Campground Review: Greenheart Forest

Late spring was a busy time for us. I had several client sessions, back-to-back camping trips, a lot of time spent trying to clean out my mom’s house, and the end of the Girl Scout season to wrap up. 

When we got home from our trip to Little Tybee Island in May, we were all suitably exhausted, and agreed that while we were happy for all of our adventuring…we needed some time at home. 

So naturally, right after that, The Dyrt announced a program for their Rangers that involved free camping during the month of June, and well…who wants to turn down free camping? 

June was already pretty busy for us, but we managed to find time to book two of the campgrounds available for reimbursement. The first of these was at Greenheart Forest in Pisgah National Forest, which happened to be right in the backyard of Max Patch. I invited Jordi and her kids, and despite the abysmally wet forecast, the kids and I set off Friday afternoon for what we hoped would be a trip filled with friends and hiking. 

As circumstances would have, this was a wet, wet, wet, trip. The ground was squishy, firewood was sopping, and the rain Friday night got heavier and heavier. Jordi wasn’t going to be able to make it until the next day which left me setting up the tent alone in the rain, and I was nervous because the website for Greenheart Forest stated that only vehicles with 4WD would be able to get the 200 yards from the parking area to the campsites. 

That turned out to be true. Maybe in dry weather my RAV4 could have handled it, but certainly not in a torrential downpour. Thankfully David, the campground host/owner, offers a portage service for only $5. But then as we were unpacking the car, I discovered Billy had failed to pack…the rainfly for our tent. Cue facepalm.

David to the rescue again—one of his campsites has a 10 person tent already set up with cots and chairs; his “glamping” site. It was an extra fee, but one I was happy to pay in order to have a dry place to sleep, and I promised Billy I was okay with it because his error led to us having a tent already set up and ready to go—and much larger than the tent we brought.

The Campground

Personal mishaps aside, once we finally got settled in we were in love. It’s a statement to this place that even with all of those mishaps, I was able to keep a positive—if not harried—attitude, and that David was patient and kind to us the entire time, whatever his first impressions of me must have been. 

This is, more than a campground, a place of healing. Educated and certified in Forest Bathing, David and his wife have created a place at Greenheart Forest for meditation, quiet, and eco therapy. The grounds around the lodge are filled with pollinator gardens and a communal fire pit, and inside the lodge are books on forest bathing, plant identification, and terrapsychology. As you progress to the campsites, he has a gorgeously constructed zen garden–one that provided Jordi and I with a place to breathe, and the kids enjoyed raking the sand, bringing them a sense of grounding they didn’t even realize they were getting. 

There are five campsites total, and all of them are very large and fairly spaced out. We were in site 2 due to needing the tent, and it was perfect for us. The site is huge, with a large fire ring and plenty of space for us to set up our screen house and an additional tent, with room to spare. Of the other sites, one has a sun shade already set up, one has several wooden benches around the fire ring, and while the other two are smaller they are extremely private. All sites have picnic tables, giving the feeling of front country camping, while still in a very primitive, backcountry space. The lodge is available for water, a bathroom, and even a shower, and there is a small pop-up shelter over a bucket that serves as a privy if you want privacy without the walk back to the lodge.

Past the campground, the road leading to the sites turns into a trail that connects with the Buckeye Ridge Trail, and then to Max Patch. Due to time and weather we ended up driving the short distance from the campground to the Max Patch trailhead, but it is only a 3 mile round trip hike, and one I would plan for on a return visit. 

There is a magic to this place. It was cloudy and raining most of our trip, but we had a brief time in the morning when it was just me and the kids when the sun tried to poke through the dripping leaves, twinkling like magic in the trees. And all through the day, when it wasn’t actively raining, mist and fog drifted in and out over our heads. Our kids showed calm and creativity, and there were far fewer squabbles than there usually are when getting that many kids close in age together. Jordi and I, perpetually on our journey of healing from our losses, felt at peace. I didn’t even mind the rain, wet as we all were. As if the rain was for cleansing, as it passed through the energy of the forest.

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4/5. This is a hard one to rate. Because the purpose of this campground is to give people a place to find peace, I felt the need to keep my kids a little on the quieter side, and of course reminding them that the zen garden and the lodge were not for playing, but for meditation and learning. While David never made us feel like our children were unwelcome, if there were more campers I would have been worried our noise may have disturbed others’ purpose for being that.

All that said, if you can make it during a time when it is not busy, or your family dynamic is one where the kids are fine playing with nature, this place is amazing. There is such a gentle energy, and rather than camping in the forest, you really are camping with the forest. David and Jeanette’s love for sharing the outdoors is apparent, and ultimately as long as your family is there to share that love, it won’t matter if the kids are a little rowdy.

In Pursuit of Avoidance

We went to Richmond last weekend, for a trip of many purposes. Most of it was family-related, but we also wanted to celebrate Kairi’s birthday a little early at Bear Creek Lake State Park, as we have done the last two years. She was sad to miss it there this year, so we surprised her with camping and all of her friends at her favorite lake.

In addition to talking about how great it was to see each other, and remarking on how much all the kids have grown, one of the most common things I heard, while surrounded by most of my favorite people, was commenting on all of our adventuring lately.

“You are always going somewhere! I’m so jealous, I wish we could plan for things like that.”

“I’ve been nervous taking the kids camping, but you do it all the time, and you’ve inspired me to try!”

“I love that you share everything on your blog and Instagram, it’s like I get to live vicariously through you!”

Me. The woman who scrolls through instagram covered in kids while my coffee sits in the windowsill and gets cold. Thirty blog posts in my head I’ll never write, watching whatever my kids have on tv while I try to muster up the gumption to get us out of the house for the day. Looking at other mamas who are section hiking the AT, or checking off National Parks, or doing trans-continental bike-packing trips.

