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

Back to Backpacking: Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains

It had been over 6 months since I’d strapped on my backpack and headed into the wilderness. The winter had left me yearning for green trees and wide open spaces. Seasonal depression is no joke. Add to that the loss of endorphins due to stress fractures bringing my running to a halt, and I was one giant snowfall away from a full-on meltdown.

I always go west when I travel. I just feel drawn to it. But there’s some pretty spectacular country east of Ohio, and most of it is only a day’s drive from home. With time and available funds being an issue, Lindsey and I decided we’d explore some of what the Eastern US has to offer.img_7776

I ultimately settled on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d always heard Asheville, North Carolina was my kind of place: good food, near the mountains, full of hippies, lots of art, and a drum circle on Fridays. Yes, please. It’s less than an hour from the National Park, and seemed like the perfect place to recover from some mountain hiking. Before long I had our entire trip planned and booked.

Speaking of recovery, it had been a rough winter. . . My year of activity had taken its toll, and a series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months. I was most definitely not in the same shape I’d been in the last time we’d trekked into the forest. I had gained some weight, and lost all the muscle I’d worked so hard to build. So though I was determined to hike in the mountains, I should’ve realized how much more of a challenge it would be this time around.Screenshot_2018-08-19 Backcountry Permit System - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U S National Park Service)

The first two days of hiking I’d planned only totaled roughly eight miles, and were all downhill. We’d start at Clingman’s Dome and take the Forney Creek Trail to campsite 68 for the first night. Day two we’d hike to campsite 70. The third day was going to be the challenge: eight miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain, we’d trek all the way up Jonas Creek Trail, to the Welch Ridge Trail, until finally meeting up with the Appalachian Trail, and spending the night at Double Spring Gap Shelter. We’d take the AT back to Clingman’s Dome to complete the loop on day four, then drive to Asheville for a night before heading back home. I definitely overestimated my athletic prowess and backpacking readiness when planning this trip.img_7736

Unlike our previous Ladycations, we were road trippin’ it this time! We met at my house on a Wednesday after work, loaded our packs into Mary Jane, my trusty VW wagon, and hit the road.

Since we didn’t get on the road until after 5:30, we had reservations at a cheap motel just outside Lexington, Kentucky for the night. Finding cheap motels in Kentucky is like finding corn in Nebraska. They’re everywhere, and for $56 a night, I was impressed. The Quality Inn in Berea, Kentucky was clean, quiet, with comfortable beds, and a limited, but decent continental breakfast. I will, however, say that the guy working night shift behind the desk was creepy as hell. He was most definitely on drugs and potentially a serial killer, with a stare that, when directed at me, I can only describe as feeling like I’d been visually licked. I dead-bolted the door that night.

We set out the next morning and drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forecast had been predicting rain, but the sun was shining down through puffy, white clouds on an absolutely perfect day. We walked around the observation area, admiring the brilliant green of the forest covered mountains, and I could feel my spirit start to lift.img_7787

We headed towards our destination for night one: Campsite 68. It was only a few miles, and all downhill, but once we’d gotten past the first half mile of well maintained, gradual, man-made steps, things got a little trickier.

The trail winds back and forth across Forney Creek and was riddled with rocks and tree roots. We hiked more slowly than usual, using extra care so as not to roll an ankle or face-plant into the dirt when a root caught one of our feet. Every so often the creek would cross the trail, making the uneven path wet and slippery. Despite my best efforts my clumsiness kicked in, and I bit it while crossing a particularly slick spot. I went down on my side, my pack slowing the crash. Apart from the bruise to my ego, I was unharmed, and we were able to laugh at my mud-covered self and keep going.img_8239-1

I’d read that we would encounter over a dozen river crossings throughout this trip, and as we’d crossed over slippery, but not particularly “rivery,” points I wondered if that’s all we’d come across. Shortly thereafter we came upon a legit river crossing, where the trail ended at the riverbank and picked back up on the other side. We took a break and had a snack as we assessed the situation and plotted our course. Once we were ready, we changed into our water shoes and stepped into the river.img_8043

The water was cool and refressing, moving fast and ferociously as it cascaded down a series of waterfalls that didn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. I could feel the knee-deep water pushing against me, and we were cautious about maintaining our footing. Had we slipped it would’ve been nearly impossible not to get injured in the fall. Knowing that one misstep would mean certain disaster, and feeling the might of Mother Nature as we fought against the current was such a rush. We’d been nervous when we began, now we’d realized that what had given us apprehension turned out to be the most fun part of the hike. Just another example of why ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

 

We reached Campsite 68 by early evening and were absolutely blown away when we arrived. Though the name is a bit lacking in pizzazz, the site itself was incredible. It’s a beautifully shaded site nestled in the trees, and right on the riverbank. There are several spots for tents, a central fire pit, and a waterfall that rolls effortlessly down polished stone like Mother Nature’s water slide. The sound of the water flowing down the smooth, flat rock, and crashing into the boulders below was indescribably soothing. As an added bonus, the entire fire pit was filled with firewood. Home sweet home!

