First Day Hike(s)

I always participate in the First Day Hike event and usually do something simple, no more than 2 miles and usually with other people. This year I had planned to do something bigger, a 7 mile loop at Stone Mountain State Park. However, the rain in the forecast in my area made that a less than safe activity. Still, I knew I would feel as though I missed out if I didn’t go for some kind of hike.

So I ventured out with my goretex coat and boots and picked a shorter 4 mile loop at Morrow Mountain State Park, specifically the Fall Mountain Loop Trail. While I have been to the park numerous times, I somehow have never experienced this beautiful trail that features a variety of terrain and views. I chose to follow the trail counter-clockwise and started out along Lake Tillery then headed up Fall Mountain, an elevation gain of only about 550 ft. The climb up involved a few switch backs and passing through a field of rhyolite rocks that reminded me of a field of diamonds or more realistically, snow piles that have begun to melt.

At the top, I stopped to take some pictures and felt as though I was being watched. I turned around and sure enough I saw this beautiful buck. We spent more than a few seconds staring at each other before he was joined by another buck and they both ran up over the top of the hill. Later on I crossed paths with a group of two does and their five offspring. It brought me a sense of peace to have encountered these lovely creatures on the hike. There were a few stream crossings – thank goodness for my boots! And just as I rounded the end and saw my car in the parking lot, the heavy rain moved in. I made it back just in time. Though the signs say 4.1 miles, my tracker clocked me at 4.5

Along the backside of Fall Mountain, I happened to notice a manmade spire. Upon closer inspection I discovered this was a burial site for the Kron family, who I would learn more about after my hike. As I drove up the road from the trailhead I found a road off to the right that led up to the Francis Kron Homesite, established in 1834 by the first doctor in the Piedmont area. The buildings have been reconstructed on their original sites, including his home, his work building, and a greenhouse. The site of his garden still remains behind the house. I spent a while looking in the windows and reading the educational markers. I contemplated what it must have been like to be a physician in that time and to be raising two young girls, and influencing the agricultural market by assisting in the building of a market road from Stanly County to Salisbury. What a remarkable person.

The weather cleared up on the 2nd so I woke up extra early and headed for my originally planned hike at Stone Mountain State Park. I made my way up the freeway before dawn in the fog. It was an exciting and eerier drive, knowing what lay before me.

When I arrived at the trailhead, there were only three other vehicles in the parking lot, and I was on the trail just before 8 o’clock. I had done some reading up on the hike and knew that the “better” direction would be counter-clockwise. Within a half mile, I met up with a series of steep steps (say that five times fast) intermingled with steel ropes along the vertical rock face of Stone Mountain. The climb was grueling but the reward was worth it.

The walk along the back side of Stone Mountain was peaceful. The sun started coming up higher above the treeline and made for a beautiful, easy walk to Stone Mountain Waterfall. I had been to the waterfall back in November 2019 with someone very dear to me and it brought up a lot of fond memories and made my heart happy to be back in a place that holds special meaning for me. Those stairs, though! Last time we walked down to the bottom, and then climbed back up them. I was grateful to only be going down this time.

From the waterfall, I walked back toward the face of Stone Mountain, close to the Hutchinson Homesite, though I didn’t stop to tour it this time. Instead, I hooked a hard left and headed back up toward Cedar Rock. The incline here was just as grueling as the first climb and this time I was going vertical at the 5.5 mile mark instead of the 0.5 mile mark, so my legs were protesting. My lungs were screaming. My mind was arguing with me.

I had to stop and remove my pack and my jacket and take a few moments to recenter myself. My first thought was to stop and turn back, this was too hard, I couldn’t keep going because my legs couldn’t handle it. Then I took inventory of my body’s signals and realized that yes, my legs were tired, and I was very sweaty, and my feet were swelling. But none of this meant I couldn’t keep going. My mind was playing tricks on me and all I needed to do was remember that my body is strong and I’m capable of so much. I packed my jacket into the pouch on the outside of my pack, clicked my pack back into place and grabbed my poles. Every step up was one step closer. I kept telling myself, “Your body can do anything. Just put one foot in front of the other. This is just walking. Your body can do anything.” And before I knew it, I was at the top of Cedar Rock!

I continued on toward Wolf Rock where I was greeted by a view even more spectacular than on Stone Mountain. Knowing I only had about 3/4 of a mile left to get back to the trail head, I decided to stop for a while and rest. I took off my boots and sat with some apple slices and grapes. I even found peace enough to journal about the journey up. The trek was difficult, but my will was stronger. I focused on my mental and physical determination and how the toughness I found deep within could be applied to so many areas of my life.

After I absorbed all I could of the energy of the space, I put my boots back on and made my way back down the hill toward the place where I had started five hours earlier. I’ve done some difficult hikes this past year, and none of them compare to some of the difficulties I’ve faced in life. The achievements of hiking are small in comparison, but I know I can be successful if I keep moving forward. Rest when necessary, but never give up.

One of my goals for First Day Hikes is to set my intentions for the new year, for the things I want to accomplish in the next 365 days. The lessons I gained on these two hikes inspired me to focus on finding peace with where I’m at but to continue pushing myself to go farther, to take the difficult steps to get where I ultimately want to be, and to know that I am fully capable of doing anything if I just don’t get in my own way. Happy New Year! Happy Hiking!

Writing the Hike

I write a lot about hiking. If you know me, then you know I talk a lot about hiking, too. The act of meandering, trudging, sauntering, marching, scrambling, or simple walking in nature is like fuel for my mind and rest for my soul. Keeping all of that tucked up in my brain without putting it into words feels frustrating and aimless.

As I enter into the new year, with new hiking goals and plans in place, I want to be sure I begin to incorporate writing into these adventures more fully and consistently. The goals and talents of my youth were, after all, centered around a love of the written word. It’s why I have thousands of books in my home, why my first major academic accomplishment was earning a Bachelor’s degree in English, and why I still participate in NaNo WriMo every November (once again, I did not win this year, for a couple of reasons).

My interests have been many over the past 40 years but I’m moving into a place in life where I am fully embracing the activities that make me come alive. Right now, those include hiking and writing. Maybe some day I’ll write a national bestseller like Cheryl Strayed or a niche memoir like Jennifer Pharr Davis. I still hope that I can tell my story of how the outdoors and the act of moving across the earth on foot has saved me over and over.

So I have to start somewhere.

I’ve decided to start a hiking journal. I hope to record my thoughts and impressions of each hike I do this year in my journal. I also hope to elaborate on the emotions and inspirations that the hikes precipitate within me, as a way to motivate me into more writing as well provide a memoir of these adventures. I received a journal for Christmas this year, and I think it’s just the perfect place to begin putting my hiking ruminations on paper.

I don’t think that any adventure can be purely technical in its unfolding. If that were the case, it would be a task, a job, not an adventure. Even trying to improve my mileage or hike times is done out of a desire to test my mental and physical limits, not the quality of my gear or the accuracy of my maps. Adventure must come from the heart, much in the same way that writing about it must also be done as a means for deeper understanding of self, of the environment, of the people who have traveled these trails before.

Right now, I’m stuck when it comes to what and how to journal. I can certainly record the weather, the length, the elevation gain or loss. But all that is easily found on any trail app. What I want to journal and eventually write about is what each hike tells me, how the path shapes my thoughts, the grand ideas that swirl through my head as I put one foot in front of the other, the goals I make for myself when I’m out there, both hiking-related and otherwise.

There’s a lot of time to get sucked into my own universe when it’s quiet and there’s nothing but the sound of my own footsteps and breathing. Journaling will give me a chance, I hope, to put that universe into words and maybe allow me to create more goals and adventures and digest some of the conversations I have with myself about life, the world, and the path I’m on – literal and figurative.

If you have ideas for a hiking journal, plop them in the comments or send me a message. If you keep a hiking journal already, I’d love to hear what and how you journal.

Happy hiking, happy writing!

Adventures In Mommin’

Sometimes adventures aren’t all open roads, flash, and adrenaline. Sometimes adventure is mundane and “grown-up”. Today I embarked on a new adventure, and it’s a doozy.

One of the biggest tasks I’ve ever been handed was that of raising two daughters on my own, one of whom has always been a little different. For years and years I’ve been told (and admittedly agreed) my oldest daughter, L, was on the Autism spectrum, but I always assumed she was high-functioning. These pseudo-diagnoses came from teachers and medical doctors and well-meaning friends. As a former paraeducator I also believed she was on the spectrum based on my past experiences with former students.

However, I’ve never been able to get an official diagnosis from the correct specialist in order to access appropriate therapies and support services for her. As she’s grown older, the obstacles have become more pronounced and at the beginning of the year, I reached out to our family doctor AGAIN, in the hopes that we could get a referral to the right clinic to help us. After months of back and forth, filling out forms, surveys, and multiple phone calls, we finally had our appointment with Dr. Shruti Mittal, MD, a Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician.

I fully expected another “quickie” appointment with no real answers. I was wrong.

Dr. Mittal spent TWO FULL HOURS talking to both me and my daughter and conducted another assessment directly with L with her self-reporting her own experiences, feelings, behaviors, and concerns. After an hour of private one-on-one conversation, Dr. Mittal went over the assessment scale she used as well as the DSM-5 diagnosis criterion for ASD. In order to be diagnosed with ASD, a patient must meet three of the three A-criterion and two of the four B-criterion.

https://asatonline.org/for-parents/diagnosis/?gclid=CjwKCAiAq8f-BRBtEiwAGr3Dgar8cEAefT0KSE7R3axV6C-6Bw3MwtUOSTUhiGrWB3vPcjYuPoE_WxoCuQsQAvD_BwE

While L meets three of the four Criterion B, she only meets one of the three Criterion A. She also does not meet Criterion D. She does not have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

YAY!

Dr. Mittal went on to explain the assessment scale for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD. L meets nearly all the criterion for ADHD.

Ok stop. What a lot of people misunderstand about ADHD is that they expect to see children having wild outbursts, emotional disregulation, opposition to authority, defiance, and uncontrollability. This is a severe misrepresentation of what ADHD looks like.

ADHD can present as fidgety, disorganized and messy, forgetful, boredom, frustration with tasks that require mental endurance, talkativeness, inability to multitask in a meaningful way, attention-seeking, interrupting, and easily distracted. The closer I looked at how daily life is for L, especially related to school, the diagnosis of ADHD makes sense.

Now I know most people think our society over diagnoses ADD and ADHD all in the name of “big pharma”. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “In my day, no one had ADHD, they just needed a good whoopin!” This type of mentality fails to acknowledge that living with ADHD can be really frustrating and isolating if not treated correctly.

We will have more appointments with Dr. Mittal to design a treatment plan together so that L can begin to understand her strengths and weaknesses in relation to this diagnosis, I can learn mechanisms to help her feel more confident and comfortable in academic and social situations, and she can be well on her way to overcoming any obstacles with the help of people who love and care about her. As of right now, Dr. Mittal has no plans to include medications in this treatment plan, preferring to focus on organizational and communication therapies, social skills support groups, counseling, and the development of an IEP and/or 504 for school so that she can continue to excel academically.

I’ve heard that “we shouldn’t be labeling” children with developmental, learning, and cognitive challenges. However, having a DIAGNOSIS (NOT a label) is incredibly helpful for discovering the work-arounds that will make life and the world easier to navigate. Being a pre-pubescent pre-teen girl who doesn’t fit the mold of what is “normal” is already hard enough. Having challenges that haven’t been named until today has made it even harder. Now we finally have a starting point for moving forward. We’re no longer just guessing and wondering and unsure of what to do to make things work. We know now, and I’m eternally grateful to Dr. Mittal for taking the time (who has ever spent two full hours with a doctor of any kind?) to get to know L and help me understand what’s really going and how to mitigate L’s challenges to support her now and into adulthood.

I also need to thank the people who I reached out to today, who offered words of encouragement and their own experiences having or raising children who have ADHD. It’s an overwhelming thing to receive a diagnosis like this, and it was reassuring to hear that I’m not alone and to be encouraged as her mom, for pushing on the system to work with us and help us.

It’s a new adventure and I’m ready.

The 40 List, the Last Day

Last year I created a “40 List,” a list of 40 things I wanted to do in the year before I turned 40. I started out strong and even revised it to include more items that were less about accomplishments and more about making a difference in the world around me. I actually did accomplish many items on the list. Well, several. Okay, a few. Six. Six items.

I could say that Covid was the reason I didn’t get to my list, but that would be a cop-out. Looking back on the long list of goals I realize that the reason I didn’t finish most of them was because I lacked the discipline to keep working on them. So many of them could easily have been tackled at home, sitting on the couch or in bed, with just a fraction of the focus it takes me to post a long blog. But I didn’t.

Part of me wants to be disappointed, but for some reason, I’m not. I’m admittedly shocked at how little time I devoted to working on checking off items from my list. I’m also somewhat shocked at how quickly the year went by, given the constant stream of dumpster fires this year threw at us. But I’m not disappointed in myself because that wouldn’t change or help anything.

What I have accomplished this year is a closer connection with my children. We went into lockdown on March 13th and their schools were closed, sending them into virtual learning mode. I chose to keep them home through the summer instead of sending them to daycare while I worked. They got to know a new babysitter, Cora, who has since become a beloved part of our family. When it was time to make the decision on whether or not to send them back to in-person school, I chose to keep them home for virtual school and grandma, who retired in August, graciously agreed to be their sitter/teacher at home (for a weekly fee, of course – and she deserves it). I thought keeping them at home would be detrimental to their emotional health, but I’ve found we are much more bonded now, and they are bonded to each other. I also hold some pride in knowing I made a difficult decision but one that has turned out to be beneficial and safe for all of us.

I also focused more on building and learning more about hiking in this area. While hiking has been a life-long hobby/interest/love of mine, I never went to the trouble to push myself and my limits. I’ve done more hikes this year than in any year before now. I also did more challenging trails and have even joined the REI Co-op (I can’t believe I didn’t do that before now, but it was always too intimidating). I’ve slowly been building my gear inventory and have a few bigger goals on the horizon with hiking and camping.

I raised and processed my own chickens, grew most of my own food this past spring, set foot on the A.T. for the first time (and cried when I did), earned my green belt in TaeKwonDo (before Covid and a deep pay cut shut that all down), dabbled again in painting, took a few thousand pictures with my camera (that are still stuck on the memory card), learned to accept my body and be comfortable in my own skin at a nudist park, and loved deeply and openly. I also kept working through a pandemic, an accomplishment that puts that whole 40 list in perspective.

I’m not giving up on my 40 list. It will just now be a list of goals to accomplish while I’m 40 instead of before I turn 40. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I have some new goals for the coming year. I’ll carry over some of the items from this past year, but I have a new perspective that will inform the new list.

Goals are just that – goals. They are not a measure of success or value. They are ways to keep ourselves moving forward instead of stagnating. Not reaching those goals doesn’t always mean that we failed, just that we went in another direction. And that’s totally okay. Here’s to 40 trips around the sun! And here’s to making the most of the next one! I’m looking forward to creating, and tackling, a brand new list of goals.

NaNoWriMo 2020

I have participated in an event called National Novel Writing Month, every year since 2007. I’ve “won” one time in 2008. Life seems to get in the way every year since then. But it also takes an incredible level of discipline and creativity in regards to finding the time to put 1700 words on the screen each day. There’s also that nasty villain, the editor in my brain, to contend with. Or, with whom to contend. See?

The first year, I wrote a survival story, several details of which have surprisingly come true in real life – I now have a dog named Zoey, I live in North Carolina, and a few others which are a bit personal that I don’t need to share here. That year I wrote everything in a notebook because I didn’t have a working computer. It was torture and inevitable that I would not finish.

The second year, I wrote a story about a woman who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. She suffered PTSD, amnesia, and grieve the loss of a child. The story was twisty and turn-y, and maybe some day I can go back to it to edit and make something more of it. But for now, it remains the story that “won” me NaNoWriMo for the first time.

Subsequent stories included one about a young woman on a road trip to “find herself” who ends up joining a hippie cult somewhere in California; a story about an elderly couple at the precipice of death and the paths their lives took up to this moment; a mother guiding her daughter through her impending death; and a child lost in the woods after a family camping trip who grows up and survives into manhood. They were all interesting to me at the beginning and quickly lost their appeal which led to me not completing the 50k words on time.

I’ve been a part of three different writing groups, one in Seattle, one closer to me in the Seattle area, and one in Mebane, NC. I met with these groups at different times and I can’t say enough how helpful and motivating it is to have a group of other writers, professional and amateur, to encourage, compete (light competitions – who can get the most words in 5 minutes type of competing), inspire, and advise. I miss being able to find and confer with other “WriMos”.

This year I am considering trying my brain at some historical fiction, focusing on a specific tragic event that occurred not too far from where I live. As with any author, my inner editor immediately wakes up and gets to work, even before I’ve typed the first letter. My biggest fear isn’t that I won’t get all the words down in time or that my sentences will require heavy editing for clarity or interest. My biggest fear is that I will misrepresent the actual historic people in my story thereby offending an entire community. I have to remind myself that putting in on paper for NaNoWriMo in no way commits me to publish or even share. And while there are 30 days to get the words written, there are at least 335 more days afterwards to do the editing before I need to start the next story.

For all my fellow WriMos, good luck! Look me up on the NaNoWriMo website. We have 30 days to prepare for my favorite 30 days of the year. Get to planning!

Lost: Looking for Me

When I was a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to tour a few college campuses as a way to help me select where I wanted to attend for my undergraduate education. This is back in the day where we researched our potential schools in catalogs – actual paper catalogs. Websites were a new thing and even if a college had one, the visuals were poor and there were no videos or 3D tours. One of the colleges I picked was the now defunct Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, AK. I flew to Alaska and spent a couple of weeks on the campus, living in the dorm and touring the island. It was amazing and I was in love. My old school film camera photographs of my time there are tucked away in a box somewhere. One of the most memorable parts of that trip was a small hike I took in the Sitka National Historic Park Trails to see the Tlingit Totems. It was a peaceful, spiritual walk, and I felt so at home in a place vastly different from the home I grew up in. Unfortunately, because this was before the time of Instagram and Facebook, I didn’t take a bazillion pictures. All my memories of my time in Sitka are in my head. I ended up not attending that college due to issues with their accreditation, but I’m forever grateful for the chance to briefly explore and get a quick glimpse of a land so stunning it took my breath away.

After my visit to Sheldon Jackson was done, I flew back to Seattle and spent one night and one day at the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma, WA, where I eventually attended and earned my Bachelor of Arts in English. I missed many opportunities available at school to explore and enjoy the outdoors for multiple reasons. But living in Washington state gave me new opportunities after graduation to hike in weather and terrain completely new to me.

Graduation Day at the University of Puget Sound with my closest friend at the time, Katie

Some of my favorite hikes were up forest service roads along Hwy 410. I still couldn’t tell you which roads I took, because I was still fairly inexperienced and unprepared for hiking, but the call of the mountain was like a siren in my ear and I just went to where it led me, without prior planning or knowledge of the trails I would take. I ventured to one particular mountain several times, nearly falling of the edge at one point as I tried to back up to have my picture taken. My reaction turned out to be one my favorite pictures.

I slipped backwards and laughed hysterically – it would have been terribly exhilarating way to go.

My favorite hiking partner was my dog, Roxy. She was a cattle dog/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix with probably a little pit thrown in for good measure. She was a muscular dog with a lot of endurance. We hiked so many mountain trails, many with some steep incline. One of her least favorite was Mt Pete (or Mt Peak, or Pinnacle Peak) in Enumclaw, where we lived, because we were there almost every day after I finished work. Another after-work favorite of mine was near White River Mill Pond, toward First Lake. A fellow hiker and local Highland Cow Farmer, Bonnie, had introduced me to the trail. We took our dogs out there and let them run. It was a quick ten minutes from my house, and easy to get a good work out in, but away from town and, like I like it, in the woods.

I did a lot of off-trail hiking, which wasn’t always the safest. But the potential to get lost, or, more importantly, find some hidden gem of a building or secret passageway, was the fuel that kept my heart racing, pushing for more. I explored Boulder Cave in the winter season, which I now know is a big no-no due to the environmental impact on the native bats that winter over in the cave. The solitude of being on the trail and in the cave with snow all around gave me an adrenaline rush, but not like one you might get with skydiving or race cars. It was as if I was standing on the edge of a fantasy and could just barely touch the other side, as if I could be transported to a whole other world at any moment. As you can see, I was still sorely unprepared, wearing all the wrong clothing and shoes, none of which were meant for cold and wet weather.

It’s almost mandatory that a person living in Washington visit Mt Rainier a few times. I foolishly chose to hike to Palisades Lakes. Alone. During a rainstorm. It was a beautiful hike, but I think this was the first time I realized that my style of hiking was dangerous and downright stupid. I had a tree fall down in front of me, blocking the trail. I had to find a way around it, and I was forced to run uphill back toward the trailhead in order to avoid becoming hypothermic or being injured. I somehow managed to take some beautiful pictures, but I never went back. I think it had more to do with my own humiliation than not wanting to see the trail again. I hope one day I can go back and spend the night. Safely.

I was smart enough to join the Washington Trails Association, a phenomenal group of people working to conserve and restore the trails in Washington. I did several trail building projects with them and met some incredible, adventuresome folks. It is definitely work that I would like to get back into someday soon, possibly an activity that I can share with my daughters. I also did enjoyed time with the Washington Outdoor Women organization where I learned more about safety, survival, and preparation.

Living in and exploring Washington helped fuel the fire inside me for adventure and time in the wilderness. The forest, especially the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest, has a pure, crisp, comforting fragrance that I became addicted to. To this day, I will ask my children when we are out in the woods, “Do you smell that? Isn’t that wonderful?” They just look at me funny but I hope one day they will wander out into the wilderness long after I’m gone and smell the trees and think of me.

Lost: The Beginnings

I had a conversation recently about what motivates me to hike, beyond the enjoyment of “being in nature,” which feels cliche. Without really having to think about it, I shared that my motivation has much to do with the desire to get lost, to be lost, to stay lost. Maybe it’s inspired by the books I read as a child and young girl – The Secret Garden, Call it Courage, The Boxcar Children, Where the Red Fern Grows, Island of the Blue Dolphins, just to name a few – that provoked a sense of adventure and survival that has stuck with me all these years. The thrill of being as close to the wild without the safety of a windscreen or brick wall between me and the moss on the trees is exhilarating and does something inexplicable to my psyche. I spent a lot of time on my bike between the ages of 7 and 9 purposefully trying to get lost when we lived on Guam (more on that in another post some day) for that very reason. I longed for some grand adventure, to find an ancient or haunted artifact in an attic, an abandoned cabin in the woods that I could turn into my own hideout. But living in military housing doesn’t lend itself to much adventure

I started hiking when I was in elementary school. My parents would plan short (4 mile) loop hikes on a mountain peak somewhere. My first memory of hiking is on the Aiea Loop Trail on O’ahu where I grew up. It wasn’t at all exciting or anything like the wilderness adventures I read about in books. It was boring and brown with no scenic stops, no big reward at the end. It wasn’t the type of hike that would normally inspire a new hiker to continue. I wanted more.

In the 8th grade, on a whim, I joined the hiking club at my school. At the time, it was outside my comfort zone and I thought it would be like the BSA and Sierra Club advertisements I saw in magazines – camping, backwoodsy overnights, survival and conservation. It was not. It was more hiking in the mountains. One particular hike I believe was at Waimano Falls. My mom calls it the hike from Hell because it was muddy, we encountered a small group of drug runners/growers, I fell and ended up with a bad infection a couple of days later after I cut my arm deeply on a thorny vine when I fell, and we were poorly prepared for the terrain. But it fed that need for wilderness excitement that I had been searching for. And I was hooked. I joined the club on many more hikes, including one heart-pounding prop-plane trip to Moloka’i that ended up being a bust after the truck we were using to get up to Kamakou got stuck in the mud.

There were also trips to the Pali, including the trail behind it, at the end of the Old Highway Road. It was one of my favorite places to go, and I have fond memories of exploring the hala groves with my dad. I also returned to this trail when I was older and ended up getting caught alone in a rainstorm. I had nothing with me except my car keys and a camera. I still hadn’t learned about being prepared when off on my adventures.

Other early hikes growing up included Waimea Falls, Kahana Valley, the popular Le’ahi, the tragic Sacred Falls, and the world famous Stairway to Heaven/Haiku Stairs, which I won’t link to because it has become a controversial location due to its extreme popularity with tourists who don’t respect the local laws.

I’m sad to say that back in the time when I was beginning to explore my home island and develop a love for hiking, I barely scratched the surface of the many, many beautiful hikes I could have been doing back then. I also went out very poorly prepared, often wearing the same sneakers I used for P.E. at school, nothing but a tank top and shorts, and maybe a camera. This was before everyone had a cell phone, and usually I hiked alone (as I continue to do still). I’ve come far from those days, but I’m grateful for the beauty that kept me adventuring and exploring and searching for more lost times…

More to come in my next post.

Finding the Words

I used to be a voracious writer. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve written stories. True story: In the first grade, I once caused my parents to be questioned at a parent-teacher conference because I wrote a story about a young girl who was mistreated by her parents. I thought I was being creative. My teachers thought I was crying out for help.

As I got older, my writings became more diverse, to include poetry, observations, description, as well as a variety of fiction. I’m a published author – a biography I wrote in the 8th grade was published in a collection. I’ve signed up and participated several times in National Novel Writing Month, and I’ve officially won once. I nearly won a second time but my laptop crashed as I was uploading my word count and I lost my story forever. That was the last time I truly put my heart onto paper.

I’ve been struggling today with thoughts of worthlessness and unworthiness. I sat for a long time on my front porch listening to a thunder storm move in, in hopes the cool air and soothing sound of my wind chimes would calm my mind, but to no avail. Finding a suitable distraction has been difficult and sitting still with my thoughts has been torture.

In an attempt to soothe this ache in my belly and move through these quiet days, I went looking through some old notebooks and found that I used to be a very eloquent writer, able to easily paint a picture in words full of sounds, smells, sensations that brought emotion to life. One particular notebook I carried with me for years and wrote anything and everything in it.

I have hopes to write again. I don’t know what has taken me away from putting words to paper, except that perhaps a lack of free time and quiet space, especially inside my mind, has prevented me from being able to find the right words. I’m less impressed with my present day writing than I am with what I wrote as an angsty 20-year old.

One of my goals on my 40 list includes writing a poem. I have the poem in my head, but there has been a fear of writing it down because it may hurt to read the words in real life instead of letting them float through my mind. I also have plans to start a memoir, but self-doubt tells me my life is not interesting or exciting and writing about it would be the ultimate act of deluded self-importance.

I want to write. I ache to write. There are so many words wrestling to be strung together that I don’t even know where to begin.

Pure Bliss

A couple of months ago I checked a big task off my bucket list. I visited a local nudist park. And yes, I fully participated.

Last year I began to fully embrace my body as it is, with its scars, folds, lumps, hair, and outstanding strength. I started using the hashtag #wearthebikini whenever I shared pictures of myself enjoying the pool or wearing shorts out in public with these lumpy, bumpy thighs. But in the fall I was introduced to the world of nudism (or as I like to call it, naturism, because that word for me embraces the source of my desire to go nude – feeling comfortable in my most natural state). I began reading blogs and articles and asking questions with someone who has long participated in nudism. The more I learned, the more I wanted to experience this first hand.

So when it began to warm up, I took a trip to a nudist park here in North Carolina called Whispering Pines. The owner actually greeted me at the gate completely nude, which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was one aspect of going to the park that I had forgotten to consider – other people being nude. It was still the off season, so the only people there were the regulars, mostly older retirees, all white, mostly conservative Christians, and all very welcoming.

There was a party one night, and we all enjoyed some wonderful food and friendship, getting to know each other and chatting about ourselves. They were excited to have someone new around, especially someone new to the lifestyle. Every step of the way, I was made to feel completely comfortable and welcome.

To be honest, I was very scared and uncomfortable when I first arrived. But after several minutes of sitting inside fully clothed, I finally threw off my inhibitions and took a walk around the park, wearing only my shoes. Luckily it was a warm weekend and I can’t explain how good it felt to let the sun hit my whole body. I thought I would be embarrassed and ashamed but the more I let go of my own criticisms of my body, the more I realized how wonderful and natural this felt. I felt very connected to the earth, the weather, to everything around me. It was a relaxing and electric sensation.

You won’t find me walking around town au naturale, but visiting the nudist park and opening myself up to this amazing new experience gave me a fresh confidence in myself. There’s no posturing, no hiding, no frills when it comes to social nudity. And even private nudity can be an exceptionally fulfilling experience mentally and emotionally, and this newbie recommends everyone – regardless of age, sex, gender, orientation, religion, size, ability, or color – give it a try at least once.

I conquered a fear and felt empowered. My body is a wonderful thing. I’m not waiting until it’s tucked in here, stronger there, less lumpy this, or hairless that…it’s great just as it is, and I enjoy the invitation I’ve given myself to not just accept but to relish the skin I’m in.

P.S. I have a deep gratitude to my guide, for the new experience, one I hope we can repeat many times together. Pure bliss!

February

Trigger Warning: suicide, depression, abuse

February for me is weirdly full of reminders of the significance of life and death. Multiple dates dot the month pulling me back and forth between stupendous joy and overwhelming sorrow. February 1st. February 12th. February 14th. February 21st. February 22nd. February 23rd. They are both birth days and death days. And they belong to some very special people in my life.

But one day, February 14th, right smack in the middle of the month, belongs to me.

Twenty years ago, I was a 19 year old college freshman at the University of Puget Sound. I had moved across the Pacific Ocean to a land and culture completely foreign to me and it was utterly disorienting. I had grown up on an island, a warm, sunny island, and despite living in other places as a child thanks to my parents’ military service, I really had only ever known island life. Living in Tacoma, WA was like being thrown into an ice bath. It didn’t help that the first several weeks of school were filled with learning my grandpa had lung cancer and watching him fight for four weeks until he died abruptly on October 19th.

I had a hard time living with my roommates in an on-campus house because I didn’t understand their culture, their ways of interacting with others, their values. At the end of the first semester of school, I was allowed to move off campus and in with my grandma. We all (me, my grandma, my parents) thought it would be the ideal situation where both my grandma and I would have family close by to help with the loss of my grandma, and it would be easier for me to study and help her with the house. I still don’t know if that was actually the best decision.

In early February I broke my foot and I was on crutches. It didn’t help that the Freshman 15 had hit me hard…twice. Getting around was difficult. I hated being away from home. My original plan to be a Biology major was being dashed by mediocre grades and perfectionistic standards from my scholarship board. I was miserable. I was lost. And I was hurting deeply within and without. My grandma was never known for being a comforting type of person and what I craved and needed in my life at that time, she was an expert at withholding, sometimes with cruel coldness. On several occasions she locked me out of the house on purpose. She liked to ignore me. She would throw things at me when she was frustrated. She liked to go through my things, rearrange the furniture in my bedroom, and throw items of mine away while I was at school. It was isolating.

On February 14th, a Monday, I came home from school, hobbled in on crutches, and saw that she had a few friends over for lunch. I went in to the kitchen to say hello and get myself a bite to eat. As I headed down the hallway to my room, my grandma followed me and proceeded to berate me for interrupting her visit. I remember the words clearly: “I’m so ashamed of you. Why do you have to embarrass me in front of my friends?” I was so confused. I didn’t understand what I had done. I have never figured it out.

It was enough to push me deeper into the depression I was living in. I ate a bag of sour worms, took a three-hour nap, and woke up with a plan. I crutched into the bathroom where I had my bottle of pain pills for my foot. I swallowed most of them, about twenty. I vaguely remember calling my mom and telling her that I loved her but life had just become too unbearable. I felt utterly alone and I just couldn’t go on anymore. I apologized and hung up. I cried so hard.

I honestly don’t remember much after that. I remember throwing up and falling in to a deep sleep until the next thing I saw was my mom standing over me. She had flown six hours to get to me. She leaned over me and as I looked up at her, groggy and still sad, she said to me, “Amanda, I’m here.” It was the first time I had felt love in months.

She took me to a family doctor, Dr. Ritter, and he diagnosed me for the first time with depression. He prescribed me antidepressants (which, by the way, caused me to have the worst tremors so I had to do some exploring with his help to find the right medication and the right dose). He also told me the changes had been too much and it would be in my best interest to go home.

I should quit.

If you know me, you know I don’t quit. I’ve been like that my whole life. I’m not one to give up, especially if someone tells me I should.

I balked. I dug in my heels. I said I was staying. And I did. I stayed in school and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I continued to live in Washington, though not with my grandma. Ironically, in 2004, when she became deathly ill and needed round-the-clock care, I was the one who stepped in and took on the role of caregiver. I gave her the love and compassion she never gave to me, and I learned it was because she didn’t ever know how. I stayed.

And I stayed in the world. I think about all the wonderful and glorious experiences and people I would have missed out on if I had succeeded that evening on February 14th, 2000. I never would have become a nurse. I never would have had the adventures I’ve had. I never would have become a mother to my fabulous daughters. I wouldn’t have had the pains and losses and heartbreak that I’ve had since then, either, but the good far outweighs the bad and I’m grateful for it all.

I’ve learned that I’m strong and resilient. I’ve learned that I can survive the isolation and hurtfulness from other people and turn it into a great compassion for others. My heart has been beaten, but rather than turning it hard, I’ve kept it soft and give it to anyone who needs it. I’ve developed a strong empathy for those with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. The biggest lesson is that we all have our own hurt and sometimes all we need to hear from others is “I’m here.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide or know someone struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or click the link to chat live with a trained professional. You are worth it.