Conversations like that make me take a good look at how much of my adventure planning is wanderlust, and how much of it is just FOMO. With the ability to be so connected to everyone else’s adventures, it’s easy to forget just how many people aren’t having epic adventures every day. And to remember that when I look at my circle–my actual circle, not my instagram feed–that we are still pretty adventurous. My kids ask to hike. Almost daily. For our morning tv binges over coffee and “morning milk,” they spend most of the afternoon outside. Part of their pretend play lately has been being thru-hikers on the AT. We have to play “hostel” a lot, where they knock on a door and I let them in to spend the night before they get back on the trail the next morning. Their art is almost exclusively comprised of sunsets, mountains, and tents, and Kairi’s most prized birthday present is a book on plant identification.

It’s true that social media doesn’t tell the whole story. For every adventure the people I referenced above are having, I don’t know how much time they spend NOT adventuring. As a photographer I know all too well how many moments happen in between the ones we capture, edit, and send out to the world. And honestly–this year has been exhausting. I remember a time when camping meant planning. Writing out a camping-specific grocery list, pulling our gear out two days before we left to make sure we had everything, making a list and checking it twice. Now my car is still half packed from the last trip most of the time, and we have forgotten everything from our rain fly, to extra diapers. Minimalist? Sure. And a great exercise in being flexible and learning to improvise. But the constant go-go-go, the need to jump at every opportunity that comes our way, take advantage of every gap in Billy’s schedule where we can fit in a camping trip?

I hate to say it…but it almost makes camping feel like work.

I’ve been using adventure as a way of avoiding my grief over my mom. And while I don’t regret a single one of our trips, and I love how many places we have gone and how ready the kids are to just get in the car and go… I miss the lazy camping trips where we went somewhere familiar, and stayed for a few days. Where we weren’t rushed, and we weren’t chasing anything down, weren’t crashing in a tent on our way to the Next Place, but we were just there for the quiet, and the nature.

I’m not going to stop looking at what I could be doing. It’s how I get ideas. It’s how I find inspiration on the days that my depression makes me want to stay under the covers and disappear. I might not make it to the spectacular locations I see others posing in front of, but it might get me onto a local trail for the day instead. Or I may shoehorn in a trip because let’s face it, give me a day or two at home and I am itching to see somewhere new. And my local trail, or last-minute trip may be all that it takes for someone else to remember that their adventures are however they define them. Even if it’s their own back yard.

Home. And still having fun.

Little Tybee Island: Your Own Private Beach

May is our time of year for secluded beach adventures, it seems.

Last year we took a bikepacking trip to False Cape State Park, which still remains one of my favorite beach trips ever. Living in Tennessee, beach trips are fewer and further between, but we are finding ways to fit them in regardless. We went to Little Talbot Island State Park in Florida back in January (and I will review this at some point!). Hoping for something a little closer with camping directly on the shore this time, I did some research, and we settled on Little Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia near Savannah.

There is a campground on Tybee Island proper, but it’s expensive, a good half a mile from the shore, and definitely geared more towards RVs than tents. We wanted oceanfront camping. Camping where we can look out of the tent and see the sea. Little Tybee Island promised this, but at a price: there is no vehicular or foot access in. The only way to reach the island is by boat or kayak, and once there, there is, well, nothing. At least, nothing man-made. A state nature preserve, the island is entirely undeveloped, and other than the kayak tours that run from the main island and anyone adventurous enough to camp there, it’s fairly untouched by humans at all.

The paddlers in the background were the only other people there for a long time

Most importantly, we LOVED this trip. I need to preface with that, because this was not an easy trip, and not one that I broadly recommend. Most of my takeaways from this trip are ways to prepare, things we learned, and warnings for anyone looking to head out there–but also that it was incredible. We just stood there a few times just talking to each other in awe. “This is GEORGIA.I kept repeating. “Who knew you could have this in Georgia?”

So with that said, here are some facts about this island that made me question upfront if it was a good choice, and that made it one of our more challenging family adventures:

  • Accessing it. You need to have your own boat/kayak (or have the means to hire someone to take you out there) and need to be able to navigate ocean currents.
  • Wildlife. The island is home to alligators, several species of venomous snakes, wild hogs, raccoons, and tons of bugs, in addition to waters FULL of jellyfish.
  • Tides. The tides on Little Tybee are extreme, and once the tide came in we were fully and completely trapped where we had chosen to camp. Because many areas become inaccessible once the tide comes in it’s important to know when and where it will rise.
  • The elements overall. The areas accessible for humans have little shade, and the place we camped faced southeast. It makes a beautiful landscape, but one with direct sunlight that lasts most of the day, and little reprieve from the wind.
  • There is no drinking water on the island–not even water that can be filtered.

So, why did I look at all of that and think, hmm, this sounds like a great trip to do with a three and five year old?

Because of this:

We are a family of beach bums, but we are also a family of nature-lovers. While taking a day trip to the boardwalk at Virginia Beach and sitting with the crowds for a couple of hours was always welcome beach time, Billy and I have gladly sought out quieter coastal spaces since we’ve been together. It was true before we had kids, but now especially, we love being in a place where the kids have so much flat, open space to explore. And this island had the added bonus of an “oak graveyard” right next to one of the recommended camping hammocks, which made an amazing natural playground for the kids when the tide was out. They could be as loud as they wanted, could run as far as we could see them, could splash and come right back to camp, and we had a home base steps from all of this natural play space–no dealing with hotel elevators or having to drive back to a campground. Plus being in an undeveloped area allows so many teaching moments. We saw sea turtle tracks. The kids found a live horseshoe crab and a live starfish. They dug up clam and oyster shells. We talked about the tides, and ocean currents, and water safety, and lunar gravity. There were so many different birds–and while not a pleasant learning experience, there was even a bird carcass near us that allowed for a conversation about decomposition and why bugs are important even if they are a nuisance.

