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.

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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

Visiting Supai: A Complete Guide

If you’re a backpacker and you’ve never seen the waterfalls of Supai, it’s time to start planning your first visit! The trip to Havasupai is gorgeous, and can be made February through November, and should be planned well in advance, as reservations are limited and sell out quickly. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting one of the most spectacular places in Arizona!

Reservations: Advanced reservations are required, can be made on their website, and are not easy to get (2018 has been sold out for months). The entire year is open for booking on February 1st at 8am, Arizona time. Day hiking is NOT permitted. There is a 4 day / 3 night maximum for all reservations.

Prices: This isn’t a cheap hike, but it’s well worth the price. Camping prices per person are as follows:

  • 2 days / 1 night = $140.56
  • 3 days / 2 nights = $171.12
  • 4 days / 3 nights = $201.67

If you’re not up to camping, The Lodge may be the option for you. All reservations for the Lodge must be made via phone by calling (928) 448-2111 or (928) 448-2201. Rooms can accommodate up to 4 people and are $175 / night. An additional entrance fee of $90 / person will be collected upon arrival.

Getting There: There are three ways to get to Supai: horseback, helicopter, or on your own two feet.

  • Horseback: Reservations for a saddle horse must be made in advance by calling (928) 448-2180 or (928) 448-2237. The cost is $175 one way, or $250 round-trip. The horses will drop you off at either the Lodge or the campground, and can accommodate up to 250 pounds.
  • Helicopter: Helicopter rides between the Hualapai Hilltop and Supai are available on a first come-first served basis, with tribal members taking priority, for $85 / person. It is recommended that you arrive as early as possible to secure your spot in line. Keep in mind that the helicopter drops you off in the village, the hike from there to Mooney Falls is two miles. Their schedule is as follows: March 15 — October 15, 10am to 1pm on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday. October 16 — March 14: 10am to 1pm on Sunday and Friday.
  • Hiking: The Havasupai Trail begins at the Hualapai Hilltop. It’s eight miles to Supai, and an additional 2 miles from Supai to the campground. Since there is little protection from the sun and temperatures are known to hit triple digits, it’s recommended that you begin your hike as early as possible to avoid the midday heat (though it can get pretty chilly at the hilltop, so be sure to bring the appropriate layers). Make sure you pack plenty of water and sunscreen!

Pack mules are available for your gear at $132 each way. Each mule can carry up to 4 bags / 130 pounds. They must be reserved in advance by calling (928) 448-2180 or (928) 448-2237. Also, when hiking, remember that the mules have the right of way. When a mule train is approaching, move to the canyon side of the trail and wait for them to pass before continuing on.

Water: Ready to drink spring water is available at the campground and in the village. If you are taking water directly from the creeks make sure you bring your filtration system of choice!

Footwear: Since the terrain can be pretty rocky and uneven at times, you’re going to want to make sure you have good ankle support. You’re also going to want a pair of water shoes. Swimming and walking through the river is one of the highlights of this trip, but the rocks under the water are razor sharp. Make sure you have good water shoes that protect your feet and won’t slip off in the current. Tevas or Keens are both excellent choices.

Bathrooms: There are pit toilets at the campground. Please be respectful of the land and use them whenever possible.

Wildlife: There are many critters and furry friends that call Havasupai home. Always respect the living creatures you come across, and make sure you check your shoes and bags for snakes and scorpions before putting them on.

Rules: Please remember that this is tribal land, and respect their rules. Absolutely no alcohol, drugs, drones, or weapons are allowed on the reservation. All trash must be packed out; please leave the land as beautiful when you leave as it was when you arrived. There are some wonderful people who call Supai home and we should all be immensely grateful to them for sharing their beautiful land with us.

Thanks for stopping by! Since you’re here, why not have a look around? For more detailed information on preparing for your trip to Supai, please visit the official Havasupai website, and most of all: HAVE FUN!

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, 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.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.IMG_5566

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.

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Heather and her Supai rescuers

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

Grand Canyon: Going Over THE Hill to Turn Over The Hill

The day after my 40th birthday was going to be amazing. I’d traveled all the way from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon to turn 40 the right way: literally going “over the hill” at my favorite “hill” in the world. Having that adventure awaiting made getting out of bed at the ass-crack of dawn a little bit easier.

I was only slightly hung over when I woke up in the morning, which was surprising considering the astronomical amount of vodka and wine I’d had the night before. Between that and the fact that I was now in my 40’s, I sort of expected to wake up feeling like death (combating a killer headache, needing to vomit, questioning my life choices). What a pleasant surprise to only feel sort of crappy! 40 wasn’t looking too bad.IMG_4845.JPG

We had a big breakfast at a kitschy diner in Williams before we headed towards the National Park. I was so excited by the time we finally got there that I felt closer to 4 than 40. I was practically skipping across the parking lot, unable to fully contain myself, when I got out of the car. As we approached the rim, the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon came into view. My breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat; it was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. The enormity of the Grand Canyon is stupefying. It can’t be fully captured in photographs. There’s just no way to appreciate this tremendously massive place without seeing it for yourself. It’s impossible not to feel small when you’re staring out at landscape so spectacular. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is, it’s awe inspiring.

the Grand Canyon National park

Since Mary had never seen it before, I was almost as excited to see her reaction as I was to see it again for myself. She has such an energetic personality. I’m not sure if it’s her youth (she’s only 25), her seemingly endless optimism, or if she’s just more full of life than most people, but Mary has this incredible ability to make every situation fun, to turn the most mundane task into an adventure. Add to that the fact that she’s easily impressed, and I couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw the it for the first time.

Mary enjoying her first trip to the Grand Canyon

There’s something interesting, and quite lovely, that happens to people when they’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s as if everyone understands its natural sanctity, knows it’s a place to be revered and respected. Everyone gets a little quiet, like they’re in church. So, instead of freaking out, Mary, like so many others, was speechless; but her expression spoke volumes.

After admiring the view, we walked towards the gift shop and purchased some prickly pear margarita mix before  heading to the Bright Angel trailhead. Although we weren’t looking to get any serious mileage in, as we wanted to be fresh for our ten mile trek the following day, we did want to get our legs warmed up. We only hiked about 3/4 of a mile before deciding we were ready for lunch, taking a few pictures, and hiking back up to the top.IMG_4890.JPG

We got our over-priced hot dogs at the Visitor’s Center soda fountain and enjoyed the sunshine as we ate. There were plenty of other tourists roaming around, but despite the number of people, the area is so open that it never felt crowded. I’m sure that’s not always the case (especially in the summer months), but I was pleased that, on this particular day, it wasn’t too packed.

After finishing our lunch we decided to try out another trail on the South Rim, the South Kaibab trail. We moved our car and parked along the main drive, near the shuttle bus access road that leads to the trailhead, and began walking. IMG_4945.JPG

Though I’d done some serious backpacking in Washington only a couple months earlier, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fare on the switchbacks in the Canyon. Going uphill for that long, at that elevation, was intimidating. I didn’t want to hike too far down the trail and wear myself out for the next day’s big hike.IMG_4977.JPG

We hiked down to Ooh Aah Point which, as the name suggests, has one hell of a view. It’s a great spot to stop, catch your breath, and really appreciate your surroundings. Mark, however, being the Pro Grand Canyon Hiker that he is, wanted to get a few more miles in, so he kept going while Mary and I had a snack and smoke break at Ooh Aah. We chatted with some Australian tourists, and admired the breathtaking view, while we waited for Mark to return.IMG_4987

Once it was time to hike back up, I got serious. I took a long drink of water, a deep breath, and up we went. I’m not sure how far I’d gone when I realized I wasn’t struggling, but there was a moment when I thought, “I should be out of breath by now,” but I wasn’t. That’s when I really started to feel empowered. All the hard work I’d put in: running, yoga, new eating habits; a complete lifestyle change, had paid off. Mary wasn’t quite as in love with the uphill trek, and was going a bit slower. I was so grateful to Mark for staying with her so I could keep pushing. I couldn’t stop smiling! I was having the time of my life.South Kaibab Trail

Getting to the top was a wonderful feeling. It made me more confident for the big hike in a few days. I was still a little nervous about a ten mile hike out of the canyon, but I knew I could do it. And even better, I knew it would test my limits, push me. I do love a challenge.

We went to refill our water, but were greeted by an elk who’d decided his thirst trumped ours. He was going to town on the leaky spigot, and was not about to move aside for some dumb, thirsty humans. We were sitting at a picnic table waiting out our long legged friend, when we were approached by a chatty teenager. I was instantly annoyed. He seemed to have either undiagnosed or untreated ADHD. He was all over the place, just being around him made me anxious.

 

The kid explained he was on a road trip with some friends from college, and that they’d wanted to hike further than he did, so he was waiting for them to come back. He wondered if he could hang out with us for a while. After he explained his situation, I kinda felt like an ass for being irritated by his very presence. This poor kid was alone, with no way of contacting his friends, and he was starting to freak out a little. I think he just wanted to be around a grownup. However, he was also very awkward and annoying, and I just wanted him to go away.

We planned on watching the sunset, but it was starting to cool down and we’d left our hoodies in the car. Although we felt bad leaving Mark alone with our new, chatty, young friend, Mary and I set off to return the trekking poles and retrieve some warmer clothes . . . and smoke a bowl, cause that kid, and all his nervous energy, was stressing us the hell out.

Thirsty elk at grand canyon national park
Thirsty Elk

Walking along the access road seemed to be taking forever, so we decided to take a shortcut by cutting through the forest. We thought we had a pretty good sense of where the car was parked, so we took a diagonal path, and were feeling like a couple of trailblazing badasses, when we started to notice all the snake holes in the ground. Like, everywhere. Dozens of them–and we were in rattlesnake country. I thought I was going to completely lose my shit. We took off running like we were being chased by a swarm of angry bees, no longer caring where our car was, just wanting to get the hell out of there. We must’ve looked like a couple of lunatics, but I was not about to ruin what was left of my trip with a snakebite. Hell. No.

We emerged from the woods nowhere near our car. I’m not sure if that was due to our panic-stricken dash after realizing we’d wandered into downtown Snakeville, or if we just had no idea where we were going to begin with, but we had a bit more walking to do before reaching warm clothes and cannabis.

enjoying the view at grand canyon national park

We stuck to the road on the way back to the rim (learning from one’s mistakes is so adulty, I was already good at being 40), and found Mark playing cards with Boy Awkward when we arrived. I had the thought, if we’re stuck with this kid for sunset, with him prattling on like that, when I just wanna find some freaking zen, I’m throwing his ass over the edge of this canyon. Obviously, I wouldn’t actually do that, but I was beyond relieved when his friends finally emerged from the trail, and we were off the hook (and no one would be arrested for murder: bonus).IMG_5122

The sunset was as breathtakingly beautiful as I imagined it would be. We sat and watched the shadows float over the canyons, as the sun sank below the horizon, setting the whole world aglow. It was so peaceful I felt like I could almost hear the sun going down, as if it was whispering goodnight. IMG_5120

With the sun went the heat. The temperature was dropping and we were chilly even in our hoodies. We walked back to our car, stopping so I could take pictures about a dozen times, along the access road as the crescent moon rose in the sky before us.

Once back in Williams, we hit up the Route 66 Diner (so. freaking. delicious.) with Mark’s newly arrived friend Peter, before heading back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep. Morning would be upon us before we knew it, and with it came the big day: Hiking to Supai!IMG_5196

Thank you for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday when our Arizona adventure continues!

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.

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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.

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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

Hiking to Lake George at Mount Rainier NP: Boring to Beautiful, A Trail’s Tale

We almost wished we had another day to relax at the Time and Again Cabin. Alternating between bed and hot tub all day sounded pretty damn nice. But, Rainier was calling, and we couldn’t wait to get all up in her. (That’s what he said.) We had reservations to camp at Lake George for two nights. Although we reserved our site well in advance for fear of it filling up, we were one of only two parties in the entire campground.

trail to lake george

We checked in at the Wilderness Center in Ashford to pick up our wilderness pass and, with it in hand, drove to the trailhead. I use the term “trail” loosely because it’s actually an old, gravel access road snaking up the mountain. It’s not very scenic for the first four miles. Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of Rainier’s peak, but compared to the hiking in we’d done in Olympic National Park, it felt more tedious than anything. Our fatigue may have been a contributing factor to our overall opinion of the trail. Had this been our first hike of the trip, I think I’d be considerably more forgiving in my assessment.

After a seemingly endless, and all uphill hike, we reached the final stretch of trail, which is just shy of a mile from the campground at Lake George. Although much more scenic, it was also a steeper, more strenuous climb. When we finally reached the lake we were ready to drop. We quickly found a site with a gorgeous view and immediately set up camp. Lindsey’s blisters had gotten exponentially worse throughout the course of our adventures, our bodies were crying out for rest; we just wanted to be off our feet.IMG_3619

I’d begun the hike in a tech skort and tee, but the higher we climbed, the colder it got. Once in the shade of the forest at Lake George, my heart rate slowing down (and soaking wet with sweat), I was freezing. All I wanted to do was take off my skort, my big, clunky boots, and sweaty socks; put on warm, dry clothes, and smoke a damn cigarette. I’d taken off my boots and socks, put my sandals on, had lit a cigarette and was just about to finish pulling up my pants (a challenge with my sweat-sticky legs), when I realized I never took off my skort. I had to start all over. Total fail. I wanted to cry. Any illusions I had about my prowess and badassery from hiking up the mountain vanished in that moment. Call me Kendrick, cause I felt real damn humble.

Our campsite was perfect. As we ate our dinner we watched the sunset on Mount Rainier; the color of her mammoth, glacier-capped peak changing from gray to orange to red to purple, until the sun was gone and the sky filled with stars. So many stars. Between the enormity of Rainier, the pristine, turquoise water of Lake George, and the infinite stars in the sky, the trek to get there is totally worth it.

I have literally never been anywhere so quiet. It was surreal. The only sounds we could hear at night were the occasional chipmunk scurrying around, and the breeze as it passed through the trees. During the day it was just the breeze and the soft hum of insect wings. It was so peaceful that hearing the occasional hiker passing through was almost jarring. I guess we’d become more confident and comfortable with being alone in the wilderness, despite our nervousness when we began.IMG_3689

Fires aren’t allowed that high in elevation in Mt. Rainier National Park. It was cold–and I mean cold–once the sun went down. I had on fleece-lined long underwear and two pairs of yoga pants, three pairs of socks (one of which was wool), a tee shirt, long underwear shirt, long sleeve tee, and a hoodie. I was still freezing. Lindsey, however, is a genius, and she brought a bunch of those self-heating hand warmers. It kept my hands warm while we star gazed, and when I went to bed I threw it in the bottom of my sleeping bag, which kept my feet nice and toasty all night long. I definitely regretted not buying the cold weather sleeping bag and tent, though.IMG_3687

In the morning we woke to a frigid, see-your-breath kind of day, but the sun was shining and I was excited for our hike to Gobbler’s Knob (yes, Gobbler’s Knob. Insert dirty joke here). Lindsey’s feet, however, weren’t hiking anywhere. Her blisters were now deep, open sores that were weeping and raw. They were a little alarming, to be honest. She needed to let them rest. We were both afraid she wouldn’t make it off that mountain if she didn’t.IMG_3853

I hated leaving her there, and had a little trepidation at going it alone, but she insisted. She knew how excited I was to finally see the place I’d been reading about for months, and I couldn’t fathom not going. So, with Lindsey squared away at the campsite, I stopped at the lake to refill my water and headed up the trail to the summit, solo.IMG_3628

The first thing I remember on the trail was the field of wildflowers in a small valley before the ascent to the lookout tower. The ground was covered in white and yellow wildflowers, and the air was alive with the buzzing of hundreds of bees. I was a little freaked out at first. I walked cautiously, but I soon realized they didn’t even notice me. They were too busy to care about who was passing through. It was an unexpectedly delightful experience.

The climb up to Gobbler’s Knob is no joke (despite it’s name). It’s steep and can be a little disorienting if you’ve got an issue with heights. Looking out over the edge at the massive peak of Rainier is mind blowing. I got dizzy on the trail when she came into view, and had to focus on my footing so as not to fall. I was relieved to look up and finally see the fire lookout within sight.IMG_3767

When I emerged from the trail on top of the mountain and saw the view, it literally took my breath away. I don’t even know how to describe it. I was completely oblivious to anything around me except the majestic beauty of Mt. Rainier. “Holy shit.” It just escaped my mouth before I even knew I was speaking, startling even me. That’s when I heard the couple on the lookout tower, whose romantic moment I’d just interrupted, laughing. I jumped, realizing I wasn’t alone, and apologized while I tried to get my bearings. I felt unsteady, I was shaking, and my knees felt weak. The view was unlike anything I’d ever seen, but my body was in total preservation mode, “Danger! Flee!” I’ve got a really bizarre Bucket List for someone who’s afraid of heights.IMG_3771

I carefully walked up the steps to the lookout tower, my knees shaking so badly it made walking something of a challenge. I had this irrational fear that the railing would collapse, and I’d fall over the edge, plummeting to my death down the mountainside. Once I was up there I gripped the windowsill for dear life. I wanted a selfie with Rainier in the background to commemorate the moment, but I couldn’t let go of the windowsill, even to take the picture. If you look close enough you can see the fear in my eyes behind the elation.

Volcano Selfie

I wanted to take a million pictures, but my whole body was shaking, so I couldn’t hold my phone steady and only got a few decent shots. I sat down to have a smoke to calm my nerves. Back securely against the wall, and after some concentrated breathing exercises, I was able to relax and just revel in Rainier’s magnificence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The only sound I could hear was the wind, which seemed to be her peak itself, whispering. I was transfixed, entranced, in absolute awe. Take me to church!

I was busting out my snack when I noticed the water filter in the side pocket of my pack. Oh crap. I had left Lindsey at Lake George with torn up feet and absolutely no water. Commencing panic in 3, 2, 1. . .

Mount Rainier

I frantically gathered my things, bolted down the tower steps, and hit the trail. Unlike my cautious hike up, the fear was gone, and I was running. I had this image in my mind of Lindsey down at camp, crying, cursing my name, and dying of thirst. I felt like the worst friend ever. I ran the entire way down the switchbacks (receiving a “Damn, you go girl,” from a fellow hiker along the way), through the field of wildflowers, and up to our campsite. When I arrived, sweaty and breathless, Lindsey was doing yoga; calm and collected, zen AF, and, upon seeing me arrive, said, “Oh, heyyyy, you’re back!” Once I caught my breath and was able to speak, I apologized. She laughed at my panic, and we headed down to the lake to sit in the sun, and get her some water. She was fine. Thirsty, but fine.IMG_3806

The lake was calm, and apart from when a breeze went through, was like a smooth pane of emerald glass. It was hypnotizing. There was no one in sight so we smoked a crazy, kief covered joint, and watched from the shore as the sun danced on the water. The sparkling drew us in, and we lost a good hour just watching the sun’s reflection twinkle and dance. The high from the joint we’d smoked was incredible. Cerebral, uplifting, and completely relaxing. The perfect sativa-indica hybrid to facilitate a full submersion in our surroundings.IMG_3834

When the sun dipped below the mountain it was time to head back to camp. It was another cold night on the mountain, but the solitude had taken us over, and we were consumed by its tranquility. It was our last night in the wilderness and we wanted to savor every single second, so we loaded up on hand warmers, and enjoyed the night, staying up well past dark to admire the stars. Living in the city, it’s easy to forget just how spectacular the night sky is when you get away from all the lights and smog. We even saw a couple of meteors!

This trip had brought Lindsey and I together on a level that, even as best friends, we hadn’t previously experienced. We’d gone through the trenches together, like comrades in arms, we’d had to rely on each other, to work together to achieve our goals. And we loved it. We knew, by the end of this adventure, that it was only the beginning of our Ladycations. And as we fell asleep on our last night in the backcountry, we dreamed of all the nights, in all the places, we’d venture to next. . .IMG_3632

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and don’t forget to come back next week for LadycationSunday when the Washington Bestieversarycation continues in Seattle!

Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on upcoming trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph