Hiking Forney Creek to the Appalachian Trail: A Complete Guide

Parking: There is plenty of parking near the visitor’s center, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be parking right next to the trailhead. Clingman’s Dome is a popular destination, even for those who don’t plan on hiking. It can get pretty crowded, particularly on summer weekends. My advice is to arrive early.

Distance: This loop begins and ends at Clingman’s Dome and is a total of just under 23 miles. There is an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet, and the trail is rated as strenuous. Before embarking on this trek make sure you’re physically fit enough to manage the climb.

img_8160-1Terrain: When we hiked this route there were a lot of obstacles on the trail. From rocks and roots that tripped us up, to overturned trees we had to climb over, to the multitude of river crossings, this trail will test your physical limits as well as the integrity of your gear.

River Crossings: This trail crosses the river more than a dozen times. You are going to be very wet by the time you’re through. Be sure to pack a good pair of water shoes and your trekking poles. The rivers swell in heavy rains, so be sure you pay close attention to the weather leading up to your hike, and adjust your dates or your expectations accordingly.

Water: As long as you have a water filter, you’re not going to have a hard time finding water on this trip. The trail follows Forney Creek, and all the campsites have sources of fresh water. Just don’t drink it until it’s been filtered or treated!

img_7960Campsites: There are several campsites along this route, all of which require a reservation, which you can obtain online through their backcountry permit system. Permits are $4 per person, per night, with a maximum charge of $20 per person. Some of the campsites are actually shelters, so make sure you have some kind of mosquito netting if you plan on sleeping in one!

Wildlife: As with a great many wilderness locations, there’s a lot of wildlife in the area. This includes, but is not limited to, bears, snakes, and a whole lotta bugs. Bring a lot of bug spray, and always be mindful of your surroundings. Click the link here to learn how to stay safe in bear country.

Bathrooms: Aside from the shelter on the Appalachian Trail, there are not pit toilets on this trail. You will need to pack your trowel for when nature calls, and be sure to adhere to the rules of Leave No Trace: keep your bathroom visits 200 feet from all trails, campsites, and water sources.

Climate: The temperature will vary depending on when you make this trip. Always check the weather before your hike, and be sure you pack layers in case the temperature drops. And regardless of what the weather report says, pack your rain gear! The Great Smoky Mountains are not known for their dry climate, so even if the weatherman is calling for sunshine, a shower can come seemingly out of nowhere. Be prepared.

All Uphill to the Appalachian Trail: The Hike That Made Me Say “F*ck” A Lot

We woke up early in the morning with our girl-power mentality in full effect, totally ready to conquer our day of serious hiking. The first two days were the warmup. I thought it would be sufficient to get my body prepared for our all uphill, hot, 8 mile trek up to the Appalachian Trail. I was wrong. Unlike the previous hike that crisscrossed the river over a dozen times, this hike only crossed the river once, and then was just. . . up. So much up.

It had only been about 7 months since I’d hiked out of Supai at the Grand Canyon. A trail that had defeated me a decade earlier, I conquered it with ease in October. I assumed, and very stupidly so, that because I’d done that hike without an issue, this hike would be no different. There were two super obvious things I hadn’t considered:img_8160

First of all, I didn’t take into account how out of shape I was compared to my fitness when I’d hiked the Grand Canyon. I’d gone from running 30 miles or more a week, and hiking on a regular basis, to running zero miles a week, and watching a shit-ton of Netflix. I’d gained 30 pounds, I didn’t even feel good, yet I somehow thought, yeah, sure, no big deal, I got this.img_8161

Secondly, I didn’t take into consideration the drastic differences between these two hikes. Yes, the hike out of Supai had been ten miles, while the hike in The Smokies was only eight. But, Supai only had about a mile and a half of switchbacks, gaining a total of 1500 feet in elevation. The rest of the trail was relatively flat. Jonas Creek and Welch Ridge Trails, on the other hand, gained over 4000 feet in elevation, and went uphill virtually the entire eight miles. It was on a whole different level than my Canyon hike.

I was doing alright for the first couple miles. In my head, I thought, we have to be almost done with the switchbacks by now. Every time we came to another bend, I’d hope against hope that the trail would level out as we went around the corner. And every single time my hopes crumbled as I looked up at another hill. My legs grew heavier and more clumsy with each step, and by mile four I was done. Fuck. This.img_8163

The sun was blazing down from a nearly cloudless sky, and the temperature was well over 80, but it felt like it was 100 degrees with the humidity. I was sweating so ferociously that each time I took a step another drop of perspiration would literally drip off my face, and into the dirt. I had the thought, if I go down, and they use rescue dogs to locate my body, it’ll be the easiest job those hounds have ever had. Add the astronomical number of gnat swarms that covered the trail, and I felt like a giant piece of exhausted, sore, easy-to-locate fly paper. Fuck this sweat. Fuck these bugs.img_8159

My clothes were drenched, my eyes were burning from the sweat pouring into them, my back was killing me, and I smelled like the inside of an NFL locker room. Extreme physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, compounded by absolute disappointment in myself for how far I’d clearly let myself go during the winter months, had turned me into a bitter, bitchy, angry whiner. I tried to talk myself out of it, to remember that each step behind me was one less in front of me (something Lindsey tried to remind me of as well), but it wasn’t working. I just kept seeing the trail go up and up and up, and it felt like I was going to die on that mountain. Fuck this. I’m over it. This isn’t fun anymore.

I ran out of water shortly after we’d gone half way, which made me even more angry. I drank more than two full liters in less than 3 hours, and I still felt like I was getting dehydrated. Lindsey was kind enough to split what she had left, and though I am certain I didn’t appropriately express my gratitude in my foul mood, I was so thankful.img_8162

Just when the trail mercifully leveled out for all of 50 yards, and we were able to catch our breath, it narrowed and became so overgrown it was hard to tell if we were even still on the trail at all. Mostly it was just tall grass and ferns, but then the prickly branches started crisscrossing our path. Sharp, razor-like, evil, thistle branches that tore my arms and legs to shreds. Let’s just say that didn’t improve my mood.

