*Please Note*
As of July 2015 many photos have been intentionally removed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Vacillating in Virginia

I've always had a need to put things on the calendar. To make the reservations asap. To pound out details far in advance of any given event or commitment. Our vacations as a family have come to follow this pattern, as well. I've gotten into the habit of booking next year's trip almost immediately upon finishing the current year's vacation. With that in mind, even the first decision about our trip to Virginia was somewhat tricky for me. Decisions would come to be a theme throughout the trip. I hope to explain a few of them here.

1. Location Location Location
It's a good bet that any get away for us is going to involve being very active. We are not the amusement park sort of family, nor does a week sitting on the beach do it for us. You'll likely find us hiking, biking, fishing, camping, etc. Somewhere scenic in the woods with a body of freshwater nearby is our idea of relaxation.
I was looking at a place in Virginia that met our needs in every way. There was, however, two things it did not have: Internet and cellular service. In hindsight, I'm embarrassed to admit the absence of these things was giving me a moment of pause before committing to spend a week disconnected. Even if purely from the tourist perspective, we would not be able to Google our way into town or check the menu at the nearest restaurants, as it turns out, there were none anyway! I can tell you now, a unique peace finds you while in the company of Creation and good people, knowing you cannot be interrupted by a ding, email, or other such invasion. On one occasion, being a few days into our trip, we set out on an afternoon walk in the woods. I kept my phone with me purely for the camera, as hiking with a proper digital camera would have been too cumbersome. At one point we had apparently reached significant elevation and the wind was blowing just enough to cause my cell phone to chirp with a text alert. In the midst of all the sounds that only exist in a forest, my phone instantly sounded alien. I actually said out loud, not realizing for a moment what the noise was..."that sound doesn't belong here" 
Correct, I had no internet or phone. I did have my family, access to pristine fishing and countless sunrises and sunsets. I was not the least bit disconnected
On more than one day, we spent the ENTIRE day fishing.

2. Creating a memorable moment. 
Last year's trip, in true Smith family style, was planned and orchestrated down to the hour. It paid great dividends for us and I would not change a thing. This time, we were going the other direction and making almost no plans at all. The one exception was to be an overnight hike into the woods for the four of us. This was to bring with it a series of decisions I truly had not counted on. The first decision was where to hike. We were staying on 800 private acres adjoining a national forest, so our options were endless. After much research I chose Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.
I had come to learn that only 765 pieces of land in the country meet the criteria sufficient to be called wilderness. Furthermore, almost any google or image search of this area will return stories and images of rattlesnakes and bears. Sign us up!

3. Timing is everything.
With some rain in the forecast, and our overnight destination requiring 19 water crossings, choosing the correct window in the weather, was essential. Yes, I wanted to challenge myself and our family, but I also felt the need to weigh safety into every decision. 

4. Overnight packs.
I've done more than my fair share of day hiking. Never before into wilderness like this, and never while carrying overnight packs. Even Aiden, at age nine, would have to carry his fair share of gear. Something that could not possibly be altered once we were in the thick of it. How much food? How much shelter? Items for starting fire and getting water all had to be scrutinized in terms of our ability to move quickly and safely for 36 hours in complete isolation. This particular decision(s) was made in my living room about a week before we hit the road. 
Take any task you care to name and try to do it while carrying weight on your back for almost 15 miles at elevation. 

5. The moment of truth.
The time had come. We had checked our gear, and marked the maps. We had left our hiking plan with a 3rd party and were loading up. I recall very distinctly a moment of incredible doubt. 
Was I doing the right thing? How much danger was too much? Had I forgotten anything? Was the risk worth the reward for us? I even was envisioning the headline.... "New Yorker's go missing after attempting dangerous hike".  It was Kris who assured me we would live to tell the tale and that our kids would indeed benefit from calling this experience theirs. In particular, the very real possibility of venomous snakebite for my kids while 10+ miles in was causing me to second guess. 
We pressed on.

6. On the trail.
Many decisions need to be made in wilderness. Trails are seldom marked and often non existent to begin with. Any wrong turn can result in danger, especially when trekking with children. Creation did not disappoint. Nature is very reasonable and to a large degree, predictable. If you think clearly and proceed with respect, the woods will be rewarding and take care of you. (Not likely the same can be said of your job or most of your relationships.)

7. Managing expectations.
Kris and I were clear with one another from the beginning:
Our goal was to hike as long as we could, set up camp, and hike out. At one point we did have to stop and discuss things while a very large and pissed off bear added his/her expectations to the mix. You find out real quick what your family is made of at a moment like this!
What Kris and I needed and/or wanted from this experience, and what our kids needed and/or wanted. We also needed to be sure Evan and Aiden were physically and emotionally capable of functioning properly at any given point.
Evan at camp that night. He's clearly ready for anything in his pajamas, with his shovel, headlamp and line for hanging the bear bag.

