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dans les bon temps…et les mauvais

It’s February 22, 2020. After a 9 hour drive that started after Billy got home from work at noon, we are faced with setting up camp in the dark. Even with a time zone change, we are just hoping to be off the road before the gates close at 10.

So when we pull into the campground and start the slow crawl to our reserved spot, we get only glimpses of the other sites: RVs packed together, decked out in green, gold, and purple lights; Spanish moss casting eerie shadows in our headlights; a field of campsites, unoccupied due to excessive flooding from recent rains.

We have reserved a site in the “unimproved” loop of Fontainebleau State Park in southern Louisiana, knowing we’ll be in a tent and just need it for sleeping, okay paying less to get less. With each site closer to ours, the flooding does not seem to stop, and when we finally pull in, there is maybe one area that isn’t underwater where we can have pitch our tent.

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Four days earlier, Jordi texted me that they were driving to New Orleans to spend the weekend with her family for Mardi Gras. She knew it was last minute, but it would be great to see us if possible. My first thought was to try and work out a chance to hike with her somewhere along their drive. My second thought, was to check Billy’s work schedule, and when he had an opening shift followed by two days off, I sent him a text asking how he felt about a road trip.

We don’t observe Lent, and we don’t have family in NOLA, so Mardi Gras never felt like a holiday we had much claim to. But getting out of the rainy Chattanooga winter and going a few hundred miles south, seeing a city we’d never been to, and hanging out with friends at a giant street party? I wasn’t about to say no. Of course on such short notice, finding a place to stay was difficult. Hotels were either booked or astronomically expensive, and all the campgrounds on the New Orleans side of Pontchartrain were full (or, as we found out, flooded). Fontainebleau State Park was our best choice, about 45 minutes from the city, and would hopefully give us a quiet night.

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I get out of the car, headlights shining into the trees, and look for a path to the seemingly dry spot. I find one–ish. Most of the ground is swamp, water coming a good two inches up the picnic table legs. I hop over a particularly deep “puddle,” and the dry spot is not so much dry, as just not submerged.

Pro–there is room for our tent. We have a tarp, and will probably stay dry during the night.

Con–we have to get all of our gear and two kids over all of the surrounding water, any nighttime bathroom trips will almost definitely result in wet feet, and there is no guarantee our combined weight will not cause this one area to sink into swamp as well.

The kids ask what we are going to do. They are tired. They are excited. They wanted to see their friends tonight, and are disappointed we said we were going straight to our campsite. They wanted a campfire, and there is no way anyone is building one, not when the fire ring is underwater and dry wood is a joke.

I laugh. When I went to Alaska, I had this picture in my head of sleeping in the back of my rental car. A picture of me, cozy under a blanket, while I ate a dehydrated meal next to my tiny camp stove, a view of the Denali range from the windowbox hatch of an SUV. It was the perfect boho-chic, instagram-worthy image. Instead, after over 12 hours of traveling and arriving to foggy, rainy, 50 degree weather in July, I got a hotel room in Anchorage and enjoyed the hell out of a hot shower and extra blankets, and didn’t mind a bit that my only view was another hotel and a cracked parking lot.

“If we take the car seats out, we can fold the back seat down and sleep in the car,” I say. Billy is enthusiastic. The kids are incredulous. But it’s what we do. We move as much as we can up front, leave the car seats on the ground and pray it doesn’t rain, and make a bed out of our sleeping bags. It isn’t instagram-worthy, but it is definitely cozy. We eat a snack, brush our teeth, and snuggle together, and I think, this is a story worth telling.

Between our site and the site next to ours

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Mardi Gras is everything and nothing like I expected. There are no women flashing for beads. There are no throngs of people trampling each other for the front row. In the residential area where Jordi’s family lives, it feels more like a small town Main Street parade than Carnivale—just with much more elaborate floats. People park trucks in the street and families hang out in the beds. Some drag ladders out so the kids can see over people’s heads. It is a party atmosphere for sure, but a very family friendly one. Neighbors are barbecuing in their driveways, people are sharing the throws to make sure kids are able to get stuffed animals or foam balls. Everyone is smiling and laughing and there is so much joy, a glittery purple, green, and gold veneer that almost masks the truth.

Here we are, readily welcoming single use plastic, covering trees with paper streamers, leaving behind a mess on the street as children move on to play with their spoils and the adults around them get drunk.

Here we are, a party of thousands, tens of thousands, gathered together while a deadly virus lurks in other parts of the world. I think, for a moment, even in late February before the US saw its first spike in Covid cases, that if someone here has the virus, if its transmission is as rapid as the news made it out to be, we will all have it by the end of the week.

Here we are, the proletariates, shouting with joy to be recognized by the bourgeois. We gratefully accept our baubles, just happy to be a part of the fun, while the masked oppressors flaunt their wealth. (This is intensified at night, and disconcerting more than celebratory, with the fog and low lights casting sinister shadows. It feels like Sorceress Edea’s inauguration. Applauding as Senator Palpatine is granted emergency powers.)

Here we are, applauding our own role as pawns.

But I only see through it in waves, participating nonetheless.

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We eat. Some of the best food I have had in my life. The next day, we visit the French Quarter, going into hoodoo shops where cultural appropriation and sacred tradition exist in the same square foot. We gorge ourselves on crawfish. The kids laugh when a firetruck drives by, the firefighters blasting zydeco and dancing and laughing and bouncing through open windows, and they squeeze my hands more tightly when I steer them across the street from the homeless man, having a loud and passionate and expletive-laden argument with someone the rest of us cannot see. The weather is warm and we don’t want to leave, and I understand why so many gothic novels are set here, because there is timelessness and placelessness in the French Quarter. There is opulence set against decay. There is exhilaration that spreads like a blanket over the unease. The city gets into your blood, once you have been there, and it’s easy to understand why it might be home to vampires; for that insatiable thirst, the city promises fulfillment.

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Billy’s friends are shocked, when they ask what he did with his two days off and he tells them we went to Mardi Gras. “The real Mardi Gras?” They ask. “Like in New Orleans?”

People who know me are not surprised, with a mixed bag of indifference and admiration. My response is usually a shrug of the shoulders. “The timing worked out,” I say. “And who knows if we’ll get that chance again.”

It is three weeks, before the WHO declares a global pandemic, and quarantines begin. Trips to the grocery store become a risk, trips out of state an impossibility. We are not to gather in groups larger than 10, as if that is the magic number below which a virus cannot transmit.

And a year later, still in a pandemic, still largely quarantined, and moving almost 2000 miles north of the Gulf Coast, I am so glad we made the trip. For the flooded campground, the long hours driving, the panic of losing Sebastian for half an hour after the parade, the neck cramp from sleeping in the car. For the food and our friends, for our kids experiencing adventure, for tasting the ancient magic flowing out of the bayou and over crumbling mausoleums, weaving through wrought iron porch railings, charged by a people who have risen over and over again from the floods. For hiking under live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and over boardwalks through (supposedly) gator-infested waters.

For seizing opportunity, right before we all were quickly reminded that opportunity may not come again.

In Milk

Two years ago, I woke up every morning hoping my mother had died.

I didn’t want her dead. I didn’t want her sick. But she was dying, and we were waiting, and nothing about that felt right. I thought, once she goes, we can start grieving. Once she goes, we can figure out how to move forward.

Of course, all of that was bullshit.

The day after she died, everything was in slow motion. I had to get up and make breakfast for my kids. Make coffee. Figure out when I would go by the funeral home to pick up her ashes. I had responsibilities. And time kept marching on, with or without my consent.

Two years later, I still have responsibilities. And some days, it still feels like a bad joke, that I am in this world without my mom.

She died two years ago today. February 2nd (also considered the 1st for some) marks the first festival on the Wheel of the Year, or the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s the first “holiday” of the year, so to speak, even if it is on that is often muted. The name, “Imbolc” (thought by some to be rooted in “of milk”) is this cross-quarter point when ewes become pregnant, and milk starts to come in for many lactating mammals. Underground, roots stir. Imbolc is when the world begins to awaken, if not quietly and unseen. (Even Groundhog Day is rooted in pagan beliefs too–google it if you want!).

Two years ago, I was planning on writing a guide, entitled “Hiking the Wheel of the Year.” New to Tennessee, I had been freelancing for a hiking blog as we found new trails, was poised to sell my first images to a non-profit, and in a few weeks would be contacted by a regional magazine about submitting images for a cover photo. Hiking gave me life. And in my deepening faith, I wanted to explore ways to feel the rhythms of the earth while hiking with children. Imbolc was the perfect place to start.

Instead, I wrote a poem titled “umbilical.”

I’m finally writing my guide. We are in the eye, right now, of the storm of selling and buying a house during a pandemic. Holed up at the beach for two months, in the winter, our pace has slowed and I am confronted with Time. And between that, and leaving Tennessee, and the slow reconnect with a reality where my mom is gone, the white noise of the crashing waves might be quiet enough to hear those stirrings of rebirth.

New Year New Everything

It is 1am, and I am standing in a vacant lot amidst sharp grass taller than I am, shivering under my husband’s coat, a headlamp over my knit hat, and a machete in my hand.

We are 5 miles past the Georgia/South Carolina border, searching the brush for one of our cats, who bolted out of the car at the gas station across the street just as we were about to get back on the highway. It’s somewhere in the 30s, and as we are dressed for driving and not bushwacking in the dead of night in January, Billy and are taking turns trying to coax him out of the bushes, switching the one hat and coat we can access in the moving boxes. The Searcher stays until they absolutely must warm up, and the Waiter sits with the kids, both of them exhausted and desperate to get out of the truck and help look despite being barefoot and wearing thin traveling clothes.

The first time I venture past the broken concrete of the abandoned gas station into the thick underbrush, I see a large metal bowl, filled with rainwater and a couple of soaked towels. I briefly entertain who–or what–it is there for, and how I was born in a hospital just down the road and might die here when whatever wild dog comes back to defend its territory. When I tell Billy this later, he laughs. “She didn’t make it very far,” he says, of what people will think of my obituary. Under the circumstances, it’s a somewhat dark joke–and not just because of the hour.

Cassian finally decides to give up the game, mostly I think because he is cold, and because when he finally came out of the bushes we let Kairi call for him, since she is one of those people animals will always be drawn to. We get back on the road, cringing at our new ETA, and it doesn’t take long for the adrenaline to fade.

2020 sucked. Wholly. Completely. Globally. But in the midst of all of that suckage, the complete upheaval of society shone a light onto a lot of problems that have lived in the shadows bright enough that we couldn’t keep ignoring them. In some instances, this was on a large scale. Seeing the botched response the US government had to the pandemic juxtaposed with the outrageous response to BLM protests was motivating–and it showed at the polls.

But also personally. People took up new hobbies. Made realizations about their jobs. Discovered homeschooling was for them. Discovered homeschooling really WASN’T for them. Got sober. Started therapy. Saw a deeper understanding of their priorities–in how they spend their money, how they invest their time, and where they want to live

We were among the latter. Tennessee is the land of my ancestors, but has never felt like home for us. Despite the fact that I really do love Chattanooga, and really do think that we had the potential to be happy there. But one thing Tennessee does not have and will not EVER have, is a coastline, and no matter what else happened and how much else we grew to love, that was always going to be something deep inside both of us we could never be at peace with. For Billy, he just loves the beach. Terry Pratchett describes my claustrophobia at being landlocked a little better.

So in a year where travel was limited, and a six hour drive each direction to the ocean was just not possible, one of our big realizations was that we had to move. And despite my long held belief that I would end up in North Carolina, or back in the mountains of Virginia, being forced into “would you rather live at the beach or the mountains?” the last two years taught me that my answer is, honestly, both. I couldn’t give up one or the other. And as much as I love the Blue Ridge, as much as the mountains in Southern Appalachia are where my soul resides, I wanted to be where I could have both.

And that is the story of how we ended up buying a house in Maine.

This decision was an adventure. Buying a house out of state. Flying during a pandemic to make sure we weren’t completely out of our minds for wanting to go up there. Flying again during a pandemic to see the house we made an offer on in person–after we signed a contract. Selling a house during a pandemic and the stress/anger/tears/sleeplessness that comes with moving made even more difficult by needing last minute contractors over new year’s weekend. And then of course, The Curious Incident of the Cat in the Nighttime.

But it’s almost over. Our house in Tennessee is closed. Thanks to my aunt and uncle, and our friend/neighbor/realtor, we might be able to close that chapter. And we sign closing paperwork in Maine at the end of the week. And for the next two months, we are in a long-term oceanfront vacation rental in Emerald Isle, NC: one of our favorite places in the world, and a decision made when we didn’t expect to have a home in Maine so soon after selling in TN.

I have no idea what 2021 is going to look like. As a pagan, the winter solstice is where I really view my new beginnings and practice rituals around letting go, and setting intentions. And since 2020 didn’t look a thing like anyone expected, there seems to be a collective hesitance of making assumptions about the new year. Like if we voice our optimism out loud it may jinx things.

Change is scary. I voiced to my therapist, in one of my last appointments with her, that I have been so uncomfortable with this move and finally realized, it’s because we are moving for no reason other than we WANT to. And that is a radical decision, in a country where all decisions are expected to serve the wheel of capitalism, and chasing a dream with no idea if it will result in disaster or not is beaten out of us by the time we reach adulthood. I’m an artist, after all. I’ve been told my whole life the importance of getting a “real” job. Except, when I had a real job, it made me miserable. Almost every decision we have made because we were “supposed” to hasn’t felt quite right. So upon realizing that, I can sit with that discomfort, knowing that I would rather be uncomfortable because I am leaning into fear, than be unhappy because I am avoiding it.

Grace in the time of Covid-19

There are cairns littering the beach, stacked on every flat and semi-flat surface on the rock wall climbing the side of the cove. 

I take them in, thinking of the cairns I have seen before. 

Massive structures in wire or wooden cages, in Atlanta, in Sedona, marking the trail where blazes would otherwise be painted directly onto rock. 

The small stack my then-four-year-old daughter built at a checkpoint at the Grand Canyon in imitation of the many others she had seen, and the hurt and confusion on her face when two hikers knocked it down, loudly proclaiming to themselves how much they hated cairns and were sick of people doing it for aesthetic. (The ensuing conversation we had afterwards, the struggle every outdoory parent knows of balancing LNT with letting kids experience nature on their own terms so they grow up to believe in LNT.)

Cairns marking the border between Greenheart Forest and the trail that connects with the AT, created by the property owner to note the boundary and expanded by the many hikers who find peace, art, or simply mischief in each stack. 

I can’t help but shake my head. The beach has cobblestones in place of sand, and I am trying to find friends in a place I am certain is the wrong location, and rehearsing in my head the conversation I will have with my son about how the rocks are a critical part of the ecosystem, so he will not be allowed to take any home. 

Later, I enter the beach again, exhausted from a walk on the loop road in Acadia National Park, trying to find the beach we were supposed to be at. On leaving the wooden staircase, a young woman, fit, white, and pretty, has built a cairn and is contorting herself with her phone stretched in front of her. She is not bothering anyone, but I wonder if she plans to knock the cairn down when she leaves. 

My daughter says something about the tide. “The slide rock was almost under water and now it isn’t!” She remembers wrong, but is adamant the tide is going out, and refuses to accept the arguments my husband and I present to her. Annoyed with her obstinance, I finally snap, “I know it’s coming in because I checked a tide chart this morning and know low tide was at lunchtime.” 

She sulks momentarily, and then goes back to playing, and my words echo in my head. 

As homeschoolers, we have escaped the painful choice between physiological needs (food, warmth, and the income required to provide both), and safety needs (being able to quarantine ourselves and our children against a virus). We have other Choices, including the one that led us to this rocky beach, but To School or Not To School is not among them. And as homeschoolers, I have long stated that one of the benefits to homeschool is you can do it anywhere. And yet, here I was in a new environment, teaching my child nothing more than she is wrong because I say she’s wrong. 

“Let’s do an experiment,” I say, and she brightens. We talk about her belief the tide is going out, and she learns the word ‘hypothesis.’ I suggest she build a cairn, a few feet from where she is playing in the shallows. I know the tide is coming in. It will knock the rocks down and shift them around the shore regardless.

We spend a few minutes together, completely in the present, looking for the perfect rocks. Engaging with each other, and with our senses. We discuss the scientific method. I tell her she can play for a few more minutes and come back to check, but she insists on sitting there, observing the each wave, until she can no longer deny that the water is rising. 

“What is your conclusion?” I ask. 

“The tide is coming in.” 

“Was your hypothesis correct?”

“No.”

She runs off to explore some more. I look at the remains of the cairn under the cold, clear water, and think of the judgement I might receive if, out of context, I shared a picture of my child with her experiment. I feel I must explain. I must ask for understanding, in a world where we struggle so hard to find Grace.

Later, in the car, I ask her, “Is it okay that your hypothesis was wrong?”

Her eyes furrow in the rearview mirror and she looks confused, not sure if it is a trick question. She was unbothered by her incorrect guess, more excited by this new definition of ‘experiment’ that does not include potions or bottles or even pen and paper, and that we got to do school on a beach.

Finally, she answers, still not sure why I would even be asking.

“Yeah. It’s okay.”

Cairns marking the border of Greenheart Forest Campground and Pisgah National Forest

Beltane 2020

Raising children as a pagan in the south is difficult sometimes. There is so much Christian influence everywhere–from churches, to family traditions, to the peeling signs straight out of a southern gothic novel that declare the end times along every highway you drive past. All of which I want to speak of with respect, to teach as theology, and to give my children the opportunity to form their own beliefs as they grow.

But it’s hard, when your own beliefs are not widely practiced, and less widely discussed. And when you aren’t that great at traditions anyway.

Still, I try to observe Sabbats in at least a small way. Candles, prayers. Marking the turning of the Wheel with something outdoors.

This year has been exceptionally hard to find ways to mark much of anything, however. Under shelter-in-place orders, the days, weeks, seasons start to blur together. But yesterday, Beltane, we managed to take our first hike as a family since before the Great Shut Down began. The timing was unintentional–had I really planned we would have stayed home and lit a great bonfire, praising the sun and dancing joyfully, probably with a homemade Maypole and Pinterest-worthy homeschool activities. But when we planned Friday for our hike, I was looking at the weather, not a calendar, and it wasn’t until I woke up and saw other people’s posts that I even realized we were in May.

And still, spending the day in the woods, as a family…what better way, to celebrate entering the dominion of the sun, and the beginning of summer proper? While we are still six weeks from the solstice, from the longest day of the year, these six weeks are overall our brightest. Life is coming into fullness. Gardens are growing tall, animals are growing fat and happy, and in our western world, children are breaking out their bathing suits to splash in creeks, pools, and the spray of the water hose.

I didn’t light a fire yesterday, or even do anything tangible to mark the transition. But I did get a chance to walk alone in the woods, as I trekked the half mile from the waterfall we found to the car and back, to retrieve my tripod. As much as I love hiking with my kids, I can’t get the solitude so many of us seek in the woods, and I savor every moment of time I get under the trees on my own. Yesterday was no different.

Forest bathing. That was my first thought. I paused to stand in the shade, late afternoon sun pouring in through bright green maple leaves, fragrant fringetree flowers, and the ethereal moss just made for the fae folk. I though back to our time at Greenheart Forest, and my conversations with David, the owner, of his time studying in Japan. I thought of Kip, my favorite professor in college, who taught philosophy and religious studies and led summer classes on trails for a hands (toes?) on lesson about spiritual journey.

And then I thought of Beltane, and the original religions of the world, all of which revolved around the Sun.

Living in a quarantined world, without scouts or classes or, dare I say it, the constant barrage of sales events, has taken our Gregorian calendar and rendered it utterly obsolete. Even as politicians and businesses promote dates for reopening, the natural world laughs in the face of those timelines with a virus that will do what it wants to do, haircuts be damned.

What we have, is the sun. What we have, is a world in which we don’t mark the opening of community pools as when bathing suit season begins, but we live by the temperature when we step outside. We don’t watch grocery store fliers for when fruits and vegetables start coming into season, but follow community facebook and nextdoor pages for when farmer’s markets begin to open, and our neighbors find themselves with a surplus of backyard eggs.

It is not as idyllic as it sounds. People are sick, and dying. People are suffering from depression and severe anxiety from time alone, lost wages, the basic human need for touch. This is not, I think, how anyone would have hoped we could get back to our natural roots.

But alone in the woods, the idea of sun worship, of the first civilizations of our world tracking their lives by the length of the days and greening and dying of the trees?

Well, it’s as good as any ritual bonfire I can think of.

Blessed Beltane. May we all join together in life.

dear four year old

Dear Four Year Old,

I’m writing this to you from a hotel room, while you are out with your daddy and sissy in search of a snacks an hour before midnight.

We are in a hotel, because it’s cold in our house. This is the third day in a row we’ve woken up to no power, after the massive storms came through our area and knocked trees down, and sent a tornado that destroyed your best friend’s home. We found out today we may not have power back for a week, so we decided to spend the night in a hotel, where you could watch you favorite show, we could enjoy a night sleeping with heat, and it wouldn’t be so dark while you brush your teeth. 

Your birthday is definitely not anything I could have imagined for you this year. Not last year, for sure. But not even last month, or last week. 

A few months ago a new disease started spreading across the globe, and it has completely changed everything about the world you were born into. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, or SARS COV-2 is highly contagious, and you are turning four in a world of social distancing as we try to keep the number of infected people within the boundaries of our health care system. We are mostly homebound, going out only to buy items deemed “essentials.” Food. Diapers. Soap. I am out of work, as photography is not an essential business. You are happy I’m not working as much, but I miss it, and wish I could spend this time catching up on personal work I have never completed. But your daddy is working extra, which means the time I can spend away from you is minimal. Starbucks is an Essential Business, which may sound funny to you one day, or it may make complete sense in whatever world you grow into. Coffee, after all, has been a staple of humanity since we first learned how to harvest the beans. So he continues to go to work and to work long hours and extra days making sure people have a port in their storm, whatever their storm may be.

You ask me all the time, “the coronavirus over?” And I have to tell you no. What I don’t tell you, is it may not ever truly be over. 

Last year, we went camping for your birthday. This year, parks, campgrounds, and trails are all closed—people have been flocking to the trails in large groups which means those of us who want them for solitude now can’t use them at all. We are trying to offset our lack of time in the wild with extra time outside in our home. Cleaning the backyard. Growing a garden. Raising chicks. You accidentally killed one a month ago and it was so sad for all of us, but you learned from it, and are trying really hard to be a good chicken parent now. You love animals. And babies. And especially baby animals. So the chicks are very special to you. But you are as wild and chaotic as the world you have grown up in, so your movements can be rough, even if your intentions are soft. 

Last year, we made your birthday cake at our campsite. We brought ingredients for a cake and baked it in a dutch oven over a fire, decorating it at the picnic table. Today we did the same, just not by choice. In the back area of our yard where we are clearing space for our chicken coop and an “at home campsite,” we built a fire and cooked a cake in a dutch oven, and I decorated it at our patio table. You loved it. You don’t know how sad I have been, that a few months ago we were planning a party for your with your friends down here, before COVID made that impossible. You don’t know how sad I am that the storms meant you woke up in a cold house, and I couldn’t bake you the cake I wanted, as simple a wish as that may seem.

You don’t really care about most of that, however. At newly four, you love trucks and trains. You love our chickens and cats. You requested mac and cheese for dinner tonight, but were happy to sacrifice that in exchange for a surprise dinner with friends, because even with the social distancing, natural disasters require human contact. You couldn’t choose how you wanted your cake decorated because your brain moves from one idea to the next so quickly it can’t slow down and process one thing at a time. But I chose for you, of your many requests, buying last minute ingredients under the emergency lights of a Target also affected by the power outages, walking past the shadowy aisles and empty shelves that once held toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and other items that disappeared from shelves as soon as we learned how bad COVID might be.

This is not the world I imagined for you, little one. I did not see us living in Tennessee, for one. Or that my mom, your GaGa, would not be here to see you turn four. And I definitely could not have ever predicted that the world would demand that we stay so isolated. You were looking forward to a birthday dinner at the “fire” restaurant (hibachi), but restaurants are closed for dine-in, and even if they were open, we are not supposed to be within six feet of others to slow the spread of the virus so we couldn’t have invited friends. We cannot have a party for you at our house as social gatherings must be limited to 10 people or less. And even a week ago, after I had adjusted to that, after I had helped you to understand, I would have not predicted that we would be preparing for your cake, your meals, your presents, in a cold house on our third day of no power. Or that your best friend could not come over to share your cake because his family is experiencing a severe trauma, one shared by so many in our community. 

But in spite of it, we are still so lucky. You are so loved, and have so many things to enjoy in your life. We have our home, even if it may not have power. We have the means to buy you presents, and the health to work within our circumstances. We can be sad and grateful at the same time, and we can be disappointed and still know how privileged we are at the same time.

I love you, my little wild one. You bring us joy and frustration in this weird world you are growing up in, and I am so glad to be your mama. 

Dylan and Sofie’s Mountaintop Proposal

“There’s a 50% chance of rain, but I am planning for this rain or shine.” That was one of the first sentences Dylan said to me when we first spoke on the phone regarding the pictures he wanted when he proposed to his girlfriend. I told him absolutely, sold on his romantic and adventurous spirit, and the location he had in mind.

I was referred to Dylan by a friend of his in the same local photographer’s facebook group I am in. He was looking for someone for a friend planning to propose, and that it would require a hike of about 15 minutes or so–in other words, the type of sessions I dream of booking. I was thrilled when Dylan contacted me saying he liked my portfolio and wanted to work together. We talked, and set up a day to meet at the trailhead so I could figure out where I would hide, and where he would make he would pop the question.

Aside from realizing just how out of shape I am when compared to a college athlete, the hike was worth every steep step to a beautiful overlook of the Hiwassee River–and isn’t heavily trafficked so we weren’t too worried about having to navigate around other hikers. Particularly with the forecast looking wetter and wetter.

And the day itself was indeed rainy–up until about the point I started driving out there. Then the rain cleared, giving way to a delightfully moody sky. I hiked up with my gear, met up with Dylan’s incredible best friends who had hiked a whole bench up to the overlook, and we all got into our positions. I learned pretty quickly that my knees are NOT cut out for hiding places where I have to squat–but then I heard voices, and Dylan and Sofie were in position, and I was able to stand up and start shooting.

Of course, Sofie said yes! Her reaction was perfect, and once Dylan pointed out to her that he had a photographer there, I was able to climb out of my hiding spot, and do an engagement session for them on the spot, and I could not have asked for better models. They were both so comfortable in front of the camera, are such attractive people, and they are so happy and in love. They hardly needed any prompting at all, and I was happy to sit back and just direct them to different spots on the overlook, all while clicking away at their natural interactions.

I’m so excited to finally share some of the images from their gallery now that they have had a chance to see all of them and tell their friends and family their good news.

Congratulations Dylan and Sofie! I wish you the best of luck in wedding planning, and a beautiful life together.

Under the Midnight Sun: Alaska In 72 Hours or Less

In trying to catch up on writing from this year, it feels appropriate to talk about a place of extreme days and nights on the day Daylight Savings Time ends for most of the US. So while most of this writing is several months old, this trip was such a highlight of my year, and so significant for my personal and business growth, I figure it’s better late than never.

When I spent most of January at my mom’s house watching her die, I told Billy one night on the phone that once it was all over, I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip. Some time alone after taking care of the kids while he was still home due to work, and most importantly, time in nature to try and start healing from losing my remaining parent. 

Life, as usual, had other plans. Not to mention, I like camping with my family. While I enjoy getting out solo, I miss Billy and the kids when they aren’t with me. I spend the whole time taking pictures of things I think they would like, and come home and want to share everything with them. So while I did a lot of camping in the early part of the year, none of it was on my own.

I had just about written off the idea that I would go through with this much needed self-care mission, when I saw a PNW photographer I admire post that she was hosting a workshop on family adventure photography….in Alaska. 

Alaska is obviously far from Tennessee. It’s far from everything. I don’t really like flying, we definitely couldn’t afford for me to, Billy would have to take the weekend off since we couldn’t find childcare with his hours, and to do the trip would mean making it as short as possible which would leave me absolutely exhausted. 

I cried. I wanted my mom. Normally I would call her with a decision like this. And she would either assure me that it was okay for me to go, or she would help me feel better about admitting that it wasn’t. But then—wasn’t I supposed to take a weekend to myself because of losing my mom anyway? And sure, I was thinking somewhere within an hour’s drive of home,  not on the other side of the country, but the end result was the same. And being able to learn from someone I have long been inspired by? Plus Alaska has never been on Billy’s bucket list while it was on mine, so this way I could go without feeling like I was taking away from a vacation he wanted to take. 

So, I bought a seat at the workshop and booked a plane ticket.

And two months later, I climbed into a shuttle at 2am to take me to the Atlanta airport so I could begin a very long—but very fulfilling—weekend to America’s Last Frontier. 

Me, running into 60 degree days away from the oppressive humidity of the south.

The Workshop

I would be remiss if I didn’t give some much-earned credit to Ashley for the work she put into her class. Hosted at the gorgeous Yule Farm in Palmer, Ashley coordinated with several other vendors to make not just a great learning environment, but beautifully styled breakout sessions as well. As this was an introductory class, a lot of the material covered was information I learned in high school, but she presented it in such a fun and engaging way that I enjoyed watching the other students learn terms and tricks that I forget aren’t common knowledge. 

I got to ask a lot of questions (probably too many!) on marketing and the business aspect of family adventure photography, and Ashley and I got to share some Hike It Baby stories, as she used to be a branch ambassador and photographer for HIB before stepping back to focus on her business. And best of all…getting to shoot against the backdrop of Alaska. 

Dreammmmmm location!

The weather was overcast so we didn’t have quite the view of the mountains I had dreamt of, but they were still there, and we still had brilliant greens, gorgeous clouds, and three wonderful families to work with. And introductory class or not, shooting alongside someone whose work I have found such inspiration in was worth the money and the travel alone—I have since had the chance to use some of her tricks and to adapt them to my own personality, and I feel so much more confident than I did before. 

The Landscape

The workshop ended around 3pm and I stayed on the farm drinking coffee and talking to everyone until close to 5. In Tennessee, even in July, that would have made it hard to eat dinner and find a hike I could do and still get back to the car before it started getting dark. But not in the land of the midnight sun. 

On the recommendation from the owners of the farm, I chose the West Butte Trail—a short but steep trail not far from “downtown” Palmer that afforded great views. The trail was rated as moderate on All Trails, and incidentally a week before I had hiked a trail near home that was considered “the hardest short trail in Georgia.”

Guess which one was harder. Everything is relative, or so they say. 

I didn’t start hiking until close to 7pm, after stopping for a beer at Bleeding Heart Brewery, and even though I knew the sun wasn’t going to set until almost midnight, I was still largely in awe over just how light it was outside. I also left my bear spray in my rental car, so made a bit of a fool of myself by shouting before turning any corners, because I knew my experience with black bears in the Appalachians was no preparation for the wildlife in Alaska. 

The trail was not the steepest I’ve hiked but wasn’t easy—721′ in just over a mile, mostly in the 505 stairs leading to the top–but worth every single heart-pounding step for the views once you were done. Because it was so late I had the summit to myself, save for one trail runner who passed through while I was attempting a self-portrait. I stayed at the summit for…who knows how long. Just admiring. Admiring the distant glaciers, admiring the low-flying planes landing so close in the valley, and admiring the way the light caught the dust in the air and made the landscape look like an oil painting. I have wanted to go to New Zealand for almost half my life. Since I first saw Lord of the Rings, I knew—I had to go there. If I had realized that Alaska was just as beautiful, just as expansive and majestic, and so much more accessible—I would have been there so much sooner. 

My goal was to make it back to Anchorage in time to catch the sunset over the bay and hopefully catch a glimpse of Denali, but the double rainbow I saw in the parking lot of the trail distracted me and I hit traffic on the way back, so I ended up watching the last of the light fade from a black sand beach in a city park, too dark to take pictures without a tripod, but lovely nonetheless. 

And while the night before exhaustion had claimed me and I got a hotel instead of embracing the bohemian life and sleeping in my car, on my second night, I picked up the most delicious pizza I have had in my life, and ate that while drinking lukewarm beer in the airport parking lot, before catching an hour of sleep and heading back into another day of travel. 

Seattle

I mention Seattle, just because I chose my flight itinerary based around having a 12 hour layover–or one short day–in the Emerald City (apologies, “Wicked” fans–it was stuck in my head the entire time I was there so you must suffer/enjoy with me). I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy since 2006, and Starbucks has been paying our bills and providing my health insurance for most of my married life, so Seattle has long been on my list of places I wanted to visit. And ultimately, Seattle is a city, like any city—but the day I was there the weather was amazing, I got to ride the ferry, and I determined that Bainbridge Island is truly #goals and I hope the people who live there take a few moments every day to appreciate their surroundings. One day I’ll be back to get a closer look at Rainier.

Home

My final flight landed in Atlanta Monday morning, not quite 72 hours after I left. I ate my last slice of pizza while waiting for my shuttle, and watched reruns of Grey’s on the way home and got to think “I’ve been there!” on every establishing shot of Seattle. But mostly, I thought of Alaska. The stories I would tell my kids, the pictures I would show them. The gratitude I felt for Ashley for hosting the workshop and for treating me like a friend despite my thinly-veiled fangirling. My love for Billy for supporting me in something so expensive and spontaneous. And the pride in myself for leaning into the fear and choosing adventure.

Trail Review: Andrews Bald, GSMNP

It’s been a fast and short year. It feels like we were baking under the sun off Little Tybee Island only a few weeks ago, when it’s been almost six months, while in the moment time has stretched us thin. Hiking slowed down a little over the summer–after our whirlwind of camping almost every weekend in the spring, I had to stop and take care of things related to my mom’s estate, and the oppressive Tennessee humidity made it hard to feel motivated to go sweat it out on a mountain somewhere.

Still, adventures happened! We managed to find a few new local trails, and to get in a little bit of travel back to the Smokies and Pisgah National Forest. One of the trails we hit during this time was Andrew’s Bald, located right next to Clingman’s Dome–the highest point in the whole park and the tallest peak both in Tennessee, and on the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.

The kids and I hiked Clingman’s Dome last summer, and I honestly wasn’t that impressed. Not to say the views were not utterly incredible–but the crowds were so intense at the lookout that it was hard to really be able to enjoy them. I very much want to make it to the observation tower for sunrise sometime, where I can take my time and soak it in. But for this hike, our goal was a trail that started at the base of the Clingman’s Dome trail–the 3.5 mile out-and-back to Andrew’s Bald along the Forney Ridge Trail.

Before my mom died, I was dreaming up a plan to hike, camp, and backpack through as much of the Smokies as possible, with the goal of writing a hiking guide for families. One of the first trails I planned for was the journey to Andrew’s Bald; in part because it’s so easy to find the trailhead, and in part because I liked the idea of providing a way of extending a trip deeper into the forest for people wanting to check Clingman’s Dome off their list but still wanting more of a true “hike.”

The trailhead. In the upper right corner is the trail marker for Clingman’s Dome, and the steps leading to the CD visitor’s center.

Our goal for this hike was to walk in the dark and get to the bald in time to watch the sunrise. We left our house in the middle of the night for the three hour drive up to the parking lot…but when we got there, we were encased in the typical fog that usually covers the high peaks of the Smokies. We still had an hour or so before we had to start walking, and Billy and I decided that we’d sleep a little in the car instead of waking the kids. And then the alarm went off, and it was still foggy. And as I stared out the car windows, unable to see stars or trees, I heard the voice of Susan Clements in my head, asking me why I thought it was a good idea to set off on an unfamiliar trail in the dark fog, with my very small children. I thanked her, shut off the alarm, and went back to sleep.

Instead, we watched the “sunrise” from the parking lot–the fog was still present, the clouds were thick, and we were grateful we hadn’t made the trek in the dark for what amounted to just a gradual lightening of the area. We ate our breakfast sandwiches and made coffee in the parking lot, and had boots on the trail a little before 8am.

Parking Lot Pour-Overs

The trail is fairly straightforward: the trailhead is off to the far left at the end of the parking lot; if you head up the concrete path to the Clingman’s Dome visitor’s center you’ve passed it. The trail descends for about .1 mile before reaching an intersection with the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail. To the right is an alternate route to the observation tower via the AT if you want more dirt and quiet instead of a paved trail and crowds, but to get to Andrew’s Bald you’ll go left, sticking with the Forney Ridge Trail. Here you continue heading down the mountain, and the trail is very rocky at the point. There are steps that help with navigation, courtesy of the trail work of the Friends of the Smokies and Trails Forever program. After another .2 miles or so the trees will open up to the right affording some beautiful views, depending on visibility, before closing off again and taking you deeper into the forest.

A little past the half mile point the trail flattens out a little. There are several footbridges through this section, and while it was very dry the day we were there, there was plenty of evidence of how wet it can get. We used this as an opportunity to teach the kids how to read the ground and see where water would flow when it rained, and how it caused trail erosion, and the importance of the footbridges to help protect the land from foot traffic caused by hikers.

At .9 miles there’s another intersection; here the Forney Creek trail turns to the right and continues to a couple of the backcountry campsites. Continue straight and the trail begins its ascent to the summit. The total elevation gain here is around 200′, with more steps to help you along, and is overall a fairly gentle incline stretching about half a mile total. Evident along the entire hike are dead trees, casualties of the Balsam Woolly Adelgid that has killed so many of the trees in the southern Appalachian region. (Kairi asked if the dead trees were caused by the Gatlinburg wildfire of 2016, a story that stuck with her for its horror and tragedy. “No,” we tell her. “This is because of an invasive species.” Unschooling provides so many learning opportunities, and so many rabbit trails for our kids’ education to follow.) In this section however, fir trees are abundant. The smell is so fresh, damp, and green, and this early in the morning with the trail to ourselves, it’s like we are hiking through the edges of Narnia.

The last few hundred yards before the bald descend a gradual 100′, but there are a lot of rocks and roots to navigate, so watch your footing. The trail then takes you out of the forest and into the bald–your first views are to the right, and then to the left, and then it opens up. I was expecting full 360 degree views like on Max Patch, but the bald here still has a lot of vegetation–wildflowers, fir trees, and thick clumps of rhododendron and azalea. It was unfortunately still very foggy when we were there so we could only occasionally see the shadows of other mountains, but it was enough to promise that on a clear day it would be quite beautiful.

We found a resting place on the summit to eat our snacks, and took another learning opportunity to remind the kids about the importance of staying off the wildflowers. And I would be remiss without a reminder here–they are very fragile, and super important to the ecosystem of the bald. There are several paths that have already been cut across through the grasses, and it is essential to stick to them. If my feral three year old can do it, anyone can!

To get back just retrace your steps–keeping in mind that about 700′ of the total elevation change of the trail occupies the last .9 miles on the way back to the parking lot, so bring snacks filled with energy, and make sure you have enough water for the return trip!

Hot chocolate is a great motivator, but nothing beats water!

Special note: Every review I read about this trail warned that it was very popular, and to get out early. I felt like we ended up with a late start, so I was surprised that on the way out to the bald we didn’t see any other hikers. However while we were eating we heard several other groups–including an extremely large church group–above us, and on the way back out we easily passed 50 other people (many of whom lapped us at our painfully slow child-led pace). And while we were the first ones in the parking lot when we got there around 3am, by the time we got off the trail the parking lot was almost completely full. So definitely plan this one early unless you want to share the trail with a lot of other people.

Overall Family-Friendly rating: 4/5. This is a great trail for older kids, or for kids in carriers. Because it’s close to 4 miles round trip after you explore the summit, it would be hard for toddlers and young preschoolers to do on their own. I had forgotten to switch our toddler carrier to Billy’s car when we left home, and we ended up carrying him in our arms back up most of the return trip as his little legs were just too tired–particularly combined with very little sleep the night before. Kairi did fine however until the very end, and I think if she’d gotten a proper sleep laying down instead of a few hours in the car she would have been fine. But this trail is easy to find, easy to follow, and not very technical, and has a lot of interesting rocks and trees to explore. And the smell. It’s worth it for the smell. My only kid-friendly detractor for this trail is the distance, so if your kids can handle that, I highly recommend this one!

Campground Review: Greenheart Forest

Late spring was a busy time for us. I had several client sessions, back-to-back camping trips, a lot of time spent trying to clean out my mom’s house, and the end of the Girl Scout season to wrap up. 

When we got home from our trip to Little Tybee Island in May, we were all suitably exhausted, and agreed that while we were happy for all of our adventuring…we needed some time at home. 

So naturally, right after that, The Dyrt announced a program for their Rangers that involved free camping during the month of June, and well…who wants to turn down free camping? 

June was already pretty busy for us, but we managed to find time to book two of the campgrounds available for reimbursement. The first of these was at Greenheart Forest in Pisgah National Forest, which happened to be right in the backyard of Max Patch. I invited Jordi and her kids, and despite the abysmally wet forecast, the kids and I set off Friday afternoon for what we hoped would be a trip filled with friends and hiking. 

As circumstances would have, this was a wet, wet, wet, trip. The ground was squishy, firewood was sopping, and the rain Friday night got heavier and heavier. Jordi wasn’t going to be able to make it until the next day which left me setting up the tent alone in the rain, and I was nervous because the website for Greenheart Forest stated that only vehicles with 4WD would be able to get the 200 yards from the parking area to the campsites. 

That turned out to be true. Maybe in dry weather my RAV4 could have handled it, but certainly not in a torrential downpour. Thankfully David, the campground host/owner, offers a portage service for only $5. But then as we were unpacking the car, I discovered Billy had failed to pack…the rainfly for our tent. Cue facepalm.

David to the rescue again—one of his campsites has a 10 person tent already set up with cots and chairs; his “glamping” site. It was an extra fee, but one I was happy to pay in order to have a dry place to sleep, and I promised Billy I was okay with it because his error led to us having a tent already set up and ready to go—and much larger than the tent we brought.

The Campground

Personal mishaps aside, once we finally got settled in we were in love. It’s a statement to this place that even with all of those mishaps, I was able to keep a positive—if not harried—attitude, and that David was patient and kind to us the entire time, whatever his first impressions of me must have been. 

This is, more than a campground, a place of healing. Educated and certified in Forest Bathing, David and his wife have created a place at Greenheart Forest for meditation, quiet, and eco therapy. The grounds around the lodge are filled with pollinator gardens and a communal fire pit, and inside the lodge are books on forest bathing, plant identification, and terrapsychology. As you progress to the campsites, he has a gorgeously constructed zen garden–one that provided Jordi and I with a place to breathe, and the kids enjoyed raking the sand, bringing them a sense of grounding they didn’t even realize they were getting. 

There are five campsites total, and all of them are very large and fairly spaced out. We were in site 2 due to needing the tent, and it was perfect for us. The site is huge, with a large fire ring and plenty of space for us to set up our screen house and an additional tent, with room to spare. Of the other sites, one has a sun shade already set up, one has several wooden benches around the fire ring, and while the other two are smaller they are extremely private. All sites have picnic tables, giving the feeling of front country camping, while still in a very primitive, backcountry space. The lodge is available for water, a bathroom, and even a shower, and there is a small pop-up shelter over a bucket that serves as a privy if you want privacy without the walk back to the lodge.

Past the campground, the road leading to the sites turns into a trail that connects with the Buckeye Ridge Trail, and then to Max Patch. Due to time and weather we ended up driving the short distance from the campground to the Max Patch trailhead, but it is only a 3 mile round trip hike, and one I would plan for on a return visit. 

There is a magic to this place. It was cloudy and raining most of our trip, but we had a brief time in the morning when it was just me and the kids when the sun tried to poke through the dripping leaves, twinkling like magic in the trees. And all through the day, when it wasn’t actively raining, mist and fog drifted in and out over our heads. Our kids showed calm and creativity, and there were far fewer squabbles than there usually are when getting that many kids close in age together. Jordi and I, perpetually on our journey of healing from our losses, felt at peace. I didn’t even mind the rain, wet as we all were. As if the rain was for cleansing, as it passed through the energy of the forest.

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4/5. This is a hard one to rate. Because the purpose of this campground is to give people a place to find peace, I felt the need to keep my kids a little on the quieter side, and of course reminding them that the zen garden and the lodge were not for playing, but for meditation and learning. While David never made us feel like our children were unwelcome, if there were more campers I would have been worried our noise may have disturbed others’ purpose for being that.

All that said, if you can make it during a time when it is not busy, or your family dynamic is one where the kids are fine playing with nature, this place is amazing. There is such a gentle energy, and rather than camping in the forest, you really are camping with the forest. David and Jeanette’s love for sharing the outdoors is apparent, and ultimately as long as your family is there to share that love, it won’t matter if the kids are a little rowdy.