By the time we finally reached the Appalachian Trail I was too tired and pissy to even get excited. I’d always wanted to hike on the AT, and instead of really appreciating that I was finally doing it, I just wanted it to be over. However, I still held out the slightest bit of hope that once we went over the next hill, and then the next, or maybe the next, that we would finally find flat ground, that the ridge walk would provide a respite from the uphill trek. That did not, in fact, happen.img_8184-1

When I read “ridge walk,” I thought of trekking across the narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range; breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains in every direction, the wind whipping through my hair. . .  That’s what I was expecting when we reached the AT. What it actually was was a forest that went slightly downhill on either side of the trail, and any views were completely obstructed by the trees. And we were still going uphill. On an ordinary day I would’ve been slightly bummed for about two seconds. On this hike, however, I was irate. I at least wanted all that work to yield the reward of a panoramic view of the Smokies.img_8190-2

When we finally reached the shelter I almost started to cry. Had there not been so many other people around, I probably would have. Instead of our usual solitary campsites, the Double Gap Shelter was booked solid, and there were already a half dozen people set up and milling around. They all seemed like perfectly nice people, and when our water filter broke (just like the last trip–I just can’t win with those things) they were nice enough to let us use theirs. But, I was not in a mental place that was conducive to socialization.

 

 

The bugs at the shelter were absolutely out of control. We couldn’t stand still for 15 seconds without being swarmed and eaten alive. Since we didn’t have any netting to put around our sleeping bags at night, and we really didn’t want to be around the super nice, but super chatty people (when they started singing I wanted to throat-punch them), we decided to just set our tent up in the woods behind the shelter.img_8175-1

We left the rain guard off the tent so we could feel the breeze and watch the sunset through the trees. Once we’d set up, we climbed in and did some serious stretching. Our bodies were wrecked. My back and my legs were so sore I could barely get in and out of the tent. I could practically feel the toxins leaving my muscles as I stretched as deeply as my body would allow.

With the physical relief came mental relief. Out of the bugs; dry, and in comfortable clothes, my aching muscles felt more relaxed, and I was finally able to appreciate where I was and what I’d just accomplished. I may not have been in top physical shape, but I just hiked eight miles up a goddamn mountain anyway. And I didn’t die!img_8202-2

We ate some dinner and smoked in our tent, while the sky turned various shades of orange and pink between the trees, as the sun sank below the mountain. We used what little daylight we had left to do some journalling, both of us in our own form of silent meditation, as we processed the adventure we’d just completed, and the one still yet to come. Before the last of the sunlight had been drained from the sky we were both passed out.img_8196-1

The next morning we awoke ready to be out of the mountains. We stretched some more before begrudgingly strapping our packs back on, and hitting the trail for the last leg. Though it was only two miles to where our car was parked at Clingman’s Dome, I was dreading every step.

We began walking through a forest that, with the morning light peeking through the old, moss covered trees, looked enchanted. Beautiful though it was, my fascination soon ended when the trail began going upwards. Not again, I thought. Still weak from the day before, my legs were not having it. Fuck. This.

 

 

We hiked slowly and quietly, too tired (and for me, too bitchy) for conversation, as we trudged up the trail. At one point I saw a building on top of a mountain peak, towering above everything else. I knew it was Clingman’s Dome, but I refused to believe that we could possibly have that far up still to go. Once I accepted that we did, in fact, have to climb all the way up that mountain, I strongly considered just building a log cabin right there next to the trail, and living like the Unibomber (minus the terrorism, of course) for the rest of my life.

By the time we reached the parking area I was half running, half falling to my car. I just wanted my pack off and to be sitting. My car has never looked so inviting. We got a lot of sideways glances as we emerged from the trail. Sweaty, filthy, exhausted, and loaded with gear, we didn’t blend in with the throngs of tourists who were just there for the view and the gift shop.img_8228

Once we took off our gear and chugged some water, we picked up a couple of souvenirs (bumper sticker for my car, keychains for the kids), and recruited a Park Ranger who was gracious enough to take our “after” picture. Then we climbed into Mary Jane and drove out of the mountains, bound for Asheville, where we had fried food, beer, and a hot tub waiting to reward us for all our hard work.

I was an odd mixture of emotions. I remembered the anger I’d felt during the hike, the desperation when I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But I also had this, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe I just did that,” sense of accomplishment. I had pushed myself, both physically and mentally, harder than I had in a long time. It really is true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It was like in addition to exerting every bit of energy I had, I’d also purged my mind of all the negative clutter. I’d gotten exactly what I’d needed from this trip.

Thanks for checking out Ladycations! I hope you’ll come back for LadycationSunday next week to read the last chapter in our Great Smoky Mountains Adventure! Don’t forget to look us up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Great Smoky Mountains: Forging Rivers and (not) Charming Snakes

So far, I’d been having a fantastic time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our first wilderness Ladycation in almost a year was proving to be just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, sunshine, and none of the distractions of normal life; I already felt more clear and relaxed than I had in months.img_8095

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.img_8108

Morning also brought a new backpacking experience for me. I had yet to dig a hole to poop in, but the bliss of that ignorance had come to an end. So here’s my assessment of pooping in a hole in the woods: It’s really not that bad, but it’s a pain in the ass (no pun intended). The actual act itself isn’t wholly unpleasant, it’s the digging that sucks. Just finding a spot to dig your hole can be a challenge. Leave No Trace requires you to dig 200 feet from any campsite, water source, or trail, so depending on the terrain this can be nearly impossible. Once you find a spot, the next hurdles are the roots and rocks you’re probably digging through. Suffice to say, don’t wait until you really have to go to start looking for a spot, or things could get a bit uncomfortable.

Once Lindsey woke up we ate some breakfast and began packing up camp. We didn’t anticipate the short distance would take that long. However, we hadn’t taken the many river crossings into consideration.img_7917

The first crossing came shortly after leaving the campsite. We switched from our hiking boots to our water shoes, waded through the cool water, then dried our feet, and put our boots back on. It was less than a quarter of a mile later that we came upon the next river crossing. Clearly, switching our shoes out that often wasn’t optimal. We changed into our water shoes one more time and decided to keep them on for the remainder of the hike.

The downside to hiking in water shoes was our lack of ankle support or traction. The trail and riverbeds were uneven, and riddled with rocks, dips and tree roots. Throughout the course of the day I rolled my ankle three times. The final time I rolled it, it made the most horrific, bubble-wrap-popping sound I’ve ever heard. Lindsey thought I’d stepped on and crushed a stick. I had to keep going. No one was going to come rescue me (although, I would’ve given anything for Ranger Blondie Buns to come walking out of the forest at that moment), so I womaned up, and we kept on moving.

I had been hiking in front of Lindsey for a while, totally in my own world, when I heard her behind me, “Oh hell no, what the fuck, Steph?! Did you see this thing? How did you not step on it?!” I turned around to see what she was freaking out about, and was alarmed to see a rather large, unmoving, but definitely scary looking snake right in the middle of the trail. Judging from the diamond-like pattern down his back, there’s a good chance it was a rattlesnake, but I didn’t get a closer look for fear of finding out the hard way that I was right. The fact that I somehow didn’t step on him is an absolute miracle. Lindsey gave him a wide berth as she passed, and we spent the rest of the hike hyper-conscious of the path before us.

 

 

img_8046Our next obstacle was a downed tree that was blocking the trail at one of the river crossings. We’d climbed over and around several trees that day already, but this was an old, tall, thick-trunked tree that was perched in such a way that we weren’t immediately sure how we were going to get past it. In hindsight, a simple solution would’ve been to just take off our packs and climb under, but that thought somehow never occurred to me (or maybe I was just too lazy to take my pack off). Instead, we decided to climb over. Both of us, balancing precariously, nearly face-planted into the ground from the weight of our packs pulling us down, but were grateful we didn’t since we landed right in the middle of a deep mud puddle. Covered in sweat, mud, scrapes and bruises, we were really starting to look like mountain-dwellers.

The final major river crossing of the day was a straight-up river forging. The swiftly moving water was waist deep, and very intimidating as we surveyed it from the bank. Before we set out to cross, we took a break for a snack and a smoke, and honestly to gather our courage.

Regardless of the low mileage in this hike, it was strenuous. So many ups and downs, and wading through rivers tends to use up more energy than hiking on more even, dry land. Add to that the fact that it was hot as balls out, and we were definitely running out of fuel quicker than we thought we would, on a hike that was taking significantly longer than we’d anticipated.

We stepped carefully into the river when it was time to cross. The current was powerful as we waded into deeper water and we were grateful (once again) for the extra stability our trekking poles provided. I have a feeling things would’ve gotten ugly if we hadn’t had them. I lost track of how many falls they prevented by the time the trip was over.

When the water reached our waists I was practically giggling with glee. It was so much fun! It felt incredible on our hot, sweat-sticky bodies, and the force of the waterfall trying to take us down gave us the adrenaline rush we love; just enough risk to be know we had to be careful, but not so much that we were paralyzed with fear.

This trail, though beautiful, didn’t have some of the advantages of the other trails we’ve traversed. There weren’t any sweeping views after leaving Clingman’s Dome, no massive volcano peaks, giant trees, rock formations, or ocean shores. But forging the river, and the plethora of waterfalls, gave this trek the unique characteristics that set it apart from your average hiking trail.

Once we emerged from the river we didn’t hike that far before coming to a bridge crossing that leads to campsite 70. The site was considerably larger than campsite 68, but far less aesthetically pleasing, and with a far more prominent critter population.img_8132

There were several separate areas for tents, all with their own fire pits. We chose a spot near the bear wire, where a makeshift table had been crafted from a downed tree. We set up our packs at the table, and put the tent in the shade of the trees near the riverbank.img_8126

The bugs were vicious. Mountains of mosquitoes, flocks of flies, boatloads of bees, and gnats galore were swarming everywhere. No amount of bug spray seemed to help, so it was time to get the fire going. This project was temporarily put on hold when we went to set up our tarp near the fire pit, and were greeted by a small, harmless, but totally snakey snake. He was only about a foot long, and was minding his own business, but he had to go. “Gray Worm,” as we chose to name him due to his color (and our affinity for Game of Thrones), had no desire to leave. We’d nudge him gently with sticks and he’d slither a few feet away, then coil right back up like, “Bitch, I live here. You leave.” If snakes had fingers, his middle one would’ve been extended for sure. It took some coaxing, but we were finally able to successfully evict him back to the forest, and were then able to get our fire roaring, and settle in for the night.img_8115

The lightening bugs didn’t have as much of a presence at the new campsite (basically the only bug that wasn’t there), but the fire was absolutely bitchin’. We stared at the stars as the light drained from the sky, and talked about how badly we’d needed this Ladycation. It felt so good to get a break from reality, a few days away from the chaos.img_8143

Lindsey went to bed early that night. As usual, I was not ready to hit the hay, so I stayed up and kept the fire blazing while I smoked, and admired the stars.

I kept hearing a scurrying sound behind me, and upon shining my light over the campsite, I saw a big, fat mouse darting around under the makeshift table. He took off once he saw my light, but he kept coming back, hoping he could find some dinner, and escape unseen.

