Done: 574 Bucket List Miles

Vibrant reds and rich yellows hang from the forest ceiling. A few small leaves flutter slowly to the ground. A dream becomes reality. I am experiencing Fall for the first time.

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A quick history lesson: On August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law establishing the National Park Service. That means this year the agency is celebrating its Centennial. There are a total of 410 sites managed by the National Park Service.  Last week, I chose to explore the most popular one of all. My husband and I drove the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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We started on Skyline Drive in Virginia and drove all the way to Cherokee, NC. That’s a total of 574 miles of winding, breezy, romantic, scenic roadway.  And we chose to take the trip during the peak season of color, Autumn. We don’t have colorful seasonal changes in Florida, so I could only imagine what kind of brilliance I would be met with once we hit the road. The Blue Ridge Mountains did not disappoint.

 

Our journey started in Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive is every bit as beautiful as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unlike its neighbor to the south Skyline is a backpacker’s paradise.  Squiggly trails, including the famous AT, crisscross the highway several times and thru hikers trudge up and down the hills carrying heavy packs. The forest is thick and the leaves are mostly golden. The views from the road are breathtaking and its tempting to stop at every pullout.

Unfortunately, because of a six hour Amtrak delay, we had to rush through this part of our trip. We hiked one short trail in the southern end of Shenandoah Park before hurrying onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. 574 miles doesn’t seem that long until you start to drive it.

I started to get excited about fall leaves around the time we hit the North Carolina line. I thought the yellows and oranges we saw in Virginia would be the best of the trip, but by the time we reached Linville Falls we were in peak color. Crimson red and brilliant gold flanked the roadway with a backdrop of cool gray and blue layers of mountains.

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My soul came alive. And for once all of my stress began to dissipate. Our original plan had us spending the night at a hotel in Asheville, but we decided to camp. I wanted to spend the night in the mountains and wake up to the crisp Autumn air. We stayed at the Linville Falls campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway. We arrived late, but fortunately they had a tents-only site available right next to the river. It was the perfect setting to begin a more relaxed second half of our vacation.

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Linville turned out to be the prettiest part of our trip. We hiked to the falls the next morning before heading south to Asheville. We visited Mount Mitchell, Mount Pisgah, Craggy Gardens and the Asheville area of the Parkway on several previous trips so we mostly drove through that zone this time around. As we got closer to Asheville it became clear we are not the only people obsessed with fall color. Leaf peepers clogged the Parkway at every lookout point. At some points-of-interest were so congested that it was nearly impossible to enjoy the view. I didn’t mind the crowds because we saw plenty of fall color further north that was even more beautiful.

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We took a break to re-adjust our schedules. A co-worker graciously agreed to work a shift for me so we could get an extra day of vacation. We spent two nights in Asheville as a result (more on that later.) On our final day of driving the BRP we visited the North Carolina Arboretum. In all of our trips to the Smokies, I can’t believe we never explored the facility before. The gardens are beautiful and the 3.5 mile nature trail allowed us to learn about the trees and insects in the area.

One of my favorite parts of the Parkway actually occurred by accident. We got to mile 0 and took a wrong turn. It turned out to be the best mistake ever because we saw a field full of elk!

All in all, a perfect ending to a very exciting adventure.

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Overnight on Amtrak

It’s October, which means Autumn has arrived in places that are not Florida. I’ve never experienced the crisp fall air, the brightly colored leaves, or any of the other environmental pleasures that people who live north of the I-75/I-10 intersection brag about between September and December. So, this week we decided to pack our bags and head north. 

I’ve always wanted to drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and I imagine it is gorgeous in the Fall, but with only four days off from work and a one-year-old who requires a lot of rest area breaks during road trips, it sounded stressful to make this adventure happen this year. 

That’s where Amtrak comes in. The Auto Train runs daily from Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA. It is a roughly 16-hour train ride (allegedly – more about that later) that allows you to bring your car on the train. We decided to book a roomette for our family of three and ride the rails. 

Logistics: 

When we arrived at the Amtrak station in Sanford we were directed to leave the keys in our car and pull it forward. Some people came by to inspect our vehicle before driving it onto a two-level train car. (Note: You do not have access to your car once it is on board. It is in a completely separate part of the train.) 

We grabbed our carry-on bags and headed into the train station to check-in and wait for boarding. I carried Konnor in the Tula to prevent him from crawling around on the dirty floor. We had about a one hour wait from the time we arrived until we were allowed to board, so I was  glad that we brought lunch to occupy the three of us. 

We knew from the description of the roomette that it would be cramped quarters, but we didn’t realize how cramped until we arrived. We like each other a lot, so we made it work, but Konnor is right at the border of being comfortable in such a confined space. If your child is walking or likes to have a lot of personal space you should book a full-sized sleeper cabin rather than a roomette. The room is 3’6 by 6’6. Two comfortable chairs are pressed between the wall and the sliding door. An attendant stops by in the evening to turn the chairs into a 24″ wide bed. A storage area in the top of the roomette also folds down to become a 20″ wide bed. Needless to say, the roomette is not designed for large people.

Kevin took the top bunk because it was too chilly for me thanks to an air conditioning vent on the ceiling, I took the bottom bunk and Konnor slept on a pallet on the floor. Amtrak provides sheets and blankets, but we were glad we brought extras. We brought Konnor’s sleeping bag as one of our carry-on items, which gave him a comfortable place to sleep on the floor. 

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Cramped quarters! This is how Konnor slept.

Two meals are automatically included on the Sanford to Lorton Auto Train. Dinner had a small menu of four entrees to choose from. Kevin had lamb, Konnor had cod and I had pasta. There is also a lounge car where you can get alcohol. ($8 for a bottle of Sam Adams, OUCH!) Breakfast consisted of Continental basics: cereal, banana, muffin/bagel, orange juice and coffee. 

When we arrived in Lorton, VA the next day the train was SIX HOURS late arriving. This had a huge impact on our vacation since we only had four days to do drive the Blue Ridge. We basically lost an entire day and now have to choose whether to skip most of the parkway or forfeit hiking and camping. Anyway, I’ll complain more about that later. When we disembarked the train we stood on the platform to watch them begin to unload the cars. It look about an hour for us to be reunited with my Suburu. It was a cool process to watch. Basically, a parade of drivers show up and drive all of the automobiles off of the train cars.

Overall, the Auto Train is an interesting blend of cruise ship and airplane. The service reminds me of a cruise ship, but the quarters are more like an airplane. There is no entertainment, but you do get sit-down meals. You sleep in a cramped space, but there is turn-down service.  I would definitely do this again, but with some changes. 

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Why I recommend taking the train: 

The Auto Train is not quicker than driving. In fact, in our experience, it took nearly twice as long because of debris on the rails left by Hurricane Matthew. We were on the first Auto Train to travel since the storm pummeled the coast one week ago. However, it is worth it to not have to stress about traffic and potty breaks. Also, we had a good night’s sleep and have the energy to enjoy the rest of our trip. I got to walk around and stretch my legs, read a book, write a blog, take conference calls, watch Netflix, and let Konnor crawl around instead of being trapped in a car seat. Konnor enjoyed looking out the windows and exploring the train. It also taught him a good lesson about adventure and how to deal with bedtime and meals away from home. I feel relaxed, happy and excited for leg two of our journey. 

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Onto the Blue Ridge Parkway… 

 

Dear Konnor, You are ONE Today

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This was the first time I held you in my arms. I love you so much. 

Thank you, my sweet boy, for giving me the best year of my life. I always knew that I wanted to be a mommy, but I never could have imagined the intensity of the love I feel for you. When we are apart, my body physically aches. It started the day you were born. I’ve learned to get used to it, but it never goes away. Not a moment goes by when I don’t have you at least in the back of my mind.

I like to think of the bond between us as magic. When you hurt, I hurt. When you smile, I smile. When you laugh, I laugh. You give me some kind of super power that allows my heart to grow bigger every day. And when you put your tiny little hands around neck and press your baby boy head up against my chest, our big souls combine and nothing can ruin our happiness.

I love to see you learn each day. Right now, you are sitting on the floor trying to read the mail. You are holding a big sheet of paper up to your face and babbling away. Tiny moments like this make up my whole world and I will cherish them forever. Time slips by without even realizing it and considering how quickly you turned one year old, I am certain that the next time I blink I will be sending you off to college or helping you buy your first apartment.

I like to imagine what our lives will be like in a few years. What will be your favorite food? Will you like camping? Will your love of music grow? Will you get excited on family road trips and play the alphabet game?

I hope that you grow up to respect other people. If there is just one lesson you learn in life I want it to be the value of respect. I’m sure you will realize this, though I will try my best to hide it, but I am not a very confident person. I will doubt every parenting decision I make, but I will still do everything in my power to make sure you remain a good person. It is obvious already that you have a beautiful soul.

I’m going to end your birthday letter with a haiku about my first year as your mommy.

A new soul shines bright
My endless supply of love
Life is best with you

I cannot wait to see what kind of amazing things you do as a one-year-old. I thank God for bringing you into my life and I thank you for filling my heart.

With all the love in my heart,
– Mommy

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Yes, I am concerned about Zika

 

mosuitoToday, Governor Rick Scott confirmed the first case of locally transmitted Zika to be reported outside of South Florida. The patient is in Pinellas County, which for those of you unfamiliar with Florida, is just outside the Tampa area. I live in the Orlando area. The new “hot zone” is roughly 125 miles from my house.

The World Health Organization reports the mosquitoes that carry Zika can only travel 0.2 miles. So, why would I be worried about it in Orlando? Mostly, my concern is due to the fact that I am an outdoors enthusiast and I am a woman of childbearing age. I am not pregnant, nor am I trying to get pregnant, but scientists have yet to reign in this virus. I know they are working hard on researching a vaccine at the CDC in Atlanta, but until it is proven effective and becomes widely available we are stuck relying on good old fashioned bug repellent and DEET to protect ourselves against Zika.

I am a mosquito magnet. I swear, no amount of DEET or citronella candles can keep the bugs off of me. My husband can testify that mosquitoes frequently chew on my limbs leaving large welts all over my body even when nobody else in our group has a single bite. I feel like I cannot protect myself in the Zika environment.

Fact is, scientists don’t know a lot about Zika. They are still researching its side-effects, not only in unborn children and newborns, but also in adults. Microcephaly is just one of many potential birth defects caused by Zika. A study published earlier this month in the British Medical Journal reported on research in Brazil that links severe joint deformities to Zika. The babies also had calcifications on their brain. The study was small and the cause and effect is unclear, but it is the perfect example of how little scientists really understand about the disease. Other studies have related Zika to infant blindness and trouble swallowing.

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of Zika in adults are fever, rash, joint pain and pink-eye. But its longterm effects are unknown. A study published last week that was conducted by Stanford University researchers and scientists in Brazil suggests Zika may damage adult brain cells as well, potentially causing memory loss. The study was conducted in mice, so it obviously needs more research, but these potentially unknown factors are downright scary to a healthy, outdoors loving adult like myself.

I’m definately not “freaked out” over Zika. But I admit, I do worry. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how long Zika stays in an adult body, so I have to wonder if a baby I concieve three years from now could be impacted by a mosquito that bites me today. In the meantime, I will continue my current lifestyle and the threat of Zika will not keep me out of the woods.

I encourage everyone to contact their local and state lawmakers and ask them to provide more federal and state funding to research and fight Zika. Also, please keep a close eye on standing water. We can’t do much about the swamps and puddles that nature provides, but we can dump out our bird feeders, trash bins, and other items that may be collecting rain water around our homes.

This Florida girl can’t afford to worry about a stupid bug.

The Dog Days of Summer: Hike the Heat with your Hound

The UV Index has soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day this month. If I dress correctly, get an early start, wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water I can still enjoy a hike. I know that I need to pace myself because of the heat. My dog, Arthur, doesn’t seem to make the same observation about the weather.

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Arthur loves the freedom he receives on the trail and I can’t bare to leave him at home. If you feel the same way about your pet, here is some really important advice from two dog behavioral experts and outdoor enthusiasts.

Weather can be dangerous. 
Dean Milenkovic knew this when he took his two American Labrador Retrievers, Blue & Indigo on a 40-mile, 4-day through hike on the Appalachian Trail. Dean is a professional photographer and outdoors enthusiast who also happens to hike a lot with his pets. “During colder months  we go as often as 3 times a week with 2 moderate hikes of 3-6 miles and one longer hike 8-12 miles.  During the summer, we go once or twice a week.  We supplement this with trips to the beach and long morning walks.” The heat is the primary reason why his summer hikes run short. And for good reason. It is estimated that several hundred dogs die from heat stroke in the U.S. each year.

 

Early signs of heat stroke in dogs:
– panting
– hyper-salivation (excessive production of saliva)
– dry mucous membranes (nose is not wet)
– higher heart rate
– dogs may appear hyperactive & excitable
– American Kennel Association

Some dogs are more at risk than others, so it is important to recognize early warning signs before the condition becomes serious and to talk to your veterinarian if you have a dog with thick coat or medical issues.

Teena Patel, a dog behaviorist who owns the University of Doglando, stresses the importance of “heat checks” when spending a lot of time outdoors with your pets. She recommends checking a dog’s temperature and hydration by touching their ears, gums and paws every two hours during the afternoon heat. She also recommends choosing your trails wisely. “We pick trails that have shade canopies and we keep our hikes very short in the summer.  If we are in Georgia or North Carolina or someplace we don’t have to worry about gators, we intentionally choose trails with ponds or lakes so the dogs can swim and cool off.”

Water, Water, Water

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That brings us to our next point: water. Dogs need about an ounce of water for every 10 pounds of body weight each day (Translation: a 50 lb. dog needs between 43 and 85 oz. of water per  day.)

Personally, I try to avoid letting my dog drink stagnant water for the same reasons we don’t drink it. Dogs are also prone to illnesses and parasites. Not to mention, some ponds and streams can be downright nasty. Patel reminds pet owners that no natural water sources can automatically be deemed safe. “We must be very careful of letting dogs drink out of lakes because many lakes have houses around them and people treat their yards with pesticides. When it rains the run off from their lawns go into the lake.” She allows her dogs to drink from fresh rain puddles, but even that is not for everyone. A dog with a poor immune system could be susceptible to anything.

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Arthur enjoying some cool water in the mountains of North Carolina

There are several options for easy-to-carry pet water bowls. I use something like this:

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Arthur’s Water Bottle

Always stay alert: 

Arthur goes insane when we are on a trail, especially if I allow him to run around off-leash. Once I started writing this blog it was brought to my attention that I should probably carry a better first aid kit for him. Milenkovic always carries an AKC First Aid Kit

He also establishes boundaries at the beginning of the hike and encourages his dogs to do voluntary check-ins and recalls by handing out high value treats. He says, “This can come in handy if the dog tries to take off after a deer, bird or a squirrel.  Leaping into tall grass or bushes after a deer can cause numerous cuts to both body and paws. Leaping into water to chase a bird can draw nearby alligators to investigate and pulling the dog by his tail out of the water with gator heading for you is not fun.”

Have a plan:

You never know what can happen on the trail. Write down the address and phone number for the closest emergency veterinarians, and make sure you are not hiking during hunting season. If you do hike in a location where hunting is a possibility,  get your dog a brightly colored vest.

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Hunters will be able to see Arthur better when he wears this vest.

You can also visit your state’s forestry website to find out which locations are open to hunters. For the state of Florida you can check here. It can be safe and fun to hike with your dog in the summer as long as you keep them hydrated, know the warning signs, and know who to call.

The Experts:

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Teena Patel is the founder and owner of the University of Doglando in Orlando, FL. She has more than a decade of experience in dog training and behavioral science. She has traveled the world observing how different cultures interact with canines. Read more about her here.

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Dean Milenkovic is the a professional photographer and outdoors enthusiast. He is the owner of two American Labrador Retrievers, Blue & Indigo. He and his dogs have taken numerous trips to the Carolinas. The longest being a 40 mile, 4-day through hike on the Appalachian Trail. Read more about Dean and his photography here.

 

3 Reasons to take baby hiking (and what doctors think about it.)

I set out to write about the benefits of hiking with a baby, but once I started doing a little research I found that most parenting websites either don’t recommend it or offer suggestions and tips that seem overly cautious, especially to an experienced hiker.  Here are 3 reasons why I believe babies belong on the trail.k hikes

1.) It is healthy: As new mothers, our bodies are wrecked. Hiking is a great way to get in shape and lose the baby weight. Depending on your body size, fitness level, trail speed, and hiking terrain you can burn upwards of 700 calories in just two miles! (source: livestrong.com)  Consider this: A woman who weighs 150lbs. burns an extra 200+ calories for each hour she wears her infant. (source: myfitnesspal.com)  Hiking also works your core muscles, helping you regain stability and strength after birth.

It isn’t just about fitness. Hiking also exposes you and the baby to Vitamin D filled sunshine which is critical in the postpartum weeks, especially for mothers who breastfeed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed babies take Vitamin D supplements due to a lack of exposure to sunlight.

“If baby gets enough sunlight, mom’s deficiency is unlikely to be a problem for baby. However, if baby is not producing enough vitamin D from sunlight exposure, then breastmilk will need to meet a larger percentage of baby’s vitamin D needs. ” – Kellymom.com

You still need to be smart about it. Pediatricians encourage parents to always lather their babies in sunscreen and keep them covered against the sun’s dangerous UV rays.

2.) It is therapeutic:
I honestly don’t know if I would have made it through those early postpartum weeks so easily if I hadn’t quickly hit the trail with my new little hiking buddy. Konnor was only a few days old the first time I took him into the great outdoors for a stroll around the neighborhood and within weeks I was strapping him into my Tula carrier with an infant insert and heading to one of our favorite nearby trails. The sunshine, the mossy oak trees, the cicadas buzzing, and the birds chirping all helped me relax and relish the overwhelming new love that had come into my life. The trail made me believe in myself and focus on the positive aspects of childbirth rather than the trauma of what my body had experienced. In those early postpartum weeks I felt stronger and more confident than ever before. I rocked FIVE DAYS of labor, including 3 1/2 hours of pushing to bring Konnor into this world. I defied statistics by managing to give birth vaginally despite the odds laid out against me. For the first time in my life, I recognized the strength and power within my body. Hiking during that “fourth trimester,” as many call it, helped me hold onto that confidence.

Clearly, I am not the only new mother who finds hiking therapeutic. There’s a group in Salt Lake City, Utah that hosts an event every year called “Climb out of the Darkness.” The event bills itself as the world’s largest event raising awareness of maternal mental illness. The woman who runs the group’s facebook page, Lindsay, says “Hiking and being in nature is calming for me. It allows me to think, to process and distracts me from the constant worries motherhood can often bring. It’s sometimes hard with little ones to get outside but I always feel better after I do.” (You can read more about them here. There are chapters all over the nation.)

3.) It is stimulating:
The breeze shakes the leaves on the trees creating a soft rustling sound above. My boots smash leaves and pine-needles into the ground producing a “crunch, crunch, crunch” below. The wind picks up the scent of a freshly mowed cow pasture two miles away sending a distinct scent of earthiness (or is that just manure?) into the nostrils. A flock of hidden birds startles in the nearby tall grass and lifts off the ground all at once. These are things we may not notice when we go for a walk, but imagine how profound these actions must seem to someone who has never experienced any senses before. Babies begin exploring the second they are born. By taking your infant on a hike you are teaching the baby how to become aware of the environment.

An article published by the University of Cyprus references several benefits of outdoor play. That includes physical development, independence and  learning to care about the environment. The author also explains how a parent can help a newborn benefit from spending time outside.

“For children 0-3 months: Provide a blanket for the baby to lay on. Point out the leaves moving, let them feel the leaves or grass, and point out the nature sounds that they hear.”  (To read the UCY article in full click here.)

The nitty-gritty:
If you do a quick Google search for hiking and babies you will find websites that recommend leaving a newborn at home and only allowing an infant under six-months-old to join you on a short hike that lasts no longer than an hour or two. Of course, it is up to the mother and her doctors to decide what is comfortable for her and her baby. I took Konnor out for entire day hikes when he was just a couple of months old. He went on a 3-night backpacking trip with us when he was between 7-8 months old. It’s perfectly safe as long as you take smart precautions. Mothers should never go against their doctors orders. Hiking, depending on the terrain, can be extremely strenuous. You should avoid attempting anything even remotely difficult or outside your usual comfort level until you get that 6-week seal of approval from your doctor.

The same rings true for the baby. It is always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician beforehand. Don’t forget bug spray and sunscreen if your baby is old enough to wear it.  If you live in Florida, like me, the sweltering summer may mean you have to be choosier about which trails to hike during certain times of the day and year. Hats, long sleeves, and a carrier with a canopy cover are also wise choices if it is sunny or buggy.

I cannot imagine being too afraid to get outside with my baby. Lets teach our future trail blazers how to hike!hike 2

Pokemon Go: Making America Great Again

Fact: Millions of people are playing Pokemon Go.
Fact: They look really silly walking around staring at their phones.
Fact: It is a huge waste of time that could be spent on more important issues.

False: Families are spending even less time together because they are too busy playing.
False: People are so busy staring at their screens that they miss the world around them.
False: Its just another game eating children’s brains and has no educational value.

The title of this post is meant to be a joke,  but there is some truth to it. I regularly walk a 3-mile loop through my neighborhood. Usually, I pass a few kids on skateboards, a couple of neighbors walking their dogs and a handful of fit adults jogging in fancy workout clothes. This past week I observed something different. I passed crowds of children huddled together, I saw fathers out with their sons and daughters laughing and squealing as they walked down the sidewalk, I was almost run over by teenagers hurrying down the street on bicycles. They all had one thing in common: They were staring at their phones, hunting Pokemon.

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I’m making assumptions here, but based on my previous excursions through the neighborhood I doubt the father who I saw being dragged down the street by two little girls regularly walks with his children. They were, without a doubt, discussing the Pokemon that was being chased down by an older boy walking in front of them. Sure, this isn’t exactly meaningful conversation, but I am betting that during the discussion of weedles and lures the father had an opportunity to talk to his children about their day at school, or if not, at least they are bonding over something.

The pedestrian traffic picked up as I got closer to the busiest Pokemon stop in the neighborhood. The biggest observation I made is the diversity of players. Old, young, black, white it doesn’t matter. Pokemon does not discriminate. I saw groups of teenagers, who I’d bet rarely acknowledge each other on a typical day, hanging out in the same spot asking each other about what they caught. They were all united.

So, in this dark and depressing time in American history, lets not bash the Pokemon Go players. Instead, lets learn a thing or two from them. If we can unite over fictional Japanese anime creatures, then surely we can unite over the more pressing issues.