On Running To and From Dismal.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the strong urge to leave town. It had been a rough summer, and it was the week before the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, and all the blech and sadness and ick was making me quite dismal. I haven’t felt like writing, photographing, staging roadkill, or even running – and it’s not good when I don’t have something I feel like doing.

I don’t like to be dismal. I cannot sit in dismalness. I have to escape dismal.

Chris’ work schedule has been hectic for a few months, so I knew he couldn’t join me in this particular juncture for my need of escapism, but he’s always supportive of me, or me and the kids, taking adventures. We had just started school, so I couldn’t leave my students behind. And I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to do escapism with one-on-two-parenting. So I needed a Daddy Fill-In. My friend Kelly is always up for adventure (she has been fully auditioned, audited, and approved as one of the World’s Best Last Minute Adventure Friends), so even though she was literally in the airport returning from being gone for a week, I texted her and told her I needed to escape and could she please come along as my second adult, and without hesitation she agreed.

Hence why she is the WBLMAF.

I keep a list of places in Alabama that I want to visit when I have the chance, so I perused the list and chose one.

Ironically.

I swear I didn’t even think about the name of the place in regards to what I was escaping until I sat down to write this blog post…

I chose Dismals Canyon.

…Because I guess my subconscious thought there’s nowhere like Dismals Canyon to get away from some serious dismalness.

I didn’t really know much about Dismals Canyon, except that they had really cool moss-covered rock walls and some sort of glowing worm that is very rare and only in a couple places on earth.

They have two cabins for rent, but the park is only open on the weekends. I got kind of confused, so I called to get clarification: if you’re staying at the cabins, you have full access to the canyon, even though the park is closed – and no one was renting the other cabin, so we would have the entire park to ourselves if we came.

That sounded like what I was looking for.

So I rented the cabin for two nights, and told them I might like it for a third but I didn’t know yet. We packed our schoolbooks, our food, our Kelly, and headed for northwest Alabama.

It was quite in the middle of nowhere, and we’d already been told that there was no cell phone service (except for one spot with one bar of coverage in the parking lot that’s about two-tenths of a mile uphill from the cabins), so I wasn’t sure exactly how it would *feel* to be completely alone at this place.

When we arrived, we quickly discovered that we’d be…quite safe.

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We were considerably sure that when we were granted entrance, we would definitely be entering Hogwarts or Narnia or maybe The Gate of Mordor.

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We met the worker who let us in at 4pm, check-in time. She explained to us that we couldn’t go into the canyon that day – we’d have to wait until tomorrow.

“But why? I made sure that we had access to the canyon and trails if we stayed in the cabin…”

“Well yes, but the Canyon is a two hour hike and we don’t let anyone down after 4pm because it gets dark down there early and we don’t want you to get lost or not be able to get out of the canyon before nightfall.”

Okay…

Instead, we explored the creek that was below our cabin, which we presumed led to the canyon but we didn’t dare go that far to find out. Though Kelly and I are rule-breakers at heart (Although Ali and Noah are decidedly rule-loyalists to their core), but we didn’t want to get kicked out the first day there. And anyway, the creek had an eeriness all on its own…we could imagine that we were already on our grand adventure.

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Meanwhile, Noah discovered a giant fluffy friendly cat. He came running and squealing “Mom!! This place is the BEST EVER!!! It COMES with PETS!!!”

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He named her Dismal Cat and was completely in love. She was on the other cabin’s porch, however, and he really wanted her on our porch.

So I said, “Well, pick her up and take her over to our cabin, then.”

His eyes got wide. “I can PICK HER UP??”

Poor kid hasn’t had enough experience with pets.

But pick her up he did, despite her significant girth.

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She was quite content to go limp in his arms and let him tote her around like a reusable grocery bag (filled with bricks) to wherever his heart desired.

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Dismal Cat, whom we later learned was named Tick (to go along with the other cat, named Flea,) was absolutely Noah’s favorite part of the trip. And I think he was her favorite, too, for the first 24 hours. Then she might have needed more alone time.

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The next morning bright and early, we set off on our two hour hike of the Canyon. We were ready to get our adventure on.

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The day before. as part of their on-trip school assignments, I made the kids study the map and read all the history about each area, so they were ready to see this stuff in person.

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Noah was most thrilled about an area not on the map, for obvious reasons.

