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Practice hike!
This is the story of how Jack and I took our seven children into the wilderness for four days, hiking over twenty miles and scaling over 4,000 feet… and lived to tell the tale.
All bundled up, testing out his new sleeping bag.
The idea of doing a multi-day backpacking trip with the kids had been percolating in our minds for a long time. Jack has many fond memories from his youth spent camping, canoeing, and backpacking with his friends and leaders (there have been some definite benefits of being married to a grown up Eagle Scout), and since I’m usually up for an adventure, I enjoy nature, and can stand not showering for a couple of days, I went along with the idea. So we planned and prepared… then I was in a car accident, Covid happened, Adam was born, then Jack broke his foot. This trip was THREE YEARS in the making, but timing was everything. Our initial location of backpacking out in Idaho was dashed, so we made the best of an unfortunate situation. With the Rockies out of reach, we turned to the Great Smokies instead, an area which we already love. Jack gave us a few options for routes, we chose the Clingmans Dome loop, and I strongly suggested going the last week of May, as Dolly, our cow, was due with her next calf sometime in June. With those important details nailed down, we were well on our way to fulfilling our longstanding dream of roughing in the wilderness together.
Testing out the hammock tents while I supervised from inside, heehee.

Knowing that this would be one of the big, possibly life-altering trips we’d take as a family, we did our best to prepare ourselves, ’cause if the kids grew up to hate hiking, backpacking, and/or camping, at least they’d know how to set up a tent and start a fire. Jack’s parents kindly went along with our ridiculous scheme and gifted the whole family hammock tents. We opted for them instead of one big family tent, which weighs a heckuva lot and would have taken up one person’s entire pack, and still isn’t that comfortable without individual pads for everyone. With hammock tents, it gave each person a bit of privacy and comfort, assuming everything was set up correctly. The kids and Jack braved a couple of trial runs with the promise of their warm beds only a few feet away if their experiments failed, to varying degrees of success. Having an innate distrust of hammocks (way too many of them have chewed me up and spit me out–i.e. broken and/or flipped me over–for me to truly feel relaxed), I waited until we were on the trail to sleep in one. To my surprise, I found them rather comfortable. Or, as comfortable as a person can be when camping… no one ever goes to live primitively outdoors to get a good night’s sleep.

What? You don’t go for walks around the neighborhood with fifty pounds of gear with you?
Along with the relatively easy task of practicing sleeping outdoors, we tried to increase our family hikes by upping the duration and weight we carried. Sometimes, we went to our favorite spots where it was normal to witness a family hiking and nobody who passed us thought anything of it. Sometimes, we’d stick to the streets around our home, which garnered more than a few sideways glances. Not a lot of people take a gaggle of kids on a walk with enough gear to look like they’re nomadic doomsday preppers.
The only jewelry Jack wears aside from his wedding ring is dual functioning paracord bracelets. 😅 This one’s homemade!
Several evenings were also spent planning, discussing, and learning vital skills that would not only make our trip more enjoyable, but safe as well. As I’m not a fountain of knowledge about anything backpack related, aside from the occasional animal identification, Jack headed up most of those projects. We learned what to do in the case of a lightning storm, Jack and Claire braided their own paracord bracelets, and we prepared our week of meals with the generous help of friends who happen to own a freeze dryer. I do get to take credit for sheering off Jack’s beard, which was also an intentional preparation for the trip. He traded in his wild, shaggy, lumberjack look for a slightly less scruffy wild lumberjack–his clean shaven face lasted all of five minutes before his beard started growing back with a vengeance, but at least he didn’t have to try to keep a full beard clean while hiking.
Jack prepping us with one of his fancy gadgets.

True to Jack’s form, he couldn’t help but bring in some of the fancy technology from work. He’s been heavily invested in virtual and augmented reality at Rolls Royce, and we sometimes have the benefit of seeing things from a new and interesting perspective. Jack managed to upload a topographical map of the Clingmans Dome trail we’d be tackling, so we could visualize the terrain before we were actually on it. Super amazing to have the living room replaced with a mountaintop. Also, it was still WAY different in real life than it was on the virtual reality, ha! There is no adequate way to prepare for walking down and back up a mountain, no matter how realistic the map is.

As the heinously busy end-of-school year schedule wound down, we began our countdown to departure. We packed, then double-checked our supplies, tossed out some items deemed unnecessary, squished others in that we couldn’t live without, and hurried to get last minute items. When the morning came, we checked on all the livestock, dropped off the dogs, and were on our way. We’ve made the trip down to the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area a few times before, so the sights were familiar. It’s a beautiful, highly commercialized area that is fun to visit, especially since the Las Vegas-esque strip is easily escapable up in the mountains. After winding our way up breathtakingly steep, narrow roads to find the condo we were staying in for the night, we rode the brakes hard all the way back down to town to find a place to eat as our farewell-to-civilization meal the night before we left to try our luck at Clingmans Dome. It would be a crime to visit Tennessee without eating some southern food, so we gorged ourselves on smoked chicken, vegetable soup, trout, cream corn, biscuits, mashed potatoes, green beans, and more. Then, we headed back to the condo to A) have a farewell shower before being deprived for the duration of our backpacking trip and B) get one last night of decent, in-a-bed sleep before also kissing mattress goodbye.

Found where we were headed on a map at the restaurant. Fun!

The next morning, Jack was up before me. That’s a rare occurrence, not because Jack is lazy, but because Jack is not a morning person. I can always tell he’s excited for something when he sacrifices additional hours of sleep in the morning–Christmas doesn’t even get him up early most of the time. To my delight, I woke to the smell of sausages and eggs being pan fried, and rolled out of bed to get the kids up and moving. Some needed little prodding as they’ve inherited my preference for early mornings. Others I waited until the last possible moment to rouse them to avoid having my head bit off by anyone crabby enough that they might lash out at having their slumber disturbed.

Cooking up breakfast for us before we wandered the wilderness.
Since we would be starting at a higher elevation of above 5,000 feet, the weather was much cooler than the 80F temperatures we’d left behind at home. Making sure everyone had on their hiking socks and had access to jackets and/or long sleeves, we packed into the car and made the hour drive over to the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Not far into North Carolina, that is technically our first visit to the state for most of us. Having several miles of hiking–and by several, I mean eight–before us, we wanted to get a start on the day as early as possible. Mercifully, the parking lot allowed us easy access to the start of the trail and afforded us one last visit to the restroom before commencing, even if it was essentially a gussied-up port-a-potty. With everyone’s shoes tied, bladders emptied, and packs on, a stranger asked if they could snap our photo for us. Why yes! Please do! Look how happy and naïve we are about the start of one of the hardest days of our lives!
My hiking pack is a vintage variety, and was tall, akin to a 1960’s southern belle’s bouffant.
With several inquiries from other visitors if we were off to camp for the night, we smiled while keeping our answers vague. An overnight trip with all our kids is ambitious. A three-night, four day, thirty mile hike with seven kids might make us appear off our rockers. Well, we are crazy, but that’s not anyone else’s business. So, accepting the well-wishes and slight sarcasm for a “fun” day, we we joined the few other people starting out their hike down to Andrew’s Bald, the first major landmark of our journey. The first rocky path pointing us downward marked the beginning of our Clingmans Dome adventure…
Aaaaaand we’re off!
Next: Day 1 (potty training, tantrums, and bear scat, oh my!)!

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True stories of raising children, remodeling, braving the elements and plotting out life, all while living on a humble acreage in central Indiana.

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