Hiking Practice: A Deux

As the date of our Appalachian Trail day hike draws ever closer, Jeff and I decided to schedule another hiking practice. The original plan was to spend an evening eating and sleeping in our own little woods. Hurricane Matthew, however, disrupted our idea. With 85*+ temperatures, swarms of quarter-sized mosquitoes (I only wish I was exaggerating) and snakes on the move, we decided to pass on the sleeping-under-the-stars portion of the proposal.

Plan B wasn’t nearly as rustic, but we made do.

Our first order of business was to obtain water. Jeff and I walked through a small copse of trees to reach the tiny creek on the front corner of our property. Then we filled our bottles with the tea-colored water that bubbled along over the rocks and decaying limbs. The water we collected was certainly suspiciously-colored, but lacked any visible sediment. We could only hope that filtration would prove successful and there would be no violent cases of intestinal distress.

With all necessary supplies collected, it was time to start a fire. We have in our possession matches and fire sticks and cigarette lighters, but I wanted to create fire with a magnesium bar. Even if I never have to do so again for the rest of my life, I needed to know that I could.

We gathered sticks of all sizes, pine cones and straw, and dry leaves for a tinder ball. Jeff demonstrated the proper technique once, then let me have at it. I put down a paper towel with crushed dead leaves. After scraping a pile of tiny silver flecks from the magnesium bar, I struck the other side, hoping to create a flame. Nothing doing. I tried again. And again. Then one more time. After a couple more failures, I eventually figured out how to produce a weak flicker. Even that, however, is no guarantee that fire will ignite. This procedure is not nearly as easy as the survival guys on TV make it look. Remembering a tip from some such show, I ran inside (Oops! Cheated a little there!) and returned with a cotton ball. I used this to make a nest for the metallic flakes, and vigorously pulled the striker against the magnesium bar. The first real burst of sparks startled me and I dropped everything. Recognizing an opportunity for success, I reconfigured the cotton ball and struck again. Flames! Big yellow flames! Suddenly I was Tom Hanks dancing in front of the bonfire in “Castaway”. I had created FIRE!

It was a moment.

We stoked our fire with limbs, graciously provided by Hurricane Matthew, and had a substantial campfire rolling in no time. Once that was underway, we turned our attention to food prep.

Recently Jeff had returned from a gun show with a gift for me (let that sink in) and I have been eager to try it out. Today was the day. We took the bottles of our freshly-collected but undeniably brown water and attached my brand new Life Straw filter. Timidly I took a sip. It tasted like – nothing really – but when your water starts out that discolored, nothing is a good thing.

We measured out filtered water and put it on the miniature camp stove to boil, which took about 90 seconds…sweet! We measured out the water and added it to our pouches of freeze-dried beef stew. After waiting the allotted ten minutes, we enjoyed a tasty meal, accompanied by a pretty decent cup of coffee, in our blue ceramic lumberjack mugs. Jeff and I sat in front of the crackling fire, which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Had we not been “camping” on the back patio, it would have made a picture-perfect commercial for an outdoor-sy magazine.

I wish the conditions outside had been more conducive for this newbie camping diva to sleep under the stars (comfortably snuggled up in a sleeping bag inside a three-season tent). We will try that when the weather cools off a bit and the first hard freeze wipes out a significant portion of the mosquito population. The extended AT camping event is scheduled for early spring, so we’ve got time.

Jeff and I are about two weeks away from our day hike. I am ready. I think. There is an elevation factor to consider, but I am comfortable carrying a loaded pack and walking a reasonable distance, say, about ten miles. I now know how to make fire and filter water. I have my hiking shoes and several layers of clothing available, as the conditions may require. Best of all, I have my favorite person on the planet right here by my side to plan and prepare, then to enjoy the journey.

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Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who??

Over the last several years, life has taken its twists and turns. As the scenery around me changes, so too have the ways I define myself. I’ve been chubby and miserable inside my own skin. I’ve been lean and healthy and strong. (That one is much better.) I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a runner. I’ve been the mother of a screaming baby and the mother of an adult (This one, too, is much better.) Each season of life has its benefits and challenges. Sometimes I do miss the Old, but there is something exciting about the New.

Professionally, my New is becoming a Writer Girl. I’ve spent the last 22+ years teaching some pretty incredible kids how to get the words out of their heads and onto the page. That was a terrific season, but as happens with seasons, change arrived. Now I am seizing the opportunity to put into practice all those things I learned from teaching them. Some days the words come blazing out of my mind and onto the screen almost faster than my fingers can type. Other days, like a bashful kitten, they have to be gently coaxed out of hiding. Whether short or long, easy or difficult, each finished piece leaves me in stunned amazement to see that something I have always dreamed of is becoming a reality.

In my personal life as well, there is another New. I am becoming a Hiker Girl.

I remember a few years ago when we started going to a new church, we were invited to a big overnight camp-out. In the woods. In a tent. Without a restroom. There would be nature all around. That’s right, bugs and dirt. I really liked this group of people and wanted to get to know them. Certainly I didn’t want to wimp out. But, did I mention the bugs? I had it on good authority that spiders were allowed to roam freely in these woods. I would not have access to a stationary toilet or electricity or running water. What kind of Deliverance prototype were they luring me into???? As if those things were not enough, there was much talk of the previous year when an ice storm arrived during the night and people were trapped inside their tents the next morning, zippers frozen solidly in place. The temptation to fake an illness was strong.

We went to that camp-out, in spite of all my misgivings. While I would be inclined to emphasize the incredibly rustic nature of these surroundings, it is only fair to admit that someone made allowances for prima donnas like me. There was a generator and a port-a-potty. Several of the men arrived early to clear up debris so there was a nice, neat camping area. Women brought crockpots of chili and several varieties of homemade pound cakes. After dinner, a pied piper led a group on a quest to tree a raccoon, a southern rite of passage of sorts. All night there was a roaring fire, carefully tended by those who chose not to go traipsing off into the woods after dark. The night was cool, but there were no frozen tent zippers or spider attacks. We all awoke, wild hair and backs a bit stiff from a night on the ground. The faithful stoked the fire, while the rest of us stamped the cold from our limbs and waited for a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage.

It. Was. Awesome.

A couple months ago, Jeff and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m not even sure how the subject came up, much less became a “good idea.” I’ve matured a lot (OK, a little) from those prima donna days a decade ago. I’m more active and physically fit, and not one to back down from a challenge. So, hike the infamous AT we shall.

Part of me is really looking forward to this adventure: Jeff and me out there in the great unknown, taking on a huge challenge, with nothing but our wits and an overstuffed backpack to draw from. Part of me is keenly aware that we are in the honeymoon phase of this venture. We take daily walks (2-5 miles based on the time available), strengthen our muscles at the gym, become students of AT survival, and buy one vital piece of equipment at a time. The reality is, after our Daily Hiking Practice, we enter our air conditioned home, have a popsicle, take a shower, then sleep in our incredibly comfortable bed. Something tells me the Trail won’t be quite that easy.

Our initial plan is quite simple. We are going to begin with a day hike this fall, about five miles out then back again. Based on how that goes, in the spring we will try camping for two or three days. Before that happens, we will most likely do an at-home camp-out to practice getting water and eating and sleeping in the Great Outdoors – with the equally Great Indoors nearby, just in case that prima donna rears her dainty little head.

(This post was originally published on my Facebook page, Running After His Heart, but fits the scope of this blog as well.)