I turned my light back on when I heard more movement near the table, this time it was an enormous frog. Or toad. I don’t really know the difference, honestly. But whichever he was, I wasn’t looking to hang out with him. He hopped away from the flashlight, but I saw at least a half dozen more before we left the site in the morning.img_8127

I started to get paranoid about all the creatures that could be lurking in the dark. I swore I heard something much larger rummaging around in the bushes in the adjacent campsite, but I never saw anything. I was a bit concerned it was a bear (or that Gray Worm had returned with his entire family, seeking revenge for our acquisition of their land). After a few minutes of trying to ignore the potential company, I decided to go just go to bed. My imagination was running wild, and whatever was going bump in the night wasn’t anything I wanted to come face to face with in the dark. Besides, the next day we’d embark on an eight mile trek up the mountain; I needed my rest.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and be sure to come back for Ladycation Sunday, with a new blog post every week! Follow Ladycations on WordPress, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

5 Keys to Successful Backpacking

A lot of people ask me how I can trek into the wilderness for days at a time. They can’t fathom a vacation that involves that much work, and so few amenities. Some of them surely think I’m crazy. And while there’s certainly more work involved than a luxury vacation with pools and room service, the reward more than matches the effort. Here are 5 key things you can do to help ensure a successful backcountry backpacking trip.

IMG_3369Drink a Shit Ton of Water: If there’s one thing that can ruin a backpacking trip faster than you can say, “I’m thirsty,” it’s dehydration. Headaches, dizziness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, even confusion, fevers, or fainting; these can all be caused by dehydration, and prevented by drinking plenty of fluids. Remember that you need to drink considerably more water than you normally would, your body needs it. Take breaks, remind each other if you’re hiking with friends.

And make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes, too. Fruits high in potassium like bananas and avocados, or coconut milk are great, but to save on weight and space, you can always take packets of Gatorade powder to put in your water bottle. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, people!

img_7992Stretch Like Crazy: In addition to dehydration, not stretching can cause muscle aches, along with stiffness, and potential injury. You’re working the hell out of your body, trekking all over the backcountry, carrying all your gear. Getting a good warmup before your hike can help prepare your muscles, and help prevent injury. But make sure you stretch afterwards as well, to help lengthen your muscles and relieve the tension that builds up throughout the day. Few things feel better after a day of hiking than a nice, deep stretch.

img_8132Learn About, and Be Prepared for the Terrain and Wildlife: Every area is different. Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, the desert, the ocean, or the forest, do some research. Never hike in a new area blindly. Do you need to bring a tide chart? Special gear? What kind of predatory animals are in the area, should you bring bear spray? What about poisonous snakes and spiders? How much elevation change is there? Will you need rain gear? I could go on and on, but the best thing to do is just research the hell out of wherever you’re going, and prepare accordingly.

When Lindsey and I hiked in Washington we knew we’d be in bear and cougar country. In Arizona, Mary and I were watchful for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Washington required warm layers, and rain gear. Arizona required a shitload of sunscreen, shorts, and a bathing suit. That’s the fun of backpacking! You get a whole new adventure every single time!

IMG_3853Get Really Good Hiking Boots and Socks: Don’t skimp on this. Your feet are invaluable. Do yourself a favor, treat yo’self. I’m not a name-brand girl. You’ll never see me carrying a Coach purse, or wearing Jimmy Choos. I choose to spend my money on experiences as opposed to stuff. But those experiences can go to hell really quick when a hot spot on your foot turns into a gnarly, painful, oozing ulcer.

Lindsey didn’t break her boots in before our trip to Washington. After one day of hiking she had small blisters on her heels, and sore spots on the balls of her feet. By our last night her heels were giant, open wounds, and the blisters on the balls of her feet went between her toes, and were filled with goo. It was horrific, and it kept her from climbing the final couple miles to the fire lookout tower at Mt. Rainier. Trust me. Buy the best damn boots you can find, and quality socks with plenty of padding, and moisture wicking, and BREAK THEM IN! You’ll regret it if you don’t!

img_5727Embrace the Simplicity, Let Go of Your Pride: You’re in Mother Nature’s house, now. Respect it. Admire it. Enjoy it. Don’t get wrapped up in things like how bad you smell, how dirty you are, what your hair looks like, not having internet access, the fact that you may have to bury your poop. . . The biggest benefit of backpacking is that you can let go of your ego and just embrace being surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature. It’s humbling, to be sure. But we could all use a little humbling every now and then.

Luxury vacations may be relaxing, but backpacking, when done right, can free you of all the mental clutter that accumulates in the everyday grind, and give a sense of both mental and physical strength that simply cannot be matched by laying around a pool for a week. Best of all, a night or two in a luxurious establishment is the perfect way to recover from your badass, wilderness adventure. And you appreciate it even more, cause you know you earnedthat shit.

If you follow these 5 simple steps you’re well on your way to a successful and amazing journey! Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips and stories of our Ladycation adventures. Thanks for stopping by!

~Steph

When Mother Nature Strikes: A Las Vegas Kinda-Cation

Half the fun of taking a vacation is planning one. Researching where to stay, what to see, where to eat, what to do; it’s part of the adventure. I’m a planner, it helps get me psyched up for the main event. That means I always have a very clear vision of what my trips will be. But the Universe doesn’t always cooperate, and all the research in the world can’t save the best laid plans from a blizzard.

Winter in Cleveland is a dismal time. The trees are bare, the grass is brown, and leaving the house in the bitter cold of morning freezes your soul as much as your flesh. Sure, the snow is pretty while it’s falling, but soon it turns to dirty, gray sludge that outlines the entire city. Seasonal depression is all but inevitable.img_6724

In January I was in full hermit mode. A series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months by that point. I was feeling fat and lazy, and leaving the house for any reason seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I needed to flee. I needed to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, see a color other than gray, just get the hell out of the Midwest for a while.

I recruited my fellow Ladycationers, Lindsey and Mary, and began planning our adventure. We only had four days and a limited budget to work with, but we needed to get far enough away to escape the cold and snow.

