Let’s Begin Again

Last summer I pulled into a campsite along the Pecos River in New Mexico. Driving into the Santa Fe National Forest I was welcomed by green mountains and clouded blue skies, a site I hadn’t seen in some time. The air was cool that night, and the sound of the river gave me some peace. I sat at the picnic table, ate some dinner, and began to write. That night I wrote a letter to myself covering what I had learned so far and it included a few promises. I promised myself that this year I would find a new job in a new location, I would honor my own happiness, and I would move toward adventure. When I was done I did a little yoga on that picnic table. It’s always nice to stretch after a long car ride. Then I laid on my back and watched the stars appear one by one while feeling a little sad that my trip was ending but also a little hopeful for the future.

As the summer came to a close I started getting my portfolio in order and updated my resume. I started telling my bosses and requesting letters of recommendations. For those who do not hold positions in education, this choice can be baffling. In the education world, it helps to have your bosses on your side. If they don’t know you’re leaving then the people looking to hire you won’t give your application a second glance. Not to mention that blindsiding the people you work for can burn bridges. And truly the people you work for should want the best for you. They all understood my motivations and were supportive even if they didn’t want me to go.

Once the year rolled over I began looking into having my certifications recognized in different states. It turned out to be a costly process so I chose 2 states on which to focus my job search. After a couple months of putting in applications and hearing nothing in return, I ran across an application for an overseas recruiter. I filled it out thinking I wouldn’t hear from them either. It turned out that they were very interested in me. Who would have thought? In a short amount of time with multiple Skype interviews and lots of research, I found a job in Beijing teaching Art and I couldn’t be more excited.

I have spent the last twelve years teaching in Warren County. During 9 of those years, I had a principal who began each school year by providing us with inspiration to start with a fresh perspective. Her annual catchphrase, “Let’s begin again” has become an important one for me. Each year it reminded me that I can make changes to improve, and it gave me the little boost I needed to kick off the new year with enthusiasm. This summer she retired and will begin again in a whole new way. I know her new beginning will be wonderful. And, I can’t wait to see what this beginning holds in store for me. I’ve started a new blog to showcase all of the wonderful things Beijing and beyond will teach me. You can find it here at Feed Me, Beijing.

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While I get my visa in order, pack, and do all of the things that need to be done when moving to a new country I continue to hike. I’m embracing the clean air, wilderness, blue skies, and my dogs as much as possible. Oh, if you’re still keeping track so am I. As of July 14, 2017, I have hiked 668.93 miles for the year with 116713 ft of vertical gain. I hope to pass 700  miles before I board the plane. I know my mileage will taper while I’m away, but I will find my way to some trails as often as possible.

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Hike 52 – The Journey Will Continue

My final hike was actually 2 hikes separated by one holiday. To be honest, if I counted every hike I have done since the beginning of 2016 I would have completed this challenge in late February. Instead, I chose to only count the hikes that inspired me to go outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes that involved consolidating multiple hikes, like on my birthday. And because this was my final hike, I chose to make it a two-for.

Part 1 was a tiny portion of the AT in Daleville, VA. It starts just off Interstate 81, goes up to a ridgeline and past many beautiful views of Carvin Cove Reservoir, continues to Hay Rock and on to Tinker Cliffs or even Georgia if you want to go the distance. I had to get back on the road before it got too late, so I was only able to get in several of the Carvin Cove overlooks before turning around.

Part 2 was supposed to be a 2-day epic adventure in Grayson Highlands beginning on Black Friday, but an unfortunate series of events caused the death of my phone early into the hike. My educated guess based on maps and markers is that we did somewhere between 5 and 6 miles, but my phone was always my distance and elevation keeper. It also gave me a false sense of security, which I fully recognize but hold onto none the less. Between the loss of my good pal/favorite device and Turner’s recent behavior, I chose to make this a one-day hiking event. Let me explain, Turner is my red heeler hiking companion. Ever since our 10 mile hike a week ago, he has been very stiff and sleeping a lot. I may be pushing him too hard. Poor little Buddy. He needs a break. Here are some highlights from Grayson Highlands where we saw lots of people opting outside for Black Friday.

Here are some highlights from Grayson Highlands where we saw lots of wild ponies, lots of dramatic clouds, and lots of people opting outside for Black Friday.

