Friday, May 30, 2014

Sometimes, you just gotta play it smart!

I had a really tough decision to make this week.  I've been nursing a swollen knee that my physical therapist assured me would be better by Tuesday, just in time for my scheduled 3-day hike on the Appalachian Trail.  I had iced and babied it for weeks and had told myself it was getting well enough to go on the trip because that's what I REALLY wanted to do! This hike would have finished me on the AT in the Smoky Mountains since we had done the other half last summer.  The video of that hike can be found HERE.

On Monday morning, the day before the hike, I finished packing my backpack. I had gotten the weight down to only 23 pounds in an effort to make it easier on my knee.  That's almost 10 pounds lighter than last year! Just to be on the safe side, I shouldered my pack, tightened up the hip belt and shoulder straps and headed out the front door of my house for a quick trip around the neighborhood as a test run for the knee.  It felt pretty good on the road and I didn't think the distance was going to be a problem. However, just to be on the safe side, I looked for and climbed some neighborhood hillsides and immediately, I knew I was in trouble.  These grassy, smooth hills were nothing like the intensity of the rocky climbs and descents I knew full well the AT would throw at me. But with every step on them, my knee let me know it simply wasn't ready. Devastated, I came home, informed my hiking buddies that I could not go on Tuesday, but immediately offered to provide the shuttle they would need anyway.

They don't call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing!

On Tuesday morning, we traveled up Newfound Gap Road and then up Clingman's Dome Road to the trailhead where I would leave them to hike without me.  Was this difficult? It may be one of the hardest days I've had associated in any way with hiking.  But, I did it for the good of the group.  I could have gone and then gotten part way to realize that I had to turn back.  There's no way they would have let me hike back alone, so I would have ruined their trip too.  I just wasn't going to take that chance. Instead, I said goodbye at the trailhead and wished them a safe and enjoyable journey, fighting back the tears that had come so readily on Monday.  I did stop at an overlook or two on my way back to civilization to snap the shots in this post, and the views were pretty enough to be some consolation.

Also, on the way back, I stopped to pick up my 500 Miles Hiked pin from the rangers at Sugarlands Visitor Center and let them check me off in their register.  That was the suggestion of one of my hiking buddies. She knew that would help me feel a bit better, and she was right!

I will hike again! I'm just not sure how long that will be.  In the meantime, I plan on making a few short, low-key hikes to strengthen the knee and reclaim the sanity that I lose if I don't go to the mountains on a regular basis.  In a couple weeks, I'll know if surgery is in the picture or not.  I'm definitely praying that it won't be, but if it is, I'll still be back!

I'd love to hear about your hardest moments relative to hiking! Would you be willing to share?

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Makes a Good Hiking Partner?

As I look back on the last couple of years, I think about how my hiking partners have changed and what I've noticed makes for long-lasting hiking relationships.  When I first began hiking, I went once or twice with a neighborhood friend who I can probably thank for getting me started on this journey when my daughter went off to college. I seriously needed a diversion and hiking proved to be the perfect way to heal a hurting heart.  Lynn was great to hike with as a newbie.  We were about the same speed and same age so we had a lot in common.  However, Lynn experienced some health problems and had to quit hiking, something I hope never happens to me.

Shortly after that, a dear friend from work made the statement to me that she wanted to hike up Mt. LeConte before she turned 60 which was only a couple months away.  She and I and one more woman I didn't know very well, but still worked with, decided we would do just that.  The account of that first trip to Mt. LeConte can be found HERE.  We had such a great time, we just kept on hiking!  Since that time, I've hiked with many different folks and have settled into a small group of regular hiking companions.  Together we've had many wonderful and a few trying experiences, but we've faced them all together and are better (and closer) for it. Along the way, I've found the value in certain characteristics that make good hiking companions and will try to delineate them here to help others be better hiking partners.  A good hiking companion:

  • Puts other members of the group (and the good of the group itself) before themselves instead of demanding that selfish goals be put before the interest of others in the group.  Make a commitment when you decide to hike with a group that the interests of the group will be equally as important as your own interests.
  • Will never go off and leave other members of their hiking group alone or go off alone by themselves unless agreed upon by the group.  We have had times when we've had to hike an extra ten miles because one group member was so far ahead of the others that when we realized we'd taken a wrong turn, we couldn't get up with her regardless of how loudly we yelled or blew the emergency whistle.  That same individual once was hiking so far out that when the only other person on the hike that day fell and was cut and bleeding, she was nowhere to be found to lend aid.  Make it a point to stay within earshot (or at least whistle distance) of other members of your group.
  • Prepares fully for a hike by knowing and understanding the route to be taken.  It's important that everyone in the group knows enough to get out of the backcountry to go for help if someone is injured.  Sharing the responsibility for knowing the route makes it safer for everyone in the group.  
  • Abides by the "rules" of the backcountry.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where most of our hiking adventures take place, there are safety rules one is expected to follow when staying in the shelters or campsites, specifically regarding bear precautions.  It is only fair to the others in the group if everyone follows those rules to keep from putting everyone staying in the campsite or shelter at risk of an unpleasant or even potentially dangerous encounter. 
  • Shares the load and the expenses.  When backpacking with a group, some items don't need to be carried by everyone and dividing the load up amongst all members of the party can make sharing equipment more fair.  Packing your own pack so full that you have no room to carry shared items is totally unfair to those with whom you are hiking. Also, getting to and from hikes can be an expensive proposition if you go very frequently.  Be sure to either do your fair share of driving or be ready and willing every time to pay your part of the travel expenses.  Others in your group will not want to carry you financially for long.
  • Shares camp responsibilities.  On a backpacking trip, getting to the shelter or campsite is only part of the work involved.  Once the group arrives at the destination, much work remains to be done and everyone is already tired. Be sure that you are actively involved in gathering water or doing other necessary tasks, not simply lounging on the top bunk watching everyone else work. Believe me, that gets old quick!  Be committed to doing your part.  Not only is it the fair thing to do, but those little jobs make great memories together to make the group stronger and builds those lasting friendships.

A long-lived hiking relationship develops into a deep and abiding friendship.  Like most other relationships that are meaningful, hiking buddies put the needs of other members of the group ahead of their own, but all members are also doing the same thing.  Once that happens over a period of time, bonds are created that are tight--almost as tight as family.  That, my friends, is worth the extra effort!

Did I leave out any characteristics of good hiking buddies YOU've had? Feel free to add to this in the comment section!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

500 "New Miles" and Counting!

It hasn't been too terribly long ago that I wrote that blog post titled "GSMNP 900! No Promises, New Miles," but as of yesterday, I've reached the 500 "New Miles" milestone.  Once I started keeping track of this journey on the spreadsheet provided by Liz Etnier, author of the book that we use as one of two major references toward our goal, hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become an obsession. Counting the miles has been an impetus to get us out there more frequently than we would have without marching steadfastly toward our goal.  An occasional hike in the woods is one thing, but this drive toward a group goal is something quite different.

Do I let the goal ruin the journey? No! Being in the wilds of the Smokies with two of my best friends I've ever had in my life and enjoying what nature has to offer us is still the best part of every hike we do.  I love walking in these woods, along these ridge lines, listening to the calls of the birds or scampering of the boomers, taking in the breathtaking vistas, and listening to that still small voice inside me.  Putting one foot in front of the other when striving to reach the top of some steep climb, encouraging each other that we can DO this because we've done it before--those are small treasures provided by this quest.

And we ARE purists! We never take credit for having walked even any small distance that we haven't really walked.  If we get off the trail to look at a rock outcropping or whatever, we don't come out the other side and continue on.  We will even double back to the same spot we left the trail just to be purists in the effort.  I've hiked with one person in the past who, if she sees a trail sign, she's done that trail--her record keeping is terrible so her claim to have finished them all will be meaningless, no matter when she "says" she's finished them all.  Not us! Meticulous record-keeping is a part of the process for us.  There are many small snippets of trail that can easily be missed unless you're very careful and purposeful in this effort.  This book can help you in that in case you're interested in pursuing a similar goal.

According to Ms. Etnier's book, there are 791.9 miles of trail in my beloved Smoky Mountains.  I am fortunate to have hiked 500.6 of them to date.  Hopefully, the Lord will allow me to finish, but even if I don't ever finish, I have been blessed by every step in ways I can never relate here.