can’t, you’ll be in much better shape when it comes to facing fear and uncertainty. I found it incredibly timely considering my current Facebook feed. Come at things from a place of love, not fear, and you will see change in your life, and in the climate around you. It was a really good read. I’ll get into it more down the road maybe. The ironic part was I was trying so hard to zen out and get into the Spirit Junkie vibes, but the woman in the middle seat was breathing her morningness all over me. It was a difficult mental exercise.

I landed and got my luggage without incident. Hello, world! I am a grownup now! On the way home, I stopped at the grocery to pick up a few things and smirked at how naturally we fall back into our roles. I stepped off the plane and right back into my mom jeans … I mean Toms … I mean … something cool that moms wear.

I have to say thank you to Hank and JoJo for treating me to this mini break. Thank you, sweet girl, for recognizing that I am human and that I work hard. Thank you, Hank, for showing our chicks what a supportive spouse really looks like. I can only hope they end up with a partner as exceptional and practically perfect as mine.

Wheels up! (That’s something people who fly a lot say.)

Wanderlust

Attention campers: Get your ultimate popup packing list

June 29, 2016

Oh, hey you guys. Sorry about that little break there. I had a big project for work and a business trip to Chicago and I dabbled a bit in sun poisoning … It’s been a crazy 8 days of summer. This post is coming from a recent request I got from one of my favorite folks around who just procured a popup camper. You might recall that we have a tenement on wheels that answers to the name Emma.

When it comes to camping in a modest popup, we’ve certainly had our share of wonderful times, as well as times where it was more touch-and-go (who can forget the birthday party hosted by Satan himself?). It took a few hitchings and pitchings before we found our groove, there’s no denying that. It got testy a time or two before the air conditioning kicked up. There was also the time we spent 5 solid hours on top of each other as the Ohio rains came down mercilessly upon us. Not exactly a zen experience.

But we’ve learned that the difference between making memories and simply managing misery often rests in the preparation. Do yourself a favor; Get a few tubs and keep them stocked with the essentials and, with the addition of a few items you want to pack fresh, you’ll be set to savor some family time on a stress-free holiday in Mother Nature’s magical motel.

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“Send me a list of your camping essentials, please! We’re going at the end of July and I’m already freaking out.” my friend text me. Well, I like to think of myself as an oversharer granter of wishes. So, I started by asking Hank what he would consider, “essential” …

Hose for drinking water
Water filter
5 gallon Jerry can (for water)
Pressure regulator
Leveling blocks or 2x4s
Extension cord (Whatever power popup has)

“After that, it’s just how do you wanna live?” He said. You probably don’t know him, but this is a very Hank thing to say.

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Here are the things I keep in my tubs for campsite L-I-V-I-N:

Pudgy Pie Maker
Good folding chairs
Dutch oven and/or cast iron skillet
Flashlights/headlamps
Party lights
Outdoor rug
Bug spray
Sunscreen
Long lighter
Bag of charcoal and lighter fluid
Glow sticks
Collapsible scooters for kids
Bubbles + sidewalk chalk
Coloring books, crayons, Uno, whatever keeps your kids sane when the rain comes
Sleeping bags + pillows
Towels
Hand sanitizer
Dish tub + dish soap + a sponge
Coffee Pot and coffee
Cups and mugs
Box of tissue
Large Ziplock bags
Large trash bags
Pop trashcan
Utensils
Ove gloves
Paper towels and/or cloths
Cocktails
Jugs of drinking water
Foil
Small broom and dustpan
Sandals + gym shoes + hiking boots
Tweezers (for splinters) + First Aid kit with plenty of Band-Aids
Toiletries + face wipes
Clothes + extra clothes (because someone will pee their pants and it might just be you)
Laundry bag (for dirty clothes)
Hats
Raincoats
iPad (Shut up, let’s be real here) loaded with movies
Portable Bluetooth speaker
Chargers
A travel journal that stays in the camper (I write down campground, site # and any special memories from each trip)

This just in! Hank – coming to terms with the endless sea of estrogen in which he’s swimming – just ordered a portable potty for nighttime emergencies. I’ll keep you posted.

