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.

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.

The Incident at Walgreen’s.

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We were on our way home from dinner. The weather was abhorrent, but we needed two things from Walgreen’s. I went in on behalf of the whole family, because I’m sacrificial like that and also because one cannot trust one’s husband to pick out an eyebrow filling pencil. He probably doesn’t even know I fill in my eyebrows. Or what it means to fill in one’s eyebrows. I was trying to hurry, as we were all ready to get home and out of the cold rain. This whole 38-degrees-and-raining selection on the Weather Jukebox is one of those records that when it starts playing, everyone groans in unison and says “REALLY?! PATRICIA, C’MON. NO ONE LIKES THAT TRACK BUT YOU!!”

But dang it if Patricia hasn’t been hitting that track hard lately.

I made my selections and scrambled up to the counter. Except…that I got behind a lady buying all the Christmas decor. Her questionable hair dye job was about a foot from the top of her head, which boasted of gray strands sticking out any which way. Her double pack of Pall Malls were hanging out of her purse, desperately trying to escape. Her house shoes were a lovely shade of pet hair. And she wanted to make sure that she was able to use the most Walgreen’s rewards possible – whether that was on her husband’s or her account. She impossibly-slowly explained “We never use them … then they expire … and my husband … comes in and gets his prescriptions … but never uses his points … but I might have more … so I need you to check both …”

The patient cashier checked both accounts. Told her that she had $3 available to use. “Is that … on his account or mine … ?” He explained that it was from both accounts and she could use it all.

What a windfall day.

Maybe now we could move forward in this process of CHECKING OUT.

(I was becoming pretty sure that I was standing behind the very same Patricia that selected the day’s awful track on the Weather Jukebox.)

But then she noticed the total. “But all those … decorations … were supposed to be fifty percent off … “

“No ma’am…they’re BUY ONE get one 50% off.”

I internally roll my eyes. I’ll never get out of here. And Christmas decorations are never 50% off before Christmas (except at places where things are always 50% off like Hobby Lobby but we’re not at Hobby Lobby we’re at Walgreen’s and everyone knows that Walgreen’s is more of a buy one get one 50% off kind of place.)

“No, they were … definitely … 50% off.”

The cashier, still patient and smiling (#GodBlessHisSoul) called over the loudspeaker for help.

The manager came up. She said, “They’re buy one get one 50% off.”

“No, they were … definitely … 50% off.”

The manager, not being as patient as the cashier, said rather sassily with a bit of an “Oh yeah?!” implied, “Was it a red tag or a yellow tag?”

Mrs. Patricia Pall Mall looked her dead in the eye. “It was … a blue tag.”

Both the cashier and manager snorted.

“We don’t have blue tags.”

“It was … a blue tag.”

“Well, your total is $26.67.”

“Then … let me … think about it … for a minute.”

OHMYGOODNESS NO. PATRICIA, NO ONE HAS TIME FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT IT FOR A MINUTE. YOU CAN’T EVEN SPIT OUT A SENTENCE IN UNDER A MINUTE.

But she grabbed all her decor up and headed back into the store. The manager went to the other register and called over to me, “I can take you over here, ma’am.”

She was ringing up my items, shaking her head, and muttering “Blue tag. We don’t have a single blue tag in this store! Not a one. There ain’t no blue tags. You can take your card out now, ma’am. Happy Holidays. Blue tags. Psh.”

As I took my card out, I turned to look over my shoulder – I guess I sensed Patricia approaching.

Indeed. She was shuffling slowly back to the counter, the same hopeful purchases in one hand and … a … FREAKING BLUE TAG in the other.

I nearly walked out the door backwards to enjoy the sight of the Manager and Cashier staring openmouthed at this legendary, impossible, nonexistent, nay, 50% off, blue tag.

The moral of this story is: don’t be a Blue Tag Denier. And make your husband go into Walgreen’s. And if Patricia says it’s 50% off, it’s probably 50% off.