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Day One: Potty Training, Tantrums, & Bear Scat, Oh My!

It didn’t take Adam long to take advantage of his hiking backpack.

There was so much work that went into planning our hiking trip around the Clingmans Dome trail that it almost felt surreal when the day finally came for us to start into the great unknown. Although, unknown might not be the best description, as we had planned our trip to death. We were generally aware of the challenges we’d face, and still decided to go anyway. The amazing thing about doing something new and formidable together is that everyone is happy about it when we first cross the start line. Everybody’s joking, nobody’s feet hurt, they’re all still full from breakfast, and nobody smells body odor or sweaty feet. The Clingmans Dome trail didn’t take long to throw down the gauntlet and require us to give it all we had.

Adam jumped the first two miles all by himself. Literally, just hop, hop, hop.
We knew going into our backpacking trip that one of the variables we wouldn’t be able to predict or, frankly, control, was Adam. As a new two-year-old, there are days it’s tough enough with him, even with the comfort and convenience of being at home. On the trail, everything was magnified. Adam’s struggles included, but were not limited to A) his short legs, B) his need for regular naps, and C) his wild mood swings, depending on what he was fixated on. Toddlers are like Tinker Bell–they’re so small there’s only room for one emotion at a time and whatever they’re feeling fills them to the brim. Plus, Adam has a limited understanding of the concept of hiking. Yes, he loves being out in nature and is a fearless adventurer, but he also doesn’t get why we have to keep walking, even when we’re tired. Thankfully, he had enough energy for the first several miles that he quite literally hopped the whole way. The trail was well-maintained as could be expected where most people were venturing, but because of its decent, it was comprised of alotta rough steps, constructed from either buried logs or rough cut stones. And, because he’s two, he DID NOT WANT ANYONE’S HELP. No hand holding from me, no prodding from anyone else to go faster. It slowed the commencement of our trip, but I don’t think Evelyn, who was assigned to carry Adam when he needed it, minded in the slightest. We all took his toddlerhood in stride by allowing him to go at his own pace, giving anyone else who wanted to walk faster a chance to get ahead, then rest or explore while Adam and I caught up.
Zoey found herself a craggy little shelter.
One of the coolest parts about the trail we chose was evident fairly quickly–biomes changed incredibly fast. We started out surrounded by fir trees, and not a mile later, were in a deciduous forest, like there was an invisible boundary drawn between the tree types. We saw clusters hardwoods and pockets of hemlocks, pines, and spruce trees, and gobs and gobs of moss on everything. Some stretches of trail felt almost like being in the rain forest from stretches of Fraser Magnolias, which have glossy, waxy leaves that look like they belong somewhere in Brazil. The only reminder that we weren’t exploring the Amazon jungle were the lack of monkey howls and parrot screeches.
Kate was super impressed by pretty much everything.
We took a few breaks here and there as a family, but our first planned stop was for lunch on Andrew’s Bald. The view atop the open spot was breathtaking, as we were still well above several of the surrounding mountain peaks and puffs of pearly white clouds. We couldn’t have asked for better weather with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the upper sixties. For our meal, we broke out the cheese sticks, jerky, and crackers, and ate until we had our fill. One of the BEST parts of hiking is that everyone has an appetite and nobody bothers complaining about what’s to eat ’cause there are no other options. Take it or leave it. It is literally every mother who needs a break from cooking’s dream come true.
Knowing we still had a hefty trek in front of us, we didn’t dawdle long on Andrew’s Bald. Once we’d eaten and packed up, we wandered around for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out where the next part of the trail was. Apparently, Andrew’s Bald is the endpoint for most day hikers. There was a small, worn sign pointing us to a steep, rocky trail that looked more like a washed out path for rain water runoff to traverse the mountainside. Since it seemed to fit the direction of our printed map, we shrugged and assumed we weren’t going astray. Eventually, the path appeared to be more intentional and we knew we’d chosen correctly. An hour or so later, we were starting to feel the effects of our adventure. I do my best to be active and in shape through regular exercise, but something has to be said about hiking down a rocky mountain with a 60+ pound pack. In a lot of ways, I’ve been preparing my whole life for the type of heavy lifting and strong back required for this sort of adventure. I played sousaphone in high school and collegiate marching bands, have been mucking stalls since I was fourteen, and rarely have the heavy machinery required to do most manual labor on the farm, which means become the machine. I’m not afraid of hard work or the ache of sore shoulders. My knees though? That was something I hadn’t considered. They weren’t in danger of giving out or anything, but holy moly, they were quit sore and creaky by the time the trail leveled off. My empathy for any geriatric awaiting a double knee replacement has been solidified.
Fraser Magnolia petal hull manicure–the next new craze?
As predicted, Adam was over walking once he was weighed down with a satisfying lunch, which meant Evelyn was called in for duty. Many children have ridden in our faithful baby hiking backpack. However, I’ve always been the one to carry them. Since I was busy toting my sousaphone-sized pack with mine and three other childrens’ stuff, it made it impossible to also carry Adam in his pack. High five to Evelyn–dude is heavy at a solid thirty pounds. To help out, about five minutes after he was strapped into the pack, he fell asleep, face squashed against Evelyn’s shoulder blades. Onward we walked.
Adam was total dead weight when he was asleep.
While we continued to follow our designated trail, Evelyn and I used our watches to track our progress. I wanted to track how many steps we took, convinced we would set some records, as well as to give the kids an estimate of our progress. We knew the first day would be rough–eight miles with a pack on and over rugged terrain is nothing to sneeze at. The problem was that while Evelyn and my watch were within a couple tenths of a mile of each other, the estimates didn’t match up with the trail sections on the map. Where the map said a trail would be, say, 1.7 miles, by our watch’s measurements, it was closer to 2.5. It was a little demoralizing when we *thought* we’d walked as far as we needed to go, only to discover something was off and had to keep going. Each misestimation added up and up until it was clear either our watches were grossly mistaken or the park’s estimate of their trail lengths was wrong.
Still, we tried to make the best of it. The campsite wasn’t going to get any closer by complaining about it. Something I have always admired about our kids is their ability to distract themselves, us, and their siblings with all sorts of amusements. They told jokes, made up songs, turned counting the number of millipedes they spotted into a game… Kate is a master of diversion and spares no pride in entertaining others. While on a break, she tugged up an carpet square of moss and plopped it on her head just to be funny. She knew it was going to soil her body and clothes, with no promise of a shower for days. The laugh it garnered was more important to her.When we signed up to reserve the campsites in the Great Smokies, the national park will occasionally send updates about the area, including bear sightings for the area which a person has reserved. Of course, we received one of said emails, which ramped up my anxiety that we would return in one piece. While I am a fan of bears and find them fascinating, I didn’t want to come face to face with a momma bear roaming with her cubs, who are commonly active in the area in spring. As a momma bear myself, I know exactly how ferociously a mother will fight for her babies. I was perfectly content with the thought of not seeing any large animals while we traveled. We were doing alright, except when we started noticing all the piles of bear scat very, very close to the trail.If there is one thing I know, it’s poop. As an animal science major, a longtime livestock owner, and a mother of seven, poo barely makes me flutter an eye anymore. During a particular ridge, we noticed great, big piles of bear scat left and right. Some of it had clearly been there a while, while other piles were definitely fresh. Coupled with an impressive scratch mark of bear claws on a tree trunk, it put me on high alert. At seeing the overt signs of a bear somewhere in the vicinity, we kept tighter knit than we had previously been walking and picked up the pace, hoping to make it out of the bear’s restroom before we had any run ins with one. Side note: all those cutesy Charmin commercials with the cartoon bear family using their toilet paper? False.
Look at those claw marks! 😲

Realistically, we were probably in zero danger of confronting a bear because Adam’s nap didn’t last long. I imagine it’s hard to really get quality sleep with your face smushed into Evelyn’s back, being jarred back and forth with each uneven step. When Adam woke up, he roused with a vengeance. He screamed like a banshee for an impressively long time, and nothing satiated him. He didn’t want to walk. He didn’t want to ride. He did want to anything. He didn’t want water. He didn’t want a cheesestick. He took a peach ring I offered him, but only clenched it in his angry fist. Unintentionally, he probably scared away every bunny, squirrel, bird, deer, mountain lion, and bear in the county with his wailing. I never thought a temper tantrum would come in handy. There’s apparently a use in everything.

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Over. It.
I admit to running short on patience with Adam when he met his breaking point. He was worn out, and so was I. Thankfully, where I lacked, Jack stepped up. We sat down for a moment to regroup, rehydrate, and give Adam a moment to feel all his big emotions. Jack scooped him up, rocked him back and forth, and hummed in his ear until equilibrium was again reached in our family.
So sweet!
In case anyone is inclined to think that taking a toddler on a hiking trip is a ridiculous notion, there were some definite benefits to having our baby tagging along with us. Aside from his bear-thwarting tantrums, when he was feeling well, seeing things through his eyes is always an astonishing reminder of how incredible this world is. I can’t remember the last time I gasped when looking at a tree or spotting a flower, but Adam? The kid was pointing to pretty much the entire forest with delight.
Down we go!
About a week before we left on our trip and we were tinkering with our packs, trying to find the right balance of water, food, supplies, and clothes, I decided I really, really didn’t want to pack out Adam’s dirty diapers. There are no trash cans where we were going, which meant everything we took in would have to return with us. Hoisting dirty diapers? No, thanks. For several months, Adam has been a casual potty trainer. He thought it was funny to tinkle in the toilet, but wasn’t truly interested in making the commitment. With our trip impending, the time had come. We woke up one morning, I slapped some underwear on that kid, telling him not to go potty in it, and he (mostly) obliged.
One of the Fraser Magnolia patches–so neat!
I was borderline convinced he’d be capable of doing just that while walking through the forest, so I packed underwear, but included a stack of diapers to be safe. Ironically, the one thing I hadn’t been able to convince him to do before leaving was to go outside. Why would he want to whiz on the poky grass when he had a perfectly good toilet inside? The moment of truth came when Adam said he needed to go potty and we wandered to a spot far enough off the trail. Having no other options, he did the deed, and by golly, he thought it was hilarious that he’d just gone out in nature. We had very few issues after that and I’m convinced our trek in the forest is the reason Adam is now a big boy who doesn’t need diapers. Potty training out in the mountains? Who knew?
Varying degrees of fatigued.
By late afternoon, we were really, REALLY starting to struggle. As we ventured farther and farther from civilization, we hadn’t seen a single other person for hours, and yet, it felt like we weren’t getting any closer to our day one destination. We’d been looking for the final stretch of trail that would lead us to our overnight mountain abode, and we were all hungry, tired, and so over walking, which had become more of a moody traipsing. Tears sprang freely from eyeballs. Tempers flared. Feet were sweaty and aching. I had a raging headache that I couldn’t shake. There’s only so much I can endure, and I shed a few tears, too, though not entirely for how I physically felt. I don’t LIKE to see my kids having a hard time. As a mother, I am naturally inclined to want to help. I had helped carry the younger kids’ backpacks, held hands, and doled out a secret stash of peach rings, carried Adam in my arms, and still, it wasn’t enough to take away the difficulty from them. That’s why I was really crying. However, I don’t think crying necessarily means a person doesn’t want to do something. Did I cry while I was in labor? Yep. Even though I knew I’d enjoy the reward of holding a new baby, it was still hard work to make it happen. So, it became a mind over matter scenario. We were going to make it to the campsite one way or another, and when we did, I knew the relief would be palpable. On we went.

There were other little tender mercies here and there to keep us going. One big one were the copiously blooming mountain laurels. Aside from being beautiful, delicate, and interesting flowers, they have special meaning to Claire. All our girls have floral middle names, and hers happens to be Laurel. None of us had seen mountain laurels before in the flesh, so when we noticed them carpeting the trail, it was one of the things that kept us moving as Claire pointed them out from the head of the pack. Even all the way at the back, we could hear her happy cry of, “Mountain Laurels!” echoing through the forest.

Almost there! We sure appreciated each of the dodgy, wobbly bridges that made water crossings easy.
Several hours after we were *hoping* to have arrived at our campsite, we were still pushing on. Along with Adam’s dower outlook on our trip, where he quietly whimpered from his perch on Evelyn’s back, watching all the kids struggle under the weight of their packs, Peter’s quiet contemplation of why we were still walking gave my heart a squeeze. He is one of our best hikers, but even he has a limit. For every one of my steps, he had to walk three or four to keep up. He’s also reached a point that he’s too big for me to tote for very long. Along with his weary little legs, Peter reminded me of Pigpen, from the Charlie Brown Comics. He wasn’t particularly smelly or sweaty, yet that didn’t stop an incessant swarm of harmless gnats from hanging around him. Thankfully, they didn’t bite, but every time they landed on his delicate, silky hair, it tickled. Weary legs and an itchy head. Dude couldn’t catch a break.
Dinner was never more enjoyable and all I served was spaghetti!
When the sun started lilting toward the west, we knew it was time to kick it in to the finish. With my backpack on, it was out of the question that I carry Peter, who was slowing everyone else down. Knowing that we had to be close to our campsite, Jack and I gave the older kids permission to push ahead and radio back with a walkie talkie when they’d made it. I brought up the rear of the first group, and Jack and Peter quietly plodded along. What felt like another eternity of marching, all of a sudden we broke into a clearing. WE’D ARRIVED. The rushing sound of water over rocks greeted us, along with several picnic tables, bear bag hoists, and standing stalls for trail riders and their horses (Dang. Jack didn’t tell me we could have brought the horses! That would have been SO much easier if they were with us to carry our stuff…). Gathering at the nearest picnic table, we dumped our packs. I’m not sure there is a greater joy than not being weighed down by a backpack at the end of a arduous trek.
Change of plans…

The mood immediately lifted when we were all reunited. The funniest part about making it to our campsite was that there was another gentleman who was out on a solo hiking trip. Though the campsite was clearly set up for several groups to stay in the same area, all the kids were leery of the man–a couple of hours without seeing anyone and we’d become antisocial. Giving him a nod and a smile, we got to work getting camp set up. Jack directed setting up our hammock tents, and getting the water boiling while I tended to dinner. It was a delectable meal of freeze dried spaghetti. We wouldn’t have felt more rich than if we were gobbling down caviar and truffles. With dinner in everyone and hammock tents set up, we put all the kids to bed. Mostly, they fell right asleep, though Peter and Zoey, who were snuggled in one hammock to share warmth, learned the hard way that you ought not swing a hammock. They both ended up face down on the ground, confused how they’d gotten their so fast. I did my best not to laugh, put them back in bed, and they were out soon after I zipped them up.

Putting up the food for the night.
I tried several times to get Adam to at least start sleeping with one of his siblings. It was a no-go. All the naps he’d taken all day long turned him into a night owl, so while Jack and I cleaned up the campsite, washed dishes, and hung up the bear bag, Adam happily tottered along. I could have crashed in my hammock when the kids did, though Jack and I had a quick planning meeting before we could rest. The distances we’d planned to travel were stretching our kids thin, especially since the trails appeared to be substantially longer than we had tracked. We were wiped, but not out. So, we pivoted. Jack had brought a paper copy of our trail map, and knew of an alternative route that would still challenge us while cutting down on the overall miles. We agreed it was best, especially for the youngest in the group, and made a change of plans. There is no shame in having to fall on Plan B and looking back at it, it was a wise decision I would have made again.
Adam was my tiny furnace all night.
Day one of our hike was stunning, tough, and memorable. It humbled us, without a doubt, while at the same time proving how capable we all were. After a good night’s rest in surprisingly comfortable hammocks, we were ready to rise to the challenge of day two…

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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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