Wanderlust

Giving thanks for Biscuits

May 5, 2016

“Just putting ink to paper to let you know how proud I am of you and how inspiring you are – because a text wouldn’t suffice. If you would have told me in college that you were going to carry everything you needed for 4 days on your back and hike a mountain, I wouldn’t have believed it. Proud of you for setting a goal and getting ‘er done. With hiking with half marathons. And those sweet babes of yours are watching their mom set goals and have great adventures and they are taking notes. I’m grateful for you and our friendship. It’s one that inspires and is forever fun. Cheers to you for lacing up your boots and going WILD! Here’s to your next adventure!” – My college roommate

“Wanted to send you some good luck wishes for your hiking trip! Hope your ankle is all healed up and you’ve found a way to pee in front of all the boys. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!! Not just the pee part, but everything, you know … Anyways, be tough, stay safe, don’t cry and have fun! Virtual side hug to you ?” – Friend and former coworker

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I share these personal notes because I gotta tell you guys, as humbling as it is to have a steep-ass summit bring you to a quivering halt, breathless and intimidated beyond measure, it is far more humbling to have the people you love, in spite of all their own busyness, take a moment to show their support for your crazy exploits. Because so many people sent well wishes and sat through recounts of our journey, I would be remiss not to officially wrap this series up with some words of gratitude. Because no experience or blessing or accomplishment means a thing without gratitude.

Yes, I’m grateful for the hike. I think it’s safe to say the days I get to spend standing on a dirt path overlooking some of the most magnificent slivers of creation and not in a windowless office are few and too far between. Turning my face toward the thrashing wind on a wide-open bald made me feel alive and small and awake. It gave me perspective and appreciation for sweet simplicity and a natural majesty that’s so often out of sight and out of mind. “How could you see that and not believe in God?” my mother-in-law asked. And she’s right. I imagine the Lord carving and crafting and painting with a fine artist’s hand as he composed the trail. Knowing how special it was, he set it aside so only those who sought such beauty could set their eyes upon it. It’s a bit poetic, I suppose, but the scenery encroaches on your soul in a way that alters your perception. Food tastes different. The air smells alive. The terrain touches all of your senses.

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There’s a saying for backpackers, “Hike your own hike.” It means go at your own pace, take it all in, make the most of your experience. I think, while we were almost always together, Hank, my brother and I did find ways to make the adventure what we each needed it to be. There were times I walked alone and I found a comfort in actually hearing the voice inside me for a change, rather than just dismissing it or making note as it dictates more tasks. There were times we hiked together, and I relished the support and the laughter. I asked myself, “When was the last time we laughed at something other than our kids?”
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I loved our little group of AT misfits – the rookies with their stash of desserts, The General and his futile attempts to make my brother comply with the rules, the Lieutenant with his worldly stories and constant gear adjustments. People come into our lives in the strangest ways. Sometimes their role is small and sometimes it’s big, but I’ve learned that the amount of time someone spends in your life doesn’t directly impact their impression on your character. Tremendous change can come from a few brief moments, or days. The odds are somewhat decent I’ll never put my sleeping mat down next to these folks ever again. But one time I did, and it will stay with me always.

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt a little bit like a badass walking off the trail. It wasn’t an easy hike and it wasn’t the easiest weather, but there was a joy in the adversity of it all. My friends all say, “I don’t know how you did that.” But anything is possible when you have no alternative. You have to keep moving forward in order to meet your dream on the other side, to see it through to its completion. I found, just when I felt like I had nothing left, God gave me a reprieve. Whether it was a portrait-worthy overlook, or patch of flat land, or friendly passerby, something always saved me.

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“Would you do it again?” they ask.  And I answer with a self-assured, 100 percent, yes. I think in part because we’re so financially invested now (equipment is expensive as shit), but also I know what a few days in the woods really looks like. It was challenging and ugly and breath-taking. It was the craziest thing we’ve ever done that seemed oddly sane once we got there. My grand illusions were demystified, and I loved the true grit and glory that remained after the reality washed everything else away.
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And finally, I often have friends ask what surprised me most about the experience. It wasn’t the sleeping conditions or the trailmates or the food –  although there were a few thrills tied to all of those things. It was honestly the support I got from people who probably shouldn’t have given a shit. The first excerpt in this post is from my college roommate. She recently adopted 2 young children and has about as much spare time as Ryan Seacrest at the height of his career. When I found a hand-written letter in my mailbox from her after the trip, I sat down on my front stoop, read it, choked up and considered what her home must have been like when she made the time to send it. It isn’t easy in the chaos of playdates and preschool and snacks and spills and diapers and learning Bulgarian to push pause and acknowledge a life outside of your own. It just isn’t. But she did. I keep the note on the dresser in my bedroom as a reminder of how no one is alone in their ambitions.

Words of support came via snail mail, chat bubble, text and email, and I think it surprised me so much because in my mind this was just a little adventure we were going to go on. It only touched our small little snow globe of a life. But I think the truth is, when anyone chases down a dream, everyone celebrates a little bit because it means their dream is still alive. We rejoice when others remind us there’s more to our lives than the 6am-10pm grind. Because let’s face it, it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. It can be hard to step outside of the routine and freestyle for a bit, no matter how high the item is on our bucket list. But every once in a while somebody does it and all of the adult world drinks to the fact that their trip overseas or DIY project or race or girls trip is absolutely possible. It prompts us to pull out our journals or dream boards or Pinterest accounts and dust off our own dreams, and maybe even move just one step closer to checking them off.

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I can’t adequately express how thankful and, yes, humbled I was by every single well wisher and congratulatory message before, after and along the way. I am grateful for the guys in our group. I am grateful that pieces of the planet that look like that still exist and I pray my children get to see them some day. I am thankful for your readership, comments and emojis. They have warmed my heart and reaffirmed my decision to document these moments in my life, no matter how self-indulgent it feels at the time. I’m grateful for the laughter, the climbs, the descents and, of course, I’m thankful for the chance to make Biscuits out there in the brilliant, vast wilderness.

 Until next time … 

Wanderlust

Makin’ Biscuits in the woods, Pt. 5

April 28, 2016

Day 4
Still cocooned in body heat and sleeping bag, I squinted one eye and opened the other. Sounds of zips and tarps and nylon folding filled the dusty barn walls as thru-hikers slowly started clearing out. Knowing we had our longest day ahead of us, with over 9 miles to cover to get back to the Mountain Harbour Hikers Shelter where we started, there had been some discussion the night before about hoofing it a bit before stopping to cook up breakfast on the trail.

My jaw worked vigorously on a peanut butter Clif bar as I went about my temporarily typical morning routine. I worked methodically  – deflating my sleeping pad and rolling it tight, doing the same with my sleeping bag. Pulling on fresh socks and lacing up my boots. Putting everything back into my pack just the way it was the day before. Tightening the straps. Adjusting and stuffing and pulling. Less than a week ago, I’d been so intimidated at the thought of living out of this thing, and now it was second nature. It was familiar and starting to lose its fresh-from-the-showroom stiffness, which made me feel a sense of pride. Like I’d earned something. Like I’d dulled the giant scarlet letter that marked me a rookie.

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I walked into the rousing, semi-frigid morning air, the sun boldly showing itself now over the picturesque mountains, to brush my teeth. This was it, I thought. It’s the last day of our big, crazy, I-can’t-believe-we’re-doing-this adventure. A few thru-hikers sat by the fire with their oatmeal and Oreos and coffee and I envied them. As far as they were concerned, this was just another morning in a 6-month-long string of mornings spent on a mountain somewhere on a seemingly endless trail. We would be getting off before the day was over. It was a bittersweet pill I wasn’t ready to swallow without any food in my stomach.

The General went ahead to start ticking off the mileage, and the Lieutenant, Just Mat, Gravy and I followed shortly after. If you’ve been following this series loyally, you might recall the hill we descended to get down to the barn. Hank called it a bitch and now, in the early hours of our last day on the trail, that hill was making us hers. After so many victories, I was humbled by Mother Nature for what would be the first of many times that day; My exhalations a mix of steamy fog and burning, strenuous gasps. The arduous climb from camp got us back on to the Appalachian Trail, but served only as an aperitif to the unrelenting slopes we’d soon be summiting.

