Going Wherever It Leads

A family adventure blog


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One Toddler’s First Summit

Our five-year PCT trailaversary quietly passed us by last month with no more fanfare than my husband mentioning it in passing in the middle of the night after he got the baby back to sleep, otherwise I would have forgotten. (Catching longtime readers up to speed – we had a baby and moved from the West Coast back to Maine. Emily is now 20 months old.)

Just as I was clumsily gaining my hiking legs around Idyllwild, California around this time five years ago, this weekend Emily, not inelegantly, gained hers and summited her first mountain — Great Pond Mountain, elevation 1,029 feet.

 

And amidst all the chaos, stress and uncertainty of our daily pandemic life, it somehow seems the perfect time to resurrect this blog.

We are now going wherever it leads at toddler speed. This means noticing varieties of lichen on rocks, bugs crawling through grass and moss, birds singing, lots of collecting pine cones (Emily handing them to me, instructing “put in pocket”), scaling boulders with the help of Mommy’s hands, stumbling, and getting back up again.

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Although we’ve been spending several weekends in the woods or on the coast, this felt like our first real hike since moving back to Maine from Washington State this past December.

Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland offered us the quintessential Maine coastal forest trail, remote enough to safely social distance, south enough to be free of snow this time of year, and far enough from home to afford Emily a good car-nap each way.

The trail was lined with red spruce and giant granite covered in mint green lichen and deep green moss, the smell of pine needles kicked up from our feet — the landscape that had been calling us home from the dry high desert and rolling hills of Walla Walla, where we’d spent our last four years since getting off the trail. It’s early spring, so only little buds on some trees and mucky spots beside springtime streams that I lift Emily over. A 2.9-mile round trip out-and-back path with a lovely summit loop at the top that Emily walked completely (almost 0.5 miles), the rest of the time she rode in her hiking backpack on Daddy’s back.

My heart was so full seeing her as ignited by hiking as we are — excitedly searching for the next blue blaze, blazing down the trail herself. While walking, she chattered away “Mommy hiking. Daddy hiking. Emily hiking.”

We had a typical trail lunch (or as Emily calls it, a “picnic table,” whether or not we’re at a table) of salami, cheese, crackers and fruit sitting on a flat rock, sheltered by pines and spruce with a view of Maine’s spring forest — shades of brown dotted with pale blue lakes and, farther out, the ocean and coastal mountains, a darker shade of the gray-blue matching the overcast sky.

She’s gotten used to our quarantine hikes — the big event of her little life at this point. This morning after I explained what we were doing for the day she was eager to help us pack, naming the things she would need, “water bottle, cheddar bunnies, books” — for the car ride. She got Mommy’s hiking shoes out of the closet and almost had a tantrum when Daddy suggested they go play while I showered. She didn’t want to play, she wanted to help get ready for our adventure.

As new parents we are far from ones to be giving advice, but here are some things that worked for us to keep her interested for a full hike:

  • Searching for the next blue blaze (first pointing them out ourselves our voices full of exagerated excitement, then letting her lead the way to the next one)
  • Taking it slow, letting her scale a boulder or meander off-trail when she needs to explore
  • Interspersing having her walk on her own with carrying in a trail pack (we have an older version of this one) or in our arms
  • Me running ahead while Daddy shouts “Let’s catch Mommy,” then hiding behind trees and popping out to her squeals of delight
  • Lots of singing

Here’s a great resource for those interested in getting out for a hike with littles: Hike It Baby.

A note on hiking safely during the COVID pandemic: We take the time to find out-of-the-way lesser-known public lands and trails. We look at the number of cars in the parking lot and have one or two nearby backup plans if it looks too crowded. We practice physical distancing on trail.

social distance hiking

Until next time, happy trails,

Comet, Not a Bear, & (introducing) Alarm Clock


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Post-trail Musings

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the many faces of Not-a-Bear, pre/mid/post-trail

Sometimes people ask, “What was it like?” after we tell them we hiked the PCT, the whole thing.

This is such a hard question, but my answer, in trying to convey an experience few people have had, is “Everything.” It is everything; all of the emotions, all of the things, happen on the trail, just very, very differently. It is wonderful, it is horrible, it is boring, it is painful, it is amazingly beautiful, sometimes it is all of these things at once. It is like life, a lifestyle. Even though my life now is very different from my life before the trail, both are so vastly different than on the trail.

And it does change you. And I do miss it. This is not me being romantic, because, as you read from my posts on trail, I really struggled and I was so relieved to be done with it. I still am. But now. Life is just different. It’s hard to explain the difference and it’s hard to explain the change. I will say, for me anyway, and it is different for everyone, it was very gradual. When I got off the trail, I got off it. I didn’t think about it much at all for the first three months (hence, the lack of blogging). I caught up on sleep. I enjoyed showering whenever I wanted, and flushing a toilet. I ate fresh vegetables. But now I am ready to start processing, and even, to start writing about it.

The Straight Facts, Post-trail

After making our way back to the states, we meandered by bus and train back to Oregon. We spent a few weeks in the small town of Oakridge in the big forest of the Willamette with my relatives, recharging, re-acclimating, trying not to eat everything in sight, and looking for our next steps. We found them in Eugene, still a temporary placement. I had a friend from grad school with a lovely little furnished mother-in-law apartment above his garage, perfect for us, since we had no furniture, no jobs, and didn’t want to commit to a lease when we didn’t know where we might find those things (the jobs mainly).

I soon found a temporary job at Barnes and Noble, as extra help for the holidays. I’d never worked retail, but I’d always secretly wanted to work in a bookstore, especially one with a coffee shop in it. I had a blast. Being surrounded by books and people who love them all day was fantastic. It was the leave-at-work job of my dreams –except for the minimum wage pay.

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Exploring the Oregon Coast

During this time, Jason was searching for work. Since the field he was looking in was harder to find employment than mine, his job search would dictate where in the Pacific Northwest we would end up. After a few months of searching, he found a position in Walla Walla, Washington. He is now the new Conservation Director at Blue Mountain Land Trust. And we just spent our first full week living there.

It’s a sweet town of about 40,000, which is probably the right size for both of us (me, leaning towards larger, Jason leaning towards smaller, this a nice compromise in the middle). We have rented a lovely house right downtown, where we can walk to absolutely anything we need. Jason walks to work.

We came with no furniture and two car loads worth of stuff. So I spent the first week in the throes of nesting, trying to make a place that felt like a more permanent home. Something we hadn’t had for almost a year. I swung back and forth between enjoying this, and feeling a bit suffocated.

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Walla Walla Valley

The feeling of buying all of the things again that we had just gotten rid of –everyday all this stuff– weighed me down a little more each day. There is a great lightness in your being when you are not weighed down by stuff, when you can pick up and move whenever, wherever you want. But, after a while, I focused on the enjoyment of this process instead. I had to, but also, it feels very good to have a place to come home to, to rest, to feel totally, well, at home.

The Facts that are Harder to Say

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one of the hundred+ wineries in Walla Walla

So, that’s what we’ve been up to for the past few months. And now, I’ll tell another version of it, for me, anyway. Because Jason’s experience of the trail, on and off, has always been quite different than mine.

Like I said early, when I first got off the trail, I didn’t think much about it at all. It was so far removed from the reality of day-to-day life that it felt like a dream that I only remembered pieces of here and there. But as time went on, I began remembering more and more pieces, and found myself thinking about the trail more and more, even thinking of it fondly. Memory is funny like that; it somehow eases the bad and amplifies the good.

Now I didn’t miss everything about it, for sure. There was one morning recently that I was complaining of being tired and didn’t want to get up. Jason jokingly said, as he’d often say to me in earnest in the tent on a morning like that, “Come on Comet, we only have 20 miles to walk today.” And the relief I felt for that not being the case reminded me, also, how freeing it was for me not to be on the trail, not to have to hike everyday, whether I was tired or not (and every day you are).

It’s hard to put into words the change. But it’s there. It’s the little things that are probably easiest to explain. I don’t shower everyday any more, since I realized my skin and hair actually appreciate this. I look at food differently. I now believe antiperspirant is a placebo. The little concrete changes like that, I can explain. But some of it I just cannot. At least not now.

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Palouse Falls, WA, on my 35th birthday, still rockin’ the puffy

In the last two weeks of the trail, I had convinced myself I finally knew why I’d done this god-awful thing, something that was bugging me from early on. I’d finally decided I did it because I was too afraid to do the thing I really wanted to do –quit my job, move out west, and pursue creativity. I needed a something in between. The trail gave me that. It gave me courage to face this next step, I thought. And in some ways, I was right. I am braver now. It is easier to face challenging tasks in the real world, because most of them aren’t as challenging as hiking 20+ miles on not enough sleep or calories, in elevation, or heat, or cold.

But, in another way I was wrong about why I hiked, and I didn’t realize this till just the other day. I did it just to do it. And that is enough. That’s the answer most people will give you. Most people will give this answer to you before, during, and after their hike. But it took me a little longer to figure it out for myself (for various struggles within my personality or astrology). But you do it just to do it, for the experience of the thing.

One of the things Jason would say to me on trail, to help keep me going, when I really wanted to quit, was that later, I would be glad I did it, or regret not doing it if I didn’t. This was something he couldn’t explain, but he just knew was true. It wasn’t great motivation at the time, but somehow it kept me going. And he’s completely right. I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I’m so glad I made it to Canada.

I don’t regret any mile I walked. I also don’t regret any mile of trail I didn’t walk. My little breaks for various reasons added up to missing about 500 miles of the 2,659-mile trail. But those missed miles allowed me to complete the trail, complete it my way. As Pink Floyd said in a song I heard for the first time on the trail, and was a great inspiration to me, “I’ll climb that hill in my own way.” I always seem to do just that.

Listen to the song here.

And on this next hill, I am still afraid, it is still scary, but I will climb it in my own way.

 

Still going wherever it leads,

Comet/Catie

P.S. If you completed the trail, did you experience similar post-trail feelings? Different? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section.