I’ve heard it said that no one ever goes camping to get a good night’s rest. Between unpredictable weather, less than ideal sleeping arrangements, bugs, hunger, laying on the cold, hard ground, and nighttime noises, it can be hard to drift off. Let me tell you though… after walking miles and miles with a heavy pack, falling asleep was not a challenge for any of us. Not-a-one of our children complained when they were told it was time for bed because they were too doggone tired to resist. Day one of hiking Clingman’s Dome was humbling and I’m not going to lie, I thought more than once that we’d have to give up and live in the valley of the Smokies because I wasn’t sure I’d have enough energy to get myself back up to the top. Of course, a good night’s rest always puts things into perspective. Come morning, with my headache gone and the promise of a flatter trail, I felt immensely more optimistic.
Most nights, even when I’m in the comfort of my own bed, I’m awoken by one of the kids. Someone has a nightmare, needs a drink of water, has a stomachache… whatever it is, I’ve seen all hours of the night. So when Jack tucked Adam and I into our hammock tent, I assumed I’d be tossing and turning or trying desperately to keep Adam warm. However, as the sun rose, mottled as it peeked through the forest canopy, I was pleasantly surprised how energized I was. Adam had been the only one who woke up. I’m guessing by his panicked struggle against the bug netting on the hammock tent that he forgot where he was and was feeling claustrophobic. He also was getting sweaty since Jack had gifted me a new, 0F sleeping bag that was more than ample for the weather we faced. After a quick, post-midnight stroll to commune with nature (i.e. go potty, as Jack tells me is from his former Boy Scouting days), we were snuggled up again, sans shirt (him, not me) and fell asleep until dawn. I don’t often even get that many hours of uninterrupted sleep, so I’m not exaggerating when I said I felt amazing.
That is, until I swung my feet out onto the ground and stood up. Ow. I generally consider myself a fit person, but that much physical exertion in one day seriously soaked my muscles with a heavy dose of lactic acid. The solution, of course, is to walk it off. Everyone was a bit tender in the morning, tiptoeing around to get their breakfast of oatmeal packets, tidying up their campsites, and pumping water for the trip. Thank goodness for the rushing stream next to our campsite. Not only did it A) provide some white noise for the other hiker who was staying next to us–he couldn’t possibly have heard some of the kids’ louder, morning voices, B) made it easy to clean dishes and get water, and C) made more some very pretty pictures and serene alone time. I enjoyed a good ten seconds watching the water until the kids found me and joined me.
Lest anyone thinks that we were living a happy, carefree life in the forest, there were still some catastrophes that put some serious kinks in our day. One happened while Henry was rolling up his sleeping bag. He brought it over to me with a disgusted look on his face, concerned that he’d drug it through some sort of poo. My stomach dropped. As the experienced poo expert, I put my skills to use and quickly ascertained it was actually chocolate pudding from the previous forest occupant, as we also found the litter from the idiot who was careless about his snack consumption (gee, why do you suppose there were bears spotted in and around our campsite? Clean up after yourself, people!). I am much more willing to clean up pudding than other brown, goopy substances. We also had a mishap at breakfast, when someone (who shall remain nameless) knocked over a good portion of the boiling water for our oatmeal packets. Gah. It takes *forever* to boil water on a tiny propane tank. The last straw was when a gaggle of our children waddled to the stream to pump water and lost a vitally important part of the pump. There was much shrieking and crying. Luckily, Claire sprung into action and found it wedged under a rock before it disappeared forever. Phew! No need to boil water the rest of the trip.
Before our bad luck caused us to accidentally burn down the entire forest, we got on the trail and started moving toward our next destination. Even with less distance to cover, after our decision to pivot, we still had quite a ways to go. Jack got us started on the correct path and with our legs warmed up, the hike was much more manageable than the first day. The paths were wide and relatively flat–it was possible to walk side-by-side and talk with someone. Plus, the water crossings commenced with easily passable, if crude bridges over each of them. There was one fork in the trail early on that had us stumped. One trail was marked “Not for Horses” while the other wasn’t marked at all. Jack still had our map, but it was impossible to tell which was the proper fork to take because it was such a small divergence and the fork wasn’t marked on our guide. We’re not the kind of people to stand around, scratching our heads, so we chose the right path.
When I say “right fork,” that does not mean “correct fork.” For about fifteen minutes, we trudged up the path, which had a steep incline and wound up and away from the river. We stopped, confused. Then we walked some more, still confused. It was close enough to the map that we weren’t 100% sure that we were going the wrong way. When we ended up in a small grove where an ancient family cemetery was situated, and that had no other trails leading from it, we were certain that we’d chosen wrong. If bad things happen in three, that was our fourth. Taking a breather after the ascent up the hill for nothing, we did a U-turn and went back down to the original trail. So much for walking less miles in a day.
Day one’s themed challenge was all about the descending. Day two’s was all about water crossings. As long as there is no risk of flash flooding, I prefer to stick near rivers and streams so we have a constant source of water. Having seen only one other person for over twelve hours, we knew we were getting farther from civilization. The real verification we were getting deep into the woods was the condition of the bridges we traversed. At first, they were rudimentary, yes, like a tree had fallen over the stream and someone attached a simple railing to it. It worked so long as we stepped cautiously, and we were glad to have them. Eventually, by the dozenth bridge we crossed, we were seriously doubting if they were safe to hold our weight. The wood was rotten and slick with moss, the railings were wiggly, and none of us would have been surprised to find a troll or two living underneath. And darn it if some of the bridges weren’t really high above the water. Like, high enough to make my height aversion flare up. We went one by one, and split the younger kids between Jack and I to be safer. I breathed a sigh of relief after every decrepit bridge we successfully passed, hoping it was the last.
One of my favorite parts about day two was the one-on-one time I was able to have with all the kids. Along the length of the forgiving trails, each of the children cycled through their spot in the line. Some of them held my hand while we walked, some of them joked and took funny pictures, some complained, and some just hummed while marching along.
The pinnacle of the day was when we reached another campsite, which was our halfway point for our day. The forest was so peaceful and serene, with the only interruptions to the birds being our laughter and animated chatter. We busted out peanut butter and jelly packets and squirted them on graham crackers for lunch. We all kicked off our shoes to let our feet breathe, and relished in the simple joy of sitting down. Life is stitched together with small, seemingly insignificant moments, punctuated every once in a while by important events. I think that lunch was one for us. Everyone was happy at the same time, we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and there was zero tension. As far as a piece of heaven on earth, that stop gave us a glimpse of it and was a reminder that this mortal sojourn is only a snapshot of our existence. There is so much happiness to be found in the here and now, and it doesn’t have to wait until some distant eternity.
The contented spirit of lunch continued on long after we were back to walking. I noticed everyone being more patient, more willing to help. Even though we were tired, there were more instances of service. Some water crossings were little more than muddy patches among the trail where a trickle of water rolled through. Not a big deal for the older kids, who had waterproof hiking boots, but for Peter, Zoey, and Adam, who were wearing sandals, they risked getting sodden feet. Time and time again, they were toted across those patches by their older sisters. The girls recognized the need to be of assistance, and performed their service cheerfully.
For as many times as we’ve gone mushroom hunting, it was not surprising that the kids have trained eyes and noticed several types of mushrooms in the forest. There were several large clusters of chicken of the woods, so naturally, the kids wanted to grab some to include in our dinner. We acquiesced, making it clear that we weren’t going to carry them. Zoey and Henry were up to the challenge, and picked them, eventually skewering them on small sticks, attempting to make bringing them along easier. Gotta give them a hand for ingenuity.
After Adam’s meltdowns on day one, he had a much more even temperament on day two. With coaxing involving peach rings from my secret stash, I was able to get him to walk a few minutes before wanting to crawl his way back into the hiking backpack. Being small is hard, so it’s a fair tradeoff he be able to climb into a hiking backpack and direct where he wants to go, not unlike Kronk and Yzma on The Emperor’s New Groove.
Eventually, we reached into the depths of the forest where the bridges outright stopped for the water crossings. Hoping nobody minded wet feet, we accepted what it meant–we had to find our own way across the slithering water. If you’ve never walked across a stream that’s predominantly lined with large rocks, the first thing you ought to know is that it’s extremely slippery. Moss grows on just about everything and on top of it, the water, though clean, has a strong current, and obscures everything beneath it, making it very challenging to find good footing. As you can guess, more than one of us slipped, fell, and got wet. See Peter’s expression below:
As he was naturally inclined to be at the front of the pack, Henry was almost always the first to hop across the water. With our first bridge-less water crossing, we held our breath as he sprang and slipped and wobbled all the way across. He was carrying some important things in his bag, and a plunge into the water would have been mildly catastrophic. Toward the opposite shore, he sank up to his thigh, but was otherwise unscathed. After our sigh of relief, we shouted over the roar of the rush of the water that next time, he needed to wait so we could make a strategic plan for making it across. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work because he kept forging through so he could be first. Then, there was nothing else to do but kick off our shoes and wade across. Jack and I went first, dropped off our packs, then headed back to act as a human bridge to the other side. Most of the kids did fine, finding the whole experience entertaining. Evelyn was last, and for the most part, we were still dry. Until I made an error in judgment of where to get a solid foothold and ended up crashing into the stream. I would have yelped, but the water was so chilly, it stole the air right out of my lungs. Bless my family’s hearts, they all gasped and hurried to my aid, asking if I was alright. I laughed heartily and reassured them that, other than soggy underwear, I would survive. Wringing out my clothes and tying on our shoes on the other side, we trekked onward.
Following our first water crossing, the trail began shifting moods as we continued. There were some high, narrow, winding paths that took us away from the water, then descended quickly, returning us for another and another and another water crossing. By the time Adam passed out and we’d reached another campsite, we were ready for a sizable break.
We snacked on the remainder of the peanut butter and jelly pouches, listened to the kids sing their silly, made-up chant about chicken of the woods, and rested. When you’re that far into the woods, surviving fairly minimally, there’s not a whole lot else to do but slow down and exist. Without much assistance from technology or games or toys to make things amusing, there’s a lot of time to ponder and discuss. Not worrying about anything else that might be happening in the world was a blessed mental break.
The kids continued to count the giant millipedes that were omnipresent along the trail, and I tried to explain the difference between centipedes and millipedes. Basically, it boiled down to centipedes looking like evil, conspiring creatures and millipedes being cute, cuddly worms with legs. We saw several snakes, none of them venomous, chased after precarious, fat toads, tried to grab slimy salamanders out of mud puddles, and attempted to identify birds that we could hear but never see. I know the was so much more wildlife present that hid as we passed, so it was enjoyable studying what we could.
Water crossings kept coming. Some back to back. We’d tie our boots, walk a fraction of a mile, and come across another bend in the stream. The amount of time it takes nine people to traverse slick, flowing water really adds up. Several tears were also shed when, despite their best efforts, someone still got wet. It wasn’t so much an expression of their distaste for having soaked clothes, but their frustration that their best efforts still led them to fail. It’s a valuable, if bitter, lesson of life that sometimes, things don’t go the way we want. All we can do is get up, drip dry, and move along.
Despite our good clip while on land, the dozens of water crossings slowed our pace considerably. We had been hoping to arrive at our next campsite with a little more time to relax at the end of the day, except the mountain had other ideas for us. It was alright though. Everyone was in fairly good mental shape, and other than tired feet and sore shoulders, we didn’t have much to complain about. Other than Peter, who literally walked as though he was inebriated when he became so exhausted, we figured out our own ways for coping with the challenges before us.
Late in the day, we were met with yet another water crossing, and those similar, slightly panicky feelings we’d felt the day before, wondering when–and if–we were ever going to reach our campsite began surfacing. We made our way across, put on our shoes, hoisted our packs, and a couple dozen feet later, we arrived at our campsite. Hallelujah.
The work doesn’t stop just because we showed up where we’re going to camp and of all the campsites we’d stopped at, that one was my least favorite. The proximity to the water was fine, but the path down to it was treacherous, and the trees for hammock camping weren’t particularly ideal since there weren’t many mature trees and the ones there were grew far enough apart that it was a stretch to set up tent hammocks. But, when that’s all we had, we made do. Knowing the routine, everyone got to work. We collected water, started boiling it for dinner, and our hammocks popped up, one by one.
We had another catastrophe when someone else was playing by the pot of water and kicked half of it over, just as had happened at breakfast (we forgot our history, and doomed ourselves to repeat it). It was an easy remedy, but the idea of waiting a few more minutes for dinner caused a few tears. Thankfully, with freeze dried meals, they’re ready almost as soon as the water is. We’d packed shepherd’s pie and mashed potatoes for that night, and again, nobody complained about a single mouthful because we were all famished. The plates and bowls and bags with food in them were licked clean and we had brought just enough to all have full bellies.
With dinner over and the sky growing dark, we wandered down to the water to clean up and goof around before bed. Not me, though. I was finally dry after my inadvertent dive and wanted to stay that way–the last thing I wanted to do was go to bed damp. Henry, though, who’d managed to stay relatively dry all day, miscalculated a step, and dunked half of himself into the cold water. He wasn’t happy. Again, not because of the wet clothes, but because it meant he lost the game. #Priorities. Thankfully, he had one clean, dry outfit left, and he changed into it for bed. At that point, there were no more pajamas or hiking clothes… if it was clean and dry, it was fair game.
Though we were later to our campsite than we’d initially planned, we were still early enough to get to bed at a close to normal time. Again, what usually draws complaints did not. The fight was all walked out of them. Peter won best sleeper with his ability to fall asleep while I was kissing him goodnight. That was impressive.
All in all, it was another glorious, formidable, bear-of-a-day with water crossings being the challenge du jour and triumph being our reward. As we talked around a smoky, smoldering campfire, we considered the conundrum that not everything worth doing is entertaining, though it is satisfying, if done right. Convenience and ease and comfort aren’t necessarily the point of life. We would have missed all of the incredible experiences we had if we’d taken the path of least resistance. Of course, there were a few sarcastic comments about our rosy view of our tribulations, but I think the lesson hit home. Wet feet, sore shoulders, and tired backs were worth it for the memories we made.