 

We set up camp and did some yoga stretches before Lindsey decided to meditate for a while, and I started to get our campfire going. Though we’d had a perfect, sunshiny day, it had definitely rained recently (which also accounted for the river being so high). All the wood was wet which made getting it burning a challenge, but eventually I had that bad boy roaring. There’s something about starting a fire that feels good on a primal level. It’s like the caveman instinct that tells us, “fire good, fire life,” is still hiding in a corner of my psyche.

 

We ate our dinner around the fire as the sun went down and the shadows crept in. When darkness descended, the light show began. With the stars shining brightly through the treetops, the forest itself lit up with hundreds of lightening bugs. I mean, they were everywhere. It was so spectacular that we just sat there for hours watching the whole world sparkle all around us.img_7997

Unlike when we hiked in Washington and had to pile on layer after layer at night to stay warm, the temperature never dipped below 65 degrees that night. Though we didn’t need the fire for warmth, the bugs were eating us alive when we weren’t near it. Next to the fire there were no bugs, but I felt like I was melting. One of the benefits of the seclusion that comes with camping in the backcountry is the lack of dress code. As I discussed in a previous post, I love being naked in nature. There aren’t too many feelings as liberating or humbling as standing stark naked before the stars, surrounded by the trees and all of Mother Nature’s other creations; unified in a state of natural, bare vulnerability. So, since I knew Lindsey wouldn’t care about seeing my boobs, I ditched my shirt and sports bra, and let the cool night breeze and the warmth of the fire kiss my naked flesh. It was the perfect combination of sensations.

Eventually I put my shirt back on and we settled in next to the fire. We stayed up late, or rather Lindsey stayed up later than usual, talking and alternating between watching the lightening bug show, the blanket of twinkling stars, and just being mesmerized by the flames dancing in the fire. We were consumed with our surroundings, acutely aware of every sound, every movement in the forest, every crackle and pop of the fire. I felt so present, so grounded and serene. It was everything I’d been craving throughout the long, Cleveland winter.img_8223

Lindsey ultimately called it a night around 1am, and I followed not long after. We’d had as perfect a day as we could’ve imagined, and went to bed with the sense of tranquility, clarity, and strength that we’ve come to expect from our outdoor adventures. It’s like immersing yourself in the loving embrace of Mother Nature’s arms. And who doesn’t feel great after a hug from Mom?

I was also pleased to discover that I don’t have to fly to far away places to get my nature on. I could hit the road in the morning and be in the mountains by dinner time. Knowing such a beautiful place for my forest therapy is always within reach provided a sense of relief. Like, Well, if I approach a nervous breakdown, I can flee to the woods on one tank of gas and be sleeping on a mountain within hours.  Ohio may not have much by way of serious backpacking opportunities, but it isn’t as out of reach as one might think. That’s good information to have.

 

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to take this journey with me. I’d love to hear your comments! And don’t forget to come back for LadycationSunday to read all about the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Great Smoky Mountain Ladycation Adventure!

Check me out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure you follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking my friends!

~Steph

 

5 Lessons Backpacking Taught Me

I discovered my love for camping about ten years ago. I camped for a week on Madeline Island (where I grew up) with some friends and was immediately hooked. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been doing it all my life. But that was car camping, party camping. Sure, we were in the woods, but when you’ve got a car and all the gear it will hold with you, you’re not really roughing it.

When Lindsey and I decided to try our hand at backpacking, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Neither of us had done much long distance hiking, much less with 50+ pounds of gear on our backs. As we set out for our first trip, we had no idea how transforming an experience it would be!

I Don’t Need That Much Stuff. When I go car camping I take the whole damn house with me. Multiple outfits (just in case), all the food and booze I could possibly want, extra blankets and pillows, chairs; half the time I’m in an area with cell service, or at least I don’t have to drive far to reach it. Backpacking is a completely different ball game.

The first things I threw out were beauty and fashion. When you’ve got to carry everything in with you, how cute you’ll look in the pictures doesn’t seem to matter. I brought the essentials and nothing more, and I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be out in the wilderness, not giving a damn what you look like. My hair was a mess, my skin hadn’t seen its anti-aging regimen or a speck of makeup in days, I’d been wearing the same two outfits for 4 days, and I’d never felt better about myself.

The next thing I chose to live without was the booze. I originally thought, I’ll fill a camelpak with vodka. No, so unnecessary, and not very smart. The last thing you want to be in the back-country is without your wits. And finally I accepted that I wasn’t going to eat the most delicious meals for a couple days, but eat primarily for nutrients and energy. As it turns out, I don’t need booze or a large variety of foods to enjoy my camping experience. And it makes me appreciate a good, hot (fried cheese) meal and a (more like 3 or 4) glass of wine even more when I reemerge into civilization.

Backpacking truly teaches you what’s essential and what’s extraneous. The words, “I can’t live without my cell phone,” ring hollow and untrue. Instead you learn what you really can’t live without. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list.

IMG_3821

Solitude Isn’t Scary, It’s Soul-Cleansing. There’s so much noise in the world that we forget just how loud it is until we get away from it. We learn to tune out the passing cars, the distant sirens, the hum of the electrical lines, the barking dog, the lawnmower, the kids playing. It’s a part of the soundtrack of modern human existence, and it subconsciously reminds us we’re not alone, even when we’re by ourselves.

When you hike miles away from civilization, all that noise is gone, and you know you’re alone. You can sense it. And knowing you’re truly alone allows you to focus on yourself and your surroundings, to live in the present, to appreciate simplicity, and truly enjoy your own company.

Immersing yourself in nature is like hitting control-alt-delete on your mind. The hard drive; all your memories, remains intact. But it deletes your cookies and search history; all the worries, anxiety, and the negative voice inside your head that makes you doubt yourself, and compare yourself to others. It helps you to sort through all that clutter and get back to basics; remember what matters, let go of what doesn’t, and move forward with focus and clarity.

Victory

Backpacking is Empowering. When you hike into the woods with everything you need on your back, it gives you a sense of badassery. You are relying on yourself for everything. Every mile you hike, every meal you eat, every ounce of water you drink; it’s all you. You did that.

We rely on so many modern conveniences in our everyday lives that we forget just how capable we are of surviving without them. Realizing you can make it out in the wilderness on your own, feeling that connection with nature, and putting all that mileage behind you is a pretty awesome accomplishment, something to be proud of.

mount rainier national park

Mother Nature Does It Better. Mankind has come a long way, and we’ve created some amazing things. But “things” are nothing compared to what Mother Nature has been up to since before human being even existed. I have yet to find anything man-made that has had such a powerful effect on me as standing atop the Grand Canyon or staring up at Mount Rainier.

No matter how many ancient wonders or advances in modern architecture I see, they don’t compare to the majesty that’s in the natural world. The mesmerizing sound of ocean waves crashing ashore, the peacefulness of the sun sinking down over the Grand Canyon, the sheer beauty of Mooney Falls . . . Mother Nature beats man 100% of the time.

Reflections

You Get the Privilege of Seeing Things Most People Don’t. I’m not saying places like Niagara Falls, or the Eiffel Tower aren’t amazing. Absolutely they are, but you’ll be one of thousands of people seeing that same thing, that same day. You’ll be taking the same selfie, shopping in the same gift shops, and dealing with even more commotion than usual. And now that it’s 2018, those tourist hot spots are filled with selfie stick wielding tourists who, from my experience, are a surefire way to make any trip less enjoyable (literally had to grab a woman’s selfie stick that she had tucked under her arm because she kept hitting me with it).

When you backpack, you’re seeing things only a dedicated few have ever laid eyes on, areas that are virtually untouched by man and time, and you’ll see it without all the noisy crowds and long lines of the more popular tourist destinations. You won’t pay obscene entrance fees (usually), you won’t spend a bunch of money on mass produced souvenirs, and you can take the time to really explore and absorb your surroundings.

Trying to take a picture of yourself holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is fine (albeit overdone), but to stand on a fire lookout tower on a mountaintop, staring at the peak of Mount Rainier, with no one around for miles, no sound but the wind, is next level amazing. It’s nothing short of a great privilege.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday with a new blog post each week! 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

Waterfalls and Rescues: The Descent to Mooney Falls

There are some things in life that, though painful or terrifying, we choose to do more than once, because the payoff outweighs the discomfort: childbirth, tattoos, the cost of Foo Fighters tickets . . . Time heals all wounds, after all, and climbing down to Mooney Falls was, for me, one of the “wounds” that had healed.

Mary was excited and had no idea what to expect. I’d told her about it–explicitly–but she either didn’t believe me or wasn’t paying attention. So, when we set out for Mooney Falls Mary was bursting with excitement. I, on the other hand, was mentally psyching myself up the entire way, because I was starting to remember exactly how terrified I was the last time I’d done this climb. It’s kind of like when I got to the hospital to deliver my second child. I knew I’d feel unimaginable joy when it was over and I had my son in my arms, but also I knew what I’d have to go through to get there.IMG_5386

Mooney Falls is a 200 foot waterfall, half a mile past the campground. The trail follows a “natural staircase” down the side of the cliff to the bottom of the falls. The first 100 feet or so are gradual, and relatively protected, finally passing through two narrow tunnels in the cliff side to a small observation area. Once you pass that point, however, shit gets real. The last half of the descent is virtually a vertical drop, climbing down old wooden planks, small jutting rocks, notches in the rock face, and a series of chains and rebar leading to the bottom of the canyon. The massive spray from Mooney covers everything in its fine mist, making the climb slippery and somewhat treacherous.

It was when we reached the first tunnel that Mary and I switched moods. I’d sufficiently pumped myself up and, upon seeing Mooney, was even more determined than ever to make that climb my bitch. Mary, on the other hand, was looking at me like, “are you effing kidding me?” She went from excited curiosity to horrified silence in a matter of seconds.IMG_5400

We made it to the halfway point and, though nervous, I was excited. Mary, however, looked like she wanted to die. I remembered all too well that paralyzing fear, debating whether or not you’re even willing to attempt it, and deciding you’ve come too far to turn back, even though you’re scared shitless. I was so proud of her when she kept going.IMG_5395

Despite my excitement, my body was physically manifesting the fear I’d been fighting to keep at bay. My knees were shaking so badly I had to stop several times to allow it to subside. One foot at a time, very slowly and carefully, we made our way to the bottom. When my feet finally hit the ground, knees still trembling, I had so much adrenaline coursing though my veins that I screamed like a lunatic, just to release some of it.IMG_5409

I turned around to watch Mary take the final steps, and when she let go of the ladder she burst into tears. “Why didn’t you tell me we were gonna have to do that?!” she cried. “I did tell you! Multiple times. With pictures.” I laughed back. I hugged her while she let out a few sobs, and then we both sat down for a second while our bodies calmed down.IMG_5415

The rest of our group arrived and we all dispersed, taking our time and exploring as we made our way to Beaver Falls. Mary and I stopped for a snack and a swim, and when we started moving again, we were met by Mark, who was coming towards us. His face and the urgency of his gait told us all was not well.

While we were having fabulous time splashing around in the river, Heather, a member of our party who had just fried birthday donuts for me the night before, had slipped while stepping into the water, and rolled her ankle. She’d barely made it a mile downriver, and she couldn’t walk. Mark was going for help. Fuck.IMG_5447

We reached Heather to find her sitting on the riverbank with an ankle that was purple and swollen. She’d brought a splint, but even with it on, she was unable to bear weight on the leg. The commotion had started attracting the attention of other hikers, including a nurse and her friend.

We sat with Heather for a while, until she insisted we keep going to Beaver Falls. There was nothing we could do for her at that point. Her friend, Randi was going to wait with her. I think having all of us standing over her was making her feel worse instead of better, so off we went.IMG_5462

The hike to Beaver Falls took longer than I’d expected, but was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked through a valley that was covered in green foliage as high as our shoulders, climbed up and down hills, and through the river. At one point, we even saw two rams staring down at us from high above on a rock outcrop. I wasn’t sure if they were real until one of them turned its head, and I felt like he was looking right at me. They were so beautiful, and so intimidating. We kept as much distance as we could, avoided eye contact, and slowly continued down the trail.

We weren’t entirely sure where we were going. We knew we had to follow the river, but there were a couple different ways to do that. The route we took led us to a couple small ladders (though I’d promised Mary there would be no more ladders. My bad) that spit us out high above Beaver Falls, at a makeshift Ranger Station. To get down to the falls would’ve required another harrowing descent, so we opted to take a snack break and enjoy the view from the top.IMG_5501

Beaver Falls was beautiful; a series of cascading falls, surrounded by red rock canyons and lush green trees. They looked like the perfect falls to jump off of, if only we could reach them. I still can’t figure out how we ended up where we did.

On the way back, we’d barely walked past the spot where we’d left Heather when we came upon the rescue operation in progress. She was being carried out on a stretcher by two Havasupai tribesmen and several members of our group, all taking turns, and pausing for frequent rest breaks. We’d hiked for hours and poor Heather had barely made it a quarter of a mile back. This was going to take a while.IMG_5524

They’d inquired about a rescue helicopter. It’s the only way to access the village if not on foot or horseback, and one made daily runs to the Hilltop. Apparently it was, indeed, available . . . for $80,000. Talk about a good motivator to get out on your own.

The tribesmen helping carry her out were wonderful. I’ve never seen people more determined, more calm under pressure, more positive and upbeat in the face of countless obstacles, as Frankie. He was cracking jokes the whole time and totally confident that we’d get her back up to the top. It took 4 hours get her back to Mooney Falls, alternating between the stretcher, hobbling on a makeshift crutch, and floating her upriver, and he never once lost his can-do attitude or his sense of humor. His quiet confidence and reassuring demeanor was in great deal responsible for the success of the rescue.IMG_5530

Mary and I went ahead and began making the ascent back up the cliff. I was more nervous about going up than I’d been about going down, simply because of how difficult it had been the last time (Uncle Mark had been above me, pulling on my backpack, while my dad was below me, literally pushing my butt just so I could climb up). When I took those first steps I expected it to be difficult, but it was a breeze. I was in great shape, and going up was nowhere near as frightening as coming down. I began to giggle, it was actually fun. My knees were steady, my body was strong, and I climbed up that cliff so fast I blew my own mind.IMG_5547 (2)

Mary still wasn’t loving the climbing, but she did better on the way back up. When we got out of the final tunnel and onto more stable, flat ground, she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief and feel pride in having just conquered such a huge challenge.

