Along the Trace

The kids were off school for Veterans’ Day last week, so we took a rare opportunity for a mid-week camping trip. We picked a humble little campground an hour-and-a-half drive down the Natchez Trace, a beautiful historic parkway that ends just a few miles from our home. We arrived in camp around bedtime and were snuggled into our sleeping bags in short order. Lina was awake some in the night, listening to dogs barking and marveling at the novelty of nestling between her sleepy parents, but overall, the night went pretty smoothly.

We woke to a crisp, brilliantly sunny morning. There are few things as perfect as a whole day with no schedule, no responsibilities and an open road to explore. We ate our pancakes, visited with the horses who shared our campground and loaded the car and began our leisurely meandering back up the Natchez Trace. Corin loved the opportunity to help choose our stops. We visited Laurel Hill Lake, traveled short portions of the original Trail of Tears, hunted for slag at the site of a historic steel furnace and visited the site where Meriwether Lewis is buried. We explored a waterfall and hiked part of a trail imaginatively named Devil’s Backbone (a key factor in its selection for Corin’s agenda). Corin soaked up the stories from history that inevitably arose from our explorations.

I will remember for a long time the feeling of that cool, bright, free day on the Natchez Trace.

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Good morning, sunshine.

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Digging through a historic slag pile

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Well, that’s one way to take a nap.

Camping for the win

We got back yesterday from a long weekend of camping at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. We’d wanted for a long time to go camping with my Uncle Peter, an avid outdoorsman from Durham, so we decided to meet him at this spot near the North Carolina border. Jon took a couple days off work and we made the six-hour drive on Thursday, arriving in time for a late dinner.

Travel of any kind with little kids is hard work, and camping has its own set of challenges. Getting everyone packed up is a huge pain, and there is just so much that can go wrong. But to our pleasant surprise, the last couple trips we’ve taken have been remarkably smooth. This drive was the longest we’ve done with both kids, and it was – dare I say it – almost easy. (I know, I know. I can hear the groans of parents remembering car trips that left permanent emotional scars. I’m not trying to rub it in, I swear.)

Grayson Highlands was, true to Uncle Pete’s word, an absolutely gorgeous place. There were several hikes of a manageable length for young legs, complete with wild ponies and rewarding views. The campground itself was lovely, and we took advantage of a couple programs they offered over the weekend: a welcome bonfire with s’mores on Friday night and a salamander hunt Saturday morning. We ate some fantastic camp meals, everybody slept relatively well, we had a little down time to relax, and it was generally one of the nicest camping trips we’ve taken. (There was the Shower Horror of 2015, in which an attempt to bathe myself and the toddler in the campground shower resulted in wailing heard the next mountain over – hers, not mine, although I admittedly felt like joining her. Needless to say, she just stayed dirty the rest of the trip.) The kids had a blast, which makes us feel like perhaps we can achieve our goal of teaching them to really appreciate the outdoors.  I call that a win.

And now we’re home, with kids in need of catch-up sleep, adults with a bit of sunburn, and mounds of camping laundry to fold. Oh, and some really great memories, too.

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For all his many faults, he’s been a faithful camping companion since 2003.

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Playing superheroes: Somebody’s The Hulk or Thor, somebody’s Iron Man, and there is always an army of bad guys waiting to be defeated.

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Pregnant mare

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“Don’t pet the ponies,” the signs said. But what to do when THEY pet YOU?

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The head of his herd, aptly named “Fabio” by the rangers, letting us know who’s the boss. 

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Wearing her food, so pretty much a normal day

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She loved playing in the tent.

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Salamander hunting!

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Nap time

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Snack time

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Red trillium

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Orchid

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Tennyson looking down at the Christmas tree farms below

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Painted trillium

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I have proof! We really did winter backpack with two small kids.

It’s taken me nearly two months, but here I am, with proof of the mythical winter backpacking trip with both kids. I knew you wouldn’t believe me without pictures. If these look a little weird, it’s because they were taken on prototype smart glasses currently in development by my husband. I wasn’t about to pack in my DSLR camera, but, you know, the proof.

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Saturday morning at Cedars of Lebanon

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Not our RV

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Packing up to hit the trail at Virgin Falls

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Against all odds, it was a very successful trip. We bought warm layers for the kids and a new sleeping bag for Corin at REI, but the real key, I believe, is to start with very low expectations. I went into the weekend assuming I would not sleep for two nights, everyone would be freezing cold, the kids would wail, and it would hopefully all be part of the adventure. Imagine my surprise when all four of us slept well and warmly both nights. Turns out cramming two adults and two children into a two-man tent is a good way to keep everyone toasty. We car camped (our term for pulling into a camping spot rather than hiking in) at Cedars of Lebanon State Park the first night and then drove the next morning to the Virgin Falls trailhead in the Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness.  We hiked about 1 1/2 miles in to an awesome campsite beside a small waterfall (not the actual Virgin Falls), one of the prettiest backpacking spots I’ve experienced. Thanks to dear friends and fellow adventurers David and Kelli for suggesting the location. (The waist belt buckle on my trusty Mountainsmith pack broke on the hike in, but with a little help jury rigging with knots, it wasn’t too bad.) Corin was a champ on the trail with his little Lightning McQueen backpack and one of daddy’s hiking poles, and as long as we kept moving, Lina was content with her spot in the carrier on daddy’s back.

Temperatures the first night got down to the upper 20s, and the second night it was right around freezing. That night, Corin stepped in the creek in pursuit of a run-away hiking pole and got soaking wet to his knees, which necessitated a strip-down. He ate his dinner cuddled up in his sleeping bag inside the tent while his brand new long underwear and SmartWool socks, along with his pants and shoes, dried by the fire. Unfortunately, we at some point stoked the fire without moving his clothes and realized shortly thereafter that we had incinerated a rather pricey collection of winter clothing. The hiking boots thankfully survived unscathed.

I suppose to some people, this would have equaled a disastrous trip. David and Kelli worried about us, but remember, we started with very low expectations. The kids were sleeping warmly in the tent, we were freezing but enjoying good conversation around the fire, and we were outdoors, under the stars, with a waterfall roaring its soundtrack.

Jon had to leave town on a business trip the next day, meaning we had to break camp and hustle back out very early the next morning. The promise of a rare McDonald’s breakfast moved Corin down the trail at an impressive pace, and we made the trailhead in great time. We stopped at a truck stop for Jon to shower (yes, really) and made it to the airport right on schedule. I ferried two very tired and grubby kids home and scrubbed us all clean. We spent the rest of the day lazing about in a perfect post-adventure lethargy.

I’ve said before that the secret to having adventures with your kids is to just do it. Yes, it’s going to be exhausting and complicated, and yes, it might be easier to stay home. Sometimes, it’s okay to make that call. (Notice we don’t take these trips very often.) But sometimes, we marshall our strength and opt for the messy adventure. I want my kids to remember backpacking weekends. I want them to know what it feels like to wake up in the outdoors. I want them to know what the woods smell like in winter, and how food tastes after you’ve hiked long enough to earn it. I don’t have any research to back this up, but I’m betting families who backpack together fare better than average.

So, there you have it: our first backpacking trip as a family of four. It won’t be our last.

Finding joy

Life is chaotic and stressful. Let’s just assume that statement stands until further notice.

In the meantime, the kids keep right on growing and changing, and I hang on for dear life, trying to soak in the joy that mingles with the exhaustion, frustration and uncertainty. Life is so rarely entirely one thing or another. I can think of very few times that have been purely awful or entirely blissful. Finding joy seems to be an exercise in plucking it from the messy reality we live. I don’t always do it well, but I keep trying.

In that vein, we recently spent a lovely weekend at a cabin in Pickett State Park with some friends. We felt privileged to be along for baby Kathryn’s first camping trip. Corin had a run-in with a wasp, but otherwise it was a relaxing time and a great way to enjoy the first blush of spring, which has come late to the South (and pretty much everywhere else, from the sound of it) this year.

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Confirmed: The outdoors is still great

Fall means our family develops a serious itch to get outdoors. Our busy schedule makes it difficult to find free weekends to head for the hills, but we committed to it this last weekend. A crazy week meant we left Saturday morning rather than Friday afternoon. (Actually, by the time we returned to the house twice for various forgotten items, it was Saturday afternoon.) Weather forced a longer drive to get ahead of the rain. But we were determined, and so we did, in fact, go camping.

We started with a hike at Rock Island State Park. Corin is a fantastic hiker, and sleepy Lina seemed to enjoy the ride. The views were lovely.

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Camping at the state park was completely full, thanks to closed federal and Corps of Engineers parks, but we ended up finding a nearby private campground  (Horseshoe Bend Marina and Campgrounds) with plenty of room.

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Corin absolutely loved the entire experience, except, as it turned out, the actual sleeping in the tent. His wailing in the middle of the night about wanting to go to home woke the baby who had previously been sleeping nicely, and it was all downhill from there. I loathe camping in those wee hours, but somehow, it all seems worthwhile again by the time Jon is making pancakes and veggie sausage links on the camp stove. We ate like kings, got packed up just in time for the rain, and enjoyed a truly beautiful drive home.

We made a vow: We won’t wait so long to do it again. These are the memories we want our kids to have in abundance. However busy we get, this is stuff that matters.