That section of wilderness is part of us now. Nothing can ever change that. I can say for sure not all of us enjoyed every moment of it. It was a lot of hard work, a very sleepless night, and a few scary moments along the way. What we hope is that in the years to come as the boys reach for goals they set for themselves, they will remember how they were tested in Virginia. I hope they become masters at being comfortable in the uncomfortable. I am confident Kris and I made the correct decisions for this year's trip. 

19 water crossings makes for wet shoes!

Aiden, the ever vigilant, not caring for the photo-op

Evan, on the other hand, is never concerned about anything.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Maine'd And Confused

In eighteen years of marriage and eight years of parenthood, our family had never taken a legit vacation. This year we remedied that. Our destination, Maine! Our plans included all manner of outdoor activities. Hiking, kayaking, fishing, wildlife watching and the like. Being the planners that we are, most of these activities were arranged for more then a year before we would ever put the car in drive and head north.

In hindsight now, the trip was a huge blessing and a smashing success. All of our activities paid significant dividends into our family collectively, and into our souls individually. To try to explain all of it here seems impossible, but I'm going to share a few moments (in no given order) that I hope will never leave my memory.

Evan, king of Cadillac mountain.
Our first outdoor adventure turned out to be reaching the summit of Cadillac mountain. For all our exhaustive planning, we found ourselves hiking this mountain trail completely by accident. In truth, had we known what waited for us, we might not have undertaken the journey. You see, for Kris, Aiden and myself, this hike was engaging but far from the most difficult hiking experience Maine has to offer. But, for Evan, this would surely be pushing the limits of his five year old legs. Kris and I simply agreed at the onset: Nobody would carry him, or his pack. We were going to share this experience as a family, or not at all. Well, I've heard of people "bounding" as a means to describe how they walk/run. There is truly no more appropriate word to use in telling of how Evan traveled up this mountain. It was an awesome and inspiring thing to witness. I hope he holds onto that experience, and references it often to gain strength and confidence in whatever life has in store for him.

Evan Owned that mountain

Aiden's Cove (Raccoon cove)
Our home for the week sat on a tidal cove. As the week progressed we gained an understanding of the tide schedule and when best to venture out in the canoe. By the week's end Aiden was ready to venture out into more open waters on his own. He had no fear, he was filled only with the excitement of being on his own experiencing creation. I handed him a paddle, sat down on the shore and watched him go. I felt no trepidation. I was supremely comfortable in Aiden's ability to think critically and respond in a calculated manner to any challenges that arise.
Aiden heading out under the shadow of Cadillac Mountain. The same Mountain he summited with his brother a few days earlier.
Two AM wake-up call
Who goes on vacation and wakes up at 2am? People who want to see moose, of course!
One day in particular, we awoke at what most regarded as an ungodly hour to head wayyyyy north to Kokadjo where the moose population is more than the people population. As if this was not crazy enough for those in my company, we arrived to our guide saying..."Ok, everyone in the van, we've got about another hour drive to go. Several unmapped logging roads and about one hour later we arrived at a place with literally no name. Truly wild and unblemished. Our reward was 30 minutes in the company of a mother and her four week old calf.

Perhaps I am just a city boy on holiday, but sharing space with truly wild animals is a holy experience.
Maine, 2106 debrief
Returning to a normal routine after vacation was difficult. I've been told by others who take many trips this is quite a normal phenomena. Some call it post vacation blues. Some call it depression. Whatever it is, it motivated me to immediately book next year's trip. Virginia, here we come! I am also struggling to look beneath the symptoms of "post vacation blues" and understand why I was so sad to go back to work and daily life.
Vacation for me was about immersing myself into the community of family. The return on investment of that time was huge. Where else on the planet is this so evident or important? You can be the most exemplary employee and find yourself out of a job in an instant. Your most secure investments can evaporate overnight. Living a life in pursuit of being "normal" or "secure" is a pure waste of time and produces no return on investment.

Here's what I'm confused about:
Why is the "normal" way of life one that separates families on a regular basis? Most of our time in this "normal" way of life is spent at work or sleeping. Time in community with our family is a distant third at best. I have a good job. I am treated well. My bills are paid and I have been blessed with a beautiful family and home to live in. Why should I be sad at all? I believe this sadness results from our everyday routines returning little value as compared to the effort and mental energy we spend on them.

Sunset, Cadillac Mountain
An embarrassing amount of selfies, moose pictures, and landscape photos can be found here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Lancaster to Zambia.....AND BACK

Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks in Zambia.  I was traveling with CURE, and working in one of their hospitals. Upon returning home, to say the least, I felt my time there was pointless, had not met my expectations, and was largely a failure. In the back of my mind I had always known I had a set of personal reasons for taking this trip. Perhaps I set out with selfish intentions, and that was the reason for the let down? I'm still unclear on that.
I do know that I wanted to put my skills to a truly good use.  Was it wise for me to think that way? I'm still unclear on that as well.
I do know I witnessed some extraordinary needs while in Zambia. I got to know a few people who wade through waist deep emotional turmoil on a daily basis trying to meet every need possible.
One night in-particular, I carried a very sick young boy off of an ambulance in the middle of the night. The look of being utterly lost and confused in his eyes is something I will never forget.
I also remember thinking, all I can do is carry him into the ward and hope for the best.
Not a very good feeling.

Fast forward a few months to right now and we are making our usual preparations for Thanksgiving. The news and internet are peppered with stories of refugees, war, death, and mongering of every possible variety. All of it got to me a bit and I decided to reach out and find a way to step into the fray in my community. As it turns out, Lancaster, PA has long had a reputation of stepping out in faith to help people newly immigrated to this country. Assuming I would be connected with families from Syria,(given the news lately) I asked my church where I might be of value. After a phone call or two, I was put in touch with some people who are just getting settled into the Lancaster area. To my surprise, they are from Zambia! I was told their eyes lit up at the prospect of meeting me, and of hearing I had some familiarity with their home country. Imagine that.....I have Zambia street cred!
Over the next two days, my family will meet and play host to almost 20 new faces and share Thanksgiving time with them.

So perhaps my time back in March was not spent in vein. Maybe it was all in place to make these folks feel comfortable sitting in my house for a few hours, in a strange new place very far from their home, If that is the case, then mission accomplished! I went halfway around the world hoping to meet some personal goals while being of service. Now it seems the real purpose may play out in homes barely 10 minutes from where I live. This is UPPER story stuff. The stuff we can't plan out or predict.
Realizing all this in the past few days reminded me of a promise I made back in March. I simply would not say "No" to any opportunity that was presented to me to be of service. 
I wish to continue to live that out, especially in my local community.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Zero To 40 In 21,038,400 Minutes

Up until a short time ago I had no idea turning forty years old was some sort of benchmark or rite of passage event. I just figured it was another year passing by. Fifty, in my mind, was the bigger age, the more significant event. One by one, different conversations have revealed to me that many people view forty years of age as equally significant. I'm not sure I agree. I am pretty sure, however, that it doesn't  matter either way. If nothing else, its given me reason to consider where I am now, where I have been thus far, and where I would like to go. In no specific order, I'm going to list some of the significant moments/items in my life that have shaped me to this point.

As far back as I can remember I was taught to have faith in things unseen. At times this has been a bizarre way to live life. However, to this day, no single factor guides my every thought and decision.
It hasn't been until recently that I realized just how ordered life has actually been when taken through the lens of my faith. Without that, its just been a big mess with lots of coincidences that really make no sense and hurt more often than help.

*City mouse
Growing up in one of the largest cities on the planet provides you with a unique skill set. Of the New Yorker, this is ingrained on almost a cellular lever. It doesn't make you better, smarter, or stronger then someone from a small town, just different.

*Country mouse
Our move to Lancaster, PA has been a HUGE change for us. All for the better. This is the right place for us, we moved at the right time, and have been greatly blessed in so doing. For all the greatness NYC offered us, we have met some of the most amazing people who have enriched our lives greatly here.

*Not having kids
Our(surgical) decision just before we were married to not have children was the correct decision. In looking back over our relationship, we were not equipped to be parents  seventeen years ago. Our decision making and behavior at the time is/was proof.

*Having kids
Our(reverse surgical) decision to take a crack at parenting has been rewarded. I'm not sure fatherhood agrees with me, but I do immensely enjoy the company of Aiden and Evan.

I have a few relationships that I value above all else. You know who you are.
I continue to maintain a quality over quantity approach. It has paid dividends thus far and I see no reason to change it.

There it is. A brief list of the past forty years. I have left out many great scenes and great people.
Stories that take place from the capitol of the world, to a small place called Willow Street, PA fill in all the blanks. Do I have life figured out? Not even close. I do know I am anxious to see what the next forty years have in store for us. I have taken care to surround myself with great people and I look forward to experiencing it with them.