My first and only time in Las Vegas had been the previous year for my step-sister’s wedding. I hadn’t really had the desire to go to Vegas, I’m more of a nature girl. But the kids and I hopped on a plane and partied with the whole family for three solid days. I had such a fantastic time that I vowed to go back–without my kids. Flights from Cleveland to Vegas are pretty cheap, and splitting a hotel three ways wouldn’t be too terrible, but it wouldn’t give me the nature fix that I so desperately needed.img_6736

Lucky for me, Google has all the answers. I looked at a map, realized how close Zion National Park is to Las Vegas, and the decision was made. Two nights of camping and hiking in Zion, followed by two nights of partying on The Strip. The perfectly balanced mini Ladycation.

I booked our flights, hotel room at the Paris, campsite, our rental car, I even bought our tickets to Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil. Everything was all set. We were going to flee the CLE and spend four days in the sunny Southwest. I was excited for Vegas, but Zion was all I could think about. I spent hours looking at pictures, researching trails, checking the weather forecasts, and reading blogs. I could barely contain myself when the day finally arrived.img_6762

Mary and I met Lindsey at the airport, and we all made it through security without incident. After toasting our friendship and the adventure to come with a cocktail at the airport bar, we boarded the plane, a trio of excitement.

That’s when it all went to shit.

It began snowing about twenty minutes before we boarded. Big, fat, wet snowflakes slowly drifting from the sky and covering everything in sight. We sat on the tarmac for over two hours watching it fall faster and thicker with each passing minute. Every half hour or so the captain would update us, “We’re just waiting for clearance to take off, we’ll be in the air soon” “We’ve been here so long they have to deice us before we can take off, we’ll be on our way shortly,” “That took so long that we have to wait for the runway to be plowed, shouldn’t be long now.” We all knew that was bullshit. No way were we going anywhere in the midst of the first blizzard to hit Cleveland in two years.

At two and a half hours they finally returned us to the gate–still claiming we were only delayed–and had everyone disembark the plane, supposedly to refuel. All the flights in our terminal had been canceled, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised a few minutes later when the announcement was made that our flight had been canceled as well. img_6645

Even thought I knew it was coming, to say I was angry would be the understatement of a lifetime. Not only were we not flying out that night, we couldn’t get on another flight until two days later. Those were the two days in Zion. My idea of what this vacation would be vanished, as though buried under the snow, and was replaced by absolute rage and despair. If I said I handled the situation with grace or dignity I would be lying. I was in tantrum mode.

We stood in line waiting to re-book our flight and I wanted to start a riot. Suddenly screaming like a maniac, tearing at my clothes and throwing chairs through walls didn’t seem all that unreasonable. So, when the Susie Sunshine behind me in line kept going on and on about how “no one can control the weather,” and we all “need to relax,” I started imagining what my fist would look like lodged in her face. If there’s one thing I can’t abide when I’m irrationally angry it’s someone telling me to relax.

My brother braved the roads and picked us up, the trio of excitement now a trio of sadness. The minute I got home I ordered pizza and poured myself a glass of wine, determined to eat my feelings and drink away my sorrows. On the plus side, I was far less aggressive and dickish by the time I cracked open bottle of wine number two.

img_6650Two days later, the three of us were back at the airport, this time more apprehensive than excited. I wouldn’t get excited until our plane was in the air. Thankfully, Mother Nature was more cooperative, and when the wheels finally touched down in Las Vegas, and I saw the light beaming atop the Luxor, and palm trees dotting the landscape, I was so happy I nearly cried.

My cousin Luke and his wife Kelly had driven up from Phoenix to meet us. They’d planned on hiking with us, but had instead enjoyed a couple days of kid-free time on The Strip, just the two of them. Knowing how frustrated we were with our two days of missed vacation, they were prepared when we arrived. They met us at the Paris and had three giant Eiffel Tower margaritas in their hands so we could begin drinking immediately. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have the best family ever.img_6659

Lindsey had tickets to see Zedd that night (a dream come true for her). Not being Mary or I’s scene, we dropped her off at Caesar’s Palace to dance the night away, and the rest of us hit The Strip. We set off with Luke and Kelly, exploring the casinos and hitting up a marijuana dispensary (obviously).

Luke and Kelly had never been to a dispensary, and I found great joy in being the one to facilitate their first experience. They didn’t partake, but we did get a discount for having Luke, a military veteran, with us. Though I know it made him uncomfortable (he gave a fake phone number for fear of going on a registry) he was a good sport about it. I know it can be weird for someone who’s not a smoker to be around that scene, particularly with the amount of misinformation out there, and the stigma that surrounds us “pot heads.” But they handled it with a sense humor and a grain of salt.img_6669

Since Luke and Kelly had a long drive the next morning, they retired early. The other major downside to our missing days of Ladycation was the limited amount of time we had with my fam. After we hugged them goodbye, Mary and I spent the remainder of our night walking from casino to casino, admiring how different each one is from the next, having many, many drinks, and trying a few slot machines.

The rest of our trip was typical Vegas. We walked the strip, we gambled, we went to Fremont Street, we saw a Cirque du Soleil show, and we watched the fountains at the Bellagio. It was great time, but I felt like a shadow was cast over the entire weekend, as I couldn’t fully get past the disappointment of missing Zion. It was the hiking, the escape from civilization, that I’d been so desperately craving. Although being drunk most of the time did help ease the pain (or at least make me forget about it).img_6668

Isn’t it strange how often we’re victims of our own making? We had two fun-filled days in Las Vegas with no work, no kids, no obligations, and legal cannabis, but I couldn’t escape the thought, “we didn’t get to . . . ”

I’m not going to say we can control how we feel, and I’m definitely not going to say that any emotion, be it happiness, anger, fear, sadness, or anything else, is wrong. However, what we can control is how we respond to those emotions. I know a lot of people will probably say we should be in control of our emotions 100% of the time. Maybe they’re right. However, I’m more of a let-yourself-feel-your-shit-for-a-minute kind of woman. If you need to be pissed off, go for it. Be pissed. If you need to cry, cry your freaking face off. Own your feelings, identify them, and learn how to channel them into something productive and get the hell over it; move on.

