Hashtag, Thunderhike.

I gave a speech this weekend to the AHTS (Alabama Hiking and Trail Society) about nurturing and encouraging children’s love of hiking. It’s way too long in its current format to share here (it was 45 minutes – perhaps the longest I’ve ever talked at one time ever), but in the process of writing it, and in particular in the process of writing the FAILS section, I found a story I wrote last fall but never shared here. And it really deserved sharing.

Our family stays at the Oak Mountain State Park cabins for a week every November, at that idyllic time of peak fall colors, crisp fall temperatures, and in general manic magic that happens when Alabama is no longer 100 degrees. This past year’s trip had been spectacular in every way. The weather couldn’t have been more lovely, we led hikes every day, we used the cabin canoes constantly, and we enjoyed every second.

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We had one last hike scheduled on our last day there, and it was to be our longest hike – a crescendo of perfection, if you will.

I never checked the weather. I had been lulled by the beautiful weather of the prior 6 days, and had also gotten used to life with one wobbly bar of cell service and no wi-fi in the cabins, and had very nearly become rustic in my addiction to information. The skies were blue! And the wind was so nonexistent that the lake was a gorgeous mirror! I vaguely remember Chris saying that it was supposed to rain that afternoon – late that afternoon – but that’s all I knew. 

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We gathered a few friends and drove up to the top trailhead so that we could one-way hike back to the cabins – because what could be a more delightful way to finish our week than a downhill one way hike on a lovely day. 

As we approached the trailhead, I noticed the sky looked awfully gray all of a sudden. I pulled up my radar. There was rain coming, but the storm was well to the west of Tuscaloosa. No way was it going to catch us. I checked the written forecasts again – they were still saying late afternoon. And it was only 10:15. We were FINE.

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We started hearing thunder about two miles in. 

“That was totally an airplane, right? There shouldn’t be thunder yet.”

I pulled up my radar again. “It’s still west of Tuscaloosa. Surely we’re okay.”

But I noticed that storm was moving much more quickly, as if it had an appointment with a group of people in the woods that it didn’t want to miss.

We have several kids that REALLY don’t like thunder. They immediately looked at me with accusing eyes, asking what have I gotten them into and should we head back?

I wasn’t exactly sure how long the one way hike was, but I was pretty sure that we had time to make it to the cabins. Why turn around? Then we’d lose our net downhill.

Ten minutes later, a long, loud peal of thunder. I pulled it up again. The storm was now through Tuscaloosa and bearing down on us. And this storm had all the colors. Green. Yellow. Orange. BRIGHT BRIGHT RED.

Holy. Crap.

What the…

I gathered and gently warned the kids. 

“Okay. Just so you know…we’re gonna get wet. But we’re going to get off this ridge trail sooner than we planned, and we’ll be okay.”

…Because we were basically the highest thing for miles. Except for the trees. It’s never a good place to see off a cliffside when there’s thunder in the area. 

We started picking up the pace. We kept on our ridge, nervously listening to thunder, trying to push through to the trail that would lead us downhill. 

It began to rain on us around mile three. Noah began to get angry. He hates storms. He hates thunder. And, as he is in an extreme rule-following place right now, he DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in being in the middle of the woods during both.

We finally made it to the intersection and began to head downhill. The rain picked up, but not too bad. Then we turned on red, which was great because it was nice and wide and not steep like orange, but was also awful because it was nice and wide and there was no tree umbrella coverage happening. 

The red trail is usually a boring wide road trail, but thanks to the exceptional fall colors and the full covering of fallen leaves on the road and the vibrance of color that the rain lended to said trees and leaves, it was SPECTACULAR. It didn’t matter that it was raining and there were now visible flashes of lightning and the thunder was most definitely getting louder. We had found ourselves in Fall Nirvana.

At least that’s how some of us felt.

Err, I felt.

Noah, not so much.

By now, he also had to pee. Badly. And he doesn’t believe in peeing in the woods, either. So now he was Rain-Angry and Pee-Angry and REALLY Thunder-angry. Soon he would be Sploshing-Shoes Angry as well but I didn’t tell him that.

We had a couple of miles to do before our next turn, which would then put us a little over one mile from the cabin. So, basically, a lot of miles in the increasing storm.

The thunder picked up considerably. There were deafening booms surrounding us, and we were sure lightning was going to strike in front of us at any moment. Noah was now crying with a ferocity that only hatred toward his over-adventurous mother could cause.

I checked the radar again.

Not only had the storm sped up, but it had tripled in width. AND THEN IT SLOWED DOWN. Now it was crawling along my radar, and just getting wider and wider and WIDER. There was no point in finding shelter – this storm was going to stick around for a while. So I just told the kids that the only way back was back, and the faster we went, the less of the storm that would reach us.

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By the time we got to the Red/Yellow connector, we had arrived into the middle of the storm. Rain was now sheeting at us sideways, and the trail had immediately transformed into a rushing river.

So not only were we being deluged from the top down, we were also being sloshed from the bottom up.

Levi, Noah’s best friend, slipped and fell under the tide. He was now muddied completely and bawling. 

But somehow, for just a minute, Noah miraculously rallied. I thought he’d found a new person inside of himself. He held up both his arms in weight-lifting pose, let out a primal scream, and yelled “ONE MORE MILE!! WE CAN DO THIS!! LET’S GOOOOOOO!!!”

Then half a minute later, he cried “THIS IS THE WORST DAY EVER!!!”

We scaled a couple narrow, high ridges with a long drop to the creek at only a slip of the foot. We made it to the half mile mark. To the quarter mile mark. 

And finally, we saw it. The clearing. The promise of a cabin. Of warmth and dryness and coffee and hot chocolate. We sprinted for it, only pausing under the pavilion to take a selfie that might as well have been underwater, as wet as we all were. 

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Then we made it in. Noah passed out clothes to Levi and Luke, and I passed out clothes to the mothers. We turned up the heat, made hot beverages, got everyone blankets, and sent the kids off to have some recovery iPad time. 

The mothers sat around reminiscing about our fabutastic adventure. Kelly was on the end of the spectrum of “THAT WAS AMAZING AND SO FUN!!!” Christen, who’s a little more cautious, had made fantastic progress since the last time we got caught in the rain. She was staring out the window, holding her coffee, saying, “I never panicked except that one time when… ——— !!! WHAT IN THE WORLD IS HAPPENING?? 

She squealed out in horror, the caught herself and started hysterically laughing. 

Kelly and I whirled around to see what was happening, and the big, oafy, old Ugly Duck of the lake (Rusty, as the kids had named him), was voraciously riding atop one of the tiny female mallard ducks, violently pecking at her neck and de-feathering her in the process.

The kids had heard Christen squeal and ran in to see what our next calamity was.

“MOM!! Rusty and that other duck are in a fight!! Oh! It’s over now. Rusty won, I think. Look at him strutting around!! His neck is so funny!!”

He was indeed walking the walk of the victorious, rhythmically gyrating his neck as he walked to show that he was absolutely The Stuff. 

Needless to say, Rusty finished off our day with a bang.

12, going on 27.1.

Guest Post by my daughter, Ali Callahan.

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So I decided to become an ultra marathoner.

An ultra marathon is anything over 26.2 miles. I don’t remember why I wanted to do it originally, but I have been training for a year. The first race I wanted to do was the Lake Martin 27.1 mile “fun run”, a trail race which my mom has done once and my dad has done a few times. So this year, Mom, a few of her friends, and I were signed up for the 27.1 mile fun run, and Dad was signed up for the 100 mile serious run. Nobody under 16 had ever done any of the distances at Lake Martin, and since I am 12, I was feeling kind of nervous about it (and a little impatient to get it over with,) until it got there and I felt -mostly- better. We were all staying together in a rental house on the night before the race and I went to bed really early.

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In the morning, we woke up at 5:30, filled our packs, tied our shoes, encouraged each other, and drove to the start/finish line. It was very cold so it was nice to find that the bathrooms were heated. We all got in a huddle in front of the start/finish line, then Mr. David, the race director, fired his gun in the air, and we all started running.

The race was divided into four sections, with an aid station between each one, and then a final 2 miles after the last aid station. It was easier to think about it as four separate trail runs than 27.1 miles as a whole.

First Eight Miles (0-8.2):

There were lots of water crossings and hills, and it was very fun because Dad, Mom, and I were together. However, there was a creek crossing and you had the choice of crossing on rocks or on a log. Mom wanted to cross on the rocks, but Dad and I wanted to go across the log. I stumbled and barely made it across and was about to tell Dad that he really shouldn’t do that because it would be worse if he fell in since he had like 95 miles left, but he was already halfway across. He stumbled in the same place I did, except his foot slipped, both his legs went into the water up to his calves, and he was okay but was frustrated at himself and went ahead for a bit – “to blow off steam”, according to him. At the first aid station I used the restroom, grabbed some pretzels and pickles, and we kept going.

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Next Five Miles (8.2-13.6):

I was happily skipping, singing, and talking to Mom and Dad. This was probably my favorite loop because we went through/over: a forest where there had been a controlled burn and had lots of burnt pinecones, a wide red road, a trail through tall reeds, and by a lake.

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When we came back around to the aid station and I did exactly what I did last time: used the restroom, grabbed some pickles and pretzels, oh! And stretched – it feels so good to do a backbend when you have been on your feet for four hours!

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Next Five Miles (13.6-19):

I was still very happy but tired. Dad was ahead of Mom and I now, because he left the aid station before us. There were way less water crossings. We didn’t think we would catch up to Dad, but we saw him at the top of a hill and I screamed “Dad!!”, and ran ahead until I caught up with him. When we got to the aid station, I got some Mountain Dew and a banana slice.

Next Six Miles (19-25.1):

The first couple miles were okay, but very hilly. Around mile 21, after an especially high hill, I got so tired that I was crying and I couldn’t think. It was so hard. So Mom pulled out her phone and played all my favorite songs, like “High Hopes”, “Hall of Fame”, and “Havana.”

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I barely made it back to the aid station where I got more Mountain Dew, the volunteers filled up my pack with water, and we left.

Last Two Miles (25.1-27.1):

I was better, but exhausted. It was more fun because Dad was with us again (he got ahead of us when I was crying, but we caught up to him at the aid station,) and the trail was super easy – it was just the first mile of the course again and back. At the one mile turnaround point, we had a group hug and we cheered and encouraged each other, and Dad kept going (since he was doing the 100), and Mom and I turned around.

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After one mile, we finished!

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We ate, drank, got our medals, and cheered our friends as they finished.

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The race took me eight hours, one minute, and 59 seconds. Afterwards, I was glad to be done, and sore. I was so tired the only thing that made sense to say was “ow.” It took a little while to feel satisfied – I had so many emotions I didn’t know what to feel.  The next day I felt better except for my shoulders, which felt like I had carried my cousin Andi for ten miles. But I was able to run/walk the last 1.5 miles with Dad Sunday evening as he finished his hundred miles.

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I think I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for other kids. However, I might do it again – if other kids did it with me.

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Things You Don’t Want to See In The Woods.

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“Because you don’t want to be alone in the woods and run into some random guy with an axe….”

These are the things girls say jokingly to each other when setting out for a trail run together. However, I run in the woods alone fairly regularly, and when I do, my mantra is more like “So I’m out here in the woods all alone and haven’t seen anyone for miles and am starting to feel creeped out BUT what are the chances that the one person I do see is an axe murderer?”

Axes apparently play a big part into the worst-case-scenario imaginings of woods and women. And that’s just where axes are supposed to stay. IN OUR IMAGINATIONS.

Except for this one time.

My friend Christen and I were out for a trail run. We were enjoying a very nice, normal, and safe loop around a well-trodden lake at a local state park. We hadn’t seen many people out that day yet, but there were a few. It had been a quiet mile or two when we saw a guy ahead of us with two dogs. It was a single track trail, so he pulled off to the side with the dogs well before we approached, as is how it usually goes for the oft-followed “the slower person pulls off the trail” rule. 

Except that he also felt the need to yell reassurances to us.

“Don’t worry!! They’re very friendly!! They won’t bother you!!”

I’m not a fan of dogs, but I’m also not usually worried about them. I found his warning…odd. He had just finished his reassurances when I reached his bend in the trail.

…And I noticed that he was leaning on a waist-length handle. My eyes followed the large handle down to the ground…where I saw a nicely sharpened, shiny axe blade.

Because split second unexpected situations in life sometimes can make one speak before thinking, I immediately shot back, “I’m more worried about your axe than I am the dogs!”

He nudged it lightheartedly.

“Oh, this? It’s just in case we see any snakes.”

I am a fan of snakes, however, and quickly shot back again. .

“What?? Why would you kill snakes?? You can’t kill snakes! You’re in a State Park!!”

(Not to mention that he was also carrying a VIOLENT and (not-yet-)BLOODY FREAKING WEAPON in a State Park and SURELY this was NOT okay.)

He jovially said, “Oh, don’t worry, we just kill the poisonous ones.”

By this time we were 100 feet down the trail from him and the reality of my rather rash and impudent conversation was starting to sink in. Had I just argued with the very first axe-wielding man-in-the-woods I’d ever run into on a trail run? 

Yes. Yes I had.

Obviously if I run into a real axe murderer, it’s gonna go so very well.

Meanwhile, Christen was having her own personal crisis. She pulled up beside me, panting, and said,

“Oh my goodness I didn’t even notice that he had an axe until you said something. THIS IS WHY I CAN NEVER RUN ALONE.”

We discussed axe man for the next mile, then pulled into a nearby bathroom. There was a State Park worker at the bathrooms, and I went back and forth, back and forth with myself as to whether I should report Axe Man. She seemed like such a nice State Park worker…I didn’t want her to die.

And then I heard him, not far off, whistling for one of his dogs…and I didn’t want to die for being a rat.

So I didn’t report him.

As we ran away from the bathrooms, he pulled alongside us in his truck.

Here it goes. Here we go.

“Y’all are making me just exhausted with all your running!!”

Yes, yes we are, sir. We’re clearly the problem here.