It was roughly 8 o’clock in the morning and on any other Wednesday I would be settling into my cubicle with a thermos of hot coffee and an inbox full of asks. But not this Wednesday. On this particular Wednesday, I was gradually making progress on a steep gradient against a stiff, sharp, merciless wind. I wrestled my able-bodied opponent the best I could, but the beating was brutal. Lieutenant Blazer, true to form, went by. Just Mat faded first into a dot and then completely from the horizon. Gravy stood by me, I think only from the fear I would blow away or lay down and surrender myself entirely to the elements.

After nothing but up, we reached a bald that went, you guessed it, up a little higher. I shuffled like a snowbird on her way to bridge club and chipped away at the elevation in tiny, manageable doses. About a third of the way up I threw a message into the forceful wind and let it blow back to Hank, “When we reach the top of this thing … I don’t care what … it looks like … I’m stopping to make my fu@k!ng oatmeal.” After 15 years with a person, they become very attune to your signals. For instance, I know when Hank puts his hands on his hips, he’s about to call it quits on something, and he knows that if it’s been more than 3 hours since we had a sizable meal, I am likely a hangry, hangry turd.

Let me put this in perspective for you. When I was 3 years old – maybe 4 – my mom accidentally left me at home. She made it all the way to the ball diamonds before she realized that I, her baby girl, was still at home. The General and Just Mat, as a matter of fact, were both in the van that pulled away and left me, just a young pup, standing at the glass door. All because I didn’t get my shoes on fast enough. Anyway, my mother, who felt terrible obviously, still laughs about that fact that after she tore ass home, the first thing I said was, “I didn’t know what I was going to have for dinner.” Food – or the absence of it after a few hours – is a real source of stress in my life.

So, as I tortoised my way up that bald, there was no question about my resolve. And meeting my demand, the second we reached the top, I saw a handful of large boulders, dropped my back and fired up the JetBoil. It was like eating on the side of the road as a procession of semi trucks drive by at 80 mph, but I didn’t care. Wind be damned, my belly was empty. Lesson No. 8: Hiking before breakfast is not for everyone and can result in dramatic outbursts. In my blinding state of starvation I accidentally sporked more than my half of the oatmeal into my bowl without even noticing. “Man, you finished yours fast,” I remarked to Hank, not realizing my gluttonous error. I only found out I’d hogged the oats when he retold the story later.

We eventually caught up to the rest of our crew. “We stopped back there to eat,” I shared. “I knew it,” Matt said. “I told The General you have to eat. You always have to eat.” Hank just smiled. “Well, it’s good you did,” The General chimed in. “Because I think we have a big climb when we get out of this patch of woods.” Fine. Good. Bring it, you mother lovin’ trail. I got oatmeal in me now, son. And then I saw it. The bald, or mountain, or Everest, or grand finale, or whatever name indicates a monstrosity.

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There was a long approach until you were actually on the incline. So you had plenty of time to anticipate the amount of suck you would soon be sifting through. “Find a rhythm or a count,” The General said. “I do a 1,2…1,2… and then I rest for 30 seconds when I need it.” On that final morning I learned a lot of things. I learned that the body will follow what the mind believes is possible. I learned that wind-burn is nature’s lipstick. And I learned what a false peak is. Do you know what a false peak is? Let me enlighten you. A false peak is when you work your ass off to get to what, you think, is the top of ginormous mountain, only to come around a turn and discover a mountain baby on top of the mountain you originally saw, and perhaps even more of an incline after that. See also: soul crusher, spirit smasher, and son of a …

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After receiving my back alley thigh beating from the false peaks (they really did feel real), we reached the true top. It was one of those things where, in your mind, you’re thinking, I just wanna get there, I just wanna get there, but once we did, the wind was so deafening and violent, we just wanted to get outta there. We snapped some pictures and, as soon as The General made it, began the subtle descent down the ridge. We walked along a worn track, about 10 inches wide, through a vacant cattle pasture with rolling landscapes I’ve only seen on screens as part of other people’s lives. We endured a brutal wind bashing to earn those views, and I drank them in as deeply as I could.