So going back to the challenges, how did we prepare for them, and what advice do I have for anyone else hoping to make this trip?

  • Know your water skills. This was our first time sea kayaking, so in addition to time out on local waterways, I did a lot of research, watched videos of other people paddling at this location, talked to experienced sea kayakers, and we asked locals for the best place to land on the island. Preparation is essential.
  • Learn about the wildlife, and talk to your kids about it. We didn’t end up seeing any land critters (except some lizards), but once we planned the trip we talked about what to do if we saw a gator or hog, and we played “snake” with phone cords. Make it fun and make it a learning experience–for everyone. I have been scared of alligators forever, but after preparing for this trip I am admittedly a teeny bit disappointed we didn’t see any. And bring bug spray, because they are relentless.
  • Have a way of monitoring tide charts. Before you go, and while there. Head out to the island while the tide is going out, and leave when the tide is coming in, or you’ll be fighting the current your whole ride. (And hug the sandbar on your way back in! We missed this piece of advice and really could have used it!) Make sure to set up camp well above the tide line as well. We got cell service out there, but something like this emergency crank radio from Midland to monitor weather was also really helpful.
  • In addition to sunscreen, I strongly recommend UPF resistant clothing. Sunscreen is no fun to apply when covered in sand–which you will be, the whole time you are there. And as the day moves on, the UPF clothing (or towels, like the ones from luvbugcompany) protect not just from sunburn but keep your skin cool against the heat of the sun. I think of all my warnings, this is the one I need to stress the most–it is harsh out there. There really is no reprieve from hot sun and high temperatures, and when the tide is coming in the wind picks up. Failure to adequately prepare for this can make everyone miserable.
  • Make sure however you come in, you are able to pack in lots of water. We used it for drinking, cooking, first aid, and hand-washing. I usually bring electrolyte tablets like the ones from Nuum with us on hikes, but this time I brought packets of Liquid IV hydration boosters because I was worried about running out of water, and wanted what we brought to go as far as it could. We took a 5 gallon container in addition to some water bottles and that was enough–but if we had stayed any longer it wouldn’t have been, and that was with also having sparkling water, juice boxes, and beer in the cooler for extra drinks.

Instead of a family-friendly rating, I’m going to break this down more into categories. The family-friendliess of it has way more to do with your individual family’s adventure preferences and everyone’s comfort level.

Privacy: 5/5. You don’t have complete isolation. There are companies that run kayak tours here during the day in addition to the locals who come out, and when we pulled in Sunday morning the hammock that had been recommended to us for camping was occupied with a group who spent the weekend there–but once the tide started coming in Sunday afternoon, everyone left and we had the place entirely to ourselves. And even at the most “crowded,” there was still far fewer people than you’d find on a mainland beach in May. Plus, the island is huge, so depending on your paddling skills you can always find somewhere else to camp if the hammock near the oak graveyard is occupied.

Safety: 3/5. There are far more environmental hazards here than I think anywhere else we have camped as a family. I cut my foot badly on oyster shells our first day there, and that’s in addition to all of the wildlife and elemental dangers listed above. These can all be prepared for, but they do require preparation, and should not be underestimated.

Amenities: 0/5. There aren’t any. Period.

Activities: 5/5. So, so, so many. I mean–there’s kayaking obviously. Swimming. Sandcastle building. Shelling. Bird-watching. Fishing. Downed oaks everywhere that make a natural jungle gym. There is a sandbar that stretches from Tybee Island to just offshore of Little Tybee during low-tide you can paddle to for wide-open running. I saw videos of people harvesting their own oysters. Think of a beach activity that doesn’t require man-made intervention, this place has it.

For the work that goes into this trip, it’s not for someone who only wants to relax at the beach. But if you want the adventure along with the beauty, this trip is so, so, so worth it. Anytime you can combine falling asleep in a tent with falling asleep to the sound of the ocean is a good time in my book, and having so much to explore was great for all of us. We all got sunburnt, and we all came home absolutely exhausted, but despite all of that, I would go back next week if we could.

Have you been there? If you have, or if you end up going, I would love to hear what your experience is like!

Trail Review: Backpacking Max Patch

I have done a lot of day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. It’s hard not to, when you live in Virginia and grow up hiking in Shenandoah National Park. The AT cuts a path through the heart of the Virginia mountains, and is home to a huge number of day hikes.

The older I get, the more I think about trying to hike the whole thing. It’s been a “someday” goal since I was in high school, and after hiking the Camino de Santiago after college, cemented itself firmly on my bucket list. But then I got married, and then had kids, and now taking six months away from my life is not something I can do.

At least, not unless I take my kids with me.

Which sounds crazy, and it is crazy. The Quirin family made headlines in 2017 for thru-hiking with their one-year-old, which told a lot of families just like mine that yes, you can have great adventures even when your kids are young. The difference in them and me is, they had two adults for one child. While my husband could not take six months away from work, which would leave me with one adult for two children.

So, can I do it?

The answer is…no. Not at their ages right now. But I wasn’t going to get to that conclusion without at least testing out backpacking with the kids, so a couple weeks ago we packed up and headed out to hike Max Patch in North Carolina.

There is a road crossing at Lemon Gap, just under six miles north of the Max Patch Summit along the AT. While we debated parking there, and hiking up and back out as a family, the weather had us worried. We are still piecing together our backpacking gear, and sleeping bags have been the last thing to add. Worried about how we were going to stay warm when our bags are way too heavy to carry, we decided that I would drop Billy and the kids off at Lemon Gap, then I would drive to the Max Patch parking lot, leave the car, and hike north until I met up with them, at which point I would retrace my steps and we would finish the climb together.

The plan worked. Other than me daydreaming so much that I followed another hiker down a wrong turn (adding almost two miles to my hike), we were able to do a backpacking/slackpacking combination. We still had full packs–Kairi even carried her own sleeping pad–but we left our massive double sleeping bag in the car, so that once we set up camp, Billy walked to the car and back (adding over a mile) to bring it to camp so we wouldn’t have to worry about staying warm at night.

