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Beginner Skills

From Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail to the Long Haul of Parenthood

In a season of change, a new mom finds comfort on the trail.

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Six years ago, exhausted, gaunt, and giddy, I touched the trail monument on Springer Mountain in Georgia and set the overall fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail (I still hold the women’s record). It wasn’t an exercise in speed or strength so much as endurance, teamwork, and consistency as a type of faith. Forever forward.

Six months later, I was pregnant. It was a season of mood swings and confusion, and I found comfort and strength in the same place I always had: the trail. Hiking helped my pregnancy feel bearable and natural. My sense of purpose had shifted. I was at a point in my life when I was ready to go slow. But I still wanted to go far.

With my doctor’s blessing, I backpacked 600 miles during my second trimester. Hiking with a big round belly was not glamorous, but being on a trail made me feel connected to my child and confident in my ability to be a parent. When I climbed up steep mountains, my daughter tended to kick and shift inside of me as if she sympathized with the burn in my calves and sweat pouring down my temples. We were in this together.

In November 2012, I gave birth to a healthy girl we named Charley. Within the first week, we were back on the trail for short outings. Some folks were surprised that I was hiking so soon after giving birth. I always found that curious. What else are you going to do with a newborn? They nurse, sleep, poop, and cry no matter where they are. In my experience, there was more sleeping and less crying when Charley was snuggled against my chest and rocking with my strides.

By the time she was six months old, Charley had seen a black bear, spent three total nights in the woods, and joined me on a 12-mile dayhike up 6,030-foot Cold Mountain near our home in Asheville.

That fall, Charley moved from the front pouch to the backpack and our family transitioned to life on the road. Traveling the country on a book tour made stretching our legs imperative. We hiked every day.

As Charley got heavier—and squirmier—our miles decreased. Still, peeking out from behind my shoulders, she watched and reacted to her new world and I got to notice and appreciate it with her. By the time we hiked through the Valley of Fire in Nevada, a month before her second birthday, Charley had been on a trail in all 50 states. It was an accomplishment that felt on par with a speed record.

But there’s no point in sugarcoating it: Hiking with a baby is hard, which is not so different from backpacking itself. Who doesn’t expect to encounter some challenges out there? The trail teaches us how to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and keep going. There may be no better advice for a new parent. 

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