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.