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When you left the mountain top, you entered into a completely different climate. Suddenly we were among giant rocks and mossy carpeting. This leg of the section was probably the most technical. Every step required a strategy and, though all of our legs were burning, the boulders demanded athleticism. There are certain things that stick, for whatever reason – the smell of your parent’s house, the lyrics to Let It Go. For me, Hank in that part of the woods that day will stay with me. Maybe it’s because his shirt perfectly complemented the emerald spring growth, or that he looked so happy in this final chapter of the journey. I don’t know.

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Our descent was long and there was plenty of time to catch up with each other and chat. When we stopped for a quick lunch with just about 1.5 miles left (as a girl walks, of course), Just Mat decided to tell The General that he, Biscuits and Gravy would not be staying in the hiker’s hostel tonight as The General had hoped, but rather, driving to find a hotel with a hot shower and a decent restaurant, the likes of which we could completely destroy with our forks. The General didn’t like what he was hearing. And thus began yet another playful-yet-truthful spat between Just Mat and The General.

You see, The General has been in my brother’s life since before I was born. I would argue that no one on this planet knows Matt quite like The General does, and perhaps, no one ever will. They speak almost every day and thrive under a communication style that borders on verbally abusive and tough love. Backpacking is The General’s jam. And Matt was kind of like burnt toast; he was there for the jam, but he wasn’t into it enough to get out of the toaster on time. He participated for the sake of the participants, but served more as comic relief than an enthusiast. But I tell ya, there were so many times his sharp quips and stupid movie quotes broke up the fatigue. Lesson No. 9: When shit gets real, everybody loves a comedian. 

They exchanged snarky jabs (hurt feelings under a veil of sarcasm, as identified by any woman who has ever been around any man) broken up by fits of laughter the rest of the way down the trail. The General felt it was typical of Just Mat to do what made him happy without regard for anyone else, and Just Mat hinted at the fact that The General couldn’t just be grateful that he joined them for the trip, regardless of whether or not he stayed in the hostel that night. I was just happy to have something to listen to, even if it was grown ass men bitching at each other one minute and regurgitating the Revenge of the Nerds song the next. Anything to take my mind off the lower half of my body. The exaggerated descent that made up the last part of our section hike was the part I felt the most the next morning. My knees and ankles screamed at me to stop. Every step down was like dropping an 80-pound bag of flour on top of your joints. They hated me. Lesson No. 10: Just because it’s downhill, doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

Leaving

After what felt like hours, we came to the road that led right back to Mountain Harbour. The five of us strolled down the shoulder of the somewhat-busy street, swinging our trekking poles and salivating over various rewards. I wanted to take my boots off and eat my Snickers. The General had a cooler of beer. Matt couldn’t stop thinking about a shower. In the movie version, we would come into the shot at a slow motion stroll for effect. Our heads would be high. The dirt smeared across our faces and elbows would represent the obstacles we’d overcome and make us endearing. Someone would start a slow clap. But this was no movie and the truth was, we were just a stinky, battered group of nearly middle-aged (some of us closer than others) section hikers from the Midwest.

We didn’t linger long in the hostel parking lot, which felt anticlimactic considering the feats we’d conquered together over the last several days. Our goodbyes were brief but sincere. My brother was a man on a mission. We piled into his truck. “Ya know,” I said, “the scary thing is I can’t really smell us.” Matt sucked down a Gatorade. “I can’t wait to ask for something and have someone bring it to me instead of pouring hot water into a bag of shit and then having everyone ask me how it tastes.”

