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

Yeah, it was cold, and I’m a little crazy

Friday morning at work, the wind whistling angrily against our office windows, the following conversation took place:
Coworker: What are your weekend plans?
Me: Oh, I’m going camping.
Coworker: …
Me: Yup.
Coworker: It’s supposed to be really cold this weekend. Are you crazy?
Me: (briefly contemplates) Yup.

One fateful day, when oldest was in first grade, I walked past the cub scout recruitment table and asked for more information. I had been a girl scout through high school and thought scouts would be good for our boys. Oldest and I went to the information night, and he was immediately hooked.

Little did I know how that decision would affect my life these past six+ years. Both our boys are active in scouting and oldest hopes to earn the highest rank of Eagle. Many of our close friends are fellow scout parents, and scouting has seeped into my life in more ways than I could have imagined.

Writing, for example. Leo, the main character in SECOND IN COMMAND, is working toward Eagle and strives to live his life by the scout law. In my current WIP, the main character paved the way for girls in BSA (the new name for Boy Scouts of America as girls are now welcomed at all levels). Side note, I am all for an integrated scouting program – we are one of the only countries who segregate by gender. Personally I think we should merge the good things about girl scouts and boy scouts and create one unit, let’s call it something simple like, Scouts of America (why are they leaving the “B” in there I wonder?), and allow anyone to join.

Scouting has also pushed me out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions. Sometimes to an unpleasant end, like the time I rowed into the swimming dock. And sometimes to an uncomfortable end, like this past weekend when we camped in single digit temperatures (minus 20 with the wind chill). But I’ve learned in my wise old age that trying something you didn’t think you could do introduces you to some amazing experiences. A good friend tried Aerial fitness a few years back and is completely hooked — we tease her that she joined the circus, but the stuff she does is incredible.

When oldest started going on camp outs with scouts, hubby would take him. They would have fun and come back filthy, the clothes I packed still neatly folded in their bags. I’m pretty sure the kids stayed up until 2am and ate an obscene amount of cheese puffs on those trips. Then youngest joined the pack, and I decided to go on camp outs too, partly because I wanted to have an extra set of hands/eyes on our kiddos, and partly because I didn’t want to be left out. I love camping and nature. I don’t mind outdoor bathrooms (although I will say after this weekend that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve experienced sub zero winds under the doors of a latrine) or getting dirty and going without makeup, running water, etc.

Problem: I didn’t exactly want to be the only mom there. The party crasher who makes her kids brush their teeth, go to bed before midnight, and change their underwear. Thankfully one of the other moms joined me on my first camp out, and we’ve gone together to almost all of them since. And now there are lots of moms who come out, and they bring disinfecting wipes for the latrine and healthy snacks, and I love that we watch out for each other. Some of them have become my closest friends.

camp moms

Camp moms are hardcore*

Just as scouting has opened up new ideas and opportunities for my boys, it has given me the chance to connect to nature, to other people, and to my own strengths. I joined the committee and developed my leadership skills. I’ve learned how to deal with challenging situations. I’ve been able to perform for an audience (my rendition of “Have you ever seen a penguin drinking tea” is killer) which fuels the attention seeking side of my introverted personality.

I guess my point is this: you never know when an opportunity is going to change the course of your life. Stay open to new things. I volunteered to co-lead an activity at my son’s school and met my very first writer friend. She led me into a world of other writers which eventually led to the opportunity to write SECOND IN COMMAND. Sometimes when something new comes our way our first instinct is to say no, our plate is full enough already, thank you. But the thing you are eager to say no to might just be the thing that changes your life for the better.

*It was 4 degrees out when we took this picture.

Hall-uh-ween

Fall is my favorite season, and Halloween my favorite holiday. But this year, I haven’t been feeling overly festive. Today is Halloween, and there isn’t a single decoration outside. Well, except for the pumpkins, which were carved with limited enthusiasm.

We’re all feeling a bit un-fallish this year, I guess. Youngest went off to school today — his last elementary school Halloween — with no costume. Partly because he said, “I don’t really care” and partly because it’s not actually done yet. I felt like The. Worst. Mom. Although he was all, “There are kids in my class that don’t dress up because of their religion.” Maybe it was a show of solidarity?

So why have I become the Grinch of Fall? Well, the weather went from screaming hot to iceberg cold without that happy medium I love so much — you know when there’s the tiniest bit of chill in the air, just enough to have to wear a jacket, but not enough to shiver. One of my exes coined a phrase in the 90’s that describes it perfectly: “I love it when you can see your breath and wear flannels.” (Ah… flannel shirts… can we bring them back please? I loved pairing a nice pair of second hand men’s jeans with an oversized t-shirt and plaid flannel button down.)

The rainy cold — it’s too miserable to go to a pumpkin patch/get lost in a corn maze/take our annual trip to Ellicottville where we climb between trees and ride the mountain coaster over and over until my son gets tired of me screaming in his ears — has been a serious bummer. My favorite thing to do in fall is walk through the woods and listen to the crunch of newly fallen leaves, to breathe deeply, to appreciate the way things slow down and die off in preparation for winter. Not only have we missed out on family fun, I haven’t had much quality leaf crunching time.

The other big difference this year is our lack of house spirit. We’ve earned a bit of a reputation in the neighborhood for being the scariest house around. What started as a string of motion sensored Mike Myers lights and a zombie costume stuffed with leaves morphed into THE TUNNEL OF TERROR, a covered entrance to our porch full of scary decorations and grown men in costume jump scaring small children. (We had our babysitter help pass out candy at the entrance for those too young/too scared to go in.)

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2015 Tunnel of Terror

It was EPIC.

It was also a ton of work and involved very labor intensive set-up and take-down, which often occurred in the wind and rain. Hubs actually took the day off last year to set up — shame on you, Halloween, for happening in the middle of the week! After a paltry showing of trick-or-treaters last year (I guess there is such a thing as “too scary”) and a muddy and miserable take-down, hubs decided to take this year off. Also, it’s Wednesday. Halloween obviously did not get my “stop happening on weekdays” memo.

I can’t lie, it’s been nice not having the front windows blacked out and a non-stop sea of leaves traveling into the house. But it’s also sad. Kids on the bus were asking youngest when we were putting up the tunnel. And my damn Facebook memories keep popping up with pictures and videos from past years. Hubs still plans to dress up and scare the neighborhood, but he said any decorations are up to me. It’s raining. Again. And I still have a Halloween costume to make.

Which brings me to my last bit of melancholy. I love dressing up in costume. Putting on a different persona for a night and letting go of all the day to day mundane. In past years, hubs and I have acted in murder mystery dinners, went on Halloween wine tours, and gone to themed dance parties. This year? Nothing. It’s my own fault, really. I could have pushed the issue. Got tickets to an event and dragged him along or gone by myself. I could have randomly shown up at work in costume just to see what would happen.

Halloween isn’t over yet, despite the fact that two days ago I couldn’t find a single piece of candy corn among the rows of Christmas candy. Hopefully the rain will stop and I’ll find the motivation to pull out some yard decorations. Perhaps I’ll put a quick costume together for tonight’s trick-or-treating. Blast some 90’s dark wave music to help get things in the mood.

And there’s still hope for fall. This is Buffalo, after all. She likes to keep things interesting.

Weekend retreat

The idea of coming together with other writers — some friends, some strangers — for an entire weekend away from the stressful realities of life felt both exhilarating and terrifying. It is something I need: space to think, to read, to write, without distractions and in a place that promised inspiring scenery. At home, I try to carve out time to write but there is always something else that pulls at my attention. The house, the cat, the never ending list of things I should be doing. At a retreat, there will be peer pressure. I will be forced to sit and write.

I will also be anxious. Anxious about the unknown, the societal expectations of such things, the way my brain doesn’t always filter what exits my mouth. The pressure to produce something wonderful, something that will make the trip worthwhile.

I drove down with a local friend, and hurray, we only had to turn around once. There were five other women there, three I know from the Pennwriters conference and two I met upon arrival. Everyone was nice. Our porch had a view of a beautiful lake, and we sat and enjoyed complimentary cottage wine.

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Sunset wine. Photo inspired by my Lake O cottage neighbor, Phil

We shared a wonderful meal together. Eventually, I heard the nag in my head asking for a break. People don’t always believe I’m an introvert. They see me stand in front of crowds, comfortable in theatrical performance. That’s the thing: it’s theater. It’s me putting on another persona, someone confident and in control of her speech and surroundings. It’s not small talk with others, deciding what to reveal about who I am and what I believe. I’d rather tell stories, sing repeat after me songs off-key, explain the way something works. Otherwise I’ll just listen if that’s okay.

And it usually is. For a while. Then I need to be alone and in the quiet. And the great thing about other writers is that they get that, they understand. Most of us are introverted or at least need to go into that space of stillness and quiet in order to tune into the stories in our heads.

I slept, more or less. As much as one can in a strange place with unusual noises (like a toilet grinder that sounded like an angry monster) and light coming in from under the doorway. I missed the sound of my husband’s breath and the feel of a cat at my feet. It was lonely. But in the morning we woke to coffee and pumpkin bread and the stillness of the lake. The air was cold and full of fall. I wrote, I read, I took a walk in the woods with my friend. We climbed into a tree stand and talked to chipmunks. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

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Findley Lake

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Took a lovely hike just beyond this outhouse

We gathered in the common area and wrote, a collective of creative energy. I worried about my story but tried to let the words flow without judgement. When we weren’t writing, we talked and laughed and ate amazing food. A group of us went on a mini adventure and embraced the idea of taking the time to do what makes you happy. I am thankful for that time, for the beautiful place, for a family that supports my passion and gives me space to pursue it.

I am thankful for other writers who are not afraid to share in their vulnerability. We are all on our own journeys, yet we are all committed to words, and I love how that bonds us. Love that I can spend the weekend with people other than my family and feel safe and comfortable.

Bonus: amazing food

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Pasta with pumpkin sauce, sauted mushrooms and onions, ratatouille with vegan mozzarella, and homemade herb focaccia. YUM.