I Will Always Buy Flowers

There have been times in my life where $5 was often the running balance in my bank account. I would often have just barely enough or not quite enough to cover my bills and expenses. These times in my life were the hardest. The constant struggle to meet basic needs creates a certain kind of stress–the stress of living in a perpetual state of survival. This is something no one should have to face, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. Yet, it was in these moments that I learned so much about life, money, and people, and my own relationship to these things.

I learned in these moments to take sanctuary in the little pleasures of life, and to allow myself to fully experience and enjoy moments of happiness when they arise. A $2 cup of good coffee, now and then, while I was out, became the ultimate indulgence. I would savor the aroma and taste how the coffee, cream, and sugar combined to form this perfectly drinkable experience. And, I would let it be an experience. Or, I would enjoy the pleasure of learning for the sake of learning. I would pack up a lunch and gather my kids, and we would walk to a nearby park. I would lay down a blanket and read whatever I felt drawn to learn (something I have always enjoyed) for hours while my children played nearby. I have a deep appreciation for libraries and their access to free knowledge because of this. One summer, I read eight books by and about Mother Teresa, which led me to read books on prayer (an important part of her life), which somehow led me back to trying to understand the spiritual tradition I was raised in. So, I read books related to the spread of Indian culture, yoga, and Hinduism to the U.S. It was all so fascinating, and I learned so much. Mother Teresa, like many great leaders, felt called to make a difference in the world. She started her whole organization under a tree in India, by teaching children with the skills that she had learned from many years of being a teacher. Everything else grew from that. And even the spread of yoga and Hinduism began with Indian spiritual leaders feeling called to spread their faith to the West. It was in these little moments that I learned that if a feeling of happiness came to me unexpectedly, like a special moment with my child or a beautiful sunset, I should soak it in and feel it with all I had, for the next moment might go back to struggle and sacrifice.

I learned from these little pleasures and moments of happiness what a sense of gratitude really looks and feels like. It is incredibly hard to feel grateful for a too small apartment, with only a half bath, and no air conditioner, on a 100 degree night, with two sweaty children clinging to you in one queen size bed, and where, through the window there flows more wafts of cigarette smoke than cooling breeze. I must admit that I haven’t necessarily learned to be grateful while experiencing a moment like that. I have been most likely to feel angry or sorry for myself, living in a stance of poor me. But I have learned that it is possible to get to gratitude even when your life is full of such uncomfortable and intense moments. For however bad my situation looked and felt like to me, I would consider that there is someone out there who has it even worse. Or that, it could be even worse for me. So I learned to become grateful for what I did have. I would think, I have this food to eat, that someone else may not have in this moment. I have a shelter that is clean and safe, however small. I have clothes to wear. I have two beautiful children to love. I am poor, but poor in the U.S. is still a much higher standard of living than poor in other places. Or even, the most simplest gratitude, which is, I am alive.

I have learned about the generosity of strangers. I was once standing in line at a Chipotle trying to figure out the most amount of food I could get for my $10 to feed my two children and me. I would usually pack lunches and snacks for this reason, but sometimes it would happen that we would get stuck out and need to eat. This is incredibly hard when you really can’t afford to eat out. I have learned many tricks to work with this situation, like many Indian stores have $1 samosas, which are calorie dense and filling, or some cafes have day old muffins, or a bowl of soup is usually less expensive, but hearty and filling. But this time, the server realized what was happening, so she discreetly gave us a free kids meal with extra drinks and some free burrito coupons to come back another time. Another time, my car was overheating to the point of being dangerous. I had to pull over at a gas station, to fill it with coolant, but I only had that $5 or so in my account and the coolant was more expensive than that. The attendant came out to help and when I desperately explained the situation, he gave me a bottle of coolant for free. I have had many unexpected experiences like this. It is hard to describe the emotion that is felt in moments like these. It doesn’t feel good to be in such low and desperate situations. There is such a powerlessness, a helplessness to be in a place where you cannot take care of yourself. But when another person comes in and helps, and helps from a place like these people did, from this place of solidarity, like maybe, they have been there in some way themselves, these are the moments that really bring tears to your eyes.

I learned about humility, resilience, and resolve. There are moments where I have had to let go of all my pride, after all, I am a person that feels good about going it alone and taking care of myself, and have had to show up and beg for the help that I needed. There was a day where my SNAP benefits (food stamps) were turned off, not because I didn’t qualify any more, but because of some error in the processing of my regular renewal. This is an incredibly common scenario. If you have ever been on any public assistance benefits, you know the ordeal it is to work with the system. It is hands down, one of the most disempowering agencies to experience. And if you don’t understand the complicated welfare laws and your rights (most people don’t), you are at the mercy of your worker, who may or may not understand how to apply the laws and rules, which may, or may not, work out to your benefit. This day, I had to take a bus downtown to this office with my two children to wait for hours to speak with my worker. She insisted she could not turn on my benefits that day, but I insisted that I could not leave that office without them turned back on. All I had left in the fridge were condiments and I let her know this. It was only after I continued to refuse to leave and was directed to a manager that I did get my benefits turned back on. I sometimes wonder if these people realize how devastating a simple action on their part can be to another human being. Power or strong is not what I felt in that moment, I was just truly desperate and needing to feed my children. Another time, I needed to reach out for help paying my rent, because the child support that I had been expecting was instead spent on cocaine and crack. And there were times where I have begged utility companies to not turn off my power or gas, because I just didn’t have the money to pay them, not because I didn’t want to. Asking for help or speaking up for myself has never been easy for me, but these situations pushed me to let go of my ego and advocate for myself and my children. And these experiences later helped me to advocate for other women and families as a caseworker and a doula.

These situations have taught me about giving and receiving, and how intricately they are connected. Giving and receiving are a relationship. If you are only a giver, you are holding power over someone, you are relying on and getting some kind of power from them needing you. If you are only a receiver, you are giving your power away, you are losing power by being needy or dependant on another. By not being able to receive, you are not allowing other people to contribute to you. By not being able to give, you are not contributing to others. This is one reason that I always accepted gifts from my clients when I was a doula. Not accepting them would have conveyed the message that I was somehow above receiving something from them. By receiving the gifts, I acknowledged that we were in a relationship that was equal, where we were both able to give and receive. In fact, I usually saw it as a sign of success if I was given a gift (often something simple like cooking me a meal). Then, I knew they hadn’t seen me as purely a professional, but as someone who had contributed to them and to whom they wanted to contribute back. When I learned that giving and receiving were a relationship, I was able to come to a place where I could receive without guilt or shame, even in times of great need, because I knew there would come a time or place where I would give back, even if it was not at that time. We all have times of need and there are so many ways to give and receive from one another. Giving that comes from the heart has a special kind of power, because it comes from a space of love and not lack. Mother Teresa understood this concept. She once encouraged a wealthy woman who wanted to support her cause, to buy less expensive saris and give the difference to her organization. She did this because she wanted the woman to actually have the experience of giving, something she would not have had as profoundly if she had just written a check. When I was in this place of poverty and no money, new opportunities for community arose, because life became about supporting one another. I have had moments where I have spent my last $10 on another, knowing that there really was nothing to lose. It would come back to me, in some other moment, in some other way.

Not everything I have learned has been positive. I have also learned just how cruel other humans can be to those that are lower than them. I once had a bus driver, a woman bus driver, insist that I fold my stroller before getting on the bus. Never mind the five bags of groceries, the wiggly and squirmy toddler, the adventurous five year old in tow, that this was one of two buses I needed to take to get affordable groceries, and that stepping onto the bus first would actually allow me to get situated properly. Her power in that moment, or her need to be better and look down upon me, was more important than recognizing, understanding, and being compassionate to my situation. I also began to see how there are rules in place, that whether deliberately intending to or not, can shut people out. These rules are in place to protect the privileged, because they are created under the assumption that people have at least a certain amount of resources. For example, I once went to a library where they had a rule that only children could use the computers in the children’s section. On the surface this could seem like a reasonable rule, especially for patrons who come to the library for storytime and playtime with their kids, but it is also a rule that assumes parents with children only come to the library for these reasons. It assumes that parents with young children have computers at home to do business or other important things. When I tried to use the computers at this library to find a permanent place to live, I was first kicked out of the children’s section, but then when I brought my one and five year old up to the adult computers, other patrons complained about them acting the way little kids that age do. The librarians addressed this issue as though I was being negligent to my children, but with no computer at home, and no free or available child care, I was really just trying to use the library’s computers as a resource to find a home. There are a lot of these kinds of rules in place that shut people out and that often aren’t noticed unless they start to affect you personally. When I worked at the YWCA’s Women’s Resource Center, I received dozens of calls a day from people in need. I was always struck by the people who were experiencing a setback for the first time and frustrated with the rules that seemed more designed to keep people down than build them up. I made it a point to gently and politely point out, that yes, this is the way it is, and one of the reasons people get stuck on the treadmill of poverty.

The most important lesson I learned while living in poverty was about the real worth of people. Worth cannot and should never be measured by the dollars that someone has or has not. A person’s contribution to life, community, and other people is not always related to the magnitude of their wealth or power. There are many great people who had not much of either, but have contributed to the world in a meaningful way, and there are people who have had a lot of both, but who have not been a positive contribution to the world. And there are so many people who contribute in small unknown, never known ways like the Chipotle server or the gas station attendant in my story. Both did something for me not just in that they gave me something that I needed, but also in who they were and in how they gave to me. What’s more, there are many other ways to measure the value of something than through dollars and power. Who is really better off? The person that has learned to be happy with nothing, or the person who has everything, but is still not happy? And is power over others really a better form of power than the true power someone gains from mastering themself? This was something else that Mother Teresa often spoke of. She described what she called the poverty of the West, which she stated was a poverty of loneliness, spirituality, and love.

In learning about measuring the worth of other people by who and not what they are or what they own, I learned to measure my own worth and sense of self less and less on these outward measures and more and more on what kind of person I was. I started asking myself who I wanted to be in the world and what was it going to take for me to get there. This question is an ongoing one that I am continually asking. I strive to embrace every experience as an opportunity to learn about myself and others and to get closer to living the answer to this question. This was not easy transformation. For years, every time that I could not afford something that I wanted or needed, I would feel this heavy feeling of sadness, guilt, and shame. There was this sense that something was wrong with me, and I did have the experience of feeling as though I was worth less. When other people looked down upon me and made negative assumptions about me, on some level I absorbed this and believed it. I was often depressed, and I regularly felt hopeless. In fact, it was only just recently that I realized how far I have come. I have been laid off and living on unemployment for the past few months, and recently when I couldn’t afford something, I didn’t have any feeling or emotion over it. I just couldn’t afford it, and that was it. There is no longer any significance or story about myself and my worth because of not being able to afford something. It took a conscious effort on my part and a regular practice to get myself to this point.

I developed little rituals to get out of this poverty of mind and self kind of thinking. I learned to set aside a little bit of money each month to do something for myself, even is it was only $10 or $20. One of the impacts of not having money, is that I would feel shut out of social interactions that cost money or required me to spend money to participate. By putting aside this small amount, which was not enough to significantly impact my bills, but enough for me to enjoy some coffee or tea with a friend or some other small event, I gave myself some power to choose to participate in one or two small things a month. I would make it practice to give money to someone or some cause, now and then, as a deliberate practice to get out of the mindset of I don’t have enough. I learned to trust that in tough times it would work out, because one way or another, it always did. I started to view welfare benefits and other needs based programs as resources, so I wouldn’t attach significance to the fact that I had to use them. I learned how to receive, graciously. I found ways to nourish and take care of myself that did not cost money. I have always found solace in nature, so I started hiking regularly. I found fun and free or low cost things to do with my children. I would make our lack of money a challenge. How much fun can we have this $5 or $10? I realized how important these small acts of self care were to my overall sense of wellbeing. Another of these rituals, was to buy myself flowers, even, or most especially when, money was tight. Beautiful flowers can be had for as little as a few dollars, or even, free if you pick them, but their message is so much more valuable. I will always buy flowers as a symbol of beauty, hope, and worthiness–my own and others.

 

 

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Pittsburgh

I first moved to Pittsburgh when I was 13. Ever since, I have tried to get away. In fact, I have moved away from Pittsburgh at least 6 times, only to be pulled back again, and again. Clearly, I have some unfinished business here. I can’t lie, there are many other cities where my ethnic and cultural identity would have much more room for expression, and I would not feel so odd and out of place. Yet, as I pulled away from the city recently, on the top level of a Megabus, watching the familiar landmarks of this city roll by, I realized that this is exactly where I am meant to be. This is where my work is, and I am here for a reason.

What’s more, this city holds pieces of my story, important pieces. For instance, it was in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, where as a teenager, I left the public school system, that wasn’t serving my needs, and found solace, comfort for my aloneness, in that old building full of books. I was too awkward for Pittsburgh, but those books allowed me to travel places in my mind and challenged me to think in new ways. I had no agenda or limits, so I would wander the stacks, picking books that caught my fancy, or letting books lead me to other books. Maybe my future would have been better served by staying in school or even going to college early. But with no one to understand or guide me, I did the best I could with what was there. That library was all I had.

It was under the tunnel at Point State Park where I was first kissed. A kiss that is only really memorable because it was my first. And it was followed by my first night with a man, in that hotel, that is just right there, at the edge of the park. He was kind to me, but I remember the view of Pittsburgh most about that night: Point State Park, the rivers, an incline, all that was out beyond those hotel windows. It was much simpler to be with a complete stranger, than to risk having feelings for someone.

It was here in this city that my children were born. Where after 23 hours of resistance, on a night where the moon was shining, I gave birth to my son, in a white house, with too many steps, and a red door. And years later, on a bright and sunny morning, after many less hours than my first, and layers and layers of acceptance, I gave birth to my daughter, in the hospital on the Northside.

Pittsburgh is the place where I have been brought down so low, many times. Each time, not exactly sure how I would make it. It is the place where I have faced deeper and deeper truths about myself. Finding and uncovering layers of strength, previously unknown. And where, I decided that if I was going to be stuck here, and stuck here again, that I was going to learn to be happy here. And that, if I could learn to be happy here, I could be happy anywhere.

So you see this city has woven itself into my life. It has claimed me as it’s own. Even as it struggles to fully embrace me.

Warrior Within

There were no yoga classes at the time I wanted or with a teacher I wanted to work with, so I decided to do a yoga practice at home. I made it a ritual. I lit candles, burned palo santo, and recited some sacred words. I let my practice be whatever it wanted to be. Which turned out to be a session about the warrior within. Warrior II, warrior I, warrior III, and back again to warrior I. Getting in touch with this inner warrior was all about foundation and balance. Where am I coming from with this pose? And, who am I being in this pose? I realized that being clear about your foundation and balance is essential to every fight. If I fight from a place of being against something, I am actually giving power to the very thing I am fighting. But if I fight from a place of being a stand for something, I am creating something new. This second stance holds more power, even if it doesn’t always win. This sort of power carriers through and is passed along to others who choose to carry the torch. There have been powerful people who came from this stance and gave their lives to a cause, even knowing  they would not live to see the results in their lifetime. Yet their power lives on, their message lives on, and they inspire others to continue their work. And whether their contribution was tiny or huge, they were important. They made a difference.

Let me be like this in my life.

Fierce with love.

A contribution to the world in some way, small or grand.

Magnitude less important than the stance of having the courage to envision the world in a new way.

Not as opposite to what is, but as an entirely new possibility.

Ahimsa and Kai’s Backpacking Adventure : 5 Days and 4 Nights Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail: Part 5

An Adventure Ends

Day 5: Sunday July 23, 2017

Our last day on the trail—the home stretch. With no way to tell time, we have no sense of what time we head out in the morning. We are tired and take our time to pack up and head out. We are both extra impatient with each other this morning, and at our snappiest (which really isn’t all that bad.) Once we get our morning caffeine in, we feel better. Going down to a stream to filter your water before you can then go and heat it up for tea, adds a whole level of complexity to the morning. I misplaced our measuring spoon, so I make a matcha tea that is way too strong. So strong that Kai gets a belly ache and insists he is incapable of moving. I know it is just the too strong tea, so I reply that I am heading to Ohiopyle—he knows the way.

Both of us, separately, made a trip to the out houses first thing in the morning. On the path coming out of them, is a big information sign about rattlesnakes. We both read that sign—completely. Consequently, for the first few miles of our trip to Ohiopyle, we are on high alert for rattlesnakes. When Kai sees a rattlesnake skin wrapped in a tree, we are on even higher alert. We step carefully over each log or big stone. Kai developes a ritual of tapping on logs with his hiking pole, before stepping over them. And, I swear I hear faint rattles here and there. You know, just like you swear you are hearing your phone ring or your baby cry when you are in the shower. We talk and joke about what we would do with an emergent snake bite, and frequently trade places, so the other is in front, and will be the one to get bit. In between looking out for snakes and talking about snakes, Kai likes to pass the time by talking about Minecraft. Kai has brought up Minecraft many times over the past few days. He talks on and on in elaborate detail about game strategies, books he has read on Minecraft, worlds or things he wants to build or has built, famous Minecrafters he follows, and all the fascinating things that other people have created. For me it is as though he speaks another language, and I am only able to pick up and comprehend bits here and there. So I have gotten into the habit of only half listening when Kai speaks of Minecraft. I am upfront with him that I am not completely listening, but he still chatters on. This morning is different. When he starts in on Minecraft, I refuse to listen. This up, up, and more up is hard work, and my mind wants to be somewhere other than Minecraft. He keeps attempting to go back into his monologue about redstone (whatever that is). I insist that he can speak to me about anything but Minecraft.

Our journey today is only six miles, but a strenuous six miles. Basically, we hike one mile up a mountain, one mile down a mountain, followed by another mile up and another mile down, and then, a two mile home stretch. After conquering our first mountain, we take a small break near a nice stream. Kai plays in the water and gets the wind knocked out of him when he slips, hits his elbow on a rocky creek bed, and just misses a giant rock coming down on him. He is fine, just shaken. I sit and soak in the view, bathing in the calm and luscious valley of trees between two mountains. We are down to the last of our snacks: curried cashews, sesame sticks, Panda red raspberry licorice, and honey-sesame snaps. I have planned our food well, and we have eaten all but a few things and have wasted only two bananas and one avocado.

As we set to climb our second mountain, a storm sets in. This keeps us moving fast and I can barely catch my breath as we go up, and up some more. It feels unnerving to be on the top of this mountain with the thunder and lightning, and we feel good when we start to move down again. When we reach mile marker 2, we think that we will just sail through these last miles. We are wrong, mile 2 to 1 seems to take forever. The rain has ceased, but we are soaked down to our toes and our feet are getting blistered and chaffed from all the wetness. When we finally see mile marker 1, we get encouraged and pick up the pace. Mile 1 down to 0 goes by quickly. As we descend down the last hill, canes (hiking poles) in hand, we see my mother and her friend Bob there to meet us. It is 3:45pm. We thought we would get in between noon and one, so we were much later than expected, but we had storms and mountains to get through.

Video of Kai Stepping off the Trail

Video of Ahimsa Stepping off the Trail

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Ohiopyle. Fresh off the trail.

Ohiopyle:

I have been promising Kai all you can eat ice cream for days. He has visions of having a root beer float, a banana split, and trying every flavor of ice cream they have. I insist that if he can make it through all of that, he can have it, but not before showers. I use a whole travel size bottle of Dr. Bronners lavender soap. I scrub every inch of my body from my ears to my toes, keeping my wash cloth thick with suds, and ending with my hair. This shower is amazing! I can’t even entertain the thought of putting my feet back into my trail shoes, so we head across from the showers to Wilderness Voyageurs Outfitter Store, and buy outrageously priced, comfy, flip-floppy type shoes (the kind made from yoga mats). My feet love them. We see the lovely Ms. Laura from the Waldorf School working at the coffee cart outside the store, and she treats me to a latte so delicious and creamy with real, not powdered, milk. I don’t even need to put sugar in it, it is that good. And then, we get to the ice cream. Kai makes it through a banana split, a root beer float, and a chunk of fudge before giving up on his quest to try every flavor of ice cream.

Home:

As we step into our apartment, we can’t help but notice how small the space feels compared to where we have been. It feels strange to be indoors, and we know that this is home, but it feels different. We revel in the novelty of our home and lounge around until we get hungry. It is 9pm and we decide we are hungry for Japanese food, but it is Sunday and all of the Japanese restaurants close by close by 10pm, and by the time we drive there, we won’t have too much time to eat. We don’t want to feel rushed, or drive too far, so we settle on The Cheesecake Factory, because it is close and open until 11pm. Driving down Becks Run Road to the Cheesecake Factory feels surreal. It feels unsettling to be moving so fast in a car, in the dark. I keep putting my foot on the brake to slow us down, but we are not even breaking 30 miles per hour on a road where most cars are moving over 40. It is not just me, Kai feels this too. At the Cheesecake Factory, there are so many choices and we just know that we are hungry. Overwhelmed by our choices, we settle on breakfast for dinner, since eggs and potatoes was one of my trail fantasies. I get two scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, and an English muffin, home fried potatoes, and a side of spinach. I clean every single crumb off that plate, and order a cherry cheesecake to go. Food, cooked properly, tastes wonderful. We are completely satisfied, and ready to go home to our real beds.

 

Backpacking with Kai had me move at a slower pace than I did last year. Last year I hiked the whole 70 mile trail solo in 6 days and 5 nights, whereas this year with Kai, we hiked 35 miles in 5 days and 4 nights. Many backpackers taking longer trips can work up to 20 mile days, but they have time to condition their bodies and work up to this. I found that when I am just going out on these short trips, this slower pace is preferable. Going at this slower pace with Kai, had me slow down and enjoy the journey more. We had a really great time and I experienced the trail in a new way. My next goal is to hike the trail in 9 days and 8 nights. And my far off goal is to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

Ahimsa and Kai’s Backpacking Adventure : 5 Days and 4 Nights Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail: Part 4

One Day in 12 Miles

Day 4: Saturday July 22, 2017

Mile Marker 18:

This portion of the Laurel Highlands trail is abundant in flowing runs of water, so finding or having enough water is not an issue. We stop at our first good run to filter and fill only two of our water bottles, knowing we will come across more water sources throughout the day. This helps our packs feel lighter. Last year, I caught a fairly serious parasite on my backpacking adventure, so this year, I am being more deliberate about preventing cross contamination. We fill the plastic pouch that comes with our filter and dry it before filtering the water into a clean bottle. This is to prevent any unclean drips from sliding down into our clean drinking water. Filtering water is a time consuming process and not a job for the impatient. Our packs are also feeling lighter, because we have been literally eating our weight away. I am sure this is one of the few times in life where you can say that.

Since our shelter last night was more than halfway past the previous mile, this first mile marker comes easy.

Mile Marker 17:

Our energy level is great this morning, and mile marker 17 is the halfway point of our backpacking trip. We stop to take a picture, but my phone dies—no more pictures, only memories in our minds.

Mile Marker 16:

We are feeling good, so we decide to push through to mile marker 15 (3 ½ miles in) before taking a break. We try to make use of the energy we feel from our morning cup of matcha green tea. I am grateful that I did that restorative yoga, because I feel so refreshed and not too sore today. Kai regrets that he didn’t listen to my prodding that he do some yoga too. He also regrets staying up late to play with the fire. I woke him up early since we have a long day ahead of us. I want to be sure we have plenty of time to reach camp tonight. I had to have a talk with Kai about being responsible. He had left his lighter on the edge of the fire. When I was sleeping, I heard a big pop, a wiz, and a bang as something flung out of the fireplace. I woke Kai, but we couldn’t figure out what it had been. In the morning, I found his lighter less than a foot away from me, with the top burnt off. It must have exploded and flung in my direction, just missing me. I admonished Kai, saying that with more freedom comes more responsibility, and that he needs to be aware of and on top of these things.

Mile Marker 15:

We breezed through those first three miles pretty well. We are starting to feel like we want a break and we are coming upon a pretty stream. Kai makes a strong case that we should rest at this nice spot. I like to push through to the mile marker we planned for before we take a break. As we we are crossing the stream, I spot on the opposite bank, the mile 15 marker. I point out to Kai that we can break here after all. It rarely works out this way. We are decompressing, our packs off. I am doing some easy, stretchy yoga and Kai is playing at the stream. As we are just about to start in on our allotted snacks, we see clouds rolling in. We decide to pull out our rain gear, and we get it set up just in time. The rain starts coming down and picking up fast.

Mile Marker 14:

Sitting and eating in heavy rain is not restive, so we decide to keep moving. We finish up the dried mango we had started as we are walking, but we don’t make it through all our morning snacks. The little adrenaline rush caused by the sudden rain keeps us moving at a steady pace. It’s like our natural urge is to walk out of the rain, but of course, we really can only walk through it and hope it stops. I keep Kai moving by promising chocolate covered espresso beans soon. And then, “when we get to the 14 mile marker.” I try to push us a little past our limits and time our caffeine hits just right, so we are not overdoing it, but are milking each dose to its fullest. Mile marker 14 comes quickly, or so it seems.

Mile Marker 13:

Kai likes to suck the chocolate off the coffee bean and then eat the coffee bean inside. I like to take one at a time and savor the coffee and chocolate flavor together, so that I can almost imagine that I am drinking a mocha. And then in my mind, I am in a coffee shop. The nice and cozy kind. With a fireplace, books, and games. The type you could spend all day at. Each coffee bean transports me to this place, so I space them out well, at regular intervals to keep the thoughts alive. We are at the point where we know that it is wet and raining, but this has just become the state of our existence. There is no walking away from the rain. We are just in the rain. “Blueberries!”,  Kai exclaims, pulling me out of my fantasy.  Earlier I had noticed that the climate was changing as we were descending in elevation. It looked like the territory we might find wild blueberries in. I thought I would mention this to Kai, but then thought better to leave it as a surprise. New territories, new scenery, and new discoveries keep our spirits up and renew our energy. Wild blueberries are not like their cultivated cousins. Finding a good patch might yield a couple tablespoons at most, and they are teeny tiny. But their flavor is truly wild and complex. We try a bite of blueberries with coffee beans. It is an interesting and curious flavor combination, but we didn’t discover anything worth writing about.

Mile marker 13 feels like a long time coming. We pass by a small duck pond where this group of about fifteen day hikers come upon us. Kai decides to make a game of running up ahead of them, hiding himself up in a small tree, a bush, or a fallen log, and seeing if they will spot him. I keep myself going by chanting in my head, “thirteen is my favorite number.”

Mile Marker 12:

Kai keeps up his game with the hikers for a good bit of this mile, while I keep a slow, steady pace, so I actually don’t seen him for much of this mile. I need to pee, but I don’t want one of the day hikers to catch me with my pants down, so I just hold it in—a whole mile. Mile marker 12 is our next scheduled break, lunch time, and our halfway point of this day (6 miles in).  As I go along, I realize that I haven’t seen Kai for a while, and I am really not sure if he is ahead or behind. All I can think is that he better have the sense not to leave the trail. I am not moving backwards and I don’t have it in me to go on a Kai hunt. I can make it to mile marker 12, not anything more. Then, I feel, slightly, guilty and worried, so I call out for him. No response. I keep moving forward. I continue to call out every so often. Eventually, he responds and I catch up to him. My greeting is, “You are lucky you were ahead of me, because there is no way I was going back to hunt you down.”  Kai laughs. We do have a conversation about the importance of staying on the trail. He does understand, and has an equal desire not to be lost or completely on his own out here.

Finally, mile marker 12, and the relief of peeing without being watched. There are several fallen logs that act as our benches. It feels so great to have the packs come off for a bit. And we are hungry. Lunch is wraps with Primal Strips, mayo, Babybel cheese, and grape tomatoes torn into pieces. We have an avocado, but it has somehow managed to not ripen, so we sacrifice it to the forest gods and goddesses. Our wraps are served with a side of potato chips leftover from our market meal. When I tear open the bag of potato chips, I inhale the scent as if it were the most satisfying smell I have ever experienced. The taste of each bite of food, is enhanced by each mile we have walked to earn it. The rain lets up long enough for us to have a decent lunch break. My song of clear skies and prayed for rainbows worked. I am able to lay on a wet log to rest. It feels like lying on a wet log, but it feels soo good.

Mile Marker 11:

Before we head out, I switch my shoes. On these longer days, I alternate between my hiking sandals and my sturdier hiking shoes. Each set of shoes hit my feet at different parts of my foot, so alternating between them gives my feet some relief. Our next scheduled break is mile marker 9. I promised Kai that we would split the second half of our package of coffee beans after lunch, but I am trying to stretch them out a bit longer, so I keep saying, “soon.” And finally, “at mile marker 11.” He doesn’t like this. The rain hits again and we are getting to the point where we are tired of being wet. Kai tries going barefoot for a while. He splashes his feet in the puddles and streams. Hiking barefoot on the trail feels good and gives your feet a break from your shoes, but it is easy to stub your toes on stones and tree roots, and it definitely slows you down. Kai manages for about a half mile, before returning to his shoes.

Mile Marker 10:

The coffee beans are our reward for the past sloshy mile. There is no savoring them this time. They are wet and clumped together. We pop them in our mouths several at a time, hoping to get their high quickly. This part of the trail is beautiful. Rocky corners. Flowering pink and white Rhododendrons. Flowing streams. We try to stay present, but our minds fluctuate between awing at the beauty around us and escaping to a more comfortable place in our minds. At mile marker 10 there is a perfect tree stump, at just the right height to sit into and lean the weight of our packs against. We sit just long enough to get some water in us. No packs off. This isn’t our break yet.

Mile Marker 9:

As our coffee beans kick in, I tell Kai maybe we should push on to mile marker 8 before taking our break. But as the mile drags on, and the coffee high fades, and we come upon mile marker 9, we are both in full agreement that we need a break. Caffeine has its limits. We have hiked nine miles today, and we are tired. Kai lays prone on a wet log, arms and legs wrapped around the log, his head turned to one side; he has forgotten to take off his pack. I do take off my pack and sit on a log on the other side of the trail. The rain gods and goddesses are smiling on us, for the rain has stopped for this break too. I look at our map, and I am encouraged. I had thought that after mile marker 9, we had a steep hill to climb, but I see that we are already up the hill, and there will not be too much incline coming up. After resting for a bit, we pull out the carob malt balls. I had been saving this sugary snack for a time when we would need that sugar rush, and this is it. You definitely don’t want to overdo it, but sweets do have their place on the trail.

Mile Marker 8:

The next three miles or so, we start getting loopy. We are at that point where we are doing whatever it takes to make it through. The trail to mile marker 8 is misty and surreal. We start being silly and make things up. I say, “The guy at REI, Joe, or I think he is Joe anyway, so I will call him Joe, he knows this trail well, and everything has said has been true, and well, he said that there is a lemonade stand at mile marker 8.” Kai says, “really?” Just for a moment, his mind wanted to believe it was true. Then, we joke about how we really died at mile marker 9, and that we are just ghosts walking through the mist. The topic of death is appropriate and not disturbing. I mean, we do feel like we have died. And death is merely stepping into another dimension.

When we reach mile marker 8, we really do have lemonade. We stop and rest on a rock and make lemonade out of two packets of Real Lemon that I stole from GetGo, and two fizzy electrolyte tablets. The lemonade lacks the icy refreshness that we long for. It is cool, at best. But it is some kind of break from everything else we have had. Then, we move on.

Mile Marker 7:

We start moving down hill both literally and figuratively, as we make our way to mile marker 7 and beyond to Ohiopyle shelter. I start humming and singing Alison Krauss’s song “Your Long Journey.” A song about death. Kai first thinks I am kooky for singing to myself, but I say, “In my mind I am wearing headphones and listening to the radio.” And, “It is working, as long as the song is playing in my head, I am not focusing on my pain and fatigue.” After a bit, Kai decides to give it a go by highjacking my song. He starts singing a song he made up about us being slower than snails and snails singing better than us too. He sings loud, and his singing drowns out my peaceful melody, so I give up. We are moving pretty slowly at this point, and perhaps, snails are faster than us. We each have one hiking pole to rely on. The hill is so steep and relentless. Our already tired feet crush up against the edges of our shoes and each step is painful. It really is impossible to move any faster. Kai keeps his song up for nearly a mile, and as we pass mile marker 7 (no stopping, only moving forward), and move into our last stretch to the shelters, his chant changes. It changes to something along the lines of “we are going to die, we are never going to make it.” Over and over again. I am completely demoralized. Who can think positive when someone is shouting those things.  I attempt a “shut up!” a few times, to no avail. So I just give up, and my feet keep slowly crawling forward. Because forward is where home for the night is. At one point, Kai decides to try positivity by shouting, “look, I see the shelter sign!” He lies. It is still at least a quarter mile down.

Ohiopyle Shelter:

Finally, we make it to Ohiopyle shelter, and our humble shelter 3. The rain starts in again, so for the first time we cook and eat in the shelter. This is the first time I actually start the fire. There are three dry logs that are at our shelter and some bits of sticks leftover from previous users. I use five petroleum jelly saturated cotton balls (our emergency fire starter), because I am not in the mood to coax a fire all night. It works and our fire takes off quickly. Dinner is vacuum packed indian meals, but they don’t hit the spot, so we manage to eat just enough. We are tired of being wet and it is still raining, so we do everything in our shelter tonight. We go to sleep as soon as we can. I had agreed that we would exchange sleeping systems for the night. I want to try out Kai’s equipment and he wants to see if my setup is more comfortable. Unfortunately, Kai’s sleeping mat is defective, with a very slow leak, so that after several hours it loses most of its inflation. This is not a fun way to wake up.

Ahimsa and Kai’s Backpacking Adventure : 5 Days and 4 Nights Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail: Part 3

A Slow Going Six Miles

Day 3: Friday July 21, 2017

We start on the trail this morning thinking we can knock out six fairly level miles, but these miles end up kicking our butt. Instead of flowing through the first few miles, like we did yesterday, at every mile we want to stop for a small break. Today is the day where the rigors of the trail really kick in, and we start to have trail fantasies. Trail fantasies are when you long for the comforts of our modern world. Incredibly vivid images form in your mind. Last year, my hike was more rigorous and austere, so my fantasies were many: very specific hot meals (like spaghetti), a shower, my bed, sex—that order was essential. This time, my first trail fantasy is for a shower. To keep pack weight down many backpackers only pack one item of clothing for each function. I have a pair of running shorts and a yoga shirt with a built in bra as my daytime wear and yoga pants and a comfy top for bedtime and camp wear, as well as a long sleeve layer for warmth. Needless to say, wearing and sweating in the same clothes for days with no shower creates quite a skank. I am a person that doesn’t mind getting dirty, but I do love to clean up afterwards. Going without a shower is one of my least favorite parts of backpacking. Kai relishes the opportunity to go days without being forced to bathe. Dirty is almost always an acceptable state for Kai. His first trail fantasy is about vegging out on Minecraft, uninterrupted, for a whole day and night.

On a backpacking adventure snacks are essential. It feels better not to eat heavy meals while on the trail, but backpackers can burn as many as three or four thousand calories a day, so frequent snacks are the ticket to getting all these calories in. Before setting out on our hike, we went to the Co-op and filled little snack size baggies with things like nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, sesame sticks, and granola. We supplemented this with packages of chocolate covered espresso beans and other packaged items. This was a great idea. It is so easy to get bored eating the same thing, so having so much variety, keeps things interesting and tasty. Everyday I ration out our snacks for the day and put them in the little top section of my pack, along with a light lunch. This way I do not have to open or dig into my pack during the day. Each day, we have a different dried fruit, a couple savory and salty snacks like sesame sticks or nuts, and some sweet treat like chocolate.

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Alleyways of Giant Boulders
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Capturing the perfect selfie is kind of difficult when your associate is as mischievous as Kai.

 

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This one is a keeper ❤
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Kai
The air is thick and muggy. I have a fine sheen of moisture on my body throughout the day. The trail is mostly level with minuscule inclines, but it is incredibly rocky—to the point where we feel each stone acutely. There is one point where we pass through alleyways of giant boulders. We see stunning vistas of the Laurel Highlands. And pass by an ancient graveyard. When we pass by a large group of day hikers, we can’t help but think, “wimps.” And when we see people stroll into camp by coming down from their cars at nearby roads, “cheaters.”

Kai and I have been getting along quite well on this trip. We get mildly edgy with each other when we are setting off in the morning, because we have different flows. I like to get up and go to take advantage of my morning energy. Kai likes to ease into his day a bit. But really, this morning edginess is hardly anything and dissipates quickly as we get into our hike. But Kai gets angry at me today. I said we would eat lunch at four miles in for the day, but at four miles, I push for one more. The map says that there is a parking lot just off the trail with a potable water spigot and picnic tables at five miles in for us. I want to make it to this spot for lunch. Kai tries to sit down and refuse to move at mile marker 20, but I just keep moving. I make it well ahead of him, before he decides to catch up to me. He is a hangry beast until I feed him at the next mile. We deal with our frustration by walking far away from each other. Kai rushes on ahead of me and makes it there first. At the picnic table Kai eats away his frustration, and is soothed by more water play at the spigot. The shelters are only a mile away, so I push us on, eager to be done for the day.

When we get into camp, I unpack the contents of our packs, setting or hanging each item on the hooks and shelf within the shelter. I “bathe,” get into my comfy camp clothes, and set up my bed. I do a session of yoga. Nothing active. Just gentle restorative poses to counteract the movements and tensions of backpacking. Cat-cow, supported bridge, puppy, forward folds, savasana, and any variations that feel good to by body. When we were browsing the Highland Market yesterday, I came across a display of natural beard balms in various scents. I picked up each scent and took a whiff. The sandalwood was so sweet and comforting that on a whim I bought it for myself. Tonight, I rub this beard balm into my tired feet and up my calves, over my sore shoulders and neck, to work out some of the tension. The combination of the scent, the yoga, and the rub down, after three days of hiking has me feeling deeply worn, but relaxed.

Kai’s ritual is to discard his pack on the shelter floor. He runs off to scope out everything and see if any goodies have been left behind. He usually finds something to excite him. Yesterday he found mini bottles of wine stored in the run (we just let them be). Tonight, he finds a newspaper with some comic strips he enjoys reading. Then he gets straight to collecting kindling and firewood and starting a fire–his favorite part. Last year, I was too tired to deal with fires, so I only had one on a night I shared it with two guys. This time, I have been getting a fire or two every night without having to do anything for it, thanks to Kai. This grove of shelters is a packed house. Two solo backpackers, a group of three backpackers, a trio of “cheaters”, a father and son set, a man with two wee daughter, and two dogs. We are curious as each new person or group who rolls in. We talk to the solo backpackers and trade tips, tricks, and advice. Kai sees that the dad with two daughter’s is struggling to start a fire, so he brings them some kindling to help out. When we see people at shelters we interact minimally, mostly keeping to ourselves.

Dinner is a fail. It fills our bellies, but is wholly unsatisfying. I try to cook angel hair pasta using the soak method, but it comes out with a strange gummy texture. The sauce, that came in a great little pouch, doesn’t have much flavor. The only part that works well are these little packets of fresh mozzarella balls that have managed to stay fresh for these past few days. Leftover s’mores act as redemption for such a pitiful dinner. Our dinner ritual is for Kai to start a fire at the outside fire pit closest to our shelter. I cook our dinner close to the fire. I carefully unpack and set up all the items I will need to make dinner, and place the fuel canister on the most level surface I can find. I screw the small backpacking stove (a burner with four fold out pot supports) into the fuel canister. Then I proceed to cook whatever is on the menu for the night. After dinner, I wash our dishes and pots with natural, unscented baby wipes. I have found this to be the most efficient way to clean them, because washing in streams is harmful for the environment and water is a chore to find and filter. Then, I carefully repack every item, nestling items together as compactly as possible. We burn our leftover food and any trash that is acceptable to burn. The shelters have bear proof trash cans for the rest of our waste. Dinner usually takes a while, and Kai and I enjoy this time of talking and relaxing.

After dinner we brush our teeth, using only small amounts of water. I hang our food between two opposing hooks on either side of the shelter. Bears are really rare on the Laurel Highlands Trail, but the mice have learned how to raid the food stashes of campers. This is one reason we cook and eat outside the shelter. I like to head to the shelter to write, and then, slowly fall asleep. Kai likes to linger at the fire, until he eventually gets tired and decides to start a second fire in the fireplace attached to the shelter. I do insist that Kai at least wipe down his muddy feet and legs before climbing into his sleeping bag. He does this reluctantly, or will say that he is too tired and request I do it for him. Sometimes I do, knowing his version of clean is not up to my standards. Sometimes I don’t, knowing he is capable of doing it himself. I also usually have Kai set up his own bedding and pack up his own pack in the morning. Learning to pack and unpack your backpack and set up camp everyday is an important part of backpacking. It is important that you pack your pack in such a way that your essential items don’t get wet, the heaviest weight is in the middle against your back, and everything fits. There is a bit of an art to it. Kai is impatient with this process. He would prefer to just push everything into his pack and have it done with, and not to deal with blowing up sleep pads and rolling and unrolling sleeping bags. Every morning he tries to shove everything in, only to get frustrated when everything doesn’t fit in his pack and it won’t zip up. Then he has to start again to pack it properly. He does start to get the importance of doing it right the first time, but he still just doesn’t want to deal with it, so every morning he gets irritable.

Tired, we sleep well tonight.

 

 

Ahimsa and Kai’s Backpacking Adventure : 5 Days and 4 Nights Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail: Part 2

A Nearly Nine Mile Day

Day 2: Thursday July 20, 2017

We wake oblivious to the time, and eat a rich breakfast of campfire crepes filled with bananas and chocolate hazelnut spread (a healthier version of Nutella). We wash it down with a just warm enough mocha. By the second round, we learn how to get the crepes toasted just right over the hot coals from the night before. We clean up and head out. Kai tries to leave the fire roaring, but with some chiding and help from me, he dismantles the fire. Kai insists that he was being considerate and leaving hot coals for the next campers, but I insist that I don’t want to be responsible for burning down a section of the Laurel Highlands Trail.

IMG_0145[1]Early on into our first mile we come upon a mystical looking grove of red flowers. We have my phone tucked away and off to preserve the battery, just in case we need it for an emergency. We pull it out and turn it on every so often to take a picture. It takes us a few shots to capture the view the way we see it. Kai takes the winning picture. We move on from the sacred grove, and Kai finds a way to amuse himself while hiking. He is on a hunt for toads and snails, collecting them, carrying them for some time, and then releasing them further up on the trail. Sometimes he has only one snail or toad and will release and trade it for the next one he finds. Other times he has a whole handful of creatures. This game keeps him occupied for miles, and he returns to it again over the next few days.

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Kai and the Hiking Snails
We breeze through our first 3 miles with only quick standing water breaks. We are down to one liter of water for the both of us and need to ration it until our next water source. We start to get sluggish and tired, and thirsty on the next half mile. A grove of wild apples provides us with a tart and juicy nibble. Kai tries to run down a hill and gets a stick jabbed between his toes. Knowing we are close to our resting point, I encourage him on. He pushes through and walks barefoot for a bit. At 3 ½ miles into our day, we come to a road where less than a quarter mile down, not too far from the trail, is the Highland Market. The Highland Market is a little vacation market and café that serves the Seven Springs crowd. It feels so good to enter the perfectly air conditioned store and let down our packs. We quickly use the bathrooms to freshen up and browse the store to find lunch. We order a salad, a hearty quesadilla, and a Reuben without the meat. The salad tastes like the best salad I have ever eaten (when, in fact, it is only of fair quality). Each bite of lettuce, tomato, green pepper, and pickled onion is fresh, juicy, and divine. The Reuben ooey, gooey, and cheesy in all the right ways. By the way Kai wolfs down his quesadilla, I can assume he feels the same about his meal. We follow our meal with an ice cold Starbucks White Chocolate Double Shot (the big can) split between us, and an almond muffin for Kai.

IMG_0149[1]After our meal, we restock our water supply at the market’s water fountain, and put on our packs. Every time we put on our packs, we have to readjust to the weight of them again. Not to mention, resupplying over 146 ounces worth of water is not helpful in that department. Eating heavy meals midday while backpacking usually doesn’t work too well. We didn’t hold back for lunch, so we feel this keenly as we climb back up to the trail, through Seven Springs, and up to the highest point of the Laurel Highlands Trail. Kai and I are both in agreement that this 2 ½ mile stretch is our least favorite. We wish we had had greater restraint when we ate our lunch. This part of the trail has lots of inclines over open fields, hills, and gravel roads. Hot burning sun and steep hills do not mix well. The only redeeming factor is the stunning vistas of rolling hills, yet we can’t muster the energy to take any pictures. The end of this stretch is our next break spot.

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Kai has a handful of caterpillars, with a few crawling up his arm.
We are treated to a water spigot with fresh, cold, potable water. Kai uses his break to jam a rock into the handle of the spigot to keep the water flowing. The flow is strong enough to fill up the brick basin surrounding the spigot and flow down the trail for a good few yards. Kai plays in the flowing water like a free spirited toddler. Chasing the water down the trail. We both let the water flow over our feet and body and use the attached brush to scrub the caked dirt off of our legs and feet.  I am not sure if this is what it is here for, but it serves our purpose well. When we are on the trail, with no watch or clock, we lose our sense of time, but after what seems like 20-40 minutes of water play, I urge us to push on. I want to use whatever energy we gained from the refreshing bath to knock out our last 2 plus miles of the day.

IMG_0154[1]The first mile of this next trek, is pretty even with little to no hills. It is such a sweet mile to have at the end of a long day. The following mile is not so sweet. A rocky decline followed by a rocky incline. Being a doula, I explain to Kai that backpacking is a lot like childbirth. The pain of birth starts pretty bearable and increases in intensity. In birth you don’t want to use all the tricks in your bag too soon before you really need them. The same is true for backpacking. I carry a set of hiking poles, yet most of the time they stay tucked into the loops of my pack. I save them for the end of the long days, when the last mile or two feels oh so long, and every rock and stone is felt through my rugged hiking shoes. I break out one pole to use on the decline and incline. The other comes out after we start down the side path to our shelter for the night.

Grindle Ridge is one of the two shelters that has a long walk (about a half mile) from the Laurel Highlands Trail to the grove of shelters. All I can think about, at this point, is reaching our shelter, shelter 3, and laying down this weight–melting into the hard shelter floor. First Kai says, “look at this cool stump; it is almost a perfect square.” I reply that he cannot intrude on my mental pep talk, and that all I can appreciate is that the shelter is close and getting closer. Next Kai says, “There’s a shelter!” “You see a shelter?” I say this with such relief that there is an end to my misery. Kai points to a little fairy size tipi he designed out of sticks and ferns. “You can’t do that to me,” I say in such disappointment.

When I get to that blessed shelter 3, I do all that I desired. Hard floor beneath me. I don’t care that Kai took off to find some stream. I don’t care when I eventually strip naked, peel off the stinky wet layers and bathe in the only way I can, with baby wipes, lavender hand sanitizer, and cucumber face wipes. If anyone comes across my naked self, it is on them to turn around. I really don’t give a care. When I care enough to think about food, I head to the fire pit (dressed, of course) to cook our dinner. On my first backpacking trip, I tried to go without cooking, so I wouldn’t have to buy a backpacking stove. That was a bad idea. After hiking those long 14 mile days, I would hanker for a hot cooked meal. This time I invested in a backpacking stove and was experimenting with cooking pasta more efficiently. Fuel canisters are heavy, so backpackers need to learn cooking techniques that keep fuel use down. I add the little pasta shells to my pot, top it with water to about an inch and a half over the pasta, bring it to a boil, boil it for 2-3 minutes,IMG_0159[1] then take the pot off the stove, and cover it with a lid. I let it soak for several minutes. And, I have perfectly cooked pasta. With cheese packets, butter, and powdered milk mixed in, we have yummy, satisfying Mac n Cheese. Throwing some fresh green beans into the cooking pot adds some nourishing veggies to our meal. Experiment success.

IMG_0160[1]Kai’s exploring at the stream is rewarded with a notepad triple wrapped in plastic and encased within a plastic jar. It is a “fairy notebook” for passing travelers to leave a word or more. Kai is not very enthusiastic about writing in these sort of things, so I write a bit or two in it for us. Kai is getting bored with me writing by myself, so he moves the fire from our outside pit to our shelter fire place and then wanders off to hunt toads. At one point he has eight toads of various sizes. He plops four toads onto my sleeping bag and says, “mom, look!” ” I scream, not in fear, but in indignation. I don’t

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Eight toads, can you spot them all?
appreciate toads in my bed. I guess he is trying to get my attention. So, I set aside my writing to walk around the campsite in the dark, our headlamps to guide us, as I look for the bathroom, and Kai wrangles his toads.

Ahimsa and Kai’s Backpacking Adventure: 5 Days and 4 Nights Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail: Part 1

An Adventure Begins

Day 1: Wednesday July 19, 2017
Starting time: about 10:00am

Our starting point is about halfway between mile mark 36 and 35, counting down, and IMG_0252[1]moving south towards Ohiopyle. This is the closest drop off point we can get to the halfway point of the 70 mile trail, without overshooting it. We are determined to hike exactly half of the trail. At only 3 miles, this will be our shortest day. We are excited to be getting on the trail and getting our journey started. After my backpacking trip last year, I knew I wanted to get my kids on the trail with me, but so many things were happening in my life this summer, that I wasn’t sure how it would work out. This trip ended up being thrown together quickly when I got an opportunity to have some extra time with Kai.

IMG_0129[1]About a half a mile in, we find what looks like a black mailbox attached to a boulder. It is filled with a few notebooks with years of entries from hikers passing through on the trail. We have a bit of fun reading them, and they range from silly to philosophical. I think it will be fun for us to add our names. Kai just shrugs and says, “eh”. I guess he doesn’t care to add our names to the books. Our adventure gets real when we start to climb our first hill with our heavy packs. We start to wonder how we are going to make it 35 miles when our first hill is such a struggle. Actually, last year, I thought “holy shit!” “How am I going to hike 70 miles, if I can barely stand in this thing?” So, I gave myself an internal pep talk and said, “if I can make it to the first mile, I’ll know I can do this.” And, I did make it. This year, I learned from my mistakes last year and was able to create a better food system, so that this year, my pack is heavy and uncomfortable, but bearably so. Still, this year I am not in as good shape physically as I was last year. And, Kai has been lazy too this summer. So, we are trudging through and stopping frequently for breaks.

Eventually, we cross a road and two shiny white SUVs drive by. The people in the passing cars stare at us. Kai insists that he is going to hitch a ride to Ohiopyle. I insist that this is cheating. As we pass over the road and up into the woods again, Kai says, “I just missed my ride.” I reply, “At least they are no longer staring at us like we are lions in Pennsylvania.” As we trek on, I am grateful that we have a 3 mile day to ease us into our trip. Each incline has me huffing and puffing (try hiking with a 40-50 pound pack before you judge), and I come to deep realizations. Like, “I now have depths of compassion for pack mules.” Kai is amused by my thoughts. And we banter on about starting a petition to save the pack mules.

The length of our days are determined by the distances between shelter sites. There are eight shelter sites along the Laurel Highlands Trail between 6 and 12 miles apart. Each one has 5 primitive shelters, both a men’s and a women’s bathroom, space for tent campers, a water pump, a pile of firewood, and scattered firepits. The shelters have 3 walls and an open side with a stone fireplace, and they can hold about 4 people. The bathrooms are really only outhouses with a few toilet stalls. The water pump has a sink basin, but only has non potable water, and it takes a good deal of pumping to get the water flowing. To the point, where it is almost not worth the effort, and it is just easier to get water from streams and runs. There is a dirt access road into the camp for the park to bring in firewood or for the park rangers to check in on the sites. Campers are supposed to reserve the shelters and campsites ahead of time, but not everyone does. To keep things simple we have reserved shelter number 3 at each site along our route. Our first shelter site, Route 31, is nestled between mile mark 33 and 32. We reach camp somewhere around 1 pm, just in time to have a lazy lunch and a well deserved nap. This is the only day we will have so much time at camp. We are the only people at this shelter tonight.

Kai, of course, is eager to build a fire, and takes off to collect kindling and firewood. It is still early, so I manage to convince him to hold off for a few hours until we get closer to IMG_0131[1]dinner. For dinner, we have a classic campfire meal of roasted veggie dogs with whole wheat buns (mustard and ketchup provided by GetGo*), roasted corn on the cob, and upgraded s’mores (Michel et Augustin chocolate coated cookies with vegan marshmallows.) When backpacking, most of your pack weight is actually food. You have to find foods that will keep in your pack without refrigeration for days, but that are also light enough to not add too much weight to your pack. So, planning backpacking meals is an art. Many backpackers will use freeze dried meals because they keep forever and are lightweight. I chose to forgo the freeze dried meals, opting to create my own simple meals. I chose to compromise and take on some extra weight to make more wholesome meals. I have included some fresh foods in everyday, IMG_0136[1]balanced out with lightweight and quick cooking foods like pasta.

We enjoy slowly cooking and eating our meal over the fire. I tell Kai about how I have been asked before if I feel afraid when out here alone, but it is so incredibly quiet, and so incredibly peaceful, that I actually feel the opposite–incredibly safe. Kai feels the same. Of course, there are moments of fear here and there, but they are no different than the moments of fear here and there in our ordinary days.

As we settle into bed we hear a car drive up. We go to investigate and see that it is the park rangers checking in. They randomly make stops at the shelters to be sure everyone staying has permits. Since everything checks out with us, they don’t stay long.

In bed, I tell Kai about how on the Appalachian Trail people will sometimes intentionally leave things for the hikers. And that, they call this “trail magic”. Kai takes to this terminology, and every time we do something or leave something for someone else, and every time we find something cool left behind (intentionally or not), we start to call it trail magic. Today our trail magic is to leave some dry wood for some future backpackers. In each shelter area, there are little covered niches besides the bathrooms to keep firewood dry. We noticed they were empty (they often are), but there was a big pile of firewood out in the open. Since we had such a short day, and we know a storm is expected to roll in sometime this weekend, we decided to restock these. We also found a good quality spork someone left behind, and it turns out, this is an item we need.

*Thanks to GetGo for unofficially (and unknowingly) sponsoring our trip by providing perfectly proportioned condiment packets.

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Owning a Past I did not Choose

There is this part of me that wants to stomp my feet and wail my hands and have this big grown up tantrum at the unfairness of life. Because just as I feel I have conquered my past and reached a great place of happiness, contentment, and peace, just when I feel I have got this, this living my life fully, my past comes up and it grabs me! It invades my otherwise perfect moments. Forcing me to see that there is yet another layer to this healing. It feels like the ultimate injustice. Because not only did I not have a say in what was done to me, I now have it infiltrating into my present experiences. I want to fight and resist. I want to say, “no, not again,” and “why me?” I feel a sense of hopelessness, wondering if there is ever an end to it. I fall back into this familiar role of victim, and experience this place of powerlessness. Then, it is more of the same, and I feel stuck in a past that is continually recreated.

Except that, I refuse to accept this as my fate. I refuse to give anyone or anything that much power over me. I yearn for a sense of power over my own life. I want to live without these confines that were put upon me. I want to live my life on my own terms. And because, I have been doing this work for awhile, and I have been to these places before, I know that I must step into this pain to find real healing. I know I cannot get there by fighting, resisting, or denying this past that I did not choose. I know that I have to own it, and embrace it, and love it. This past chosen or not is part of me.

If I deny it, I am denying my very self. This is my story and every part of it has contributed to who I am today. If I cannot own my story, how can I own myself? How can I love myself? So, I choose to love myself in all the places that I have been unloved. I choose to love myself in those spaces where I have been hurt, abandoned, abused, and betrayed. And like the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold , so that each breakage becomes the beauty and history of the piece, the broken and shattered places of my soul will heal to become the strength and beauty of who I am. Every piece of my story comes together as a valuable piece of who I am.

 

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Stepping Into Discomfort

Growth doesn’t feel comfortable. Letting go of old unhealthy patterns and making a conscious choice to create new healthy patterns is far from a warm and cozy feeling. In fact, it feels quite the opposite. It feels groundless-unsteady-insecure. It can really feel quite terrifying. It takes great courage to go there. Growth involves reaching back to those feelings that created those patterns in the first place and being willing to feel them deeply. You know those feelings of being abandoned, scared, alone, unloved, of being to blame. Those are not fun feelings. So why even go there? Because there is something good on the other side of facing those feelings. And that is empowerment. When we are able to face the truth with courage we find we have the power to change. We can let go of those old patterns and create new healthy patterns. We can say, “I want this new healthy feeling so much that I am willing to take the actions and steps that are going to get me there.” There is such a great feeling to stepping into the fear and discomfort and getting to the other side. That feeling on the other side is freedom. The freedom to choose, truly choose, from a place of power how we want to live our lives. The more we uncover and let go of the layers of stuff put upon us by a past that we did not choose, the more we are freed up to be the most authentic version of ourselves. We become more clear and are able to shine the truth and beauty of who we are.