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Alas, no snakes were seen. But plenty of gorgeous Leopard Frogs were annoyed at our mid-week disturbance of their quiet time. You could nearly hear the intonation in their croaks… “Ugh. There are CABIN RENTERS this week, Karen.”

The Canyon floor was pretty spectacular. There were multiple extremely tight squeezes,

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Leaning walls looking ready to attack,

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Upper and Lower paths,

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Delightful bridges into dark caverns,

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Waterfalls,

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And some really fun historical spots (did you know that Aaron Burr, a sitting Vice President, was caught in Alabama after he became a fugitive for killing Alexander Hamilton in their duel? Although they later discovered this wasn’t actually his hideout, but another criminal with a similar name, my kids, who have recently fallen in love with the soundtrack to Hamilton, were pretty excited to hide out in Burr’s Hideout anyway.)

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There were, of course, plenty of the promised paths through green mossy rocks.

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We did indeed take two hours on our first canyon visit, but that included a lot of stops, significant exploration, the checking out of every meandering path, and in general taking our time in this glorious natural wonder.

After we got back out of the canyon, Ali, Kelly, and I put on our swimsuits to check out the swimming hole at the top of the waterfall. Despite the temperature being the mid-90s, the swimming hole was extraordinarily cold (I believe it is spring-fed), yet quite refreshing. I definitely screamed when I finally got the courage to jump all the way in.

Noah, not one to be pushed into anything by anyone, was sitting onshore watching. I never even asked him if he wanted to swim because he’s Noah and if was going to, he was going to have to be the decider, not me.

Shockingly, he decided he did indeed want to swim, so he walked all the way back to the cabin, put on his swimsuit, and came back.

His high-pitched never-ending squeal when the water hit the midsection of his shorts was a high point of the trip.

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He was so “touched” by the frigidity that his sister got her first brotherly hug in at least a year – all in an attempt to steal a degree or two of her heat.

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But he braved up and swam across the swimming hole to the diving platform, where he was happy to grumpily watch his sister jump in with all the glee that her heart could conjure.

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After cooling down in the icy water, Kelly and I were discussing our puzzlement over the supposed perilousness of the two hour hike of the canyon floor and its strict closing time. The path was very clearly marked, never difficult (other than some tight squeezes), and seemed less than a mile and a half.

So because we’re cynical rebels, we decided that we needed to know how quickly we could run the entire canyon. So we put on our trail shoes and took off – still in our wet swimsuits – with a stopwatch timing us from the top of the stairs.

Fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds later, we were back.

We could not have been more victorious and prideful in our achievements. We were CERTAIN we’d just set a new Canyon Record. The kids were pretty impressed, too. So impressed that when the store clerk came by to do some paperwork and Noah begged her to let him in the gift shop because he was just DYING to spend some money, he bragged to her about our record-setting canyon time.

Oops.

For that confidentiality overstep (and actually because I value the safety of our family), I did not let Noah buy the Cobra-headed walking stick that’s actually a sword in disguise that he really really wanted.

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At 0ur times in the cabin, we dug out a 500 piece puzzle from the games shelf and set to work.

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I found the escape from my phone and the ability to delve into things like puzzles without beeps or nudges (or internal nudges) to check the outside world was FABULOUS. I mean, we finished a 500 piece puzzle in two days (except for the ONE PIECE THAT WAS MISSING and the one piece that appeared to be chewed up by a former house guest.) I began pondering strategies for taking more breaks from the digital world that so easily fills all the cracks of my life.

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We did do the night tour of the Dismalites, as the glow worms are called, and it was uniquely interesting. The Dismalites, though neat to see, were not bright enough for photography. I was loaded down with camera equipment and UV flashlights and regular flashlights, but ended up not taking any pictures except for this glowing Scorpion (did you know that scorpions glow under UV light? I’m constantly shocked at how many there are in Alabama, yet I’ve never seen a single one without my UV flashlight.)

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The kids both wanted to stay, and we were all having a wonderful escape from reality, so I booked the extra night. Seeing as how we had the entire place to ourselves, it was no problem at all.

A small storm came the next day, which did have the effect of ramping up the waterfalls to the canyon nicely.

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We enjoyed several more adventures down into the canyon, exploring all the quirky walkways and bridges.

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And Kelly and I made sure that we gave the canyon a full introduction to trail runners, which we were pretty sure was its first.

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None of us were ready to leave when the time came, which left us feeling rather, well, dismal.

Because you can only run from dismal to Dismal for so long.

Summer Reading For Rebels.

Guilty Confession: I don’t hate the library, per se, but I might believe that the library hates me.

Our branch is always crowded and loud and I struggle mightily to find the books we’re looking for. I used to try and do the right, the expected, the moral thing, and take my children to the library regularly. But then I realized that we could just go to the Scholastic Warehouse Sale twice a year, stock up on books for super cheap, and never have to enter the doors of the place that so overwhelms me.

…Except for the summertime, when my kids absolutely expect to participate in the Summer Reading Program.

Okay maybe I do hate the library. Or actually maybe it’s my own laziness.

Summer Reading Programs are great. Really. But oh my goodness they’re so much work with the app changing every year and the tracking type changing and also papers that you have to bring in and you have to come every week or it doesn’t count and the suspicious looks that the librarian gives me if Ali reads too many pages.

The last couple of summers we’ve started out with good intentions, but it doesn’t take long for us to fall off the radar of those weekly check-in visits and then sometime in October the kids say “Hey, whatever happened to our Summer Reading? Do we have any more rewards we can get?”

(Okay clearly it’s my fault and not the library’s. But you gotta work with what you got.)

So this year I decided to do my own Summer Reading Program.

No Libraries Needed!

Less Paperwork!!

No Suspicious Librarians!!!

No App Passwords that you don’t remember from last year, only to find out that they’re using a new app!

AND the kids are responsible for all their own paperwork and no one will complain about their handwriting!!

It’s going swimmingly well, so I decided to share it here, with the thought that some of you may already find yourself flagging in your library visits and needing a new way to motivate your poor libraryless children.

It’s simple, it’s been quite motivating, and it’s given the kids some summer structure, which is something they’re always craving.

Here were my steps in implementation:

1. I suspended allowance for the summer – they normally get $5 a week.

2. I replaced it with Mom’s Summer Reading Program, giving them the opportunity to earn up to $10 a week.

3. I made a simple tracking spreadsheet that included…

A. What they had to accomplish every day to earn their alotted iPad time (this doesn’t really have to do with Summer Reading but ya gotta stay on top of chores somehow)

B. The tracking area for their books and pages read.

4. I explained the system to them:

A. Ali, 12 years old and about to go into 7th grade, gets $1 for every 50 pages she reads, with a max of $10 a week. BUT rollover pages are allowed, and I encouraged getting ahead for weeks like when we’re on vacation and they’ll read less, or when they’re going to day camp and will be too exhausted to read.

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B. Noah, 8 years old and about to go into 3rd grade, gets $1 for every 25 pages he reads, with a max of $10 a week, and rollover allowed.

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C. Every Monday morning, they present their Reading Logs to me for me to check their math and pay out their totals. So far, they’ve each gotten $10 every week.

It’s that simple. But they’re OBSESSED with it. And reading a ton. And keeping up with their own paperwork. And not begging me to take them to the library constantly. And have yet to tell me that they’re bored.

(And Noah can be reading as many books at once as he wants without having to finish the books to get his summer reading credit. The kid has a short book attention span.)

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So if you’d like our Summer Reading Log to enact your own Personal Summer Reading Program, click here to download it and give it a try. 

The Long Haul. With Kids.

This past weekend, while on a hike, Ali and I were talking about our Hiking Club Summer Bucket List. I told her I’d asked the other moms what they’d wanted to do this summer, and asked her what she wanted to do.

She lit up.

“I want to hike farther than I’ve ever hiked. I want to hike ten miles.”

“Okay! We can do that sometime this summer.”

“Actually I want to do it as soon as possible.”

It was supposed to be a pretty week and I’m a total enabler when it comes to a gorgeous hike, so I checked with our hiking club, warned that this was going to be the most we’d ever done and please only consider your oldest children for the hike, and began gathering supplies.

(A ten mile hike is no joke – especially when you’re going somewhat slow. You’re talking hours on the trail, and it requires water and snacks and provisions and probably a few band-aids.)

But somehow we got it all together AND convinced a few friends that this was a good idea in less than 48 hours, and on Monday morning, we met at Oak Mountain ready for the hike.

Five Moms. Four walking kids. Two riding babies.

We can do this.

I mean, maybe. Who knows.

No, we can do this.

We started out from the top of the ridge so that we didn’t have to climb any serious mountains, and gazed down from the cliffs at Peavine Falls, the bottom of which would be our glorious ending point.

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The first few miles were lovely and uneventful – the white trail at Oak Mountain is one of my favorites, as it is full of wildflowers and also runs by a stream. The peacefulness is on point.

When we got to our first trail crossing at 3ish miles, we decided it was time for snack. And also there was a good rock and fence post for a group photo – I could put my camera on the post, control it with my phone, and actually be in a photo. I didn’t know Noah dabbed right out the top of the photo, and I also wasn’t doing a good job hiding my phone. But it’s as good as a trail group photo gets.

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We took five photos.

This is the last photo.

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Notice Noah’s dab has morphed into a point-and-scream. But the rest of us haven’t changed a bit. Because his screams of “SNAKE!!!!” and pointing at our feet hasn’t made it to any of our brains yet.

(I don’t know how dabbing helped Noah see this unbelievably camouflage snake, but I will never complain about dabbing my pictures up ever again.)

A baby timber rattlesnake was somewhat perturbed at our rowdying up its rock, and had crawled out in a huff, then a minute later curled up in a ball and had his head up showing his decisively bad mood.

(I took pictures, of course, but as many people do not appreciate my snake photography, if you specifically want to see our one-rattle baby friend, you can click here.)

(You’re welcome, rest of y’all.)

We moved on quickly. We weren’t sure where his family lived, and since he was already so extremely irritable at such a young age, we could only imagine how special his mother’s moods must be.

Our next finds were much more amenable to our attention and presence. Or at least they didn’t have man-killing venom waiting to share, so we enjoyed their company a little bit more.

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In total, we found six toads (and only two peed on us), and this lovely dragon-esque Fence Lizard – note how his belly glows blue.

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He definitely had some leftover prehistoric fire and scales.

We kept moving, through the reeds, enjoying all of the vastly differing views of Oak Mountain. We took a couple wrong turns – one that was clearly the map’s fault, and the rest were most likely my fault.

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…And I did a hiking club first and fed a baby a bottle while walking through the woods.

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(For the record I was never a chill enough baby mama to hike with a baby. I am constantly amazed that Sarah is totally that person.)

We finally got back around to the Peavine Falls area. The original plan was to hike an extra half mile to come into the gorge from the side we were familiar with, and that was slightly less steep. But everyone was tired, we were already at 10 miles, and a shortcut is a shortcut is a shortcut even if it leads out with a sign like this.

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We followed the path down, but it looked just a bit off from what I thought should be there. We reached what should have been Peavine Falls, but instead it was a chute – a gorgeous, flowery, chute of water that was dying to be intertubed down, if we were slightly more daring than we actually are, and also had an intertube.

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I made the executive decision that the kids should play in the water while I tried to figure out where the crap we were. I didn’t know if we were upstream, downstream, around a bend, or exactly what from Peavine Falls, and I needed a minute.

The kids were happy to oblige.

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With some frantic texts to Chris and the studying of my exercise map on MapMyRun, I finally reached the conclusion that we were just *barely* downstream of Peavine Falls, and clearly I’d singlehandedly discovered Peavine Chute, which wasn’t so bad.

We slowly made our way up the trail to the falls, at which point all of us mothers were thrown back at once by a smell.

An overpowering, thick, we’re-about-to-step-in-something smell.

“Is that a skunk??”

“That sure smells like a skunk!!”

I looked around frantically. And then I saw it.

A group of hammocks, some wandering-slowly people…a zombie-ish look to the place.

“That’s not skunk. That’s weed.”

I scouted ahead to check it out.

It was, it seemed, a portable artist enclave. There were painters. There were aerial ropes with people hanging upside down. There were emotionless men with Hawaiian shirts hanging open. And there was a LOT of smoke.

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We wandered carefully into the falls area, completely killing their buzz, while they did likewise for us.

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That Peavine Chute had been a gift of quiet serenity just for us. But we managed to get in the falls and stake our claim, having a little fun before we hiked up and out.

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Our last find of the day happened nearly at the parking lot, and Noah was the spotter once more.

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A massively huge Luna Moth, who was more than happy to let us observe her from all of her magnificent angles.

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Our final mileage was 11.2 miles. It took 6 hours. And these four kids never once whined. They even THANKED me for the hike.

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It was all a true hiking miracle.

Ali logged our hike as she went along in her Trail Notes book, and this was her summary page of the day. IMG_1481

Yup, I think she covered everything.