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Another glorious morning (can you tell the grueling trip was starting to catch up to us? 😆)!

Earlier this week, I received a surprise in the mail–the toll bridge fee for driving from Indiana into Kentucky on our way down to Tennessee for our grueling family hike. It made me laugh, that six months later, they finally found us. It also made me cringe because it was a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished writing about our grand adventure. Such is life, especially with a brood of children. One minute, you’re wandering through the wilderness with your family, the next we’ve been home and spoiled in our beds for months and months. Our memories have had time to marinate over the experience, and much of the bitterness for the difficulties we’ve faced has become palatable, if not outright enjoyable. So, if you need to catch up on the previous posts about our Smoky Mountain hike, click here if you missed our prep day, click here to read about day one, and click here for day two!

Claire thrives in the wild.

When we were planning our Clingmans Dome hike, we knew day three would be the most challenging. We’d be weary, running out of food and clothes that didn’t smell like we’d been sprayed by a skunk, we’d be tired of mummified sleeping in hammock tents, and to top it off, our journey would be uphill. *Gulp.* When I woke up that morning, I won’t lie–I wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable incline.

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Peter LOVED sleeping outside and easily won the best sleeper award.

I tried my best to keep my apprehensions to myself. Whining never made trekking up a hill any easier, so when we had all rolled out of bed, we got to work as we had done every other morning. A couple of days in, we were all experienced enough to know what to do. The tents were packed efficiently, everyone scattered to take potty breaks in private, and we got dressed in our driest, least smelly clothes. Then, we sat down for a breakfast of Pop-Tarts.

Breakfast could not come fast enough for Adam. That and nap time.

Usually, Pop-Tarts are a special treat for the kids as Jack and I aren’t under any delusion that they are healthy at all, but any parent who claims they haven’t bribed their kids even a little bit are lying. That was part of our rationale when packing Pop-Tarts as our day three breakfast–Here kids! Eat this rectangle of sugar, white flour, and fat, then maybe it’ll boost your mood enough to walk up a mountainside! It did, temporarily, but there were a few flaws in our plan, primarily that Pop-Tarts aren’t particularly filling. At home, when we have ready access to other food, our kids usually only eat one Pop-Tart pastry. In my mind, letting them have a whole PACKAGE to themselves was a luxury. WRONG. It was basically a sugary appetizer that did little to satiate our level of hunger more than ten minutes into our day.

Thankfully, because our second day of hiking followed the beautiful stream that carved through the mountainside, we had ready access to water. It made rinsing dishes easy and getting drinking water simpler. Sadly, there was ANOTHER water mishap that morning–someone had filled an entire water bottle with pumped water, and someone else accidentally kicked it over. GAH! It’s not that there isn’t plenty of water, but pumping water through a filtration system is painfully slow. A single, 24 ounce water bottle can take the better part of twenty minutes. So, to calm everyone’s frustrations (and to get a little quiet time to myself), I sent everyone back to camp and told them I’d fill the water.

Kate having an early-morning think by the water.

Despite my rear end immediately falling asleep as I sat on the cold, hard boulder, there is something special about sitting next to a stream while kids came and went, offering to help hold the bottle or pouch I was working on filling. It was a peaceful, uneventful moment to just be before we had to test our limits on the trail. It took a good hour to get the waters all topped off, then we were on our way.

Well, hello there, tiny snake.

The trail didn’t give us much of a warm up before the incline started. Imagine carrying a pack while exercising on a nonstop stair step machine, and you’ll get the idea of what our hike was like. Other than staring at the trail to keep our footing, it was harder to enjoy the scenery. Our breaks were much more frequent, and Evelyn vacillated between capable and miserable. Her pack with Adam in it wasn’t any heavier than anyone else’s, but she was the only one who’s pack moved and cried and screamed in her ear. I could sympathize with her short temper. So, between Evelyn, Jack, and I, we did our best to accommodate our grumpy baby, who, at the moment, did not want to be on a hike.

Finally got some peace and quiet.

Thankfully, the little tike passed out less than an hour into our hike. Not-so-thankfully, I was the one carrying him, which meant we had to take A LOT more stops than usual. Toting weight on my back is much more doable than clutching it in my arms–talk about a bicep workout. But, it did give us a chance to enjoy the scenery, so, win.

While we were all struggling to remain positive and happy–sometimes we just settled for not strangling each other–we had glimpses of happiness throughout the day, especially moments when we could laugh together. Evelyn fooled me once, pretending like she had a bloody finger, which immediately sent me into mother bear panic mode. Turns out, she’d just spilled some of her water flavoring, and thought it’d be funny to pretend she had a semi-mortal injury. HAR HAR. VERY FUNNY. (Except, it actually was. Her acting was en pointe).

It’s nearly impossible to get up by yourself with a full pack strapped on your back. Claire gave it a decent effort, though!

Near lunchtime, we surmounted a particularly grueling hill that left us panting and wishing a rescue helicopter would come find us. As we sat down for a water break, plopping down with our packs still on our backs, we whipped out our trusty maps. We’d reached the point, where two days earlier, we decided to take to bypass the other several miles we would have had to traverse. It was a little comfort, knowing that heading straight up the grueling, rocky path was a few thousand less steps we’d have to take. Woohoo!

Our lunchroom for the day.

Another mile or two up the hill, we collapsed for lunch. Everyone was feeling the burn in their thighs, and we were far enough into the day that we were all ready for a nap. While it was one of those situations where it was tempting to take it easy and spend hours resting, we had a final destination to get to–the top of the mountain and our final resting place for the trip (which, as I write it, sounds like our tomb… no, it was literally the last spot we were going to sleep at), and we wanted to get there before sundown. So, we allotted ourselves a half hour, did our best to guess how long that actually was, since our phones and watches were all precariously close to dying, and ate all the leftovers to our hearts’ content. Homemade beef jerky, mostly-crushed crackers (cracker powder?), packets of jelly, and freeze dried fruit. And you know what? No one complained. It was another one of those blissfully perfect moments where we were able to just exist in a state of contentedness right there and then. It’s amazing how a couple minutes of happiness can physically re-energize a person.

Adam’s the only one lucky enough to have gotten a post-meal nap.

As is true in most experiences, the final push was grueling. Since we didn’t know what the final bit of our trail looked like, and there were hardly any markers to speak of, we had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that our mileage was adding up to the finish line. There were signs we were getting close–for the first time in literally days, we saw more than one person and for more than twenty seconds. A few of them stopped to chat, express their amazement at our endeavor, and give us encouragement to make it to the top of the trail. The further we climbed, the rockier the ground became, similar to the steep, unsteady ground we’d stumbled down on the first day. At one point, we passed a rickety, but nonetheless manmade metal tower, and since we’d left behind the safety of the stream, with its unending supply of water to pump for drinking water, we were running low. There was some resource guarding among some of the kids, who, understandably, didn’t want to share germs with their siblings. Breaks became every ten minutes instead of every half hour, as our wobbly, quivering legs were spent, and when some of us were about to lose hope… we heard something that piqued our interest: the distant rumble of motorcycles puttering along the same road that had taken us to the trailhead. Some of the kids ran ahead, and shouted down to the rest of us that we’d made it. We hoofed it to the top of the trail where indeed, we were met by a road. Just like that, we were done.

Some of the kids couldn’t even find the strength to smile. 😅

Except, not exactly. We were at another crossroads where we had a decision to make–since we had one more night sleeping outdoors, we could either walk to the next spot, which would have been an easy hike in comparison OR we could go get the van, unload some of our stinky laundry and trash, then cruise over to the next spot, and have a REALLY easy venture to the final campsite. Guess which the kids chose.

Claire and I had our own mini adventure walking the mile and a half to get the van.

Jack and I rock-paper-scissored who was going to walk to the van. I won, which meant I got to dump my back and have a rather enjoyable trip to the parking lot with Claire. It hardly took us any time at all since we weren’t carrying a hefty percentage of our body weight. When we arrived triumphantly at the van, we used the port-a-potties available, kicked off our sweaty boots, and coasted down to the pull-off where everyone was waiting.

Such a pretty view!

Apparently, in the time that Claire and I were gone, some of the kids became extremely concerned that we’d gotten lost, and would therefore have to walk to find someone to help. It was almost laughable to see the relief on their faces as we pulled up and explained that my phone had given up the ghost… until I was able to charge it in the van. Everyone piled in, we guzzled what water we had, and took a breather driving around before continuing on our final leg of the adventure.

With our phones charged, snacks eaten, micro-naps taken, and feet rested, we parked in the tiny pull-off across the road from where we’d be hiking to our final destination. Hiking should really be “hiking,” since it was barely worse than a sidewalk compared to some of the other trails we’d subjected ourselves to the past three days. Fun fact: the trail was also part of the Appalachian Trail, so for about a mile and a half, we trekked on that famous route. Definitely would like to see more of it someday! Still trying to convince some of the kids, though.

The shelter even came with some charcoal artwork on the walls. 😅

What got everyone excited about making it to the campsite was the promise of a crude shelter and nearby composting toilet nearby. We showed up around the time the sun was starting to set, and lucky us, we beat a couple other hikers who were traversing the Appalachian Trail. Too bad for them, we’d already claimed the shelter and between the nine of us, didn’t really have any room to share. Not that I think any of them wanted to. I’ve found that among hikers, there is a general apprehension around large families in part because there’s a misconception that kids can’t/don’t want to hike and be outdoorsy. Public Service Announcement: yes, it’s more challenging to do a lot of things with kids, but also, SO MUCH more rewarding when it’s done as a family. Nobody has to lose their identity because they have children. If anything, it’s an opportunity to share what you love with someone else. Win, I say!

The spring fed water source, fresh from a trickling PVC pipe. 😆

Our dinner of ramen wasn’t going to cook itself, so I again offered to go fetch the water needed. Sometimes, a person needs a little alone quiet time in the woods, ya know? Well, I followed the signs (apparently the Appalachian Trail gets more love than Clingmans Dome, because they have copious signage that’s extremely descriptive) which promised a spring fed water source. I guess, in my mind, it’d be a little oasis with a gurgling spring gushing out of the mountain. Ummmm, not exactly. The muddy spot with a small PVC pipe sticking out of a rock, and numerous signs reminding hikers to boil their water made me laugh out loud. I filled our pot and took it back to camp for dinner.

Salamanders! So cute, SOOOO sticky.

As you can probably guess, a large pot of water on a tiny butane heater takes a while to heat to boiling. While we waited for our feast, we got our things situated–Evelyn was the only one who wanted to use her hammock tent. Not because they weren’t snug and comfortable, but because the kids were enticed by the novelty of sleeping in a stone shelter. We also rolled a few cut logs over for seats and discovered several a-d-o-r-a-b-l-e salamanders surprised to have had their homes disappear. We couldn’t help but do a little science lesson, which included holding and eventually relocating the salamanders a safe distance away. Cute? Absolutely. Sticky? VERY. It took the last of our baby wipe reserve to scrub the mucous excretions off our hands. Worth it though, haha. The animal lover in me will ALWAYS sacrifice my cleanliness to get a closer look.

Adam didn’t get the memo that it was bedtime. That definitely contributed to his daytime crabbiness.

Dinner was a lot like breakfast–where we enjoy the occasional treat of packaged ramen from the comfort of our home, it was woefully inadequate on our trip. We needed calories, darn it, and sucked up every last one of our snacks along with our meal. Jokingly, I commented about my fanny pack being loose and therefore concluding that all the hiking must have helped me drop a few pounds. Kate shot back that someone probably just loosened the strap. Ha! Thanks for the reality check, honey. The whole evening was pretty enjoyable. It was the first night we arrived early enough to have time to relax and joke around before we were all too tired and crashed in our hammock tents. Our family swapped stories with the other hikers until dark, when the first yawns started showing up.

Good night!

I shuffled everyone to bed. For one, losing a kid on a dark mountainside is a lowkey fear of mine. Plus, we were all worn out. When the other hikers didn’t take the hint that we were T-I-R-E-D, I loudly proclaimed it was time for bed. Nothin’. They continued to mill about the shelter, talking and laughing. The sarcastic cherry on top was the guy who lit a cigar, stood upwind, and tried to waft the smoke away, which actually caused it to get trapped in the shelter. GAH! After an evening of nice, if clueless, gentlemen, who don’t understand when kids gotta sleep, they gotta sleep NOW, I can totally understand why matriarchal herds run off bachelors. Those guys just didn’t get it, and the snarling lioness that lives within me had something to say. Thankfully, Jack kindly shooed them away, and the air cleared, which meant the only thing we had to left to deal with was convincing Adam that it was time to sleep. Usually, it’s only a matter of time before his batteries run out, and eventually he did succumb.

Snuggled up to stay warm.

Time for our final night in the wild…

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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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