hiking the blacks

We shoulder packs in the rain, resisting those first sensations of getting wet, eventually surrendering to the inevitability.  We are getting our feet under us again.  We find a campsite near the road, just a quarter mile from the car, an old familiar spot from our college backpacking days.  We begin to set up our tent — always strange, this need to find shelter and make home wherever we are, especially in the wild lonely of the wilderness in the rain and growing dark.  No one else is here, the fog settles heavy over the parkway, the last lingering cars making their way home to the city below the clouds.  Good, let them go.

We are in good spirits because we know an adventure is ahead, whatever may happen, and we are in need of a little adventure.  A little unpredictable.  We soon find we cannot get a fire going, can’t even get a light for our stove.  The prospect of a cold meal on top of being now near-hypothermic and wet is dampening.  Our pride is a bit wounded — such things used to be second-nature, and now we find ourselves fumbling and making amateur mistakes.

But the wilderness is no place for the proud.

We swallow it, leave our campsite in tact and head the quarter mile back to the car, warming up there and cooking on the ground outside our car door.  The rain beats relentless, we peel off soaked layers and lament that we didn’t bring a few more backup layers, while we wait for our first sacred meal.  It’s amazing the hunger that comes over you in the wilderness.  The unexpected exertion, the cold, the yawning expanse, it stirs up something in us.  We laugh and talk about how happy we are, despite all that’s already gone wrong.  This is still fun.  If we’ve learned anything in ten years of marriage, we’ve learned that things will go wrong, and that you can either ride it out with some measure of joy in tact, or you can let it sink you.  The windows are fully steamed over now.  A wet night backpacking together somehow still feels like a vacation to parents of three children ages five and under.  Any time you retreat into the wilderness and come back alive, no matter what the circumstances or foolhardy mistakes made, is still a success of some kind, we say.

Back to our dark little wet tent we go, hurrying inside, listening now to the sounds of the dripping forest.  Just the pattering of rain now, no wind.  I am anxious — I am unpracticed at being out here in this environment again, and it takes time to give way to sleep.  I’m listening for bears, or some footfall, I suppose.

At first light we get up and get moving.  We left our food in the car, not wanting to deal with hanging a bear bag in the raining dark, knowing we would be driving to the next stop anyway.  We pack up quickly, and see some promising first rays of sun.  We expect the mist to burn off and hope to dry out our layers soon.

We debate now about whether or not we should head out to our next campsite, 4 1/2 miles away, or just keep car camping for the weekend.  It feels more uncertain now, and a lot more effort than it may be worth.  We brew coffee and oatmeal again by the car in the spitting rain and wind as we discuss and try to check the radio for the weather.  Brandon is resolute, I am questioning.  We decide to go for it, register our car at the top of Mt. Mitchell, streamline our packs and reorganize from our helter-skelter night, and head out.  It takes us four hours to hike those miles.  We forgot how strenuous this ridge line hike is.  We last hiked this range when we co-led a 21-day wilderness trip in our early years of marriage, and when thinking about how we wanted to celebrate our tenth anniversary this year, we thought of hiking the Blacks.  Six of the ten highest peaks in the eastern US are found on the Black Mountain range, four of which we would hike up and down during this trip.  Down from Mt. Mitchell, up to Mt. Craig, then onto Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak, Potato Hill, and finally a steep descent downhill to Deep Gap.  Our packs are heavier than necessary, we decided to forego lightweight in favor of having a few choice luxuries: a tent, coffee, books and journals, some knitting, fancier meals.  Brandon ended up carrying most of the weight, being my pack was smaller.

We make it into camp around 2 pm, fighting spits of rain and wind off and on all day.  We never seemed to break out of the clouds for very long, but had gorgeous views at different points on the hike this day.  I had wanted to go onto Winter Star Mountain originally and make camp there, but we are completely spent and Brandon tells me in no uncertain terms that this is the farthest we will go today.  We feel at home in this little spot on Deep Gap, and something in us relaxes and quiets and unwinds in a way that only the wilderness seems to do in us.  We chatter on here and there, but now we get busy with the work of shelter, fire, finding water, scouting around.  We nestle our tent under the three great spruces that line the campsite, their windward sides all blown naked.  We are very desperate and hopeful for a fire tonight, and labor for a good few hours getting it started and going in the increasing wind with all the wood soaked.  Still, it is not raining now, and we finally get camp settled.  I am reading, Brandon is nursing the fire.  It is silent out here.  It is vast.  It feels terribly good to only have to care for ourselves and tend to our essential needs, when most of our hours are spent caring for and watching over three little ones and their constant needs.  It feels like a necessary fast, a spiritual act of ceasing from the work of care taking.  Out here we don’t have to think about who needs a diaper change or a snack, who needs a book read or hurt feelings consoled.  (A special thanks, by the way, to Brandon’s parents for affording us this peace of mind while keeping our little ones happy and well-engaged!)

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Life for us has become domesticated where it was once wild.  We’ve forgotten the ways of the wilderness — the immensity that overtakes you and silences all human bravado.  A quiet that is almost deafening after so much noise.  The swallowing reality that you are not in control here — this is not your domain, this world belongs to the wild things, you are merely a visitor here.  You cannot control outcomes, you can only respond to what the natural world presents.  You are limited here, limited by resources, energy, the natural bounds of night and day, by weather, conditions.  Very little is sure.

The tenth anniversary is supposedly the “tin” anniversary, representing both the durability and flexibility of your marriage, and so B and I clinked our tin camping cups over steaming Tikka Masala with chicken.  It is one of the most satisfying backcountry meals I can remember having.  We tell some stories, remember some other wilderness moments when meals ministered to more than just our bodies.

A couple of guys hiked in just before evening, we chat with them around our fire for a bit.  They are two marine friends stationed in another part of NC, and they drove six hours to camp out at this spot, craving the wilderness as we were.  The wind is howling now and we finish off our hot chocolates, then pack up the last of our food into bear bags, head off to our bear hang, just two beams of light bouncing in the dark.  Back in our tent, we zip our bags together and whisper thanks for the warmth and our few dry clothes.  We hope for a sunny, lazy morning with another campfire and coffee.

I sleep at peace this night, happy in the wilderness, though the winds now whip the tent mercilessly and the rain assaults the west-facing side of the tent in regular surges, like an ocean wave hitting again and again.  I wake up again and again, as the tent sides bowl over with the wind, praying for our marine neighbors who were sleeping in hammocks in a grove of trees nearby.  Somehow it doesn’t seem awkward now to invite them into our tent if they are out there in the elements freezing.  The wilderness will do that to you, break down the usual barriers and make you pull together when necessary.

We wake in the morning expecting for the calm that usually comes with the sunrise, but it is as wild as ever.  There will be no fire and no sunshine and lollygagging today.  We cook quickly in our vestibule, pack up, and head for home.  Our bodies are sore and blistered and the road ahead seems longer than our strength.  But we begin, as we must.

I am watching this husband of mine and I can’t help thinking how much this trip is like marriage.  You make these plans and you have all these dreams, you imagine all the sunshine and the sprawling in a hammock by a gurgling stream.  But here you are taking one laborious step after another under a load far heavier than you could have expected.  Here you are keeping pace with another while fog closes you in on all sides, erasing the trail ahead of and behind you, obscuring all sense of perspective.  Here you are, helping each other as you rise and to fall in the muck and mire over crest and trough while the rain pelts and the wind howls.  You didn’t think it would be like this, you didn’t think it would be this hard, this much of a fight.  Is everything against us?  And all the while you are lamenting this rain and fog, you cannot see that you are hidden in the cloud He has spread over you.  You forget that sometimes He makes the clouds His chariots and walks on the wings of the wind.  You forget that many waters cannot quench love, and that He comes to you like the rain.  In all this raining and all this wet, I remember again His words to me at the crown of the year, and my soul smiles.  Yes, He reigns supreme over the rising waters.

I am watching this husband of mine carrying an incredible load, carrying all his own gear plus the tent, cooking gear, bear rope, water pump, med kit, etc.  He bears the brunt of the burden.  He does this for me.  He cares for me, he is protective for me in a way I don’t often notice at home in our usual life.  Even after all these years, all these careless and hurtful words between us in our uglier moments, he hasn’t grown callous with me.  He is still tender toward me.  He asks if I’m doing okay, he asks about my bum knee, he reaches out a hand on the steeper sections, he lends me his dry clothes.  He will give me anything he can to keep me safe.  He offers to do most of the work so I can relax and read.  At the end of it all, he rubs my back in the dark.  This man is neither saint nor villain, though I often try to pin him as one or the other.  He is both, as we all are; imperfect, a mixture of grand failure and peculiar glory.  I spent so much time in our early years “looking for the music in the music box, tearing it to pieces, trying to find a song” instead of opening my hands to receive this mystery of a man, giving thanks for what is and isn’t there as unto a good God who knows best.  Finally I’m seeing that that’s where the fireflies are.

Even after all these years, when we strip away the noise, and the busy, and all the responsibility, we find that there is still love left here.  It’s beautiful, the way we move back into this space of being just us two.  It is a whisper to us of seasons that are to come, where our rhythms and our busy will change, but for now we stretch thin and strain hard.  For now we share weary smiles and winks over early morning coffee and children with tousled hair clambering all over us.  We cannot believe the goodness of the life we have been given in these past ten years.  We look ahead with confidence because of the faithfulness of our God.  When we pass through the waters, He will be with us.

preparations

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This blog post was supposed to go up last Friday, but we were so busy with preparations that it didn’t make it.  For the last number of weeks, Brandon and I have been planning a weekend backpacking trip alone together without kids to celebrate our tenth anniversary earlier this month.  We originally met working together in a backpacking program leading trips, and we have led many trips together, but never, even after all these years, have we gone backpacking alone together just for fun without some sort of programming involved.

Our life has grown so domesticated in these child-rearing years.  Most of my life is spent within the walls of our sweet home, and I love it immensely!  But it can feel terribly tame sometimes, and I can be lulled into complacency by the false perception of control that a domestic life engenders.  I can stay up late knitting by the light of a lamp or reading well into the early morning hours of the night.  I can turn on a tap for water, and throw dirty clothes in a machine.  I can have access to all the information I need or want at the drop of a hat via my phone, which is usually within a few feet of me at all times, or via the computer.  I can check the week’s weather forecast and the local grocery stores current sales and plan meals accordingly.  It enables me to run a tight ship when I want to and to feel on top of what I perceive needs to be done.

My days didn’t used to be so tidy.  The wilderness was so much a part of the structure of my days (being an Outdoor Education major in college) pretty much since high school, and it felt like second nature in my college days to read maps, know how to pack a light pack with bare minimums, to know the necessary knots, how to read the weather via the sky, etc.  I lived a life more dependent on the circumstances and conditions of nature that I cannot control.

I remember, too, how Brandon and I were when we led trips together.  The rhythm we found ourselves in, the way we worked like a well-oiled machine, the way he gently led and taught, and I supported and followed.  It’s how we fell in love.  Somehow in all the rat-race and the complete depletion that parenting can do to a couple, we’ve lost some of that.  We don’t have much financially to do anything really extravagant for this year’s big anniversary, though we dreamed of all sorts of ways we wish we could spend it.  What we both were craving was just a getaway, our first time away from the kids for a full weekend, and to be able to do it for next to nothing cost-wise.  I suggested backpacking, and the wheels began turning.  We wanted to hike this ridgeline, starting at the highest peak east of the Mississippi, that we hiked during a 21-day backpacking course we led in our early days of marriage.  We called it “the blacks” then, the Black Mountain range, and it is absolutely one of the most stunning areas in our NC mountains.  We had to sort of fly over this ridge during that 21-day course, and I was aching to be back there and camp on it, explore, and linger.

Most of last week was spent making last-minute preparations for the trip.  Brandon’s parents were happily willing to come and watch our three little ones for the weekend, which is a lot to take on!  Three kids ages five and under, two in diapers, and one with special dietary needs is not a joke!  So we were super stoked and grateful.

It was so fun pulling out our old now-ghetto backpacking equipment, checking everything and prepping everything, making lists and meal plans and looking at routes.  We wanted as luxury of a backpacking trip as we could have, while still being able to fit it all on our backs.  The process of planning and anticipating it was so fun, somehow breathing some new life into our marriage.  Having something to talk about other than battling insurance companies, bills and financial strain, tactics for dealing with children’s behaviors, petty arguments over who will take care of what, and so forth was really fun.  Having something to plan and orchestrate together beyond our usual lives, something that was just for us and by us, was relaxing and exciting.  We were hungry for the time and space to reconnect with each other.  We were hungry to experience God.

Friday afternoon, Brandon’s parents arrived and we packed up and headed out.  We arrived at the top of Mt. Mitchell in a full on blustery mist and drizzle, which developed into a full-on downpour.  Somehow, even though it wasn’t quite what we were imagining, we were ready for whatever the wilderness wanted to give us, ready to leave behind for a couple of days our tidy lives for a bit of adventure.  Phone off and camera left in the car, backpacks shouldered with grunts and moans, and we were off.

“He split the rocks in the wilderness,
And gave them drink in abundance like the depths.”
Psalm 78:15

getting out

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Oh, North Carolina in spring, you steal my heart.  That surreal bright green is creeping up the hillsides, popping everywhere.  We’ve been gleefully spending most free afternoons outside, riding bikes, drawing with chalk, playing “bubbles,” as the kids call it (when I make bubbles for them to run through and catch).

The kids are becoming such little buddies, creating such a little culture all their own.  I remember in my high school/college years I used to babysit for this family that I adored.  They had six children, and they had such a unique and fun little family culture.  The kids played these incredibly imaginative games, and I remember watching them with this acute longing to have a family dynamic like this, with children who love each other like this, who create their own beautiful little world together.  I am starting to see it unfold between these three and it is heart-melting.  I love catching them in their games.  Noah and Philippa have this bond playing ball together.  One of them sits on the bottom of the stairs, throws the ball into the play room, the other runs around and chases it, while they both kill themselves laughing.  The other day I found all three of them on the couch trying to suck their fingers and twirl their hair like Phoebe does, in a row.  Both Noah and Phoebe have this tenderness with Philippa, and lately I’m catching them holding hands with her and walking.  Now of course, they all fight and hurt one another sometimes, but we keep teaching and nudging and trying again, and we are seeing more kindness grow.  Even momma and daddy are working on gentleness and kindness.  These lessons are learned over and over again, even as adults, because our natural inclination is to be selfish and often we are most unkind when we feel someone infringing on our space or desires.

Sunday was a gorgeous day here in the 80s so we retreated to the mountains, looking for a spot to let the kids explore and play in the water.  We went up to a popular area on the parkway, Graveyard Fields, and played in the stream there.  Brandon helped the older two with fishing.  I tried to sit and knit for a few minutes but was quickly seen by Philippa who ran to me (totally soaked through) to snuggle, so that was that.  I must have sighed with a hint of frustration (even though I adore her snuggles!) because Brandon looked at me with a smirk and said, “Stressful relaxing, isn’t it?”  YES.  It is so stressful sometimes just to try and go somewhere to relax as a family.  Philippa insisted on “watkin” (walking) herself the whole time.  They really are all such excellent hikers, and they love our Sunday adventures.  Sometimes it feels like more effort than it’s worth to pack everyone up and get out into the mountains somewhere, especially with Brandon working long hours lately.  But it’s good to just get away from our regular life for just a little bit sometimes.

I just wanted to say thank you to those of you who are reading along.  It really means a lot to me that you’re here and just know I love hearing from you!  I hope you have a happy and blessed weekend, wherever you are.

first snow

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Here in the mountains of North Carolina we gladly welcomed our first big snow of the year last night.  It’s still coming down in huge flakes as I write.  We had a cozy morning taking it slow and then took like an H O U R to bundle everyone and get outside.  This is the first snow Philippa can play in and potentially remember.  One of the best parts of raising kids is getting to see them discover the world.  SO fun.  We took her on the craziest sledding hill ever and she loved it!  As did the other kids.  Until they didn’t, and everyone was thoroughly wet and soaked and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But hey, that’s par for the course.  Everyone recovered their sanity after hot chocolates and getting cozy by the fire.

This week has been a heavy week here, emotionally.  A lot of friends and loved ones going through a lot of difficult things, and my heart has literally been aching on and off this week, grief rolling over me in waves, as grief tends to do.  Tears coming unbidden at inconvenient times.  Playing in the snow this morning, seeing the world blanketed in white, seeing it look fresh and new… it is a gift to me from the Lord.  A quietness settles over our little corner of the world, broken only by children’s squeals and laughter, and we are soaking up every glorious second of it, even in the face of grief.  Maybe we just needed the reminder that storms can bring glory as well as grief, beauty in spite of the bitter.  Maybe we just needed to see that a storm can be the way God chooses to make all things new.

for your Tuesday

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“The discovery of God lies in the daily + the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic.  If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find him at all.  Ours is to be a symphonic piety in which all the activities of work and play and family and worship and sex and sleep are the holy habitats of the eternal.”
Richard Foster, Prayer

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“Small things don’t always turn into big things.  But all things begin small, especially in the kingdom of God.  Acorns become oak tress.  Embryos become President.  Life starts with a breath.  Love starts with hello.

Tuesday reminds me to accept the beauty of smallness, hiddenness, and the secret work of Christ in the deepest part of who I am.  I want to let him come out of me in any way he wants, no matter how it may seem to me–whether that be in one big way or in a million little ways.

While I stay small in the presence of Christ, I’m aware of his invitation to me, to stand on tiptoe and see, as my dad often says, beyond what is to what could be.  And this doesn’t mean I am to dream big and amazing things for God.  Rather, it means I am to believe in a big and amazing God, period.  I can trust him to be himself even as I dare to be myself.

And maybe as I do that, I’ll realize that starting small isn’ t a means to a bigger end, rather I start small because it’s what I am.  And this is good and right and holy.  Who would despise the day of small things?

As citizens of an invisible kingdom, we refuse to take our living cues from a world that say to build, grow, measure, and rush to keep up.  Instead we take our cues from the new hope alive within us, from the life of Christ who has made our hearts his home.  We’ll stop trying to keep up with the fast-moving world and, instead, we’ll settle down and keep company with the small moments of our lives.

We’ll pay attention to them, listen to what they have to teach us, not rush by them as if they are unimportant.  We know better than that by now.  We know the way these small moments link arms with one another to form the timelines of our lives.  Moments: the keys to the kingdom.  We know how we approach, consider, react, and exist within these small moments are indicators of how we approach, react, and exist in our whole lives.  We can’t afford to miss them.”

Emily Freeman, Simply Tuesday

family + summer gatherings 5: these blue mountains

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While family was in town visiting, we squeezed in as many picnics as we could.  This one, up at Craggy Gardens, one of our favorite spots.  After dinner we hiked up above the picnic area to catch this view and this gorgeous sunset in the dusky light.  Truly breath-taking.  I’m super thankful for my brothers and the way they love on my kiddos.  My little ones adore them (and the Aunties, too!) and hopefully they will one day realize what a sweet gift it is to have lots of family that loves on them and spends time with them!  And I’m thankful for my parents who taught us to love the outdoors, still so hip + young and able to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

summer + family gatherings 4: into the clouds we go

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There will always be something other-worldly and magical about this place to me.  While my sister + her fam were visiting, we headed up to Black Balsam, a nearby hiking spot rife with stunning vistas, wild blueberries, rocky outcroppings, and dramatic clouds + sky.  We had a little picnic along the way and meandered back down, always thankful to get up above our ordinary lives and look over them from a fresh perspective.