We made it to Middlesboro, Kentucky, where we stopped for the night. The smell of a clean hotel room shook something loose in my nasal cavity and suddenly I had all the smells. We should have been ashamed. I’m not even sure what parts of the body those smells actually come from, to be honest. The warm steam of the showers combined with, 5 days of travel and hiking were nauseating. After transforming back into humans, we went back down to the desk and asked for a restaurant recommendation. “What do you have in mind?” the gentleman behind the counter asked. “Cheese fries, or a bloomin onion or …” I began to dream aloud. Turns out, Mexican was the popular cuisine in Middlesboro. They had 4 options in that category, all owned by the same family. We picked the closest one.

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The waiter knew he had us very shortly into the meal. “We’ll start with queso.” I said. “How big is the dish?” He pointed to the salsa bowls. “Or I have a $12 one, but it’s huge.” “Yes, that! We’ll take that.” I said excitedly. Carnitas have never been that good. I cleared a good part of the cheese trough and my entire meal only to take 3 warm cookies from a display next to the hotel checkin counter for dessert. I didn’t hate myself. Full and happy, I had one place left to go. I think the boys were watching Wahlburgers, but I climbed into that bed, with its tightly fitted, clean sheets and, for the first time in almost a week, I drifted off to sleep with a single thought.

Wanderlust

Makin’ Biscuits in the Woods, Pt. 4

April 25, 2016

It was a seemingly uneventful Saturday night in early March. The chicks were having a sleepover with their little buddy from the sitter’s and everyone was chasing and screaming and actin a fool in the basement. After consuming half of a chicken club pizza and a warm chocolate chip cookie or 12, I figured it would be best if I went down and got in a workout. I grabbed my laptop and a big cup of water and headed south. I still don’t know if I missed the last step or I did all the steps right and am just my mother’s daughter or what, but I heard a crack! from my ankle region and went down. My water went flying and covered the wall … my laptop flew into the baseboard. Responding to my shrieking sobs, Hank came flying down the stairs from the kitchen. No words … I had no words. Until I managed to get out, “Is my computer OK?” “Let’s just deal with this situation first and then we’ll look at that, alright?” Then he half-joking, half-shitting-himself, looked up from my ankle and into my eyes and said, “We leave in 3 weeks to go backpacking. Three. Weeks.” A lot of ice, elevation and laziness got me in my boots by go time. But on the third day of our adventure, the crack! came back.

Ankle

Day 3

I woke up from my last 20-minute stretch of sleep and heard footsteps and voices in the distance. The thru-hikers were breaking camp at Roan Mountain High Knob Shelter. I was alive. I looked over at Hank. “I don’t want to get out of my sleeping bag,” he said. “I thought I was dying from hypothermia last night,” I responded, in an I’ll-top-that tone. “What the hell were we thinking with this?” True to Princess Biscuits form, I grabbed what was mine and hauled ass to the shelter to get out of the thrashing mountain wind and in to Jetboil some coffee and breakfast. One by one our crew Frankinsteined their way into the small cabin; stiff and frozen and cranky in a way that the Starbucks Via just couldn’t thaw. I pulled a fresh pair of underwear and a new sports bra out of my pack and assessed my dressing room options. I could either go out to the tent or climb up a shady ladder to the formidable second level of the shelter to change. Based on my PTSD from the night before, it was looking like the attic had it. Let me ask you something … Have you ever stripped down to your birthday suit in a 30-something-degree log enclosure that’s too squatty to stand up all the way? Well, you’re missing quite a thrill. I gave those mice a show, I tell ya.

Between frozen water bladders and frozen spirits, it was slow going that Tuesday morning. The most exciting piece of conversation was around a splatter of spilled coffee on Just Mat’s boot tip that looked like an old man. The longer we stood, the more my 10 toes felt like 2 blocks of ice jammed into cement blocks. It was my brother who suggested he, Hank and I take off since we were packed up. Movement does wonders for numb appendages, I can testify to that. The three of us spent that morning alone, first strolling down a rocky bed under a canopy of soon-to-be green branches, frost from the night before blowing off the treetops, sending majestic flurries through the streaming sunbeams. Eventually the terrain turned to a more traditional forest. I spent those hours trailing my husband and talking to my brother. Really talking to my brother, without a million kids running around or tension about a businesses matter or softball schedules. I had drinks with a girlfriend after we got back and I mentioned this time to her. “That is such a gift,” she said. Kelly lost her brother when we were young and I’ve often thought what a slap in her face it is to waste my own sibling relationships. And it’s true, it was a gift. I’ll always have that morning to retreat to when I need it. A particular fondness, radiating that morning sunlight, will always coat that memory in my mind.

We passed a young man at a turn in the trail. “Go ahead,” I said. “We’re pretty slow.” “That’s OK, I’m waiting for someone.” he replied with a smile, and we trekked on. Eventually we came to a road. We crossed and searched for where the trail picked back up on the other side. No luck. A young girl emerged from the path we’d just left. “Huh,” she said. “My brother isn’t here and he usually waits for me. Having trouble finding the trail?” “Yeah. I think we did see your brother though about a mile back. Blue coat?” “That’s him! We must have missed a turn,” she concluded. She turned around only to save our bacon by yelling back down at us a minute later that we’d missed a redirect. In hindsight, the logs that were piled where we should have turned but didn’t were actually a fairly clear indicator. We probably gave ourselves an extra half a mile on the day, if that. The error wasn’t surprising given the fact that we were gazing down 90 percent of the time. Rule No. 6: Try to look up every once in awhile. You’ll like the view. That was one of the most disappointing parts of the journey for Hank. “You’re in this beautiful area, with these amazing views, and you spend the majority of the time looking one foot in front of you on the ground.” It was true, your best bet of avoiding injury was to constantly calculate your next step to avoid roots, rocks and ruts. A necessary evil if you want to stay upright.

MeBalds1

A short time later, I heard a familiar voice, “Hey guys! There’s a real bathroom down here! It’s really nice!” It was Lieutenant Blazer. He’d found a visitors area for day hikers and took full advantage of the facilities. We were at the base of Three Bald Hike, a grassy section of the trail with vast views of purplish-gray mountains on every side. Almost as soon as we left the asylum of the forest, the wind began lashing out at my cheek pudge. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket over my ball cap and secured it to save my skin. The gusts carried any chance of conversation out of your mouth and back down the mountain like a dryer at the end of a car wash. Being as we were on a fairly challenging incline, I didn’t have much to say anyway. This section was interesting since, unlike when you were in the maze of the woods, you could see what was ahead of you, a feature that was both daunting and sobering.

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It had been several hours since breakfast by this point and the balds led us down into a windy route with strange-looking scraggly trees. I was getting a little lightheaded and the twists and turns weren’t helping. Finally, I could hear The General’s voice. That meant they were stopped for lunch. I picked up my pace a bit and came down the muddy hill to where the men sat sorting through granola bars. I heard pack hit dirt behind me and turned just in time to see Gravy sliding down the path. First fall of the trip. “I’m OK!” he assured me as he pulled only half of his right trekking pole out of a mud puddle. The suction of the wet dirt clenched the bottom, stabbing side of the stick and offered only a slight struggle before he reclaimed it.

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Of course any time we eat, it’s a highlight for me, but I have to ask: You guys, have you had Justin’s Maple Almond Butter? I don’t know if it’s really that good or it was just that good on the side of a mountain, but I’m telling you, we slapped some of it on a flour tortilla during lunch that day and it was like a creamy hug for my soul. With a full tank of gas and the promise of one more night sleeping out on the trail, we pressed on. The afternoon was a woodsy decline full of switchbacks and proof of Mother Nature’s sense of humor: roots. They are the bark that bites. Even if you’re looking right at them, you still trip over roots. I swear, they’re a magical height designed to hook the toe of your boot and send you hurdling toward the earth for one frightening flash of a second. All while, I imagine, the forest fairies point and laugh at this America’s Funniest Home Videos montage. I love it when they really fall, they say. But on that steady descent on the afternoon of the third day, I hit one of those stinkers and felt a familiar crack! Game over, I thought. Hank knew it, too. The sound, my obvious hesitation moving forward, the fact that we’d just been through this 3 weeks ago. “I was thinking about how I could throw myself down so we had an excuse to get rescued and no one would think you were wussing out,” he later told me. Did everyone think I was going to wuss out?

My ankle was sore but sturdy enough to keep me propelling forward. The rest of the afternoon was quiet for this girl. I focused on my steps and kept my fears to myself and soon we came to The General standing at a small side path. After 7.1 miles (plus our morning detour), we’d reached Over Mountain Shelter, a large barn that stood at the foot of a post card-esque panoramic view. We made our way down the steep hill to the building and I remember Hank noting, “This is gonna be a real bitch in the morning.” I filed it away in the folder in my brain labeled: Thoughts to freak the frick out about in a few hours.

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I walked into the barn and into the strangest adult sleepover of my life. We climbed the ladder to the second floor, which was essentially just a large hay-mow. We put our sleeping mats and sleeping bags down in a neat little row like preschcoolers preparing for nap time. I grabbed my snack (the Snickers) and went down to the fire. A girl about my age was whipping up some ramen and two older gentleman were working on the wood teepee over the fire. I struck up a conversation when it felt appropriate and waited a respectful amount of time before asking her what had crossed my mind the second I saw her. “So, how are you able to be out here for 6 months?” It’s the question I had for all the thru-hikers. How do you have the time and the resources and the ability to detach long enough to hike this entire trail. In some cases, it was easy to tell. They were recent college grads, or retired, or kind of a bum … But in a lot of cases I just couldn’t figure it out. It fascinated me. “Well, actually I worked for a tech startup in Seattle,” she said. “One day, I’d had enough, so I decided to go for a walk.” I sat on the log and stared at her like she was Deepak Chopra … or Oprah. “That’s so freaking cool.” I said, like a 7th grader to a senior. I was awe-struck. The super zenned-out gentleman next to her did fire and rescue in Wyoming and was a grade A badass. The third guy resembled Bob Ross and was so kind and calm I never pushed to hear his backstory. The one I came up with in my mind was far better than anything he could have said.

THeBarn1

They started trickling in … some just to eat and then press on, others to shack up in the barn. Fanning my internal flame for the trail life, the thru-hikers would greet all of the new arrivals by trail name. “Hey, Ruffles! Where’s Willow?” “Hey, Johnny Walker! You made it. You must’ve hauled ass, man!” “Grill! I haven’t seen you since the Smokies. What’s the story?” It was a club and we were there on a guest pass. I wanted in. I sat with my eyes open and my mouth agape with a jerky grin. Then my body caught on to the fact that I’d stopped moving and, once again, I was cold. I shivered, at times violently, at times with control, as I spooned pasta from a pouch past my wind-burned lips. “Do you want this dessert tonight?” Hank asked. I shot him a what-the-hell-do-you-think glare. A Raspberry Crumble with chocolate cookie topping wouldn’t fix everything, but it sure as shit took the edge off. Just Mat knocked over the bag with the juices from his chicken teriyaki and we all watched, helpless as they ran across the sleeping platform on which we sat. “The mice are gonna come.” The General said. My brother, in an act I can only assume was a byproduct of exhaustion, reached out with his glove and pushed the liquid to the edge. We all scrunched our faces in unison and disengaged.

TheBarn2

As much as I loved being a fireside voyeur and taking in all the trail talk and mile tallies, I turned in early that night. I was praying for sleep and warmth since we were technically out of the wind. I was also hoping the mice stayed away. I put on all of my clothes, including both of my jackets, and pulled every drawstring closure on my sleeping bag to keep me sealed in tight. I thought I heard one at some point in the night, but I can’t be sure. In the early hours of the morning, I (shocker) had to pee. I drunkenly climbed out of my sleep sack, put on my sandals and headlamp and scurried down the ladder. As I wondered out into the random smattering of trees behind the barn, I saw light from another headlamp and changed directions. Then I saw another light. And still one more. It was like a game of hide and seek with full bladders and bears. Or like the scene at the end of ET where the scary guys are coming for him. Rule No. 7: When you find yourself in the woods with other sleepy bathroom buddies, shine your light toward them, drop trou and get it done. They can’t see your fanny if they’re temporarily blinded. 

To be continued …