All in all? The trip was a success. Billy got some time on the trail with the kids without me, which all of them could use more of, I got some time on the trail by myself (which I could CERTAINLY use more of), and the kids got their first taste of true primitive camping.

In the interest of learning from experience, here are a few of the major points we walked (haha) away with:

  • Two adults is going to be a must for awhile. A newly three-year-old still needs to be carried a lot, so having a second set of shoulders to lug gear is a necessity so adult #2 can take on toddler-carrying duties
  • We are in no way ready for cold weather backpacking, and probably won’t be until our kids start sleeping in their own bags instead of wanting to snuggle up with us
  • Warm weather backpacking on the other hand I think is very doable to far more remote locations, when the nights are still warm enough that blankets (like the ones from Rumpl) are enough to stay warm.
  • Mountain House meals are amazing, and should be in everybody’s emergency food supply
  • Hot chocolate is an excellent remedy for the problem of “how do you keep milk cold while backpacking.” Both of our “I must have milk at bedtime” kids were satisfied by having hot cocoa instead.
  • A bear canister is now on our future-purchases list. Kids are messy and generate a lot of trash, meaning dirty clothes and a lot more to store at night than just food. And once they are ready for bed, they are ready. Having an easier method of storing food/trash than hanging a bear bag is going to be a necessity if we want to continue backpacking.
  • And finally–our kids loved it. We set up camp about halfway between the bald and the dispersed camping area (officially, camping is not allowed on the bald, though you’d never know it for how many people ignored that rule), at a previously used site near the trees. The kids loved having dinner on the bald, making friends with other hikers and their dogs, and playing frisbee to one of the best sunsets they have seen in their lives.

All in all, Max Patch is a great place to get your feet wet in terms of taking kids into the backcountry. You’re close enough to a parking lot that you can do what we did and leave some heavier gear in the car while on the trail,–or to just bail out if they get scared or things go sideways. The wide open spaces gave the kids plenty of room to run and play while staying in sight. It’s a popular spot for thru-hikers to stop for the night, and for section hikers to start or end their trip, so while the isolation factor is small, it’s such a huge area that it’s not hard to find a place to set up camp–and unlike crowded campgrounds where you may be around loud parties or next to neighbors who don’t want to hear a crying toddler at night, setting up camp in thru-hiker country is an entirely different atmosphere–everyone is out there to experience nature as closely as they can, and there’s a sort of mutual respect for each other for getting to camp through walking than I typically experience at frontcountry campgrounds.

This was a perfect test run for how our kids did walking into camp, and for how much gear we could carry with a child that needed to be worn part of the time, and for some changes we need to make to our gear for next time. I don’t know that we will come back to hike the six miles again (the Roan Highlands are calling to me for our next backpacking trip), but we will definitely be back to camp.

Campground Review: Warriors Path State Park

I’ve made the drive from central Virginia to eastern Tennessee more times than I can count, from when I was too young to drive, to now when I’m often the only driver. While doable in a day’s drive, as my own family has grown and our kids have gotten older, we’ve found it’s often easier to break the drive into two days.

Usually, we stay at a hotel. Weather, no room in the car for camping gear, and not wanting to take the time to set up and take down camp make the in-and-out convenience (and free breakfast!) of hotels appealing. I’ve looked at campgrounds occasionally, but found that other than cabin-camping at either Hungry Mother or Claytor Lake State Parks in Virginia, there weren’t tent camping options that worked easily into our itinerary.

We made the drive again this past weekend for my mother’s memorial service. Billy worked too late on Wednesday for us to drive straight through, and between the reason for our drive, and it being the beginning of spring, I was aching to camp. So, I took to The Dyrt, hopeful that maybe there were some places I’ve been missing all these years.

I looked first to campgrounds in Virginia–my home sweet home, after all–but nearly all tent camping options didn’t open until April 1, unless we wanted to take our chances with dispersed camping availability. And glancing through Tennessee, I clicked on Warriors Path State Park.

When I was little, my family would stop at at Warrior’s Path frequently while making this drive. We would get lunch to go, and then eat at a picnic tables so everyone could stretch their legs, and spend some time outdoors to break up the hours in the car. I finally went there this past December with my own kids, for the first time in probably 20 years. I was incredibly impressed with their playground–a huge, universally accessible playground with everything from a massive sand pit, to an interactive story path for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. We didn’t explore anything in the park except the playground though, and since there’s no “tent” icon on the sign off the interstate, I have always just dismissed it as a place without camping. So seeing it on The Dyrt was exciting. It’s three hours from Chattanooga, which was the perfect drive time for when we would be leaving, it’s less than 10 minutes from the interstate, and while a playground isn’t usually a selling point for us, we knew our kids would have something to do in the morning before setting out if we wanted. I found a site that was listed as “tent only” on the reservations site, booked us for a night, and just crossed my fingers that we weren’t heading into an RV camp with two kids and a backpacking tent.

march2019-wm-2

Across the lake from the playground, the campground is surprisingly quiet for being so close to a major interstate. While we could hear the road, it wasn’t obvious until after dark, once we had settled down to watch the fire. And while still slightly disruptive–the sounds of tractor-trailers frightened our toddler a few times–it was fairly easy to tune out. We also saw a lot more stars than I would have expected for a park so close to civilization.

When I chose our site, I clicked on sites on the map based on how far apart they were compared to their neighbors, which led me to site 90. It’s in a cul-de-sac, which is always nice with kids since it keeps traffic more to a minimum. The other sites around it can all accommodate RVs, but even with about half of them occupied the night we were there, we didn’t feel crowded; in fact, our site was below the road by about 5 or 6 stairs, and backed up to a meadow, which gave it both a little bit more privacy than I expected, as well as a feeling of safety. It still being late March, we could see through the trees to a lake, but weren’t so close that our kids had to investigate, which meant a nice view without the constant vigilance that comes with waterfront sites.

The bathrooms were also the cleanest I’ve experienced so far at any TN State Park, and had a space heater running at least up until we went to bed, which was VERY welcome once the sun went down! The shower was also inviting, which is something I don’t think I have ever said about a campground shower before–though the space heater likely had a lot to do with that.

We didn’t drive through the rest of the campsites because of how limited our time was, but all in all I was super impressed with the camping here. I’m not sure we would make the drive just to camp, but knowing it’s an option now I don’t see us shelling out the money (and frustration) for a hotel unless we’re traveling in winter. And I definitely recommend this park to anyone on a road trip looking for an outdoorsy overnight stop.

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 5/5. Even with the noise from the highway, this is a great place for families. There’s hiking, fishing, and boat rentals in addition to the playground, the sites (from what we saw) have a good range of both size and privacy levels, and the bathrooms are comfortable. The meadow behind our site was a great place for our kids to run, and the park obviously dedicates time and money to safety, as we saw ample evidence of tree maintenance from winter weather damage.

Welcoming Spring

Even though the spring equinox was a few days ago, I’ve been thinking since…well, since the new year about writing a post on hiking, and outdoor experience, as a means of connecting with the Wheel of the Year.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the Wheel of the Year is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the idea of a continuous passage of time, that isn’t marked by an ending or a beginning, as on a calendar, but by the transitioning of one phase of life to the next, over and over again. Birth, life, death, dormancy, over and over again.

I lean heavily on this belief in the winter. I’ve written a lot about the outdoors in the winter. Both learning to embrace the cold and making myself get outside even when I don’t want to, and in finding comfort in the silence of the winter. But as much as winter is a time of sleep and reflection, of tending to roots while we allow everything above the surface a chance to rest, spring is new life. It’s an awakening.

I am particularly aligned with the wheel of the year so far in 2019. Over the winter, my mother was hospitalized; we found out her cancer had spread to her brain, and her prognosis was dramatically worse than it had been before. In the dark of winter, we turned inward. We had no choice. We hibernated. That I injured my knee just after the solstice only meant we stayed in even more. I couldn’t hike, or even sit comfortably outdoors. I wanted to soak up as much time as we could with my mom. And in the final weeks of January, I barely poked my head outside save for trips to the grocery store, as we held her hand and watched her die.

Imbolc marks the beginning of February. It’s when we start to see some of the first signs of awakening, at least in the south. Buds are appearing on trees. Daffodils brave the bitter winds. It is a juxtaposition of life and death; early greens blinking into the low sun, curling in on themselves against the frost and snow that will linger for weeks to months. I woke up the morning of February 2nd this year, made coffee, and called an old colleague to talk business. My husband and I went out for lunch together, before he was supposed to head back home while the kids and I stayed at my mom’s.

After that lunch, I sat with my aunt and sister, and we held my mom’s hands while she took her last breaths.

What has followed, has been like moving in slow motion. I had knee surgery a few days after my mom’s death. February is a blur of laying on the couch with my leg on a stack of pillows, of the first trip back to my mom’s house and feeling the emptiness of her not being there to meet us. Of limping across the house, and endless endless rain, flooding fields and washing out roadways across the state. March has been tears. Breaking down and sobbing in the kitchen the day of the time change because my mom always loved getting that extra hour of light at the end of the day. Looking at my yard in anger because my mom was supposed to help me with my landscaping in our new house, and now she can’t, and I can’t even call her to ask her for advice.

And March is my first hike post-op. It’s getting back outside, and breathing it in. The rot, of leaves that spent a winter under so much rain, and the life. “Stinky pear trees” as I affectionally call the Bradford Pears, because I think they smell like a locker room but I love them just the same because they herald spring. The bright yellow daffodils. The fields of purple nettles in everyone’s yards, beckoning the bees. Returning to a favorite trail, and seeing green, for the first time in months.

I have spoken to a few friends down here, people I met in the fall and then didn’t see much of during my period of hibernation. I’ve glossed over my winter–it’s heavy to say you lost your mother and had surgery in the same week. But I always end it with–we are in a new season now. Figuratively and literally.

As the days now grow longer than the nights, and the leaves return to the trees, so do we return to the outdoors. Where my greatest healing has always been. Where I look everywhere and see reminders of life, and joy, and that the year is a wheel that will continue to turn, and that we can’t have this period of new growth without the period of death and dormancy that precedes it.

I look forward to a season of life. Of dancing, joyful on the trail with my children, as we emerge, and return to that place in nature that gives us hope.

Trail Review: Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve

It’s been awhile since a trail review! Weather, holidays, injuries, and illness have kept us from exploring many new trails over the last couple of months–but that doesn’t mean we didn’t manage at least a couple.

I mentioned Buffalo Mountain before in my post about Hygge and the Winter Solstice, but wanted to save reviewing the trail for a separate post.

When Jordi and I were making plans, one of our reasons for choosing Claytor Lake State Park, was that it was less than an hour’s drive from McAfee’s Knob. That trail is high on both of our hiking bucket lists, but at a three hour drive from Richmond, and then an almost 9 mile hike, it has never been something we could do in a day–much less with kids. So we very ambitiously thought, with 1/3 the commute, maybe we could finally manage it?

By the time we both dealt with late starts and traffic getting to the cabin, we had independently decided there was no way our kids could handle a 9 mile hike the next day–and even if they could, we couldn’t.

But we still wanted to get out, so we began our search for trails nearby that were exciting enough for us, but short/easy enough for the kids to stay motivated. Ultimately, we decided on the Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, in Floyd County, VA. According to other trail reviews, it was a short, 2.2 mile trail with only 551 feet of elevation gain, it had panoramic views at the top, and unique vegetation for us to admire.

The hardest part of this trail was getting there, thanks to bumpy roads and my GPS getting confused (definitely look up directions beforehand since there is very limited cell signal near the trail head!), but once we got there, we were so glad we did.

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The most snow my kids have seen since our move to the south!

The parking lot is large, and while the day we went was bright and in the upper 40s, there was still a little snow on the north side of the mountain for the kids to play in. Once we started on the trail, we were treated to a rocky stretch with very little elevation gain for the first third of the trail. The kids enjoyed playing on downed trees, and climbing on a large rock just before the first switchback–they pretended it was a pirate ship, sailing towards the sky visible through the bare trees.

After the first switchback the elevation gain begins. All of the kids were pretty tired by the time we got to the top–a late night the day before, getting to the trailhead after lunchtime, and lots of play on the first leg had them mostly ready to crash before we really started climbing. Even with that, the five year olds didn’t start whining about wanting to quit until right at the end, and while the toddlers both asked to be carried before we reached the summit, I feel confident that had we gotten out early after they had a proper night’s sleep, they would have been running up the trail. When, that is, they didn’t stop to play! We passed a few more exciting rock formations and felled trees, more snow, and a stump that had been carved into a “seat,” with “Buffalo” painted on it, and a “T” carved out–the only true trail marker we saw on the whole hike.

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Grumpy faces because they had to take turns sitting on the “seat” behind the trail marker.

The toughest part of the climb is the last 200 yards or so; the trail here is very wide, but water runoff has made it very uneven, and the grade nearly doubles from what is has been. Thankfully this section is short, and you are rewarded with a bench waiting at the summit, and incredible 270 degree views.

We stayed and explored for awhile at the top–though word of caution, it is very windy up here! The kids were searching for gaps in the rocks to hide in to get out of the wind, and we ended up finding a nice lunch spot in a side trail through a rhododendron grove.

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The terrain at the top of the mountain is really interesting–we had read before going that this area is home to several rare plants and animals, but seeing just how different it looked from the mountaintops we were used to was a treat. The kids took off running, excited to have open space, before we called them back to the trail so we could explore the rocks to the west, expanding our view further. We would have stayed longer if the wind hadn’t been bothering the one year old we had with us so much, and I would love to be there sometime at sunrise or sunset.

Retrace your steps back to the car, for a short and extremely rewarding hike.

Parent!hack

Because of our late start, the return/downhill trip was actually the hardest part for the kids! They were pretty tired from the climb up, a little overwhelmed from all the social interaction, and definitely very hungry! We had snacks, but I came up with a game after remembering I had a small bag of Jelly-Bellies in our day pack. When the three-year-old just had enough on our descent and stopped and refused to get up, I pulled out the jelly beans, gave everyone a few, and announced that they could get more at every switchback. It worked beautifully. They were nearly racing each other! And on the final stretch we came up with a few landmarks, before finally dispersing the remainder in the parking lot. Jordi commented that she was so glad we didn’t do it on the way up because the trick would have lost its magic, and I agree. I generally don’t like “bribes” to get down the trail since I fear the precedent it sets, but in this instance? It was perfect. Which taught me that sometimes, candy really may be the answer!

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A picture she had no problem posing for. 🙂

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5

It’s hard to find summits in the Virginia mountains that are good to do with kids; so often they are either too long or too difficult for little ones to stay motivated, or the views are limited due to the overall low elevation of the mountains. While this trail is not easy to get to in the car, it fills a great need for epic views, with a hike that small walkers can manage, and enough along the way to keep them interested, even in the dead of winter when everything is bare and brown.

The biggest drawback for little ones on this trail is that as tempting as it will be for them to run freely along the bald, the vegetation there is sensitive, and it may be frustrating for toddlers to be told they can’t explore.

Parenting Our Parks Through the Shutdown

I’ve been on somewhat of a social media hiatus since the beginning of the year. Not as a resolution, just in an effort to be more present, and to free up some of the clutter in my mind. I need to think about where to take my business, this blog, and I’ve been working on the beginning stages of what could be a very large project for later in the year.

And I’ve just needed a break. The shutdown of the US Government is one more step in an increasingly polarizing facet of the current administration, and while I know firmly where I stand, it gets exhausting having to sift through memes and cries of outrage all the time to find facts.

But then the facts I find, even without the filter of someone else’s opinion, still incite such an impotent rage in me that it keeps me awake, feeling so small and helpless against the apathy, disrespect, and cruelty happening in my country.

When it was first announced that the National Parks would remain open during the current shutdown, I was happy. People plan vacations around our parks. Surely, allowing visitation could only be good—right? Towns near the parks would not lose the tourism revenue. People who have planned once-in-a-lifetime trips would still be able to take them. We could prove that we value these lands enough to keep them.

That isn’t what’s happening though. It seems, unfortunately, that while we are proving a need for funding to out National Parks, it isn’t because of how loved they are, but because of how little regard visitors have for conservationist and environmentally respectful principals in the outdoors overall.

There have been previous publications about this.

In 2016, the NY Times reported on how we are Loving Our National Parks To Death. Both local news sources and the Huffington Post have reported on that same tagline since then, and while visitation dropped slightly from 2016 to 2017 (2018 numbers are still pending the end of the shutdown), it is still close to 331 million people per year [nps].

Social media users High On Life have suffered fines and jail time after disregarding posted warning about delicate environments, causing damage to our parks and eventually the deaths of a couple of their members.

And now, during the shutdown, there are stories popping up almost daily of the damage our parks are seeing:

Joshua Tree, in the news from early on because of the inability for the park to support the amount of human waste generated during a time when there is no park staff to maintain restroom facilities, has finally had to temporarily close its doors on account of public safety, and to protect its namesake trees from damage being done by park guests. The damage will last far beyond when the shutdown ends, and in the instance of the trees being cut down, is irreparable.