If I pretended I had it all figured out, that I was living a perfect life, and have all the answers to life’s greatest questions, I’d be a big, fat liar. No one has it all together (regardless of what their Pinterest boards or Instagram pages tell us). Everyone has good days and bad, moments of weakness and times of triumph. And every time we have a new experience we learn how better to relate to the world around us, making us better prepared for the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. You live, you learn, folks. Alanis Morissette was right.

So while our mini Ladycation wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be, I’m thankful we were able to get away at all. And I’ve learned that I need to get better at being ready to accept the travel challenges and disappointments that are inevitable for anyone who travels with any type of frequency.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back next week for another chapter! And remember to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Adventure’s End: Final Days and Final Thoughts

My 40th birthday adventure was coming to an end and soon I’d have to return to reality. However, there was still some fun to be had in Phoenix before hopping on a plane and heading home.

Despite sleeping like the dead the previous night, I was still tired when I woke up to another gorgeous Arizona morning. It felt like I had lost the ability to store energy, and my whole body was stiff and sore. I was grateful for a relatively lazy day.

My aunt and uncle, being the incredible human beings that they are, still had a couple tricks up their sleeves. So while I chatted with my Aunt Lynne, who had come over to visit, Cindy was in the kitchen making lunch (spaghetti, my favorite). What I didn’t know was that she’d also made dessert.img_5745

My favorite dessert is from a now defunct restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. Orchards (formerly known as Plush Pippen) had a sour cream lemon pie that was absolutely to die for, and when they went out of business I feared I’d never taste it again. Fast forward 15 years to Thanksgiving at my sister’s house and voila! She’d found the recipe online. Little did I know that she’d also passed it along to Aunt Cindy. It’s amazing how something as simple as a pie can bring a person to tears. It tasted like my childhood, something I felt was only appropriate as I celebrated the aging process.img_5749

After a day of relaxing, spending time with family and napping, we headed to Macayo’s with some more family for dinner (and margaritas). Although I generally don’t like Mexican food (yes, I know, I’m nuts), I felt like a trip to Arizona wouldn’t be complete without a meal at a Mexican joint.

The food was delicious, the margaritas were large and plentiful, and the company was superb. We finished up our meal, grabbed some tacos to-go for Mary, and went to the airport to pick her up. She’d spent the entire day traveling by helicopter, car and bus to get back to Phoenix after we’d left her in Supai.

Mary and I’s original plan had been to go out on the town for the final night of our ladycation. However, between Mary’s day of traveling all over Arizona, and my body still aching from the previous day’s ten mile hike, we were too exhausted to go anywhere. So, instead of partying the night away at some bar in Phoenix, we opted instead for margaritas at Mark and Cindy’s.img_5766

The four of us were in the backyard, enjoying the prickly pear margs that Mark made for us, when there was a knock at the door. Given the lengths my aunt and uncle had gone to to make my trip so amazing, I wondered if they could possibly still have another surprise in store. Even Mary was looking towards the front door expecting some long lost family member to come walking in.

Instead, it was the neighbor from across the street. He too had been enjoying a healthy number of adult beverages that evening, and was hoping to have a heart to heart with Mark. However, upon seeing that Mark had company he left, and I assumed we’d seen the last of him. I was quite mistaken.

A short while later the neighbor, who we’ll call “Joe,” returned, and he wasn’t alone. Now a party of six, Uncle Mark was back in the kitchen mixing up another round of margaritas, while we were introduced to Joe and his friend, “Bill.” Bill, Joe explained, had just discovered his wife was cheating on him, so he was staying at Joe’s place while he “figured things out,” a term we eventually learned was code for, “traded ugly insults via text with his wife.” It gave me a renewed appreciation for the amicability of my divorce.img_5769

Before too long Mark and Cindy called it a night, leaving Mary and I with Joe, Bill, and our margaritas. It became clear pretty quickly that volume control was going to be an issue, so we moved the party to Joe’s man-cave-garage, where we switched from margs to Jack and Cokes.

Admittedly, we were all pretty drunk. However, I was not so drunk that I had any designs on either of these men. The four of us shot the proverbial shit for a while, before deciding to go looking for scorpions. Yes, that’s right, scorpions; as in the creepy looking critters that nightmares are made of. You see, Mary and I, being Midwesterners, had never actually seen one. It wasn’t until this trip that we learned they glow under black lights, a fact we found both terrifying and fascinating. So, being the gentlemen, albeit very drunk gentlemen, that Joe and Bill were, they grabbed a light and took us on a scorpion hunt.img_5786

Now, when I say “scorpion hunt,” I’m using the term “hunt” very loosely. It was more like a 20 foot stroll around the side of the property until we (very quickly) spotted one crawling up the stucco privacy wall surrounding the yard. It was a lot smaller than I expected. I always imagined them to be bigger, more nefarious looking. But the first thing I noticed, obviously, was that it was glowing. How amazing is Mother Nature?!

I realized how strange it is that so many of our fears are rooted in ignorance. The thought of seeing a scorpion had scared the shit out of me. I imagined a terrifying, fist-sized monster; bloodthirsty, and hellbent on repeatedly stinging me till I was nearing death’s doorstep. What I found was just a big spider. Granted, it was a big, glowing spider, but it certainly wasn’t interested in attacking me. Simply seeing a scorpion erased my fear of them. Imagine all the fears we could eliminate if we all stepped out of our bubbles to seek out new experiences once in a while. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the world’s problems that could solve.img_5778

Once staring at the scorpion got boring we headed back to the man-cave. I went in Joe’s house to use the bathroom and was immediately in love with the décor. It was beautiful: high, vaulted ceilings, open and airy, full of old family photos and bold, rich colors. I’ll be honest, I totally snooped around. Every room I went into was more fun than the last. It was like being inside a magazine.

As I was heading back to the garage (while planning a new Joe’s-house-inspired photo wall) Joe came staggering in. My Lady-Sense (it’s like Spidey-Sense, but instead of sensing danger or crime, we sense impending sexual advances) began going off immediately. Predictably, as I was complimenting him on his beautiful home, he leaned in, and with hot, whiskey breath, slurred, “You’re so hot.” Ugh, here we go. He continued heaping drunken praise on me, as I awkwardly avoided eye contact and inched closer to the door, trying like hell to deflect his advances.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it was a compliment. But it was the compliment of a drunk man who has lost his grasp on self-control and had clear ulterior motives. I didn’t go all the way out to Arizona to have a quickie one night stand with my uncle’s drunk, married neighbor. Hard no on that. I also wasn’t about to leave Mary alone with his on-the-rebound buddy in the garage any longer either. It was time to call it a night. Mary and I made our exit soon after and headed back to Mark and Cindy’s.img_5774

Mary went to bed almost immediately after we got back. Being our last night in Arizona, I didn’t want it to end, so I sat in the backyard for a while. I drank some water, smoked some bud, and tried to soak in my surroundings as much as I could; to breath in the Southwest. I wanted to bookmark the memory, remember how the warm, dry air felt, the smell of the citrus trees, and the serenity in my spirit. If feelings could be bottled. . .

Just like the first night we’d been there, I looked back on my life and was grateful. When I’d first decided to embark on this adventure for my 40th birthday, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect trip. From the moment we landed my family had gone far above and beyond to make the experience special. I didn’t know how to thank them, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully repay their generosity and thoughtfulness. They’re the kind of people who exude kindness and love, the kind of people it’s impossible not to like. They go out of their way to make others feel welcome and accepted. The entire week with them, the others we’d hiked to Supai with, and those we’d met during Heather’s rescue had restored a bit of my faith in humanity.

We flew home the next afternoon and boarded the plane with exhausted, but strong bodies and centered, serene minds. Obviously, I would’ve preferred to stay and explore more of the Southwest, but reality was calling. As we flew home I started remembering all the responsibilities awaiting me in Cleveland, and my quiet mind got a little more noisy. Bills, housework, kids, my job; a whole world of obligations patiently waited for me to come back.img_5804

My friend Bridget picked us up from the airport and drove us home. When we pulled in the driveway I saw the “Happy Birthday” sign in the yard. Bridget had been busy. My entire house was filled with balloons, streamers and handmade signs. On the dining room table was a cake with candles, a bottle of wine, and some weed. Chocolate, wine and weed. My B-Ridge knows me well!

Bridget had gotten my son to let her in. She cleaned my house (let’s just say I’m no June Cleaver) and decorated the whole thing. She reminded me why I come home from vacations. Some of the noise that makes up our lives is actually beautiful music. Like a Foo Fighters song. . . Alright, fine, like Mozart, but you get where I’m going.

Getting away, taking a break, a change of scenery; it all serves to help us appreciate what we have back home. Without the responsibilities and obligations, would the desire to explore be as great? Or would we just remain stagnant, living and dying in our small corner of the world? I don’t think any of my ladycations would be as amazing if I didn’t have reality to compare them to. They say comparison is at the heart of all unhappiness, but in this respect, it provides the contrast needed to truly relax and gain perspective. Just goes to show, everything in moderation. . .

Thank you for stopping by! I hope you’ll all come back to read about future adventures. And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Leaving Supai: A Successful, Sweaty Solo Hike

I’d flown over 2000 miles, driven almost 5 hours, and hiked ten miles to see the waterfalls at Supai to celebrate my 40th birthday. Amazing as it was, the real test had come: hiking out. The last time I’d left Supai I’d had to do so on horseback. This time, I was determined to hike out on my own two feet.

When we woke up in the morning and began packing up our gear, I knew immediately that Mary would rather chew on broke glass than embark on the ten mile hike out. Her face was a combination of exhaustion, pain, and dread. She asked if it was too late to ride a horse out and, upon hearing that it was, the last glimmer of hope in her eyes vanished.img_5657

As we hiked to the village (two miles, and all uphill) Mary barely spoke. She was walking slowly, her aching legs struggling with each step. When we reached Havasu Falls, and hiked down to take some pictures, she stayed up top, too sore and tired for the short walk down.

I arrived in the village well before Mary, and ordered some breakfast at the cafe. When she and Mark arrived about 30 minutes later, she told me she was not hiking out with us. She’d decided to stay in the village for a night, and fly out on the helicopter with Heather the following day.img_5639

The selfish part of me was disappointed that my hiking partner was ditching me, but the rest of me completely understood. I remembered all too well how it felt to know I wasn’t physically capable of completing that hike. She wasn’t ditching me, she was taking care of herself, and preventing a second mid-hike rescue from being necessary. I respect that. We said our goodbyes after breakfast and, leaving Mary behind, Mark, Peter and I set out for the Hualapai Hilltop.IMG_5704

The three of us began the hike together, but I soon found myself far ahead of my hiking companions. Peter’s feet weren’t doing so great, and Mark was keeping pace with him. I’d do the obligatory fake-stop to allow them to catch up a little before I kept going, but after we reached the halfway point, Mark could see I was in my groove, so he gave me his car keys and told me to have at it. It was the greatest news I’d heard all day! With Mark’s keys in my pack, I took off to complete the last 4 miles of the hike on my own.

