Playing Housewife (or, I’d Rather Be Camping)

If “zen” is used (casually) to refer to a state of mind where you experience life as it is vs through the thoughts you have about your experiences, I have to wonder if being a housewife/husband is the fastest path to achieving a state of zen.

After all, I’ve heard stories of how zen masters teach achieving enlightenment by doing repetitive, unappreciated tasks that will only be undone and need to be done again.

One of the things I have been working on intensely is learning to leave behind my Type-A habits, be fully present, and really experience my life instead of missing what’s happening because I’m busy worrying about an imagined past or future.

I have run head-on into the most stubborn part of my Type-A traits recently. Having extended my leave of absence from my day job for another 6 months, there are some new developments in our lives:
We must re-learn how to carefully evaluate our spending decisions if we’re going to stick to the financial plan we made when I started my leave (personal leave comes with no pay).
This means one or both of us must cook more.
My husband is working long hours on his feet all day, so the cooking is falling to me.

Any of you who have read my blog for any length of time or who know me personally are probably aware of just how much I like to cook.

This is the crux of what I dislike about cooking (or any household chore): it’s a lot of effort for something that gets completely undone in only moments and then must be done all over again only to be undone once more. You are never done. You can never check it off your to-do list.

The incredible inefficiency of going in a continual circle makes me batty–it’s going backwards. I have an obsession with efficient, forward progression. It is my most Type-A tendency. Almost paradoxically, I would rather sit on the couch doing nothing than invest time and energy in a task that will have to be repeated–I become a Type-B when contemplating such a task!

There is nothing I struggle with more than going backwards.

So far, I have tried to counter this feeling by cooking in bulk. By making large quantities of soup, I have the satisfaction of seeing neat containers in the freezer and fridge waiting for us for days.

But as the supply dwindles, I find my old resentment bubbling up again. I question whether we would be better off just going back to eating out–couldn’t that time cooking be better spent growing the business than saving a few dollars?

I would love to hear from someone who genuinely enjoys cooking for their loved ones and how they get satisfaction from such a task. I’ve heard there are such people in the world, but I suspect it’s one of those legends like Big Foot.


Missing Summer

It dawned on me today that it’s August.  Kids are getting ready to go back to school just as I am noticing it’s summer.

This summer, I have spent sitting.  I’ve done a little math.  I figured I’ve spent an average of 80 hours a week sitting in front of a computer, 45 hour sleeping, 7 hours walking the dog(s), 1 hour doing yoga, 14 hours eating (mostly more sitting), 3 hours socializing (yet more sitting), 3 hours shooting, 4 hours working with birds, and the remaining 11 hours doing mundane tasks like getting ready in the morning, driving places, grocery shopping, dog washing, dog feeding, taking the dog to the vet, making coffee, and doing household chores.

That’s not exactly how I might have planned my summer.

I think back to the summers of my childhood when they seemed to stretch on forever.  I remember running around in the neighborhood with my friends playing whatever game we could come up with much of the day.  If I wouldn’t have been an avid reader, I probably would have spent the entire day outside.  When friends weren’t available, I took my books outside and read in our treehouse or in a make-shift tent made of blankets hung over our swing set.

There were chores and, when I was old enough, a job.  But my first job was mowing lawns–even that felt like a fun outdoor activity once I got started.  I used to love the smell of fresh cut grass and the look of a neatly trimmed lawn.  All of it spoke of summer to me.

It’s funny that we grow up thinking we will have summers forever.  Summers with less responsibility, fewer deadlines, and an open schedule.  Summers where the biggest worry is that we’ll be bored.  Do kids still have summers like that?  I miss them.

I miss the feeling of sleeping in on a weekday, rising to an empty house with a stocked fridge.  Meandering through the day without a single thing planned, required, or demanded.

I suppose the whole summer wasn’t like that.  There was a week of camp.  Days I had to do things.  But I looked forward to those days because the freedom of the unplanned days was sometimes overwhelming.

I entered this summer without acknowledging it.  I didn’t just spend it sitting; like walking past a lost penny, I didn’t pick it up to spend it at all.  I didn’t notice the longest day of the year.  I didn’t catch any fireflies.  I didn’t spend a single night gazing at the stars.  I didn’t take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot sunny day, feeling the breeze and thinking life is good.  It seems like a summer wasted.

Tent Cabins

On our trip to Yosemite several years ago, we spent one night in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows.  This was long before the recent scare related to the Hantavirus infection in Curry Village.  Plus, Tuolumne Meadows is a long way from Curry Village.

There are many differences between Curry Village and Tuolumne Meadows.  Curry Village is located in Yosemite Valley, where the temperature is far warmer.  It’s also the most popular part of the park, so Curry Village is larger and has more people in it.  This results in a lot more noise and a lot more bears.

It’s really hard to get that many people to comply with rules about keeping anything scented in a bear locker.  Even well-intentioned people overlook things like lost M&Ms in their cars or in pockets.  Cars parked at Curry Village are often in danger of bear raids.

By comparison, Tuolumne Meadows is cold.  It’s at a much higher altitude in a remote location above the valley, resulting in much cooler temperatures.

We were there in July–and it was even a warm July.  We slept in sleeping bags rated to -10 degrees.  We wore fleece, warm hats, and zipped our mummy-style bags securely around our heads to stay warm.  Thankfully, the bags were warm enough even after the fire in our tiny, inefficient wood-burning stove went out.  There is nothing about a tent cabin that is energy efficient, unlike our 2-person tent that can often get quite warm with our bodies in it.

But the advantage of the cold temperatures and more remote location is that it’s a smaller village with fewer, quieter people who tend to be more serious about hiking and more conscientious about storing their stuff properly.  There are far fewer bear encounters in Tuolumne Meadows as a result.

Another advantage was that, because of the remote location and smaller number of people, they served a really awesome hot breakfast right in the village.

The biggest challenge we faced was identifying our bear locker in the long row of lockers.  People used unique rock arrangements on the lockers to mark theirs.  We made the mistake of remembering the rock arrangement on the locker next to ours, which had changed by morning.

Anything with a scent must go in a bear locker.  This includes toothpaste, hair gel (if you happen to have brought hair gel), deodorant.  If it could possibly smell like food to a bear, into the locker it goes.

The black canisters are a portable equivalent of a bear locker–all things with scent go in one on the trail.  The Yosemite bears are so familiar with bear canisters they don’t even try to break into them if they see one that’s been properly closed.  We left extra stuff that didn’t go on the trail with us in a bear locker at the trailhead.

There was often evidence a bear had checked out our campsites, but they’d always left quietly without disturbing anything.

Through the Woods

Stepping silently is impossible, especially in the woods.  But under the refuge of a heavy rain, each step disappears, blunted and blended into the sounds of the rain.  If ever I needed to escape or evade, I would hope for a downpour to hide my sound, my scent, my very presence, truly allowing me to leave no trace.

Perhaps it is the feeling of being encapsulated in a rain shower that causes an illusion of privacy.  As we put one foot solidly in front of the other, I forget my companions.  I look around in a panic realizing I haven’t heard Tisen’s familiar jingle for quite a few yards.  He is close at my husband’s heels, still trying to keep his head dry by hanging out under the over hang of Pat’s pack.  He hasn’t yet learned rain is its own kind of shelter.

Stepping through the rain becomes a meditation.  I cannot hear my own breath nor even my thoughts.  My mind has gone still and I focus on planting a trekking pole, placing a foot, planting the other trekking pole, placing the other foot.  I feel the muscles in my arms flex as I push off the poles.  I feel the twinge in my knee that threatens to turn into a sharp stab should I push it too hard.  My shoulders are already screaming.  I shift my focus back to my steps.  I don’t think about the distance left or the distance behind.  For those moments, I am my feet, my arms, my shoulders, my legs.  My boots and the ground move together as if the earth moves with me and all of me has melted; I am the rain.

Then, it stops raining.  My metaphysical moment evaporates even before the sun dares to break in through the clouds.

Returned to my more mundane reality, we find a spot to stop for a snack.  I slide out of my pack and dump it, rain cover down, onto a log.  It looks like an overturned turtle who has given up and stopped waving its legs.

I can’t remember ever enjoying trail mix so much as I enjoy it standing on the trail with a grumbling stomach, wondering if we will make it back without stopping for lunch.  Tisen stretches out and opts for a quick nap while we finish eating our apples before strapping our packs back on.

Now, the wet forest demands my photographer’s eye.  Every stretch of the trail reveals even more beautiful mushrooms.  I do my best to capture some of them with my 24-70mm lens, but I wish there were such a thing as a weightless macro lens and tripod so I could get up close and not worry about camera shake.

We hike faster as we get near the end.  My mind is no longer in the moment.  I’m longing for when I can set down my pack and know I don’t have to pick it up again for a very long time.



Something I always seem to forget when I haven’t been backpacking in a while is just how badly I sleep.  At first, I thought it was about equipment.  I gave up on the ultra-light sleeping pad and invested in a Big Agnes inflatable mat.  That was a nice upgrade.  A big, thick, insulated, cushy air mattress that really didn’t weigh a whole lot more.  I still didn’t sleep well.  There are several factors involved:

  1. Noises.  These range from bears to my husband snoring (he claims it’s me), but there always seem to be noises I can’t ignore.
  2. Fluids.  I drink a lot of water when we’re hiking.  Unfortunately, particularly in cold weather, this leads to having to get up many times in the middle of the night.  The whole process of managing getting out of the tent and then wandering out into the cold and/or rain has a pretty significant impact on sleep.
  3. Discomfort.  Backpacking uses muscles that don’t get used while sitting at a desk all day.  They don’t even get used in yoga class, rowing, biking, or the gym.  These muscles start screaming as I struggle to find a good position for my head.  At home, I sleep with two pillows to keep my neck and lower back comfortable.  Perhaps I need to find light-weight pillows for backpacking.
  4. Time Shift.  When one backpacks, there is little to do at the campsite after dinner if there’s no fire.  We rarely have a fire.  In many places, it’s not allowed.  In places where it is allowed, it’s often a lot of work.  Sometimes, it’s just impossible.  For example, when it’s pouring down rain.  So, once dinner is over, the dishes are washed, teeth are brushed, the supplies are appropriately stowed, and fatigue from the many miles of hiking sets in, it’s bedtime.  When bedtime is very early, this contributes to waking up throughout the night.

Rain suddenly pounding on the metal roof above our tent caused noise issues.  No pillow and sharing a tent with both a man and a dog created discomfort issues.  Going to bed at 7:30PM contributed to time shift issues.  The only thing I did well was taper off on water consumption.  None-the-less, I felt like I’d gotten no more than 15 consecutive minutes of sleep all night.

I think Tisen felt the same way–he wouldn’t get out of the tent in the morning.

But, we made it back on the trail eventually.  On the way back, we discovered Tommy Overlook, a highlight of the trail we’d missed in the heavy rain the day before.  We were making good time on the trail–all of us walking double-time in some unspoken agreement that we wanted to get home as fast as possible.  We stopped for a good 15 minutes to enjoy the view of the 3 gulches converging.  I couldn’t help but imagine what it would look like in a few weeks when the trees are in color.

The Next 6.3 Miles

Mentally embracing the rain, we started down the trail, determined to make it the next 6.3 miles to a place called “Hobbs Cabin.”  We couldn’t help but hope the cabin (a rustic, first-come, first-serve arrangement) was available.

After about 10 minutes of hiking in the downpour, we realized hiking in the rain on a hot day was quite pleasant.  Instead of feeling stinky and sticky with sweat, we felt cool and refreshed and there were no bugs while it was raining.

Tisen, on the other hand, was not so enamored with the feeling of cool rain. He did his best to walk underneath the overhang of our packs to try to avoid being rained on directly.  He ended up just as wet as the rest of us, but there must have been something comforting about feeling like he had a roof over his head.

When we got to the first overlook of the “gulf”  (apparently that’s what a gulch is called in Tennessee), the rain had taken a break.  The sky was overcast and it was hard to tell it was noon.  The break in the rain was nice, as was the breeze blowing up from the valley below.  But, alas, we were trying to cover 6.3 miles before it got too late in the afternoon, so we couldn’t stop long to enjoy it.

As the trail veered away from the edge of the gulch, we re-entered the woods, and perhaps a time from the past.  It was easy to imagine the first settlers finding their way through woods like these when such woods covered much of the Eastern US. Of course, they would have all be old-growth forests back then.  But, these woods, mostly free of invasive plants, made me feel like we’d been transported in time. Thankfully, our gear wasn’t transported back to historical equipment–I think we would have needed a wagon.

At long last, we arrived at Hobbs Cabin and were relieved to find it unoccupied.  A tiny, dark, uninviting shelter, it was equipped with 6 bunks and a table fastened to the wall.  The bunks were wood planks that would require sleeping pads and bags to make comfortable.  The small windows on the back wall let in so little light that even with our flashlights, we had trouble seeing inside the cabin.  I had a hard time imagining spending the night in there.

I proposed we pitch the tent on the front porch, screening out all insects, putting us where we were sure to get a breeze, and under a great big roof to keep up out of the rain.  We hung the rain fly in position just in case we started to get wet, but planned to sleep under just the screen for the night.  Tisen was more excited than a child to crawl into the tent with us, even though we decided to call it a night around 7:30PM.  It was the earliest we’ve ever gone to bed.

2 Miles

There is a fine and delicate line when it comes to backpacking between having what you need to survive and having too much weight on your back to have any fun.

Once a backpack reaches a third of your body weight, or even a quarter, when you get a few miles into the hike, you start to question the wisdom of backpacking vs day hiking.  This has been a battle played out over years for me.  The first time I went backpacking, I barely made the ascent up a 4 mile trail that climbed almost 1 mile in elevation.  I didn’t even know how much weight I was carrying at the time, but I had packed things like an 11-cup percolating coffee pot, so I’m pretty sure it was a lot of weight.

When my husband and I were in official “backpacking training,” we went on a 3-day trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in Monangahela.  This was right after I’d read a book called “The Ultra-Light Backpacker.”  I took no spare clothes except socks and underwear, no tarp, no extra anything.  If I thought I could live without it for 3 days, I left it at home.  My pack was a lot lighter, but it rained the entire time, except when it snowed, and we came pretty close to hypothermia by the time we hiked out the 3rd day with no dry clothes to change into.

Ever since then, we’ve erred on the side of too much weight.  As we headed down the trail on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we not only were carrying too much stuff for us, but also too much stuff for our dog:  His new special diet frozen and packed so it would stay cool long enough to be fresh for his dinner and breakfast; his bedroll strapped to the outside of Pat’s pack; extra towels packed just for drying the dog; and, of course, Tisen’s special water bowl and his own water bottle.  Spoil our dog?  What are you talking about?

It’s not surprising that after about 2 miles, we were ready for our first snack break.  We stopped right on the trail as there was no where else to go.  We opened up our packs, broke out our snacks, and started munching.

As we stood there with our stuff strewn about, we heard a sound.  It wasn’t just the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  It was the sound of an enormous sheet of rain blowing through.  Pat went for the tarp while I went for the rain cover for my pack.  I got my pack closed and covered while Pat built us a little shelter.

We felt a little foolish when three backpackers came through soaking wet and had to duck under our shelter to continue on the trail.  We started packing up our stuff and accepting that this rain wasn’t going to just blow over.  It was time to get wet.

Unguided Tour

After arriving at the hiking spa in Vermont, I worked on getting settled into my room while waiting for the spa director to call for our tour and orientation.  They’d given us some paperwork to sign when we checked in.  I was more than a little shocked when I realized one of the things I was supposed to sign was acknowledging that I was going to be on a restricted calorie diet.

I somehow missed that there was going to be a limit on calories.

Under “special dietary needs,” I made sure I put that I needed at least 1800 calories a day if I was going to be hiking and working out, worried that this was some kind of crazy starvation diet.  Then, I stared at the phone.

There is nothing I hate more than waiting for a phone call.  It’s been so long since I’ve even had that experience that I’d forgotten how annoying it is.

I tried to find things to do.  After taking photos of the room, I opened a bar of soap and washing my hands.  No call.  Then, I moved to unpacking.  I hung things up in the closet.  I placed folded things into drawers.  I got out my toiletries and lined them up on the bathroom sink.  Still no call.

I called the front desk.  The front desk guy said he would call the spa director again.  We waited another 5 minutes and then we took off.

We wandered down the hall and found some stairs.  We were deposited in an outdoor courtyard.  We walked around, discovering the golf course that abutted the hotel lawn.

The indoor pool looked a little suspect and the hot tub that was supposed to seat 10 looked like it would only be comfortable for 4 people who knew each other well.

We wandered around discovering the features of the hotel and eventually found the front desk.  When the guy at the front desk saw us, he rolled his eyes as he asked if we still hadn’t been called.  I smiled and explained that we got bored and left.  The front desk guy called the spa director and told him we were in the lobby.

The spa director found us and took us on a repeat tour, showing us far less than what we saw on our own.  His idea of showing us something seemed to be waving his hand in the general direction while we were standing in the hall.

I can’t say that I understood any of the positive reviews of the spa or the staff by the time we’d completed our orientation.  He hadn’t asked us a single question about why we were there or what we were hoping to accomplish and he had rapid-fired information at us.

I chose to simply be amused by this adventure.  After all, we were there, it was beautiful outside, and we were only staying for 3 nights.  I could think of no reason to complain.

In Lieu of Backpacking

We are trying to get a hike in at least once a weekend.  Since it’s a big reason we chose to move to Chattanooga, we figured we ought to take advantage.  However, the hot and humid August weather has made hiking slightly less enticing.

I did a little research to pick a place to hike that wasn’t too far away.  I learned about South Cumberland State Park and the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, located inside the park.

There was a 17 mile hike that sounded intriguing, but 17 miles for us means spending the night.  Since I had a lot going on this past week, we didn’t have time to prepare for backpacking.  Plus, we weren’t quite sure where Tisen would sleep given that our 2 person tent is really only big enough for a person and a half.

So, we opted to do two short day hikes instead.

We headed out Saturday morning loaded down like we were spending the night after all (the joys of too much photography equipment).

When we arrived at the Stone Door ranger station, we saw a sign that said Laurel Falls was only 250ish yards from the parking lot.  So, of course, we had to walk there first.  What they didn’t mention was that it was 250 yards down a bunch of stairs and 250 yards back up those stairs.  But, still, who wouldn’t go 250 yards to see a waterfall?

I’m not sure how excited Tisen was about the waterfall after the stairs, but he made it and I was happy I had my tripod so I could shoot with long exposures, creating smooth water.

We headed back up the steps and on towards Stone Door from there.

The walk to Stone Door started on a paved path.  Paved as in asphalt.  We noticed blazes on the trees marking the trail and Pat commented that he was glad they’d marked the trail because otherwise we might have gotten lost.  It did seem a bit odd to hang metal trail blazes on the trees along a trail that was paved, but I guess they haven’t lost anyone yet.

The first overlook was the end of the asphalt, thankfully.  Although, we passed a woman coming back the other way with only one leg.  I don’t know if she was able to walk on the unpaved portion of the trail or not, but it did make me appreciate the asphalt.

From the overlook, we not only got a nice panoramic view of the mountains, but we spotted a rocky outcropping in the general direction we were headed.  We suspected it was our destination.

Tisen was not any more excited by me setting up my tripod at the overlook than when I pulled it out at Laurel Falls, but he waited fairly patiently once Pat took him off the asphalt and into the shade.

If there was one thing that would have made the day nicer, it would have been cooler temperatures and less humidity.

Tiger Key and the Manatee

The tiny keys that dot the Gulf Coast of the Everglades are countless.  But the ones that are big enough to land a canoe on and pitch a tent have names.  They are supposedly named after the shape of the key when viewed from the air, but I suspect Tiger Key was actually named in honor of the ferocity of the insects there.

Fortunately for us, when we climbed cautiously out of our tent on Boxing Day, the wind had kicked up and we were spared the brutal attack of the night before.  It was an enormous relief not to do battle again first thing in the morning.

It was time to return to the mainland.  We were somewhat concerned that we would not be able to find our way back having gotten so lost on our way out.  Fortunately, we were traveling via major channels most of the day.  While this made navigation easier, it greatly reduced the wildlife we saw.

By the time we were in the main channel, we got into a rhythm like we’d been paddling a canoe every day of our lives.  We laughed at a couple heading out.  They were struggling to go downstream because they were paddling against each other–the wife was literally paddling backwards.  We felt like canoe paddling champions as we dug into the water and pulled our canoe against the current.

Then, we got to the final stretch.  We could see our destination.   It was a short distance compared to the many miles we’d paddled over the last three days.  But the current was so strong that it pushed us sideways across the channel.

We spotted a small island along the way where we could land and catch our breath.  We made it to the closest end of the island.  After resting for a few minutes and saying a few choice words, we pushed off for what we thought would be our final launch.

We paddled for all we were worth, but the current pushed us back to the far end of the island we’d just left.  We’d have spent less energy walking the canoe along the shore.  Neither of us felt much like a champion paddler anymore.

We took a longer rest.  We ate a snack.  We got out of the canoe.  We stretched.  Then, we rallied and drove that canoe right across the current until we suddenly found ourselves in calm waters and could relax for the final 50 yards of our trip.

As we slowed down, a large, dark mass rose towards the surface of the water.  Pat yelled, “Manatee!”  We were so excited we nearly capsized the canoe after 3 days of remaining afloat.

As we glided closer to the slowly moving mass, we felt ourselves blush as we realized it was a mass of algae.  No manatees in sight.

Despite the disappointment, we really felt like we’d done something when we beached the canoe for the final time.  It was the best Christmas ever.