Why ARE We Hiking???

Plenty of people ask us why our version of a good time is spending six months sleeping in tents in sub-20-degree weather, without running water or electricity, with five young children, eating the same few meals over and over and over, while getting sunburned and windburned and generally chafed in sensitive areas? Well, when you say it like that… why DO we hike???

I suppose the easy answer is ‘Mid-Life Crisis,’ which wouldn’t entirely be tongue-in-cheek. 

What makes us push our kids to end up in situations like this, the end of a thru-hike of the CDT? And what motivates the kids?

It all began when I was a wee lad about your size…

As a kid, my best friend and I would pass many days laying on the floor pouring over Backpacker Magazine’s annual Gear Guide. We had no money, but we’d love to imagine what gear we would buy if we had the funds. Never mind we had never actually put on a backpack and trekked out into the woods to sleep the night. We had plans. The walking was merely the excuse to get cool gear. The pictures, the stories… I was enraptured. All those views… so different from my childhood in rural Michigan, surrounded by corn fields, apple orchards, vineyards, and giant mountains rising tens of feet above the surrounding plains. TENS of feet, I tell you. 

My goal was to someday find the perfect view. I’ve since found it, often, in the faces of my wife and children. But it’s nothing I had imagined as a kid. It’s infinitely better. But as a kid, I wanted scenery. 

The First Foray…

My friend and I bought kayaks and contented ourselves with overnight adventures in backyards and on rivers. In general, we were foolhardy and risk-takers, but the opportunity to flex our trekking muscles didn’t happen until senior year of high school. In lieu of typical gym class, one could enroll in a week-long venture. So we signed up for backpacking class. Ultralight backpacking wasn’t a thing in 1997. But my buddy and I always chose to do things the hard way, and this would be no exception. We ruminated on either going ultra-heavy, and carrying anything anybody in the entire school could need, or ultralight. Seeing as how taking less was cheaper than taking more, we opted for ultralight. Mind you, it wasn’t shelling out extra dollars for the light stuff. It was shelling out no dollars and going without. 

For one week, the two of us shared a single backpack with a base weight of 12 pounds. We slept rolled up in a tarp. No sleeping pad, no bag/quilt, no tent. We cold-soaked before cold soaking was a thing. Actually, we didn’t even bring anything to cold-soak in. We just crunched on dry ramen. We had a miserable ball with no regrets, having our tarp rained on, burning my glasses accidentally in the campfire in my sleep and hiking out the next day by braille, shivering until we decided to get up and rekindle the fire… on and on. The misery was the joy. 

The high school I attended once allowed a kid to take a semester off and hike the Appalachian Trail. And get academic credit for it and graduate on time! That sounded epic to me, so I poured myself into it. The school, however, wisely shut me down, judging correctly that my maturity level was not quite up to snuff with the prior trailblazer. But the seed had been planted in my head. 

The Bad Influence Everybody Should Have…

My friend and I created many lists of adventures to accomplish before dying. It included:

  1. Going to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and making a wooden raft and floating to the Gulf of Mexico like Mark Twain characters. 
  2. Rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. 
  3. Pedaling a bicycle across America and then rollerblading back. 
  4. About thirty other really, really bad ideas put to paper. Everybody should have a best friend who encourages them to undertake absolutely ludicrous endeavors. It’s dangerously healthy for one’s soul. 

Same friend and I kayaked across Lake Michigan when we were 19 years old. Took us 37 hours, an all-night thunderstorm which wasn’t in the forecast, massive (but thankfully not breaking) swells, a borrowed cell phone from a stranger on a beach and a reuniting with some worried parents.

Nowhere on this list did it include marriage and kids. But that was the path we both ended up on, and neither of us could have anticipated what a rewarding and adventurous challenge parenting could be. No regrets. 

As soon as Queen Bee and I arrived lakeside to scope out the potential wedding site, I told her, ‘Yup, I’m getting thrown in.’ Sure enough, my BFF is dislodging me from the evergreen and I’m about to go for a swim. With friends like these…

Different Kind of Adventure

If a wife is a ball and chain, then kids are an anchor. Not some little dinghy anchor. Like a full on container ship crossing the Pacific anchor. They require stability and four walls and a roof and a variety of food and heavy textbooks and a brick and mortar school and… all these other things we thought. 

And maybe we needed that too, as their parents. Or we needed that for them. But we ourselves had undertaken a professional adventure of sorts. We had up and moved from Massachusetts (where our grand non-medical achievement had been an overnight on the AT, a day-hike on the AT, and ‘summiting’ Mount Greylock) to Chad, Africa, a country frequently among the bottom of all nations in health indicators.

You’re Moving Where? Isn’t Chad a Dude?

What made us want to move to Chad? Another great question and I’m glad you asked me. Or… I’m glad I asked myself?

Regardless, there was/is definitely a spiritual aspect, as we are religious missionaries. Danae spent a year in Zambia in college and I spent a year between Korea and East Africa after college. Before we ever met each other, Danae and I independently came to our conclusions that we should be practicing medicine in Africa. So we went to medical school with that vision in mind. But beyond the spiritual, a couple other sneaky reasons pushed us specifically to Chad.

  1. We are very rural people and we were attracted to this hospital’s rural environs. Our other option was in urban Nigeria. We weren’t overly-excited to raise children in an urban center. The other noticeable difference was resource availability. Which brings us to…
  2. Chad ranked/s near the bottom of most measurable health indicators. Before we arrived, 2% of pregnancies would result in the death of the mother, 9% of women died in childbirth, 12.5% of children died at birth, a further 21% died prior to age five, and on and on. It’s so medically-challenging, and the country only had about one physician for every 50,000 people. Chad has also been named the worst country in the world to be a woman, the worst place for a child to fall ill and so on. The medical challenges can be overwhelming. Things have improved slightly, but Chad is still regularly near the bottom in these aspects. Nigeria would have allowed us to teach our respective specialties to up-and-coming Nigerian physicians, which would have been rewarding, but Chad felt like the more genuine need, especially for a gynecologist. 

We moved to Chad in 2010 and remained on-call for patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week, living at the hospital. For seven years. It was taxing.

Life in Chad is hard, but we’re certainly more smiles than frowns around here!

The Seven-Year Itch…

Then in 2017, my mother died after battling uterine cancer for years. Supposedly, having a parent die makes one face their own mortality more concretely, which in turn leaves one to wonder what mark they will leave on the world and what remains on their bucket list. Perhaps this affected us. Perhaps this was truly a simple mid-life crisis. Regardless, it was my wife who was the impetus to broach the topic of thru-hiking. Danae was in America taking her oral boards in obstetrics and gynecology when she sent me a text. ‘Didn’t you always want to do the AT? Let’s do it. Two months from now.’

Game on. 2018 would be our year! We had a brand-new surgeon at the hospital and we had a few nickels saved away that could suffice. We would ask our employer for unpaid leave from the hospital and we made a list of the gear we needed and its cost… it was set!

Not So Fast…

But two weeks before leaving, our replacement surgeon got sick of having malaria and left. Game not on. In reality, it would have been with kids 2, 4, 6 and 9. That would have been exceptionally hard for us. Probably impossible. Like, the WORST ages to overnight hike. Nightmarish stuff. So we hit pause once again. 2018 would NOT be our year. 

Our first family backpacking trip. I convinced my dad to come hike with us. No, there’s not a body burning in the campfire. It’s just Juniper’s shoes drying out because she peed in them.

But now we had all the stuff. All dressed up with nowhere to go. So we decided to set off on some smaller hikes. We hiked the West Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania (there is such a thing), and the Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina, and even went for a week-long hike in the Uintas of Utah. And the kids ate it up! In 2019, we took off for another adventure backpacking the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. And this time, three-year-old Juniper hiked the entire time, no more kid carrier!

AT 2020, Doing Covid Differently

Come 2020, we did have our surgeon. A new one. In addition, we had two other amazing docs working with us. So we felt comfortable turning the place over to three competent physicians (there was actually a fourth too, but she was tied up mostly at home with kiddos) while we went off to hike the Appalachian Trail. 

We told the kids we’d give it a month and see how we liked to thru-hike a long trail. If it became terrible, we’d quit. Otherwise, we’d reevaluate in a month. The kids bought into it being a fun outing, and we were off. March 13, we hoisted our packs in Front Royal, Virginia, and headed north.

Everybody warned us about the ‘crux’ on Katahdin. The Beast found her own way up, UNDER the rebar handle.

In fairness, I still haven’t actually answered the question you didn’t ask me: Why do we hike long trails, especially now the PCT this year? Let me get a running start and try it again in the next blog… 😉

(To see our family member introductions, start here: https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/dead-weight/

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Comments 7

  • PCS : Mar 28th

    Reading your blog was like going on a thru hike…looking forward to the next one

    • The Family : Mar 31st

      Thank you!

  • Maureen : Mar 28th

    Always an entertaining read about your life adventures! To serve overseas and yet have a strong commitment to thru hike with your family is a gift! You’ve set the stage for other global workers to consider it a possibility. You make taking a family of 7 for months in the wilderness the grandest adventure ever! They are going to be amazing grown ups!

  • David Odell : Mar 28th

    Good luck with your family on your PCT hike and completing your Triple Crown. Looking forward to your journals of your hike.
    David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    • The Family : Mar 31st

      Thank you! Not too many Triple Crowners from the 70’s… you were an original trailblazer!!! I can only imagine the challenges and thrills of the CDT in ’77. Way easier now, I’m sure.

  • Kenny : Mar 29th

    What a great adventure? Love your writing style. Keep on trekking. I live on a farm in the Berkshires, but am a Los Angeleno and ex central Idaho and ex Seattle old man on a farm. Of our three daughters one is in Guatemala at 10m feet, her younger sisters are acerca Santiago de Chile. Love those Andes! Love your baby boy’s expression. Be safe and healthy!

    • The Family : Mar 31st

      We lived in Springfield (Wilbraham, to be precise) for four years, 2006-2010! Loved it there! Except Danae said nowhere that cold ever again 😉 But we had fun camping and hiking in the Berkshires (and I spent a month at the hospital in Pittsfield).
      Thanks for your kind words!


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