It was hot–and I mean hot–that day. The sun was blazing down and I was wiping sweat off my brow to keep it from getting in my eyes seemingly every few steps. It was a losing battle. About two miles into my solo hike, I found a spot with some shade to take a smoke/pee/cool-down break. I took off my pack and my entire back was soaked with sweat. Gross. Not wanting to continue battling the endless stream of perspiration on my face, I took my shirt off and tied it around my head. I may have looked ridiculous, but hiking isn’t a fashion show.img_5727

I’m a very social person with an anxious mind that never quiets. I’ve always thrived on social interaction, and had never considered that I could find happiness in solitude. Alone time has always been my enemy. When I’m by myself for any length of time I start heading down the rabbit hole of insecurity, over-analyzing every interaction of the day.  Yet here I was, alone in the wilderness, and completely content. Perhaps it’s the confidence that comes with age, but I was loving every second of my solo hike.

My trip to Washington had taught me that I could find peace and clarity in the wild. Though I wasn’t alone on that trip, I had learned the value in being far removed from civilization. Being alone on the hike out of Supai seemed like the next step in my journey of learning to enjoy my own company. Like in Washington, my mind was clear and focused, free from the anxiety that usually fills my thoughts with self-doubt and worry.IMG_5711

When I approached the final leg of the trail: the switchbacks, I hesitated for a moment. I looked up at the path before me; I knew it was going to be tough. The negative little voice inside my head began to rear it’s ugly head again, “What were you thinking? You’re not strong enough for this.” I took a deep breath and a long drink of water, told that bitch to shut the hell up, and off I went.

Step by step, foot by foot of elevation gain, I hiked. It was strenuous going uphill for so long, but it wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected it to be. Each turn brought me closer to the top, each switchback behind me was one less in front of me. And every step I took gave me more confidence. I was strong enough.

I was about two thirds of the way up when I heard a familiar, but out of place sound. Is that the Game of Thrones theme song? Confused, I took a drink of water, thinking I was beginning to hallucinate due to dehydration. Somehow, despite hydrating, the music was getting louder. As I rounded another switchback, I was relieved to see I was not slipping into dementia. The nurse and her friend, whom we’d met the previous day during Heather’s rescue, were ahead of me, and they were blasting the GoT soundtrack on their phone.IMG_5719

Both of the women were in their late twenties. They’re what I would refer to as, “The Pretty People.” They were thin, looked fit, and were beautiful; the kind of girls I would’ve hated in high school. But they were struggling. It looked like every step they took physically pained them, and neither appeared to be having much fun.

I smiled as I approached, and complimented them on their stellar taste in television shows. The nurse said, “It’s the only thing getting me up this fucking mountain.” I laughed, said, “Yeah, this is a hell of a trek!” and passed them by. Me. The 40 year old lady who hadn’t been able to hike out at all when I was their age, passed them right up and kept on going. I’m not gonna lie, I took immense pride in leaving The Pretty People in my dust.

Passing the twenty-somethings gave me a renewed sense of determination. My legs were starting to feel weak, I was soaked with sweat everywhere–and I do mean everywhere–and my lungs were reminding me that I need to quit smoking. But instead of slowing down, I picked up my pace. I rounded another switchback, realized it was the last one, and practically sprinted to the top.

I’m not sure how to describe the way I felt when I reached the hilltop. I don’t even think I fully understood it myself. It was a high no drug can duplicate. I took off my pack and guzzled what was left of my water, and once I’d caught my breath, I just started laughing. I must’ve looked like a complete nut-case. I looked back at the trail I’d just climbed with total elation. I did it! I actually effing did it!

The Pretty People emerged from the trail about 10 minutes after I did, and I congratulated them on their accomplishment. They were so exhausted they barely grunted back in response before heading to their car. That made me laugh again, only this time it was the boastful, nah-nah-na-boo-boo laugh of a Disney villain who’s about to meet her demise. Karma would strike a couple hours later when I realized I’d left my trekking poles at the top of the trail, never to be seen again. Humility is clearly something I need to work on.

I dug Mark’s keys out of my pack and was doing some stretches by the car, when I noticed an absurdly sexy, beefcake of a man approaching. In any other situation I would’ve been mortified to talk to a man like that in my condition: makeupless, hair a hot mess, no shirt on, stinking to high heaven. But I felt so good after kicking that trail’s ass that I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious.

We chatted for a few minutes while we both waited for the rest of our people, and I quickly learned that he was 100% not my type (though fun to look at, the beefcakes never are). He was the stereotypical “hot guy.” You know: full of himself, and way too flirty in an overtly sexual, objectifying, and rather misogynistic way. I was actually relieved to see Mark and Peter approaching, and bid farewell to the beefcake. Saved by the . . . uncle.

After the three of us congratulated each other on the completion of our adventure, we piled into Mark’s car and began driving back to civilization. As I sat in the backseat I realized just how exhausted I was. The adrenaline had worn off and I began to feel my age. Everything hurt. But it was a “good hurt.” The kind of soreness that says, “Yeah, that’s right, bitches. I did that.” I was so happy I could’ve cried, but so tired I just fell asleep.img_5734

We had dinner at the Route 66 Diner in Williams we’d eaten at just 3 days earlier, and I felt zero guilt at devouring my entire burger, fries, and mozzarella sticks. Then, in a “treat yo’self” moment, I ordered a chocolate shake to-go for dessert. I earned that shit.

After dinner, we dropped Peter off at his car, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. Uncle Mark and I had several hours to talk on the drive home, and it’s a memory that will always be close to my heart. We reminisced about our trip, discussed planning our next hiking adventure (rim to rim hike at the Grand Canyon, perhaps?), and talked about how, despite being polar opposites with regards to religion and politics, we were united by our love of nature and family. Turns out, what makes us similar is so much more powerful than what sets us apart.

I don’t know that I’ve ever slept better than I did that night. The physical exhaustion was so great that even my mind was too tired to keep me awake. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, had reconnected with family I love, and had lived to tell the tale.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll come back next week for the completion of my 40th birthday Arizona Ladycation. And be sure to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph