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Category Archives: Lessons from the Trail

Stuff we’ve learned on the journey.

The Urban Hike

Perhaps the most practical place to hike (especially in winter!) is right out your front door.  Tom and I frequently take a quick walk around our little neighborhood and find that there is a comfort in the familiar day to day sights and sounds of Gibsonia (or, as our kids prefer, Gibsomnia).  I know we watch too much Sherlock but it’s amazing what you notice if you look.  If there are newspapers in the driveway and the Christmas decorations are still up, they’re probably on a cruise.  Old carpet on the curb means they got new flooring, a strange car means a son or daughter has moved back home, …oh, the drama!  And we love to conjure up nicknames for the people we see.  Stick Man, the Bag People (avid poop scoopers), Mustafa (an older Irish looking man who always walks 10 paces ahead of his wife), and the Hollywood Squares.  I shudder to think…do they have a nickname for us?  Probably Barbie and Ken.

We were out to dinner with some true Urban Hikers the other night.  They eagerly shared their passion for exploring the city on foot.  And Pittsburgh hiking is not for the faint of heart.  Even though OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe downtown area of Pittsburgh is truly a “walking city,” let’s face it, we’ve got a hill problem here.  In the one mile from Panther Hollow to the Peterson Event Center, you’ve got a nosebleed.  Undaunted, this couple shares an intimacy with the city they love.  They choose the road less travelled, walking the back streets and neighborhood routes.  While most of us are crawling along on the parkway, they embrace the people, the Churches, ethnic enclaves, corner markets, ruins of Pittsburgh’s past, cobblestone, trolley tracks, spectacular views, and hundreds of bridges.  We listened in while they hatched a cunning plan for their next 10 miler:  From North Oakland, across the HotMetalBridge, down the River Trail to Homestead, cross the bridge, up Brownshill, through Squirrel Hill to SchenleyPark and home again.  You could see how excited they were about the plan.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.  “But will you stop to see the eagles?” says Tom.  On the River Trail between Hot Metal and Sandcastle, there is an eagles nest. Last Spring, Mr. and Mrs. Bald Eagle hatched the first chick to be born in Pittsburgh in 200 years.  We’ve visited often on foot and on bikes. It’s a relatively short walk 2-3 miles from the Hot Metal Bridge along the Monongahela River.   Bring your binoculars and plan on the Hofbrauhaus for dinner.

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Posted by on January 22, 2014 in Lessons from the Trail, The Hikes

 

Hike Vs. Golf

“It’s important that you find something you can do together when the kids leave home.” I remember my mom telling me this right after all of her kids left home. Her advice was always right on target.   My mom and dad liked to camp, and garden, and run for public office.  While the bedrooms were emptying one by one, their marriage was filling up with travel, roses, and school board.  I don’t think they even noticed when the last of us kids left the nest.

So when Tom and I got hitched, I often wondered what this “something” would be.  There were things I knew we would NOT do together when our future kids grew up and left our future home.  I would NOT be rebuilding motorcycles.  He would NOT be singing with the Worship Team at Church.  I would NOT be keeping up with him on a mountain bike.  He would NOT be writing a hiking blog.

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The cable car that took us back to our hotel. Phew.

But it was on our honeymoon that I also determined that the “something we can do together for the rest of our lives” would probably NOT be golf either.  It was on the third day of the honeymoon.  It was sort of a grey and drizzly day.  That “new marriage smell” had already worn off.   Tom took me to the golf course where we rented some clubs and I played my first round of golf ever.  Since the hiking had gone so well,  I was very confident in my ability to successfully play a round of golf.  I mean…how hard could it be…?  By my fifth putt on the fourth hole, all of my wedding adrenaline had crashed into a weepy, insecure puddle of feminine deficiency.  Shank. “I hate this stupid game!”  Wiff.  “Who invented this torture?”  Splash.  “Damn these evil sticks!”  Wiping away the blood that was shooting out of my eyes, I looked up to see Tom silently walking to the parking lot, leaving me standing in the drizzling rain on the 5th hole with the evil sticks and no more golf balls.  Is he divorcing me already??  I’m such a failure!!  On the drive back to our little hotel (via cable car), Tom broke the crushing silence.  His question was all I needed to hear:. “How about if tomorrow we take another hike?”

And then I knew that our marriage wasn’t going to end and that we indeed would have “something we could do together when the kids left home”.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2014 in Lessons from the Trail

 

When You Just Don’t Feel Like It

It’s strange that the same sparkly boughs of holly that decked my halls to fabricate a magical Christmas miracle have now become an annoying assortment of glitter infested clutter.  I had a terrific headache and was completely pooped from a stressful week.   I did not feel like hiking.  I did not feel like doing anything. And we really needed to take down all those Christmas decorations. christmas 2013

Doesn’t it seem like we resist some things just when we need them most?  Tom (aka Mr. Wonderful) has some sort of hormone-detecting superpower.  He knows when I need to get out there.  We took a very short drive to one of our go-to trails near North Park.  Pittsburgh was having one of those global warming periods (they generally last anywhere from 7 to 10 hours) and it was a balmy 49 degrees.  After the sudden snow melt and 3 inches of rain, the trail/river was a royal sloppy mess but it felt good to have my boots in the mud and smell the earth again.  The stream that feeds the lake was too high to cross so we walked around it and took a steeper trail.   I was moving a bit slower than usual (slugs were passing me shaking their heads), but I kept moving.  We heard and then saw a pileated woodpecker.  (They are the big black and white ones with the bright red pointy heads…think Woody the Woodpecker if you are over 40.)  They are much easier to see when all the leaves are down.  A couple of deer stopped in the trail to look at us. (“Look dear, humans!”)  Tom rides his mountain bike here often so he knows which water pumps still work (the water that pumps up out of the ground is freezing cold—so refreshing!) and he knows where the nicer overlooks are.  An hour later, we walked back to the car.  Nothing remarkable…just a nice little break from the worries of the day and all the post Christmas blahs.  Sometimes that is all marriage is…just finding ways to say, “You are more important than my headache or my Christmas clutter, or anything else in this world.”

 
 

The Second Time

The first time was Heritage Point.  It was not a super challenging hike but by the time we got back to the hotel, we were clearly hooked and stoked to find a new trail to conquer.  The State Park Ranger, Ken, told us about another hike that takes to you a remote Patrol Cabin at the top of the mountain behind our hotel.  “Very strenuous, very steep,” says Ken.   We’re all in.  Ken gave us a pretty stern warning.  “It’s a tricky hike, not well traveled.  Take your time.  Be careful.”

Careful Shmareful.  We were young and strong and good looking.  We could climb Everest if we could afford a Sherpa.  I had a cute matching outfit on that I bought especially for my honeymoon, matching socks and little white sneakers too.  Tom was rocking a pair of cut offs.  We were so ready.

The beginning of the hike takes you on a trail that parallels the BlueRiver.  Beautiful swift water over the billions of grey-blue rocks.  Cool, breezy, fragrant.  We are loving this.  Then we make a hard left and begin what I will call the “assent.”   This stretch is not so beautiful.  It’s a rugged, ugly, and neglected road bed.  There is evidence that this was a popular place to leave your trash back in the 70’s.   It is riddled with fresh mountain spring water.  This is a romantic phrase for mud.  My adorable sneakers are no longer white.  My socks now match the car door from the brown Maverick abandoned beside the “trail.”  But the promise of a Patrol Cabin at the top of a sunny mountain beckons us “come!”  Make it to the top!  Be a part of the mountain!

We continue upward.  The sun comes out.  We march even higher into the steaming humid mountain air.  My honeymoon outfit is soaked with sweat.  (Tom wasn’t supposed to see me sweat until after the first full year of marriage.)  There are black flies the size of tator tots.  There are swarms of gnats that have an unmistakable affinity for eyeballs.  Mosquitoes pour out of the “mountain springs.”

Did Tom and Amy bring any water for the trip? A map? Bug spray?  Sunglasses?  A cell phone?  A camera?  No way, we are two crazy kids punch drunk with love…in the 80s!   We don’t need no stinking bug spray!

A few clouds form and block the sun.  We notice the sudden drop in temperature.  It must be only 117 degrees now.  There’s a bit of wind too.  We hike ever onward.  The Patrol Cabin awaits.  It’s windier now and getting dark.  My mascara has made it down to my chin.  I’m sore, thirsty and miserable.  Tom is swatting flies like a 5 year old with a piñata but staying ever positive.  We can make it!

But we don’t.

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Tom at the Patrol Cabin in 2010. We finally made it.

Ranger Ken was right.  A few items in a backpack would have eased the journey.  A map would have told us that we had only a short walk ahead of us that leveled off to meadow at the base of the Patrol Cabin.  But only years of experience reveal this kind of wisdom.  Marriage is a long hot journey. But there is a map. There are perils, irritations, and trash piles. Prepare well.  Don’t quit too soon.  Keep climbing. You want to finish at the top.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Lessons from the Trail, The Hikes

 

Destinations

wolf rocks mapSo we bought a book about hiking. It was a Christmas present one year. I really can’t remember which one of us bought it. It is called 50 Hikes in Western Pennsylvania or something sexy like that. It has maps and geological symbols and longitude and latitude degrees. Tom loves it. I was looking for the listing called “nearby restaurants” in the index. Strangely, it is not there.

And the goal was to do all 50 hikes in one year. One hike each weekend. It’s been maybe five years now and we’ve actually visited most of the hikes in book. But the greatest thing was that we were using the guide book together to plan for future hikes. We would talk and compare and decide together. Sound’s easy right? Really? If you are married and have a pulse, then you know that planning anything as a couple can be the most challenging part! Tom likes to hike uphill and I like to hike downhill and wait at the bottom for the car to come and get me. Tom likes “rally course” hikes (one big circle) and I like destination hikes (hike out to a scenic point, eat lunch, then return on the same path). We’ve learned to embrace our differences. Laying down our “will” builds trust and respect. I’ve found that opening up to Tom’s preferences has taken me to destinations I would have never experienced  (I’m still talking about hiking here…).  Letting others lead is humbling but good practice for a Christian!

Within the cryptic pages of the 50 Hikes book, Tom found a real gem that will satisfy any hiker. Laurel Summit’s Wolf Rocks Trail. I guess I don’t have to tell you that it is in Western Pa…the book title, remember. This is the most beautiful place we’ve ever hiked.  (But I have not yet been to Hawaii.) It is a lush green mossy jungle of rhododendron, mountain laurel and pine trees. It looks like Narnia, smells like Christmas, and blooms from July to October. The destination is a Heritage Point type of outcropping of rock that overlooks a big wide panorama of forest. After visiting a few times we realized that one of the rocks looks like a wolf…Wolf Rocks…we are learning to pay attention to that kind of stuff. Names usually mean something. While the joy of this hike is certainly “in the journey,” the destination is stunning. As you make your way toward your heavenly destination as a couple, remember to let the journey take your breath away. Plan it together and allow your differences to take you to places you’d never go alone.

Just a few hike details: This one is worth the drive up into the Laurel Highlands. It is a fairly flat hike but physically demanding because it’s very rocky and uneven. Bring a sweater—even in August. Just down the road behind the parking lot is a real live bog complete with carnivorous plants and wild cranberry bushes. There is a picnic area at the entrance that is inconveniently located downwind of the outhouse.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2014 in Lessons from the Trail, The Hikes

 

Let’s Start with Some Definintions

october 2009 014Tom and I try to do some kind of hike every weekend. Rain, snow, heat, stomach flu, whatever, we try to get out there.
So technically, what is an actual “hike”? What’s the difference between hiking and walking? If we commit to “hiking” every weekend, what will “qualify”?
You can’t believe how often I have been asked this question. These were the same people who asked the teacher, “What’s the minimum length of the essay? Can it be double spaced? Do I have to use a pen? Are you taking off for spelling?”
Geez. Ok, sometimes it’s a walk around the neighborhood and sometimes we drive to a cool State Park and do a three hour strenuous trail hike. We’ve found that getting out of the routine, away from the kids (and the phone and the computer and the TV) is good for our relationship. We’re outside, looking around at what walks, crawls, flies, or grows. We see things together. We can talk, or not talk. We can walk quickly or slowly like a slug. We can relax and breathe and reconnect. So whatever your definition, make it happen. Plan on it and don’t be a baby. Some of our best times were in the worst conditions. Sometimes when life is at its busiest is when you need your time together the most. (And yes, take the kids with you once in a while…it’s really good for them. But make sure to save your best times for just the two of you.)
And some weekends you just embrace what life brings you. Like the time a walk through the LLBean Store was considered the “hike” for the weekend. (But we did park a long way from the store…) The key thing of course is that you are doing this together as a couple. It’s something that is getting you out of the house and out of the routine. It’s outdoors and uses energy and you have to wear shoes (unless you are at the beach). There, that’s the definition: Be together, outdoors, moving, with your shoes on.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in Lessons from the Trail