So what does this mean? My 52 hikes are over. Will I stop hiking? No way! I have a goal to hit 1000 miles before the end of 2016. If I count my Grayson Highlands hike as 5 miles that puts my current total for the year at … dang! I even depended on my phone for the calculator function. The next few days will be painful… 861.01 miles!!! I have 5 weeks to polish off the remaining 138.99 miles. I’ve so got this. BTWs, I will continue to hike still after completing 1000 miles. I wonder what new goals I’ll think up for next year…

What did I learn on my 52 hikes you might ask? Well, for one I learned that the more often I put myself outside of my comfort zone the further I have to go to get outside of my comfort zone. For instance, when I first began this journey if I came across a bear or a snake along the trail my pulse would race, I would jump and yelp and react in a frightened fashion. Now I calmly pause, pull myself and the dogs out of harm’s way, grab my camera and take a photo. I’d probably have to see a mountain lion to get worked up now. The idea of being alone once left me unsettled. I now prefer it. I have learned a trust and respect for nature that I may never find with humans urban, rural or otherwise. I can now anticipate each mile as it passes without wonder simply based on how many thoughts have passed through my head, pulling on leashes, the movement of the sun, the intensity of the blood pulsing through my legs, or the feeling of my own weight impeding on my feet. I prefer directions that include rock faces and fallen trees instead of turn right at the second fast food joint and left at the bank. Whether it’s wooded or desert, rocks or sand, everything slows down when I’m following a trail. I have learned that in the midst of classes, internships, working full time, chasing the sun during the cold seasons, driving 7000 miles for adventure, the occasional volunteer work, and a date here and there, I can make it outside almost every day and it will be a fulfilling experience. I’ve also learned that an annual national parks season pass holds way more value to me than a gym membership.

52 may be over, but for me the hike continues…

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Hike 37, It’s the Humidity, Not the Heat

Shewee! Do you see that sheen on my shoulders and forehead? This is some serious sweat’n weather. It probably isn’t even over 90 degrees, but the humidity is out of control. I took this last dog free day to get in one more hike on a path that doesn’t allow dogs. Today I hiked the Fox Hollow Trail in the Shenandoah National Park.

I have repeatedly glanced at this trail on the map wondering what its appeal is, and why dogs aren’t allowed. It’s a short short at just a little over a mile. I picked it up from the Dickey Ridge parking lot at mile marker 5. It turns out that this was once someone’s home. There is an old well and a family cemetery. My guess is dogs are not welcome because they want to minimize the disruption to the property and the land.

As I said, this trail is short, so I continued walking to the Signal Knob Overlook on the Snead Farm Loop to increase the mileage. If you love traversing lands that were once worked by man, discovering all of the little relics left behind, you will love the Fox Hollow Loop. And if you want to make it a challenge, throw in the Snead Farm Loop for a great overlook and an old foundation and farm. You can’t go wrong here, but you might sweat like you’ve never sweat before.  The humid Virginia summers can be even more brutal when you hike at a moderate pace in what feels like a humidor. I’m certainly not in the desert anymore.

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Let’s Talk About Bears

I’ve been seeing a lot of these big fuzzy creatures lately. I’ve lived, walked and driven in this county for 11 years, and during that time I would see a bear here and there with big spans of time in between sightings.Occasionally one will stroll through my yard, (by occasionally I mean once every one or two years) and my dogs will scare it away with their barks and yelps. Since last October the amount of bear sightings I’ve experienced has increased drastically. It’s probably due to my increase in hiking, excursions into the Shenandoah National Park, and the times of day I have been out and about. Whatever the reason, it’s becoming more common place for me to see one, two or even five in one short hike.

A few days ago I decided to head out to complete a short section of the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive that I had yet to do. While driving to the parking area I spotted the two in the photo above, heading straight for a trailhead along my path. I was a little concerned that rather than running from my car, they turned and walked toward me. Weird. I figured they’d be long gone by the time I reached that trailhead. And if they weren’t, I would have my pepper spray in hand and dogs by my side. Flash forward about ten minutes, I park the car and the dogs and I begin our hike. Within steps we pass a couple of thru hikers who quietly exclaim, as if to not startle too many other forest creatures, that there is a momma and cub on the trail just around the corner. My first reaction is “Hike Canceled!” Then I get ahold of myself and tell them that my dogs will likely scare them off, but it’s startling none the less. So we march on. I touch my pepper spray a couple times to remind myself where it is, and I dart my eyes around with each cautious step. I start messing with my camera settings just as something moves in my peripheral vision. I turn to the right, and there she is, about 20 feet away, standing in waste high shrubs with one arm down and one bent up as if she had just used it to place food in her mouth. She’s watching me. We make eye contact. I think, “Camera,” then “Get the dogs out of here before they startle her and she comes at us.” The dogs never saw her, though they did smell her. We never saw her cub. I squeaked out a few commands to my dogs to get them to move along faster as I gripped their leashes a little tighter. Momma bear never moved.

Later we reached the stretch at the trailhead where we saw the two crossing the street. The dogs could smell them, and I could certainly hear them. They were lost in the tall shrubbery, but they were there. They hadn’t made it far from where we had seen them some time ago. Continuing to hustle along, we reached the end of the section that I intended to complete, and I decided we should continue on. There are some beautiful overlooks up ahead, and I wouldn’t mind staring off into the vastness of the Shenandoah for a bit. Within a tenth of a mile we round a bend and there is another one right on the trail. What is going on? We made eye contact. I made lots of high pitched noises to try to scare him off (I say him because it looked huge). He did not budge. So we turned around. I can only tempt fait so much in one day.

These animals are in the middle of foraging and putting on weight, and it seems no human is going to stop them from doing so. Today, several days later, I went on a 10 mile hike in the George Washington Forest. Not a single bear or human was spotted. It seems there is plenty of room for them to roam here, and a lack of human activity and trash to invite them away from their natural comfort zone. I prefer my bear sightings from the car, far and few between. I hope the bears in the Shenandoah National Park aren’t being purposefully fed by people, but it would explain their lack of concern with my moving vehicle, hiking approach, and dogs. No matter how often we cross paths, I will never feel unafraid, but I will always feel like I won the lottery when I make it safely back to my car.

Have you had an experience with a bear? I’d love to hear about it.

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Naturific Reflectioning

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve had a good hike. The last one was 7 miles of fun in the sun. Then I got sick, which really slowed me down. Today I got back into the swing of things with 6 miles on the AT. I’m trying to connect two sections I’ve done recently, and I got pretty close. It felt great to back out there huffing and puffing up a mountain.

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As usual, I spent most of my time watching my step. A little after a mile of walking the outer perimeter of the National Zoological Park Breading Center (eerily like Jurassic Park) I turned a switchback and came upon the above down tree. I had an instant connection and had to stop. Something about the smooth ripple of its trunk struck me. I placed my hand on it as I noticed the thin lines that made up a pattern. I admired the skewed rings of its life and wondered what had caused it to grow so far off from center. I imagined what it may have seen in its lifetime. I felt my breath pumping through my chest. I felt connected to the earth and to myself.

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In that moment of reflection I realized how lucky I am. I am free to grow in which ever direction I please. My happiness is tied only to me and the trees.

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Have You Seen Spring?

I have been watching, listening, and smelling the signs of spring. Every bit of green that has popped up through the forrest floor of my favorite places is engrained in my brain as bits of springtime happiness and joy. It began before the official vernal equinox, which just so happened to take place on the day the above selfie was taken. That’s right, it snowed a heavy wet snow that day. I pushed myself out the door and into what started as a cold rain, to do a hike I had never done, on rocky terrain that was moss covered and slick, with two dogs in tow, and the pay off was worth it.

Since then I have had the fortune to hike in warmer temps, increasing hours of sunshine, and blooms of native flowers. I thought certainly Buzzard Rocks was the last cold weather challenge. I began planning to push myself in distance for warm weather challenges. Little did I know that we would be hit with a cold blast the first weekend of April.

It began simple enough, my camping companion and I discussed a mutual desire to spend a night in the woods. We picked a day and time to meet, packed on our own without discussion of weather. Our only concern was that it might rain. I was bringing my dogs for their first back country camping experience, and I was nervous for so many reasons. The last thing we needed were two wet dogs in our faces all night. When we met up I asked what he was bringing to keep him warm. He said a fleece. We chatted briefly about the possibility that it might get below 30, how it was forecast to rain for an instance at 11pm, and how our elevation would probably mean it would snow briefly at 11pm. And we left it at that.

We started  on our way in the Shenandoah National Park, registered to back country camp, got a few miles up the drive when I realized that I left my cell pad at home!!! Having to turn back meant delaying us by an hour. He asked what I would use in place of it. As I responded, “I’ll gather leaves” I turned the car around realizing that gathering leaves would make me miserable. So home I went, and it turns out to have been the best decision ever.

We make it to the parking lot and begin our descent. It was a gorgeous day! It must have been in the upper 60s. By the time we sought out and decided upon a campsite I was out of my fleece and down to a tank top. We made sure to set up in a spot that provided some shelter from the wind, because we had heard that it would be a windy night. I wish we had paid more attention to HOW windy it was going to get. The dogs had done great with their packs, but it took them a while to settle down while we made camp. Up went the tent, and up went the hammock! A first for us both. If you haven’t tried the Eno hammocks, you should. They are super easy to put up, and being suspended above the ground after a hike with a heavy pack on is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world. (See hammock behind tent in image below.)

There we were, perched just above the falls at Big Devil Stairs. This spot was perfect. It had the sound of rushing water, trees to break some of the wind, and an amazing view. Just steps away was a large concave rock wall that could be used for shelter if needed. We had a little rest in the hammock, then went out to explore for a bit.

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We sat around for a while eating dinner and chatting. We discussed our sleeping strategy. I would sleep with my dogs in the tent. He would give the hammock a try, and if it got too cold he would join us in the tent. The wind started to pick up around 9pm, and the gentle sound of a waterfall was no longer audible. Not long after, the rain started, so we took shelter. The dogs, who I worried wouldn’t be too keen on sleeping in a tent, were happy to huddle in place and fell asleep immediately. It took me a few minutes, but exhaustion got the better of me and I was out like a light…until 1am. The wind started to get wicked. I checked on the dogs. They seemed fine, although the blanket I brought them was soaked. Did they pee in the tent? 4am rolled around and O.M.G!!! The wind changed directions and picked up. I could hear my friend yelling expletives and something about snow. I asked if he was okay. He said yes, and he was going to stick it out. I think we are both hard heads when it comes to being safe vs. pushing ourselves to the limit. Turner, shivering, snuggled up next to me. I put my winter coat on top of him, and he fell back asleep. Lilly never budged. Lucky dog. I was mostly awake the rest of the night. The wind never let up. I emerged at 7am to get the dogs a pee break. We went for a short walk as my fingers began to freeze. Then we headed back, and curled up in the tent again. Finally, at 8am, it was time to get up for realsies. The wind was still obnoxious and the sun had yet to warm anything up. It had definitely snowed, and I was having a tough time making my hands work. Oh yes, I finally realized that the dogs hadn’t peed. The wetness came from the condensation resulting from the warmth of their bodies against the cold ground. What a relief! Also, poor puppies…

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Note the snow on the ground. It’s not much, but brr…

 

Side note; my camping buddy is the best. He put up the tent with little help from me because I was dealing with my fur monsters. He did all of the cooking. And, he did most of the packing up because I couldn’t feel my hands. Spoiled I was.

We started our hike out as the sun really started to make the outdoors feel livable again. During our hike back I stated that waking up to that kind of cold, or the cold we dealt with on our prior camping trip, is what makes me second guess being able to accomplish a through hike. I’m glad to have had the cold weather experience to be realistic in my future endeavors.

It turned out to be another beautiful, albeit windy, day. We were both so tired from being up for much of the night that we went to our respective places, took hot showers and napped. I eventually heard there had been gusts up to 65mph recorded in the park. I hate thinking about what could have happened, and I’m definitely feeling lucky. So, when is spring getting here? I see snow in the forecast this coming Saturday. I think I’ve had my fill. Or should I go for one more cold weather challenge?

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Those Two Things in Life

This is the first year I have hiked consistently throughout each season. As a result, I’ve noticed changes in the landscape that I hadn’t seen before. Twice this week, on two different trails, I said to myself, “Wow. Someone’s been hard at work clearing out the dead growth along the trails.” Then I realized that this was actually the work of nature. The leaves that once littered the trail below my feet had been replaced with shattered limbs and vines that had perished under the weight of winter. As it comes to an end, winter has cleaned the forest of the growth that couldn’t hold on any longer, making space for the new growth of spring.

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I could easily perish under the weight of winter. The short cold days and lack of sun play a huge part in my mental state. Then signs of spring begin to show, and I begin to come back to life, traveling through some sort of zombie state for a few weeks before finally appearing to be and feel completely human again. This weekend I ventured out to do a hike new to me in the George Washington National Forest. It is my 12th hike in the 52 Hike Challenge. I took the dogs and we scoured the Tuscarora Trail from Elizabeth Furnace to Moneka Peak looking for signs of spring.

I have been a little impatient, hoping to find more trees in bloom and more green popping up from the earth. I photographed what I could find as the dogs and I dodged trail runner after trail runner coming toward us. Then I realized that I had chosen to hike a trail that had an active race happening. That may have been the clearest sign of spring I had seen all day.

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As runners passed by, we exchanged pleasant hellos and quick glances. I began to notice that most of them appeared to be my age or older. I wondered how long they had been training, what their lives were like when they weren’t trying not to break their bodies on rocky terrain, how they chose this race, and what distance they had come to get here. The first runner I came upon was surprised by my presence, fell, and did a very graceful tumble before popping back up and continuing to run. The last runner I came in contact with was crossing a stream, happily humming along with whatever she was listening to as blood streamed from a gouge on her shin. Ah, the wounds of hard work and perseverance. She will look back on that scar and smile, I’m sure of it. Just look at what she had accomplished.

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After passing so many runners, I had to ask myself if I was pushing myself hard enough. Should I be trying to accomplish more on my outings? Then I realized that I was working to my own potential, and the only thing I should be pushing myself toward is not comparing my journey to others. Pushing myself a little harder with each hike is bringing me happiness, and my happiness should not be tied to the goals of others. What’s the saying? There are two things in life that are certain, death and taxes? So, I should be doing what makes me happy before the weight of my winter pulls me to the forest floor. And, I guess tomorrow I have to work on my taxes.

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