Randi had come up ahead of Heather and was running back to camp to get her a change of clothes and something to eat. Meanwhile, members of the tribe had brought rope and harnesses, and after some logistical maneuvering (and the help of a fellow camper who happened to be an expert climber), they began to hoist Heather up the mountain.IMG_5559

A large crowd had gathered at the top of the falls to watch this all go down. Mary and I talked to a dozen different people, all of whom had seen parts of this rescue at one point throughout the day, and all of whom felt invested in the outcome. I was approached by a woman who told me she was a photographer, and that she’d gotten some really great shots of the event. She gave me her phone number and said she’d be happy to send them to Heather once she was able to laugh about it. The nurses from earlier were there, they offered pain meds once she made it to the top. There were even tribe members watching, just because they heard about it. I was amazed by how many people were coming together to offer help, or even just moral support.

Peekaboo!
Peekabo!

After eight long hours, countless people helping, and an ATV waiting at the top to drive her to the village (where Mark, not wanting her to have to get in and out of her tent on a torn up ankle, had rented her a room at the lodge). Cheers went up when she finally emerged, and after gathering a few things from camp, Heather safely arrived at the Lodge, where she, I assume, slept like the dead.IMG_5605

Thanks for stopping by and reading about our Mooney Falls adventure! I hope you’ll come back for the next chapter in 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

Conquering Havasu Canyon: The Trail That Once Conquered Me

The main event was finally upon us! It was time for our ten mile trek to Supai. An extension of the Grand Canyon, but outside the National Park, Supai is located on the Havasupai reservation. This was what I’d been waiting for: to finally conquer the trail that had defeated me a decade earlier.

We were up at the break of day to get to the Hilltop. The sun was barely starting to rise, and the morning air was crisp and chilly. I’m not a morning person, never have been, but I was so excited for the adventure ahead of us, that I practically leapt out of bed when our alarm went off.IMG_5220

The four of us (Mary, Mark, Peter, and myself) stopped for breakfast (Mary and I having some shenanigans at the faux jail across the street before getting back in the car), then drove to the Hualapai Hilltop, where we met a group of Mark’s friends. There were eight of us total. Some of them knew each other, but we were mostly a motley crüe of random people, all connected through Uncle Mark.

Before we even bought our plane tickets Mary talked about wanting to ride a donkey. To hike with a donkey. To pet a donkey. To at least see a donkey. Despite repeatedly telling her they were horses and mules, not donkeys, and that they would not let her adopt one, she’d hear none of it. When we arrived at the hilltop the pack horses were IMG_5226corralled near the parking area, and that was good enough for her. Mary, as giddy as a schoolgirl, asked one of the caretakers if she could pet one, and when he said “yes,” her face lit up like a Christmas tree. As she pet and talked to him like he was a precious unicorn, he let loose the longest, most powerful stream of urine I’ve ever seen. I think a little bit of the magic died for my Mare-Bear in that moment, but it sure was hilarious to watch her expression go from love and joy to “WTF,” while she stepped out of the pee-path. I could not stop laughing.

After some introductions and group pictures, we loaded on our gear and began our descent down the Havasupai Trail.IMG_5230 The trail is 8 miles from the hilltop to the village, and another two miles from the village to the campground. It begins with a series of switchbacks that drop 1200 feet over a mile and a half to the bottom of Havasu Canyon, and IMG_5265follows the path of an old, dried up riverbed. The steep canyon walls rise up on either side of the often rocky trail, prickly pear cactus and other desert flora dotting the landscape.

There’s great benefit to starting this hike early in the morning. While it was chilly at the hilltop, the steep descent at the start of the trail means it gets very warm, very quickly, and there’s virtually no protection from the sun. It’s Arizona after all, so temperatures above 100 degrees are common, particularly in the summer months. But even late in October, we were feelin’ the heat.
IMG_5268

Around the halfway point we regrouped for a rest and snack break at a spot where the canyon wall opens up along the ground, like a long, shallow cave. It’s the perfect place to stop, crawl under the cliff, and cool down.

As we got closer to the village, signs of the natural springs that feed the waterfalls began to appear. The landscape got greener, and as we entered the outskirts of Supai, the dry, desert sand gave way to crystal clear, turquoise creeks. Mary couldn’t believe such an oasis existed in the middle of such a desolate landscape. There’s something truly magical about hiking all day in the hot, desert sun, and coming upon the icy-cold, flowing creeks, and lush foliage surrounding the village.IMG_5317.JPG

“Can I touch it?” Mary asked as she pointed to the river, her face full of amazement. I laughed, both at her asking my permission, and because it’s exactly this enthusiasm for the little things that makes Mary who she is.

When we arrived at the campground there weren’t too many campsites left, but we managed to find a space large enough for our entire group. We got set up quickly, and Mary and I pulled out some protein bars and crackers for dinner. We were too tired to cook. IMG_5357

As the sun set, the temperature began dropping, and I was freezing. Just when I thought I would have to bust open a fourth hand-warmer, the strangest thing happened. An inexplicably warm breeze began to sweep through the canyon. It was like a giant space heater had been turned on. It reminded me of how it feels to walk through a warm spot in Lake Superior–except in this situation I wasn’t concerned that it may be due to someone’s pee. Crisis: averted. It felt like Mother Nature totally had my back.

I made the decision when I started this blog to remain apolitical in my stories. Social media has made it impossible to not know where everyone stands on everything. We look at Facebook and are bombarded by news, and the thoughts and opinions of everyone we know, on both sides of every issue. Everybody’s an expert, it seems, and I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. It’s on Facebook that I spew my opinions like someone actually asked to hear them (they didn’t).IMG_5300

In the 2016 US election, things got ugly. Suddenly, it felt like the entire world had lost its damn mind. Everyone was a “nasty woman,” or in a “basket of deplorables,” and the middle ground seemed to break open, creating a massive fissure between “us” and “them.”

With that being said, I had some nervousness about the trip. My family in Arizona falls squarely on one side of that divide, while I am passionately planted on the other, and if there’s one thing I’ve always been, it’s outspoken. I worried that discussions could get heated, I worried that the group of people my uncle invited (whom I presumed would align with him politically) would bring up an issue that I feel strongly about, and that I wouldn’t be able to hold my tongue. I worried my cursing would offend, I worried I’d make people uncomfortable when I busted out my cannabis. . . I worried.

Those fears turned out to be unnecessary. Apart from Peter, upon arriving at our campsite, jokingly gesturing towards the tents nearby and saying, “Have we met our neighbors? What do we know about them? Have we seen their voting records?” and me replying with, “Have you seen mine?” while my uncle gave Peter a, “please don’t get her started,” look, the subject of politics and current events never came up. We were just eight random people, all at different stages in life, all from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, and allegiances; united by our love of nature, hiking, and camping, and a desire to have a great time, in a beautiful place. The rest of it didn’t matter.IMG_5298

Unbeknownst to me, my uncle had informed everyone in our party that this trip was to celebrate my 40th birthday (and probably to not bring up politics). So while I thought our traveling companions were making dinner, they were actually doing something far more amazing: deep frying dough to make birthday donuts. These people, these complete strangers that I’d feared I wouldn’t mesh well with, had brought the dough, oil, cinnamon, sugar, and even a candle to help make my 40th birthday adventure even more special. They didn’t care what side of the political fence I sat on, and they reminded me that we’re not as different as the internet would have us believing.

After a round of Happy Birthday that literally left me speechless and tearful, we had what I believe to be the most delicious donuts I’ve ever eaten in all my life. I was absolutely blown away by their kindness and generosity of spirit.

We were all pretty tired, and we had another big day of hiking ahead of us, so everyone started hitting the sack fairly early. Mary and I headed back to our little campsite and smoked a bit before we went to bed. We talked about the day, and how excited we were for the next, and about what fantastic people we had hiked in with.IMG_5256

My 40th birthday trip was turning out exactly as I’d hoped. Every mile we hiked, the built up stress inside me faded away. By the time I went to bed I could feel the shift in my spirit, the shadow of negativity that creeps in through the grind of everyday life fading away; light and positivity filling its place.

When I’d hiked the trail in my twenties I had gone to sleep with feet full of blisters, and legs so sore I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to move the next day. This time I went to sleep blister-free, and bursting with excitement for the adventure to come: climbing down the canyon wall to Mooney Falls, and hiking on to Beaver Falls, the waterfall I hadn’t been able to reach the last time. I had no idea as I climbed into my sleeping bag that the hike would turn into an all day rescue for one of the incredible people who’d just made me birthday donuts.

Thank you for stopping in to check out my blog! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday to see what befell one of us hikers, and how the tale unfolds!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

How I Decided to Spend My 40th Birthday: Family, Friends and Adventure

The big 4-0 was approaching. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, I always thought 40 was so old. On the other hand, I didn’t feel old. I’d always assumed I’d feel different at 40: wiser, more established, maybe a little boring. You know, a married homeowner, mom-jeans, much better cook. Yet here I was in my rented duplex, divorced and alone, eating a peanut butter sandwich, and watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix for the billionth time.

mom and three kids in vegas
My three beautiful children and I all dressed up for my stepsister’s wedding in Las Vegas.

My life definitely hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would, but I was happy with where I was. Aside from not having the romantic and material things I’d always associated with adulting, I was doing pretty well. I have three incredible kids who, if I do say so myself, are turning out awesome, I have some of the greatest friends in the world, and have had some absolutely epic experiences.

How was I going to mark the beginning of my 40’s? How did I want to commemorate the occasion? One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to do it in Cleveland. That seemed like adding insult to injury. An adventure was in order, something to challenge my aging body and renew my spirit. I wanted to be outside, away from the cacophony of traffic, sirens, and millions of other people in the city. I wanted to be in a place that took my breath away; somewhere warm, far away, and totally different than what I was used to, a complete break from my reality. I wanted to push myself and shatter the image of what I’d always thought 40 looked like.

IMG_0192
Amy, Dad, Uncle Mark, and a very heavy Steph before our hike to Supai in 2008

When I was in my late twenties I hiked part of the Grand Canyon. My friend Amy, my dad, and I flew to Phoenix where my Uncle Mark picked us up from the airport. After a family cookout with the whole Stohre clan, we got a good night’s sleep before heading to the Hualapai Hilltop. From there we set off for Supai village, at the bottom of the canyon, on the Havasupai reservation. I was a lot younger then, but I was also considerably heavier and very out of shape.

I made it to the village, where we had rooms reserved at The Lodge, and even down to Mooney Falls the next day, but I never made it to Beaver Falls, and was physically incapable of hiking back to the hilltop. It was such a defeat. I rode a horse out of the canyon–which was a cool experience–but it was a huge blow to my self confidence, and also a sad testament to my general health.

281
Amy and I after reaching Mooney Falls in 2008

With that in mind, the decision was made. What better way to enter my 40’s than by conquering a trail that had conquered me a decade earlier? I would go over the hill while turning Over The Hill (I love puns). Supai here I come! And this time I was going to camp and not ride a damn horse out.

I recruited my neighbor and one of my best friends to come with me. Mary is like family, and she shares my love of nature, adventure, and hiking, in addition to bringing an added layer of fun to everything she does. I also emailed my Uncle Mark. He’s always down for a hike to Supai, and I don’t get to see my Arizona family enough. Plus, he’s the guy you want around on any trip, but especially one in Arizona. He’s like the Yoda of the Arizona wilderness.

When the day finally arrived I felt more like a kid on Christmas morning than a woman entering middle age. Excited doesn’t begin to describe it. I adore the Grand Canyon and hadn’t seen it in a decade, and I was still on a post-Bestieversarycation high from Lindsey and I’s Washington trip, still in the honeymoon phase with my love affair with backpacking. I was so pumped I feel like we could’ve fueled the plane on my adrenaline alone.

IMG_4580

My aunt and uncle were having dental work done in Mexico (put that in the column of: Things You Don’t Hear in Ohio) the day we arrived in Phoenix, and my cousin Luke was working. That meant Luke’s wife, Kelly, was on Steph-and-Mary duty. She picked us up from the airport and drove us to their house in a beautiful gated community in Tempe, and Mary and I were finally able to smoke a cigarette (yes, I know, it’s a disgusting habit, and I’m working on it. Cut me some slack, I’m old now). Hours of airports, airplanes, and other people’s cars had left us on the precipice of full-blown nicotine withdrawal, and I could feel myself starting to get anxious and bitchy. We stepped into Luke and Kelly’s backyard and, as I took my first, glorious drag, I also took in my surroundings.

Holy crap. Their place was off the hook. That is what I pictured 40 looking like. It was a big, open, classically Southwestern home with the backyard of anyone’s dreams. The patio, that ran the entire length of the house, had an outdoor BBQ kitchen, a hot tub, and sun shades that descended from the ceiling at the flip of a switch. Mind: blown. There was a pool, palm and citrus trees, and the yard was entirely enclosed by a stucco privacy wall. It was gorgeous. I had a brief moment when I wondered if they wanted a live-in, housekeeping cousin.IMG_4599

When Luke got home we headed to the grocery store so Mary and I could pick up some camping food. Along with granola bars and mac-n-cheese, we got other important staples. . . like tequila. Once back at the house, Luke got to work mixing us up some margaritas. After all, we were in the Southwest.IMG_4589

We finished a couple margs and headed to dinner. What a great time it was getting to know my cousin and his wife! I grew up in the Midwest, far removed from the majority of my dad’s family who all lived in Arizona. I’d never gotten to know them except for a handful of visits spread out over four decades. Turns out, they’re totally dope. And they have awesome wives.

Between the pre-game margaritas and the wine at dinner, Kelly, Mary and I were pretty tipsy. Luke drove us to my aunt and uncle’s house where, I’m not gonna lie, despite my age, I still felt weird being drunk around my elders, like I was going to get in trouble. I think a part of me will always feel 15, no matter how old I get. But instead of judging, or sending me to my room and calling my dad, when my Uncle Mark and Aunt Cindy came home, Mark started making more margaritas. I remember thinking, these are definitely my people.

Luke and Kelly stayed long enough to celebrate the last moments of my thirties and help welcome a new decade before heading home. Aunt Cindy went to bed soon after, exhausted after having spent the entire day on international travel and oral surgery. Mary, who had stayed up way past her bedtime, was the next one to call it a night, and after a wonderful chat with my uncle, he was ready to hit the hay, too. There I was, alone, in a beautiful backyard in Phoenix, with nothing but the warm night air and four decades worth of memories to keep me company.

I reflected on my first forty years as I sipped the margarita Mark made me before he went to bed, and I let all the memories wash over me. I realized how many experiences I’d had, and how each experience had taught me something, brought me to where I was in that moment, made me who I was. As I sat there, I was grateful, not just for the moments of joy, but also for all the times I’d screwed up. Not a single misstep can truly be a mistake if the lesson it teaches makes us better people. So, despite my anxiety over turning 40, I found myself thankful for the experiences I’d had, and welcoming this new chapter in the story of Steph Stohre.IMG_4605

The sun was pouring through the windows when I woke up the next morning. It was hard to feel anything but bliss on a morning so perfect. It was warm, the birds were singing, the sky seemed bluer than usual, and I could smell the citrus trees as I walked through Mark and Cindy’s backyard.

Mark was getting some work done before we hit the road, and Cindy was in the kitchen cooking up my favorite breakfast: bacon (among other things, of course). God, I love bacon. I can’t imagine a better way to have begun my first day as a 40 year old. I’d worry about my cholesterol later.IMG_4615

After breakfast it was time to pack up the car and head to Sedona. In addition to breakfast, Cindy had baked chocolate chip cookies that she bagged up for our trip. She was one busy lady in the kitchen that morning! Could this day get any better? I was in Heaven. We all wished she could join us, but she had other obligations, so after some pictures and hugs, she waved us off, as Mark, Mary and I set off for our five day adventure in the Wild Wild West.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you’ll check out some of my other adventures, and be sure to check back next week to read another chapter in my Arizona Birthday Ladycation!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Curing My Nature Withdrawal

It’s been over 7 months since my last nature trip and I’m in full blown withdrawal. I need to be surrounded by trees and falling asleep in a tent under the stars. I flew to Vegas with two of my fellow ladycationers in March, and we were supposed to camp in Zion National Park for two nights before two nights of Vegasing, but our flight was cancelled and we ended up missing the first two days of our trip. Ever since then I’ve been a hot mess of a tightly wound woman, who desperately needs to escape reality and get her hike on.

Great Smoky Mountains

Funds are tight, a far away adventure is out of the question. I always want to go west when I travel. I love the West! The mountains, the ocean, the weather, the people; I love it all. But living in Ohio, getting to the western USA is no easy or inexpensive feat. So, I started looking for more reasonable, accessible options.

The Great Smoky Mountains are only a half day’s drive from Cleveland, and I’ve always wanted to hike on the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the Smokies. I started looking at a trail map and researching various trails in the National Park, and when I’d picked the perfect route I called my ladycationers.

Locked and Loaded

While you’re reading this (thank you, by the way), Lindsey and I are somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains, probably getting rained on, if the forecast is correct, and loving every minute of it.

We’ll be hiking the Forney Creek Loop that begins and ends at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the National Park. We’ll hike down the Forney Creek Trail, then up the Jonas Creek Trail, before joining the Welch Ridge Trail, and finally turning up the AT for the final leg of our journey. It’s only about 20 miles, but from what I’ve read, it’s a pretty strenuous and challenging hike. There are multiple creek crossings that are said to get fairly treacherous;fFrequent rain causes the creeks to swell, making them difficult to get across. There’s also almost 4000ft of elevation loss and then gain, so this hike will test our limits.

Gatlinburg Great Smoky Mountains Tennessee

I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am about this trip. I’ve seen The Smokies before, but I’ve never hiked them. A group of girlfriends and I spent a long weekend in a cabin near Gatlinburg, Tennessee a few years ago. We had every intention of hiking, but ended up losing an entire day in the tourist-hell that is Pigeon Forge, never making it into the wilderness. So I’m pretty stoked about finally getting to explore the mountains, instead of the gift shops and chain restaurants in town, this time. We’ll be surrounded by green, passing waterfalls, climbing mountains, crossing rivers. . . It’s just what the doctor ordered (technically a lie. I’ll be having a bone scan the day before we leave to confirm that I have another stress fracture in my leg. I’ve been advised to cease all high impact activities, but I will NOT miss this trip, so it could be a very interesting hike).094.JPG

We’ll finish our hiking trip the way Lindsey and I always do: an AirBnb with a hot tub. Once we hike out of the mountains we’ll head to Asheville, North Caorolina, where we’ll clean up, check out the town, eat dinner, and retreat to the hot tub with a bottle of wine. No work, no kids, no responsibility; just me and my bestie on a long awaited ladycation.

I hope you’re all having a fantastic week and are planning a nature fix of your own. I can’t wait to see what stories and shenanigans this trip will produce, and share them with whoever is inclined to read them. For a sneak peak, follow Ladycations on Instagram where I’ll be posting a few photos from our adventure! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph