I was twenty years old the first time a friend took me backpacking. I spent the night in the woods with nothing more than what I could carry in on my back. It was one of those life changing events when your eyes become opened to an entirely new way of seeing the world. As I walked down a rhododendron lined path that evening at dusk, I felt as if I had been living in black and white and I was finally seeing the world in color.
From that point on, I was hooked. I saved my money earned from summer jobs to buy my own backpacking gear and headed for the mountains of Georgia or North Carolina every chance I got. I took a job as a waitress in Yellowstone National Park one summer and it was by far the best and most exciting season of my life. Spending time in the backcountry became one of the greatest love affairs I’ve ever known, and I often wonder if I had discovered it just a couple of years prior, how it likely would have changed the course of my career path.
When I finished veterinary school I diligently prepared to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, but that idea was derailed when I was offered a job in Waynesville where I was completing an internship. I took the safe route, convincing myself that the AT would always be there to hike. I’d be foolish to not take a job where I wanted to live most in the world, I thought. Little did I know at that time, I was giving up a dream that would be much harder to pull off as the years ticked by. Real life has a way of blocking the path sometimes.
Fast forward to the present. Between mothering, homeschooling, cookie baking, animal life saving, and everything else in between, there hasn’t been much backpacking going on in my life. Even day hiking requires a carefully orchestrated maneuvering of our family’s calendar. And when a window of opportunity arises, I have found myself sometimes secretly craving a spa experience over sleeping on the ground.
Last year, when a homeschooling blogger mom I follow announced her plans to thru hike the Appalachian Trail with her husband and three children (ages 10, 12, and 14), I jumped at the chance to host them as they traversed through the mountains near Franklin. We were fascinated with them as they washed their clothes (and themselves!), ate mountains of anything we offered them, and resupplied their food. Celine, Brienne and Laurent (the kids) seemed wise beyond their years when we met them, so I can only imagine what they’ll be like at the end of their journey (and yes, they’re still going strong, well over half way there!). I took away much more from the experience than just the pleasure of hosting such an inspirational family. If their kids could carry 20 pounds on their back and hike an average of 10 miles daily, what were mine capable of, if given the same opportunities?
As luck would have it, shortly after their stay, I mentioned my idea of thru hiking a short trail over the summer with my kids to one of my “besties” and she asked if she could tag along. I still wish she could have seen the huge smile on my face as I read her email. Nothing made me happier than thinking of sharing this journey with one of my favorite people in the world.
We settled on thru hiking The Foothills Trail, a 76-mile trail leading from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park, traversing through the mountains of North and South Carolina along the way. It seemed manageable enough terrain for little legs but with lots of great scenery and excellent resources to help plan our trips. Gear was purchased, food was packed, and we made plans to spend three nights on the trail, covering just over 24 miles on this first leg of our journey.
The kids were chatty right from the trailhead and at the first sighting of wildlife, peals of laughter filled the silence of the woods (it was a turkey, just off the trail, who popped his head up from a bush and then ran gobbling down the hillside when he discovered six wide-eyed children staring at him). Two toads were found, one promptly urinating on Aidan’s hand. Again, laughter filled the air.
Since we started mid afternoon, we only hiked about 3.5 miles before setting up camp. Setting up camp became quite the spectacle, and in retrospect, we’re lucky the kids didn’t form a mutiny and force us to take them back to the car out of fear of our abilities!
I had brought our larger tent that I wasn’t familiar with setting up, and my mother’s genes for lack of any mechanical ability emerged loud and strong. Thank goodness for Diana’s common sense and the fact that Aidan had recently helped Larry set up this same tent in Colorado a few weeks prior to this trip, otherwise there would have been no tent that night (at least an erected one). Aidan and Kyla decided to sleep in hammocks with a tarp covering them. Problem was, we guessed at the size of the tarp we’d need and we were a bit off. If it rained, anything below their knees was exposed. Hands down, the most entertaining part of the evening was hanging our food bags in nearby trees. After a comedy of errors, we finally had both bags hung, albeit much lower to the ground than we had planned. If a bear was lucky enough to stumble upon them that night, they would merely serve as a piñata of sorts for him to bust open.
The night wasn’t a complete train wreck though. Everyone enjoyed a hot dinner by a small creek running alongside the campsite, ticks were removed from bodies before they were embedded, no one walked through the huge Spiny Orb’s web in our campsite, and we were even treated to a Barred Owl hooting nearby.
The next morning, by the grace of God, our food was still hanging! It had rained but both Kyla and Aidan toughed it out in the hammocks. As we packed up, the rain started up again. Passing shower, we thought. We knew they had predicted some “showers” but surely it wasn’t going to rain all weekend. Right? Right!?!
As the morning progressed and we hiked along, the kids seemed happy enough, despite the constant pitter patter of rain. Aidan’s noxious emissions from his backside kept everyone hiking at a good clip to avoid getting caught in a choking cloud of nastiness. Diana supplied everyone with candy and water flavoring and quickly won “Mom of the Trail” award. Paige, who has a long history of whining while hiking any distance over five feet, was a rock star. I have never seen my daughter so happy to hike, and with 14 pounds on her back to boot! When I later inquired why she was so well behaved, part of her reply was, “Because you told me I couldn’t come back for the next section if I complained too much.” Nothing validated this trip more than that one comment.
Some of my favorite things we identified that day were Indian Pipe, bright orange juvenile Red-Spotted Newts called “efts”, oodles of Rattlesnake Plaintain and Galax, slugs galore, and several millipedes. We had initially worried about seeing lots of venomous snakes based on recent trail reports, but thankfully, the grey skies and rain kept them in hiding!
When we stopped for lunch after hiking about 5 miles (yes, in the rain still), I was again expecting a mutiny when I told the crew we had 2.7 more miles to hike before making camp. They weren’t overjoyed about it, especially with increasingly waterlogged gear and bodies, but they trudged on.
We finally arrived to our campsite alongside the Oconee River, and as luck would have it, the rain picked up even more! We were never so thankful for a tarp that wouldn’t cover two hammocks effectively. By this point, all our gear was wetter than we’d like, but thankfully the temperatures were still high enough that there wasn’t a huge risk of someone becoming hypothermic. Diana, ever the amazing trail mom, treated all the kids to freeze dried ice cream sandwiches!
We eventually climbed into our damp sleeping bags and all “enjoyed” a long night of pouring rain pelting our tents (no hammock sleepers this night!).
The next morning, as I was wondering how I slept at all, Aidan nudged me and said, “Look at how much water our tent is sitting on.” I quickly realized why I had slept better than expected–our tent floor had become like a waterbed! Apparently I had pitched it in the lowest point of the campsite, and we were now floating in the middle of a small pond!
We decided we should wait until the rain let up a little before trying to wade through the water we were floating in and pack up. Problem was, the rain never let up, it only seemed to be increasing in intensity! We eventually braved the elements, packed up, and headed out of camp.
“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I don’t know what the final answer to that question should be philosophically, but I can say with 100% confidence that if a tree falls and crashes in the forest near where you’re hiking, you will in fact hear it and be scared out of your living mind for a few seconds! Luckily, said tree was on the other side of the river. It was a frightening experience for all of us, hearing the loud SNAP and then long crash, not knowing what was happening and where. We quickly hiked on in case any of its buddies nearby decided to follow suit and give up their fight with gravity.
Seeing as how everything we possessed was soaking wet at this point, we decided to hike 5.5 miles to the next road crossing and either find a ride to one of our cars or I would solo hike the next 7.2 mile segment to my car and come back to pick everyone up. Our dear friend, Katie, and two of her sons were supposed to meet us at this junction to join the journey, but we had little hope she would brave the rain and be there.
As I was gearing myself up mentally for the extra hiking I thought I would end up doing, a group of men and their sons who had camped near us the night before came up behind us on the trail. They too were waterlogged and hiking out from their trip early….but to their waiting cars one mile away! I quickly told them our predicament and they were kind enough to agree to drive one of us to our cars if Katie wasn’t there.
The group of men and boys led the way since they were inevitably faster than us. Our kids hiked faster than they’ve ever hiked that mile, knowing they were our ticket to freedom and with no complaining, except for Paige mumbling something unintelligible under her breath part of the way. I’m guessing it had something to do with disowning me as her mother once we were back to civilization.
We reached the parking lot and would you believe that Katie’s van was sitting in it?! We should have known one of our toughest and most dedicated friends ever would be there to spend a day and night in misery with us! I felt horribly that she had driven 1-1/2 hours only to shuttle our stinky, wet selves to a car and then return home. In her usual fashion, she took it in stride and was happy to help friends in need. Thank you, Katie!!!
On the way home, we laughed as we realized the first thing we all wanted when we got home was to get in more water (albeit the warm, relaxing water of our showers and bathtubs)!
We reconvened at the Chinese restaurant in town that night (unanimous vote by the kids) to rehash the trip’s events and craziness. The infamous line from Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, kept running through my mind, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times….” Despite the rain starting and never stopping once it did, we truly had an exceptionally amazing time on our first leg of the Foothills Trail. We had some mileage to make up going forward, but at the end of the day, we were all safe (and dry)! Diana’s husband dubbed us with the trail names “Navy Seal Moms” for braving the elements and safely emerging with all 6 children still intact.
As I looked down the table at Diana, her children, and my own kids, I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this path I’ve traveled the last 17 years. I don’t let go of big dreams and goals easily and I’ll thru hike the AT one day, maybe even with one (or all) of my kids with me. If I had chosen to thru hike the AT after I graduated, I may not have ended up in Waynesville, meeting one of the truest friends I’ve ever known. I may not have even married Larry, which means I wouldn’t have ever been a mom to Aidan, Paige, and Wogene. The spur trail is exactly the one I was supposed to take those many years ago, and there’s not a single part of me that feels lost having taken it