Girl vs. Mountain

Everyone in my family skis. Everyone but me, that is. I’ve tried it a few times, but I simply don’t enjoy rushing out of control down a snowy mountainside. My husband took me skiing when we were first together. Before that day I’d only ever been on cross country skis and had no idea what to do. Up the chair lift we went. Off the chair lift I fell. We were supposed to go down one of the easy green circle runs, but it wasn’t open, so he took me to a medium difficulty blue square run. I completely panicked. He tried helping me down the mountain by holding my hands and skiing backwards, but ultimately I decided to take my skis off and walk down. I felt discouraged and embarrassed. Later that day his sister offered to take me back up the bunny hill and share some techniques, which, in retrospect, was where I should have started the day.

A few years later, when living on the West Coast, we went with some friends to a ski resort, and I tried again. It went better that time, but I still hated the feeling of being out of control. I spent most of the day in the resort sipping hot cocoa.

The family tries every winter to convince me to go again, but I am older and more stubborn now; I always say no. I go with them to the resort at least once a year, watch them ski, then retreat to the lounge area to read a book. This year my husband mentioned that our local resort has snowshoeing and skinning trails. Skinning is a term that refers to using skis with “skins” on the bottom to walk up a mountain. We recently bought one pair of Altai Hok skis (they are a bit shorter than traditional cross country skis and you can use them with regular boots) and one set of snowshoes and had been out once so far this season. I used the skis. I decided to try the new trail, having never hiked in snowshoes.

Wait, you’re saying. We’ve been here before. This very same mountain, 20 years ago. Perhaps not the best plan?

I may not ever want to downhill ski again, but I am still up for an adventure. And an adventure it was. I told my husband I was nervous to try it, especially the coming down part, to which he responded, You just walk up the mountain, walk across it, then walk back down. You’ve done it in the summer, how hard can it be? True, we hiked the mountain at another nearby ski resort during the off season, and oh yeah, it was crazy hard! This time there will be snow! I nearly chickened out, but the boys wanted to go skiing and the weather was perfect, so off we went. (Hubby had to work.)

I went to buy what they call an “alpine pass” ($10/day), and the woman at the counter must have thought I exuded confidence because she asked if I wanted a season pass. Oh no, just plan to be crazy for today only. She gave me a map with the highlighted trails and sent me on my way. At the bottom of the mountain I ran into a friend who asked if I was going to take the chair lift up. I said no (the pass wouldn’t allow it and I’m pretty sure I’d fall off trying to snowshoe at the top – besides, the point is to hike up and down the mountain, right?), they wished me luck, and off I went.

First thought: Yep, this is completely insane. I can’t even get these snowshoes tight enough! (The shoes were adjusted to my husband’s feet and it took me until nearly the top to figure out how to fully tighten them. Brilliant, Sandi. Really.)

Second thought (as I stared up at the skiers flying down the mountain): How the BLEEP am I going to do this?

Third thought: You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Let’s go.

And up I went. I climbed up the area next to the bunny hill, then had to cross oncoming traffic to get to the next part of the mountain. There isn’t a designated snowshoe trail; you’re basically supposed to stay to the edge and try not to get run over. Yep. It’s as scary as it sounds.

Hiking in snow is hard. Hiking uphill is hard. Hiking uphill in snow is, well, let’s just say it felt like my heart and lungs were battling over who was going to explode first, while my legs were crying, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US? About halfway up I stopped to catch my breath, took off my hat and gloves and unzipped my jacket because holy cow it was hot. The ski patrol came by and asked if I was okay. Just taking a break, I said, waving my left snowshoe at them. Ah, I prefer skis, one of them said and sped away. About 3/4 of the way up I found a picnic table just off the trail and collapsed onto its bench. Thought about giving up, but knew I had to be close to the top, and kept pushing. When I finally made it, a guy said, You walked up here? I nodded. Impressive, he said.

Yeah, it was. Go me.

Once at the top, it’s a lovely walk along the edge of the property with gorgeous views. I passed by Holly, the run where I’d first tried downhill. Then I had to face my fear: walking down the mountain. The first part was gentle and easy (I’d decided to come up a blue and go down a green), but then it got steeper and I had to use the muscles in my legs to keep me stabilized. At one point, the trail merges with another and the only way down was to cross the main ski path. I checked for skiers, then made a break for it. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I collapsed into the snow.

A year ago, I could not have made it to the top of that mountain. But a few months ago I committed to daily exercise and have been getting stronger and more confident. We’ve been doing the winter hiking challenge (five trails done – three to go!) and staying focused on our health. I may be stubborn about some things, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and push the limits now and then. Will I ever downhill ski again? Probably not. Will I ever snowshoe up a mountain again? Maybe. Need to recover from this trip first.

The four faces of my journey, starting from top left:
3/4 way up – pretty much dying
at the top – HURRAY!
1/2 way down – sending pic to hubby for proof I was on the mountain
at the bottom – in need of water and a good stretch

Hiking Challenge Complete!

I haven’t posted since March because I’ve been too busy wandering in the woods.

No, seriously. Hubby and I completed our first hiking challenge on Sunday, the goal of which was to complete 20 total hikes in four local regions. It was a fun, often sweaty, and sometimes exhausting journey that introduced us to amazing parks and delicious local cuisine. It’s crazy to think we’ve lived in Western New York for most of our lives and never been to some of these places! I am deeply grateful to Mike, the challenge creator and founder of Outside Chronicles, for creating such a fun way to explore the outdoors!

I’ve always loved hiking. During quarantine, with no soccer or scouts to occupy our weekends, we took to the woods. I’d search around on google maps, find a large green section, and announce that we were going on a mandatory family fun adventure. Then I heard about the Western New York Hiking Challenge, where someone else identified the cool parks and we just had to show up and walk around. For a small fee we would have access to maps, fun facts, and a community of hikers. Also: if we completed the challenge, we’d earn a patch and a sticker.

A win-win-win in my book.

The summer challenge runs from March-November, and hubs and I were so excited that we started a week early. To prove you hiked the trail, a selfie is required at the challenge landmark. We had to redo our first hike later on because we took our selfie in the wrong place (plus technically it was cheating to start a week early). Thankfully, that park was close by. Some of the places were a 45+ minute drive, and our final hike took an hour and a half to get to. So for several hikes, we made a day of it by trying a new restaurant and exploring the nearby town. The planning and preparation for our hiking trips gave me something to look forward to and helped pull me out of the pandemic blues. And it was cool when people told me they’d joined the challenge because of my social media posts, or youngest talked about it with strangers on the trail, encouraging them to participate. We even met up with a small group for a hike and fundraising event at a local brewpub.

Our favorite hike happened early on during our spring break staycation in Ellicottville. We started at Camp Seneca and hiked the North Country Trail to Little Rock City. The elevation took us up past the snow line, then down across several tiny streams before reaching the giant rocks. The boys had a blast exploring the CREVASES! as they called them, and we returned later in the year to just climb around on the rocks. Hubs was excited to finally hike to the end of the Whirlpool trail along the Niagara River Gorge, where we discovered an old train depot. In effort to avoid crowds, we planned a few hikes during the week and had a lovely time in Chestnut Ridge and Zoar Valley.

Here is the complete list of our hikes:
Knox Farm State Park
Eighteen Mile Creek County Park
Little Rock City State Forest
Bond Lake County Park – I did this one without hubby
Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve
Genesee County Park and Forest
Royalton Ravine County Park
Lockport Nature Trails
Whirlpool State Park
Devil’s Hole State Park
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Chestnut Ridge County Park
Golden Hill State Park
Zoar Valley MUA – Valentine Flats
Zoar Valley MUA – Holcomb Pond
Ohiopyle State Park (not part of the challenge; a beautiful park in PA where we hiked on our trip back from dropping our son at camp)
Emery Park (our least favorite – confusing trails, too close to the road, lots of disc golf – but we saw several deer along the way)
College Lodge Forest
Buckhorn – extra hike in a group we’d already finished
Tifft Nature Preserve
Kenneglenn Scenic and Nature Preserve (not part of the challenge, but done with fellow challenge hikers and Mike the foundera great place for creek hiking!)
Second visit to Little Rock City
Boyce Hill State Forest
Sprague Brook County Park
Letchworth State Park – Finger Lakes Trail

Now that we’ve completed the required trails, we’ll probably hit a few closer ones again to see the changing leaves. The winter challenge starts in December and while I’m not as big a fan of cold weather hiking, I plan to give it a try.

Mama needs to earn her sticker.

I served as official navigator, picture-taker, and caboose during the hikes
the boys pretending to get smooshed at Little Rock City
Me and hubs in our matching WNY Hiking Challenge T-shirts pose for the Whirlpool selfie

Approaching the lockdown anniversary

March 3, 2020 was a big day for the van clan. Youngest got his braces off, and he celebrated with a bag of microwave popcorn. Plans were in the works for an epic Blue and Gold dinner to commemorate his Webelo Den earning their Arrow of Light awards, and he looked forward to his first year of Boy Scout camp. (Hubs and I were excited to spend that week celebrating our 20th anniversary.) Oldest had earned Life Scout and was elected to serve as Troop Guide, which meant he would help navigate the new class of scouts. He planned to finish his last remaining Eagle required merit badges during summer camp and had begun to toss around ideas for his Eagle project. That night, his artwork was featured in the annual district art show and had been nominated for one of the top pieces. Winners would be honored in a special ceremony. He smiled with pride as he showed us his artwork, a smile I haven’t seen much of in the past 12 months. We’d finally agreed to get him a cell phone, so he would have a way to check in with us during his class trip to Washington DC. We joked about whether or not his chorus teacher would let them sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at the eighth grade chorus concert.

Oldest smiles in front of his winning art piece

You know where this is going. None of that happened. The Blue and Gold dinner – canceled. Washington DC trip – canceled. Eighth grade chorus concert and graduation – canceled. Summer camp – canceled. Anniversary trip – canceled. His artwork was chosen as one of the top pieces, but instead of a reception, we received a letter in the mail. Oldest had already coined a phrase to reflect his newfound apathy: I don’t care. And why should he care? Everything he’d looked forward to was taken away. He slogged through the remaining Eagle merit badges after hours and hours of nagging, and says he has no plans to complete his project. He started freshman year in his pajamas behind a computer screen, where he now spends most of his day.

This past year, there have been a mountain of disappointments and a river of tears (mostly mine). Sorry for the clichés, but this year has sapped a large chunk of my creativity energy. Sure, we’ve been blessed – friends and family have fallen ill, but no one we know has died. (That doesn’t stop me from worrying 24/7.) My husband and I still have our jobs, although I have never felt more stressed. Enrollment declined significantly, budgets were slashed, and the constant back and forth of working from home and going into the office has been an ongoing challenge. Working parents, and working moms especially, have faced nearly impossible tasks this past year. My kids have been learning from home since mid-March, and we are all burnt out, we are all desperate for a return to normalcy. Whatever that even means anymore.

When I think about the events from last March, it is hard to imagine I would be sitting here a year later, still wondering when I would be able to hang out with my friends in a coffee shop, watch my kid sing on stage, celebrate work birthdays in person, see students walk across the quad. Hug my parents without worrying about making them sick. Instead of doing those things, I’m planning for our one year work-from-home-iversary. Trying to keep my teenager from sinking. Pushing forward day after day toward an uncertain future.

It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.

I thought about ending my blog post there, but I can’t. Because, to paraphrase President Snow, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. The past 12 months have been full of fear, disappointment, heartache. I want more than anything for the next 12 months to be full of hope, resiliency, love. We can’t change the world. We can’t singlehandedly fight illness, alleviate depression, create peace. But we can change ourselves. For me, that meant a recommitment to the things I love: reading (something I had trouble doing in the early months of the pandemic), making time to write, practicing yoga daily, dancing. Checking in with friends and family. It hasn’t been easy. Most mornings I argue with myself about getting out of bed and getting on the mat. It’s so much easier to cry, complain, doom-scroll – but all those things leave me empty. It occurred to me a while back, as I sat staring at the blinking cursor of an empty word document, that when we lost everything to lockdown, we lost our joy, we lost our sense of purpose, we lost our muse. Our wells were quickly tapped dry and there was nothing to fill them up. I kept reaching into mine and coming up empty, and based on the high number of social media posts referring to the “pandemic wall” I know I wasn’t alone.

So what do we do? My advice? Start small. Look for joy in unexpected places and hold onto it. Like I tell my boys with some regularity, lower your expectations. Celebrate tiny victories. Make space for grief, but don’t let it swallow you. Remind yourself what it means to be human. I get the feeling we’ll be spending the next several days looking backward, at how this year has changed us. And it has. But we should also look forward. What will you do when the world reopens? What will you never take for granted again? Who will you hold tighter than ever before?

Stay well, my friends. ❤

We’re all in this together (alone)

Despite my propensity to dance, sing off-key, or challenge strangers to pushup contests in public, I truly am an introvert at heart. I know this because if given the choice between going to a party or snuggling up with a book/cat/cup of tea, I choose the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hanging out with friends and having fun, but at the end of the night I need to be alone and recharge. Raised in a loud, outgoing, Italian-American family, I often hid in my room during parties, scribbling in my journal, feeling simultaneously content and depressed for missing out on the festivities. Therein lies the conundrum. I like to be alone, but I’m also desperate to feel included. Ah, the dilemma of a socially awkward, attention seeking introvert.

The pandemic has been a blessing and a curse. Okay, mostly a curse. The up side is extra time spent with my family, being able to do my job with a cat on my lap (when we return to the office I may have to bring him with me), and considerably more free time now that everything has been canceled. The down side is, of course, that everything has been canceled. No more activities for the boys means they never leave the house, and now that our area is seeing a rise in cases, hybrid school became remote school once again. Coupled with the colder weather means they truly never leave the house. Ever. Or change out of pajama pants.

I worry, pretty much on a constant basis, that the next few months will make or break us. We survived the initial shock of the pandemic, the phase I like to call, “Fear overload.” I watched daily news briefings, tracked cases and deaths on a spreadsheet, and sanitized everything. I cried in the parking lot of our local grocery store after watching a teenage clerk in full PPE look completely shell-shocked as he wiped down the checkout lane. I worried about getting sick, about my family getting sick, about losing our jobs, about the people who had gotten sick/lost their jobs/lost their family members. It was a downward spiral that landed me face down in my pillow nearly every day.

When things began to improve, both the weather and our numbers, my worry subsided. We took advantage of a soccer-free summer and enjoyed extra time at the lake. I finally started reading again, something I hadn’t been able to do since the pandemic started. But I missed my friends, my co-workers, eating inside restaurants. And in the back of my mind, I knew things would get bad when the weather changed.

It has. Our county is breaking records in daily cases and the hospitals have filled up yet again. My nurse friend assures me that it is better this time around because they know what they are dealing with, but the media and government push out fear like candy. We’re back on lockdown again, not completely, but on the cusp, and with the long, dark, cold winter months still ahead of us. Before? I didn’t know a single person with the virus. Now? Every week someone else in our circle tests positive. Thankfully, they are all surviving, but it feels like the walls of inevitability are closing in, and I’m worried I won’t be able to keep my family safe anymore. Or sane.

How do we stay positive when everything is constantly so bleak? I don’t have the answer. I’m taking each day as it comes, and looking for ways to find joy. I’ve started volunteering at a local cat shelter because it gets me out of the house once a week. (Also, cats!) I try to walk outside when the weather isn’t terrible, but that’s getting more difficult with each dropped degree. I joined our local online Buy Nothing group, a movement that encourages the free exchange of goods among neighbors. It’s helped me declutter a bit and also provides the opportunity for safe social interactions. Last weekend I watched a movie simultaneously with two friends and we chatted along the way via text. It was a tiny shred of normal, and it gave me hope.

The isolation has changed us, or at least it has changed me. I will never take my local coffee shop for granted, ever. Or the library. Or any of the front line workers who face this beast every day. I make a conscious effort to be kind to any human I interact with, because we are all carrying worry and heartache, some far beyond what I can even imagine. What we need now isn’t government control, or mudslinging commentary. We need compassion. Empathy. Patience. We need to unite for the good of humanity. We need to get through this together (alone).

Peace to all my friends, family, followers. Stay safe, and be kind. ❤