Highly trafficked parks such as Yellowstone and Mt. Rainier have relied on private organizations to handle overflowing bathrooms and trashcans, but resources are running low., forcing closures.

The Great Smoky Mountains are fortunate to have non-profits such as Friends of the Smokies who have stepped in, initially keeping visitor’s centers open through the holiday season, and now funding the salaries of a number of park employees to prevent a repeat of Joshua Tree.

Leave No Trace has issued a statement on how we can lessen the impact to National Parks right now. I’ve seen it shared all over the instagram circles I follow, and on multiple facebook pages. But—I’ve seen it shared by people who by and large are already employing those practices.

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This is mostly a collection of information. I can’t reach the people who are throwing trash away without regard to the fact that there is no one currently on site to empty trash cans. Or who are taking advantage of decreased/lack of ranger presence, to go off trail, explore fragile natural areas, or light campfires where fires or not allowed. I’ve seen someone jump 60 feet from a waterfall despite signs being posted everywhere not to jump from the falls, so even if blogging and sharing did get this information out, I’m not sure the people doing the damage would care.

I have two takeaways.

The first, is there are still more innocent ways we are harming the parks. When we were in the Smokies at the end of December, we picked up the trash we found along the trail, but still threw our trash bag away in the cans in the parking lot. As mentioned above, the Smokies are still receiving more maintenance then and now than many other parks, but we did it without thinking. Had the cans been overflowing we wouldn’t, but it was just automatic–pack your trash off the trail, then throw it away. As the updates to LNT above mention, we can do better. And, as someone who makes a conscious effort to take care of our lands, if I made this mistake, the reminders are necessary.

But the other, which is my bigger concern, which is the long-term impact this is going to have on the parks from a funding standpoint. As more organizations and more people step in to help the parks, what will this do to the argument of keeping them federally funded? There has been so much activity, but especially in the last two years, to defund national public spaces. To me, keeping them open right now only proves how badly we NEED the funding. But as the damage increases, and the financial burden required to maintain them grows, what is that argument going to look like once the government reopens?

So what do we do?

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A clean-up hike, at her request

And as a parent, it makes me more and more determined to teach our kids right. Hike It Baby founder Shanti Hodges wrote about Leave No Trace with kids which does a lot to sum up my feelings on the balance between giving kids a chance to discover the world on their own terms, and teaching them respect for the environment. Researchers have linked wild outdoor experience as child as being the primary correlating factor to conservation-minded adults, so getting kids out right now is still important. But so is talking to them about what is going on. Explaining why our parks are so important. Why funding them is so necessary. How even something that seems as innocent as picking a pretty flower is against the rules.

I can’t convince adults to respect the earth. All I can do is share information and hope that at least one person realizes–like I realized–that just because I pick up extra trash on the trail doesn’t mean I’m doing everything that I can. We can always do better.

And as parents we can continue to teach our children, so the next generation would never considering damaging Joshua Trees, regardless of who is watching.

Resolutions on Storytelling

My favorite professor in college was a man of stories.

He was the head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies department, and had a background of military service, psychotropic drugs, and a time he hitchhiked from Canada to, wait for it, Hawaii.

This professor shaped my college experience in so many ways, from how he lectured, to leading a class I was able to attend post-graduation on the Camino de Santiago. But his stories are what have always stuck with me the most–and in particular, how one becomes a storyteller.

We’ve all heard the quote, “We didn’t know we were making memories, we just thought we were having fun,” and this professor really helped me understand that. I often feel like, in my mid 30s, that I have yet to really have stories to tell…until I start telling them. And while my stories may never entertain class after class of college students, I like to think I am doing more than sitting on the sidelines, waiting for my adventures to begin.

So before I start thinking about 2019, I want to reflect on our adventures this year.

One of the most exciting things about 2018 was the way we spent our birthdays. We managed to visit four completely different terrains, and have four completely different trips for each of us; a vacation rental in the red rocks of Sedona, a bikepacking, primitive camping trip to the beach, frontcountry camping right on a lake, and cabin camping in the mountains.

We also moved, opening up an entire state’s worth of new trails. We visited two National Parks we’d never been to before, I went on a solo backpacking trip, had the opportunity to write about Tennessee trails for three different pages, had a photo featured on backpacker.com, and went on a couple of overnight trips with the kids without Billy.

So I thought that, going into 2019, I would make a list of the specific places I wanted to visit, in the interest of continuing to see, if not the world, at least the east coast. But I saw someone make a post recently asking for guides for making “hiking resolutions” for the next year, and it got me thinking…what would my advice be? I am a spontaneous person, and our adventures are rarely planned so far in advance. Life gets in the way, and trying to make concrete plans can trap you into missing opportunities as they arise.

So in the interest of living out stories, instead of a 2019 bucket list, here are some guidelines I think are good for anyone to keep in mind–to find adventure as it finds us, and make the most of every opportunity the new year might bring.

Find a new Favorite Trail

Moving to a new state has been great for getting out and finding new places to go, but has also made it clear how nice it is to have favorites. Whether you are in a situation like us where everything around you is new, or haven’t quite found The One yet, this goal is all about finding that one go-to trail that just feels “right,” no matter what season you hike it.

Visit a new National Park

Our public lands need us. While visitation increases, funding for national public lands is continually at risk, creating a situation where our lands can’t support the foot traffic they bring in during the year. And the human impact currently generated during the shutdown is just proof of how important it is for us to practice Leave No Trace, and to leave our spaces better than we find them. So while it might seem counter-intuitive, seek out a National Park you’ve never been to before. Learn about it. Love it. And then advocate for it.

Camp in a New Terrain

With Virginia’s three solid geographical regions–mountains, piedmont, and tidewater–we were lucky enough to camp in a variety of locations. But new terrain can just be a branch off from something you’re used to. Go to a higher or lower elevation. Seek out coniferous forests if you are used to hardwoods. If you’re not already signed up, visit thedyrt.com or download their app, and find a campsite near a geographical feature you’ve never experienced before, such as the dismalites (bioluminescent larvae) in Alabama, or camping on the rocky beaches of Maine. Chances are there’s something near you with a whole new experience worth exploring.

Change It Up

My love of winter hiking is well-documented, but there are more ways than just changing the seasons to revisit your favorite trails. Go in bad weather–rain or snow, hot or cold–just make sure you are dressed appropriately and your pack is full of any extra gear you need for the weather. Pick one trail and make it a weekly, monthly, or quarterly thing, and observe the way it changes from one visit to the next. Try a night hike, or a sunset or sunrise hike. Go alone, go with kids, or go with friends who haven’t been hiking before–whatever you are used to doing, just change it up, and see how you experience a place you know from a new perspective.

Join a Hiking Challenge

Look for programs like the 52 Hike Challenge, Hike it Baby’s Hike It Baby 30 months, or find a local hiking group and see what their goals are. Most of these groups have giveaways to show for your efforts like patches, stickers, or water bottles, and they help you network so participants can encourage each other, particularly when things like excessive rain, wildfires, or illness make getting outside hard. Incorporate these challenges into your personal goals for extra accountability!

Make it a Year of Learning

This is my favorite goal for the year, because it is budget-friendly, work-friendly, and perfect for parents raising outdoors-y littles. Whatever your other outdoor goals, this is one that only needs your backyard or local park. It has the accountability factor of hiking challenges, can include other parents to make it social, and would go along great if you have any personal resolutions for less screen time. Exploring Nature with Children has weekly themes and activities to go along with them each week, or there are subscription boxes available that are outdoors-y themed as well if once a week is too ambitious a goal.

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Learning to identify poisonous plants in our new backyard

However you feel about the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, the earth will continue to tilt, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, the lengthening of the days is reason enough to think about how to spend time outside  (or ways to take advantage of the remaining daylight for our friends living out the last weeks of summer). And if you look at your outdoor resolutions as goals, getting your kids involved is only another organic learning opportunity.

I know I have a lot of places I want to see this year. I want to explore some of the Gulf Coast. I want to go out on multi-night backpacking trips with my kids. But mostly, I want to look back this time next year and know that I am walking out of 2019 with more stories to tell. Whether I realized I was making them or not.

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Happy New Year!!!

Hiking as Hygge — Finding Stillness in the Cold and Dark of Winter

It is 8am on Wednesday morning, three days before the winter solstice. Even at this time of year, I have missed the sunrise; after waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping several times, trying to get a few more minutes, I managed to sleep through the first light breaking over the horizon. My kids have had a long month. Constant changes in time zone, from Eastern to Central to Eastern to Central, combined with more time spent in a car than they’ve spent on the trail, means even my toddler, my early riser, doesn’t wake up until the light is bright and stable through the window.

We are at a cabin in western Virginia. In my heart-mountains, as I call them; the Blue Ridge Mountains, where even pictures of them are a breath of fresh air. We came here to meet a dear friend and her kids for some much needed nature-therapy. She has experienced tragic loss, and we are reeling from bad news, and a getaway is what all of us need. I have heard before, that everyone needs that friend who will call you up and say “Come on, we’re going on an adventure.” She is that friend. And I might be that friend to her. There have been tears, too much wine, and a couple of late nights in our too-short trip, and we will go our separate ways again later in the day.

For now though, the kids are entertaining themselves, and I have a cup of coffee in hand, and I tell my friend, I am going to go sit outside for a few minutes and breathe in the morning. She smiles, “Do it. It’s beautiful out.”

The morning sun is bright. Too bright, really, after what has felt like months of nothing but heavy clouds and rain. Our cabin is right on a lake, and the still-low sunlight reflects off the water, blinding me. I shift, and sit so I am facing south, where I can still see the skeleton trees across the bright blue water. It is cold, but my coffee warms my hands and my fleece is cozy.

This is my happy place.

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The summit of Buffalo Mountain, on December 17th. Bare and dead, and beautiful.

Despite my husband’s Scandinavian ancestry, I had never heard the word “hygge” until a month or so ago, when a friend commented on a social media post I made about my seasonal affective disorder. “Maybe you need more hygge,” she said. I googled it, and wondered.

The connection to the seasons is what has drawn me more and more into Paganism over the last few years, and this time of year in particular. Even if you don’t practice, or are atheist, or are of an Abrahamic faith, it’s hard to escape Pagan influence this time of year. Evergreens inside our homes. Candles in our windows. So many symbols of anticipating the return of the sun–but also so many ways of rejoicing in the dark. We decorate our homes and cities with lights inside and out, creating beauty that is reliant on darkness. So much connection to nature, to the turning of the wheel of the year.

But hygge?

Snuggling under the blankets next to a crackling fire, having Lord of the Rings marathons with my five year old, baking breads and sweets–these are indoor activities that bring me joy. But it is in the stillness of the outdoors that I find the most peace, even in these cold, dark months.

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Claytor Lake, and smiles that show the outdoors is not just for when it’s warm.

My understanding of hygge, after a month of so of trying to understand it, trying to reconcile its coziness with its stillness, trying to find the similarities and differences in drawing inward with celebrating the darkness has led me to a conclusion that I have always known. Which is:

Sitting outside by a lake, half blinded by the morning sun, shivering slightly while I drink my coffee, is where I find peace.

Because stillness is what this time of year is all about, at least from the earth’s viewpoint. It is the time of dying.

Today, the solstice, marks the rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere, but it is weeks before we will start to see the rebirth of the earth. Whether we are celebrating this stillness by staying indoors, or are celebrating it by embracing the cold, dead of the outdoors, there is peace to be found just by sitting outside and letting yourself blend in to the quiet of that time when all is in fact calm, if not yet bright.

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