Friday, May 27, 2016

Backpacking Canyonlands

We just couldn't wait til spring. The backpacking bug has bitten us, and it bit hard. We just couldn't bear the thought of putting our packs away for the season yet.

Yes, it's November. Late November. Yes, it was cold. But a certain desperation to be walking... walking, walking, walking convinced us that going out to the desert of Utah and staying there for three days was a good idea. And it was.

So we haphazardly planned a quick trip to Canyonlands National Park, the Needles District. We reserved campsites and watched the weather for the days leading up, ready to cancel should snow be in the forecast. There was no snow. Just cold. This trip was a great lesson in what 20 degrees actually feels like. 

We hiked out at about 3:30 on Sunday, with camp being just two miles away from the parking area. We quickly learned to follow cairns (which would become the general theme of this entire hike) and arrived at the Elephant Canyon campsite just as the sun was setting. We set up quickly. It was the first time we'd actually carried in our own tents and was our first time sleeping in tents alone. There's a certain satisfaction in doing all that, being responsible only for yourself. It felt good. We heated water for dinner on a small stove nestled in the sand - because, you know, it's the desert. There's sand everywhere. In the tent. In your shoes. In your hair. In your sleeping bag. In your stove valve. (Yeah, that wasn't ideal. Thankfully, Nicole still has eyebrows, but her hair's a bit shorter now.)

Dinner was delicious, as dehydrated backpacking meals tend to be when you're cold and hungry. As we ate, the sun disappeared completely, and by the light of the nearly full moon we could see firsthand what 20 degrees looks like in a desert canyon. It looks sparkly, actually - sparkly little ice crystals quickly building up on your tent and other gear. We added layers. I added a lot of them. Thermal pants, leggings, fleece-lined leggings, and fleece pants, a thermal top, a long-sleeved shirt, a wool sweater, a fleece, and a coat. Plus wool socks, gloves, and a balaclava. We sat there in our canyon, trying to hang out the way folks do at night when they're camping. We lasted about fifteen minutes before we gave up and went to bed, where there was a chance it would be warmer. I couldn't feel my toes. It was 6:45 pm. 

Winter nights are long. 

Honestly though, once my sleeping bag (and fleece blanket and microfiber bag liner) were warmed up, I wasn't uncomfortably cold. I tried reading though - you know, since it wasn't even 7:00 yet - and discovered there was no way I was going to be able to keep my hands outside the sleeping bag long enough to hold a book and turn pages. So I cinched up the hood of my mummy bag, wrapped my arms around me, and watched the moon come up through the thin layer of rip-stop fabric protecting me from the frozen, wild desert outside. 

It was a long night, the kind where you wake up every couple of hours but are afraid to move for fear of letting the cold in. As long as I stayed mostly still, I was actually pretty warm. I could feel my toes again by about 10:00, so that was nice. The moon was so bright that every time I woke up, I was sure it was dawn. But no, it was only 11:00. And then 1:00. Finally, dawn broke. We made coffee from our icy water in the shade of the canyon because whether the sun was up or not, it wasn't going to be reaching us until almost noon. No sense in waiting for it. We broke down camp, packed up our gear, and headed out.

The thing with ice, though, is that it melts and creates water. And water makes for wet gear. And wet gear in below freezing temperatures is less than ideal. So we changed plans for the first time. Instead of hiking for the day to visit Druid Arch, which was one of the must-see destinations for this adventure, we opted to carry our gear to the next camp site and get it set up early so it would have time to dry before another cold night. It was only a few miles away. We'd get over there real quick, then just carry day packs to Druid.

"Real quick" became a hilarious notion about two miles in. Maps are funny things. They show a trail somewhere, so you just take it blindly, until you start realizing that "trail" is a term that is sometimes used rather loosely. Our "real quick" hike on a "trail" turned out to be an hour-long scramble to cover half a mile of ground. What wouldn't be a terribly difficult task became pretty rough with 35 pounds on our backs. Your center of balance is completely off, you are no longer agile and nimble but weighted down and rather clumsy. For the first time in our adventures, we were forced to remove our packs, heave them up one at a time, and scramble up rock faces. It was hard, but quite possibly my favorite part of the whole trip. 

We made it to the next camp around noon. We set up quickly, had a bite to eat, and considered our plan. Going back across that rough trail - which at times felt nearly insurmountable - didn't sound like something either of us wanted to do. In fact, Druid Arch was seeming a little less important altogether. So we changed plans again. Instead of heading back to Druid, we packed our day packs and went off on a little 6 mile jaunt around Chesler Park. Chesler Park was easily my favorite area that we explored. It's open in the middle and surrounded by those incomprehensible rock formations for which the Needles District is famous. 

Our path quickly led us to The Joint, which might have been the neatest part of trail we encountered. Sometimes only about 15" wide and a mile in length, it was a fascinating hike, and fabulously easy with no packs on. The Joint is a deep slot canyon (actually technically not a slot, but it feels like one so I'm going to call it one) that is mostly sandy on the bottom, involves only a bit of scrambling, and provides a great place to find out whether or not you are claustrophobic. I'd always wondered. It turns out I'm not, so that's good.

After the Joint, we continued our trek around Chesler Park, rewarded with great views and legs that felt a little bit like Jello. We hiked 9 miles that day total, including the morning's difficult climb up and back down the canyon walls. We were back at camp in time to watch the sun go down as we fixed dinner. Then we layered up again. It was about ten degrees warmer the second night. It's amazing how much difference ten degrees can make. I managed to read for a couple of hours before I went to sleep and spent a comfortably warm 30-ish degree night sleeping (for the most part) soundly. 

We woke around 6:30. We skipped coffee that morning, opting to get an early start. We were going 3 miles back over the Trail From Hell to Druid Arch, then back, before packing up our gear and hiking 4.5 miles out that afternoon. With day packs filled with necessities and water that was happily not frozen on this morning, we set off. It turns out the Trail From Hell wasn't really difficult at all, once you aren't carrying all your necessities strapped to your back. We leaped like gazelles over chasms, scrambled quickly and nimbly up and down canyons, and arrived at the start of the Druid Arch trail with time to spare. Funny what a difference a pack makes.

The Druid Trail is essentially just a two mile walk down a riverbed settled into a canyon. At one point we got off the trail a little bit and ended up finding a pond - a virtual oasis in the desert. It was a great spot for breakfast, so we sat for a short bit before backtracking. The last quarter mile or so of the Druid Trail was a little harrowing. There's something about scrambling up a dry, slickrock waterfall wearing old boots with very little tread that makes your heart drop into your stomach and stay there for awhile. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't actually as bad as it felt when I was doing it. It's definitely time for new boots, though. Once up that, it's more scrambling, climbing a ladder, more scrambling, and then we were rewarded with a lovely view of the arch.... in the shade. Leaving at 7:00 am in the winter meant we arrived too early to see the sun lighting up the arch like we'd hoped. But whatever. It was cool, and we got there. We sat for a few minutes, but we had a lot of hiking left that day, so we headed back down. Sliding down the waterfall wasn't as terrifying as I was expecting it to be, and we made good time on the way out. We leaped and climbed and scrambled our way back over the Trail From Hell (that I was actually really enjoying by the third time) and got our gear packed up.

The four and a half miles out felt long, probably because we'd already covered six miles of ground that morning. It was a beautiful hike though, difficult enough to be interesting but not frustrating. We took the northern cross-trail out to the parking area. In the whole time we were out there, we saw only the occasional couple of people hiking together. Late fall in a national park affords a lot more peace and solitude than the busier times. But by the time we got to the last few miles, we started passing a number of folks out on day hikes. I was surprised how busy the trail was for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. 

We made it out at 3:30 - exactly 48 hours after we'd set out. 21.5 miles total in just about 20 hours of daylight, and average of a little more than 10 miles a day. Not exceptional, but for us, it's something to be proud of. 

Harvey Girls and Homeschool

Site MeterWe had the most amazing, silliest dinner tonight.

Littlest One made a menu (where we were "surving" sweet and "souer" turkey with corn on the cob,) and dressed up like a Harvey Girl. She practiced serving (serve from the left, take from the right) and set the table just beautifully, complete with candles and a bouquet.

As we sat, my daughters and I, The Oldest said, "Let's pretend we're from the Industrial Age!" And so we chatted about the happenings of the day:

"Did you hear about the Massacre up at Little Big Horn? Wasn't that just the most awful thing you've heard in years?"

"I read in the paper the other day about a real, live aeroplane actually flying in the air! It said the Wright Brothers built it. And here I thought only birds could fly."

"And have you seen those new-fangled horseless carriages that Ford is building? Why, who would've ever thought we'd be going around in big hunks of steel with motors inside?"

In order to get the real effect, you have to read all that in a high-pitched voice with silly accents that make absolutely no sense.

The Oldest chimed in, "My family immigrated to New York City from New Zealand. We used to eat kiwi there. It was delicious!"

"The fruit, or the bird?"

"Both!" she said. "They taste great, but they're kind of fuzzy."

"The fruit, or the bird?"

"Both!" she said.

The giggling commenced, and didn't stop much after that.

We continued to talk about the things they're learning in school right now, all as though we were really just hearing about them and were fascinated by such things.

I can't think of a better way to review school lessons. And it ended with my Harvey Girl insisting on washing the dishes.

A Painful Lesson From An Honest Child

Site MeterWhen I set out to parent Two Little Ladies, I had this (possibly ridiculous) ideal: I would always take the time to teach them to do things, even if it meant that the task took three (or ten) times longer than it would if I did it myself.

This has been an effective strategy on many fronts. My eight year old can bake bread with very little help. My thirteen year old can care for horses, cows, goats, and poultry with no instruction. Both girls, together, could run this household and farm for a few days if they needed to (and if I'm sick, they do.) They can cook meals, they can clean, and they could even grocery shop if they had a ride to the store.

But I'm not always successful in that endeavor to always have patience in teaching them. The reality of my failure in my attempts was brought about today in a little conversation I had with my girls.

After I'd finished milking the goats, I handed the full pail to The Oldest and told her to take the milk in and strain it while I finished watering and other chores outside. When I got inside, I found Littlest One just finishing pouring the milk through the filter and rinsing the pail and milking cup. I turned to The Oldest.

"Why is your sister straining the milk for you?" (I admit, I was incensed. Littlest One had already taken care of half the barn chores. She'd done her duties for the morning.)

"It's not my fault! She came in, told me I was doing it wrong, and then told me to just go feed the dogs because it was easier if she did it herself!"


To be fair, Littlest One does the majority of the milking chores with me. The Oldest takes care of all the poultry. But there was some truth in that statement: how often do I give the kids other, simpler chores, so that I can take care of things myself when they are "doing it wrong"? Children are impeccably good at emulating their parents, and this was a perfect example of that.

There's so much value in having the patience to muddle through the mundane tasks, to explain over and over and over again how they are done, so that some day, the girls can do them without help. I like to think I'm good about that. But Littlest One's statement today made me realize I better get better at it - the only reason she'd say such a thing is because she's probably heard it herself. I'm sure there are times that shoo them away and take over so that things get done right.

In my attempt to grow character and teach my children life skills this summer, I'm going to take this lesson to heart!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Summer Vacation 2016

Site MeterSomething big happened today.

For the first time since I started homeschooling (8 years ago!) I declared this week that we are going to take Summer Vacation.

In the past, I've avoided it. I hate the thought of them forgetting the last 6 months' work for the sake of 3 months off school. Instead, we've taken one or two week long vacations throughout the year, when we just felt like we needed it. It's always worked well and we've always been happy with that arrangement.

But things change. Kids get older and busier, life situations take new turns, and needs change. And right now, we NEED a break. A really, really long one. One that involves sleepovers on the trampoline, staying up late, sleeping in, and not keeping any kind of schedule. And for those of you who know me and how much I really, honestly adore schedules, you'll realize that's a pretty serious thing to say.

Once upon a time, I started this blog and named it "The Little Things" because I wanted to focus on all the wonderful, mundane things that made our lives special in my eyes. I keep losing those things. Life is a game of Tetris, trying to fit in school, farm work, house work, extra curricular activities, and whatever else needs to be done into the finite number of hours each day offers. And I'm tired. They're tired. We aren't enjoying these days like we should be.

Having "big kids" is a whole different ball game than the Two Little Girls I used to write about each day. Those Two Little Girls are now Two Little Ladies, and they have lives of their own that I'm struggling to keep up with while I'm still trying to live mine, and somehow keep them all intertwined the way I feel like they need to be.

I've spent time over the past year prioritizing and re-prioritizing, and something clicked for me this spring. Math, English, History, Science... those things are officially off the top ten list. Cora is reading now, above grade level and has (mostly) mastered her math facts. In homeschooling, that is a HUGE hump to get over. It's time for a break. We've earned it.

I have goals for this summer, though. It's not all going to be days of freedom, traipsing around the property in the sunshine. (Thought plenty of that is certainly on the to-do list.) We will focus on real life. The girls will be cooking, cleaning, practicing animal husbandry and gardening. We will spend time each day reading our Bibles and doing what we call "Character Study" - which I am convinced is even more important that finding common denominators in fractions. We will put everything we have into their 4-H projects, from art and knitting and sewing to raising poultry, training dogs, and riding horses. They will spend this summer learning how to learn, learning to follow through with difficult tasks, learning to put others before themselves, and learning how to be responsible for themselves and their actions. Those things are things schools forget about sometimes, but they are what makes life good and worthwhile.

It's also going to be a summer spent forming habits. I have a list of habits I want them to form, and a list I want to form myself. I want them to read every day, no matter what it is. I want them to help someone else each day, so that some day it becomes natural to them. I want them to start looking for what needs to be done and do it without being asked. I want the house to stay clean and the food to be cooked from scratch and the dishes to be washed. Above all else, I am raising Two Little Ladies to become excellent wives and mothers. They need skills that aren't going to be found in any curriculum, and they need attitudes that allow them to accomplish tasks with joy.

As for me, I want to teach myself to approach every task in my life with love, joy, and gratitude. I want to model those things for my girls. I want to take time each day for myself and my own hobbies, something I have been ignoring since we moved here. I want to show myself and my children the value in helping and giving to others. And I want blogging and taking daily photos to become habit again. I want to document these sweet, precious moments in their lives - in our lives. They may not be toddlers anymore, saying adorable things and just starting to experience the world. But each day of their lives should be treasured because honestly, they are flying by much faster than I am comfortable with.

So here we go - welcome to Summer Vacation 2016!