When I graduated from college in 2005, I began my first love affair… with hiking. I hiked the entire 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail. And I fell in love with the dirt, the rock and the dappled sunlight in the forest like some women love chocolate (OK, I love chocolate too, but you get my drift). Since that time, I’ve covered over 12,000 miles of long distance trails and have hiked in far-flung places like Iceland, Australia, Peru, Tanzania, Switzerland, Spain, Corsica, and all fifty states.
More recently, though, I’ve had two other love affairs. The first is with my husband Brew who I married in 2008. Our first date was a climb up Mount Mitchell, after which he curtly declared, “I’ve been hoping to meet an outdoorsy girl, but this is ridiculous!” And the second love affair is with our toe-headed two-year-old daughter Charley, whose full name is Charlotte and who’s named after the Queen City.
I thought my love affair with hiking would burn out when I met Brew, but I convinced him to join me on just about every adventure I’ve had since we met. And I worried that it would die when Charley came along. But instead, I’ve learned that all of these loves can co-exist and that actually, my fondness for hiking had been preparing me for life as a mother. Here are some of the connections I’ve made during my first few years as a mommy hiker.
Hiking is a family friendly activity that’s perfect for kids. Hiking gets you some meaningful quality time with your little ones. It gets them away from the TV or computer screen, instead giving them opportunities to be free, to dig around in the dirt, to skip rocks, to explore streams for salamanders, and most importantly, to burn up lots of energy!
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Hiking creates more patient parents- and people. I’ve always liked to hike fast. In 2011- a year before Charley was born- I actually hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 46 days and averaged 47 miles a day doing it. And now that I own and operate a hiking company in Asheville and try to balance that with speaking and writing, my life still moves at a breakneck pace. In fact, just about the only time I slow down these days is when I’m in the woods with Charley. Charley has a different pace than I do and our trail time presents me with a choice: I can either get frustrated by wanting and willing her to keep up with my speed- or I can slow down, embrace the moment, and see the wonder of the world through the eyes of a child. And who among us doesn’t need to do those things every once in a while?
Seasons in nature reflect seasons in life. We’re fortunate in North Carolina to be able to hike year round. When I get out in the spring and see the swollen streams and blooming mountain laurels, or when I take a hike in the fall and hear the rust-colored leaves swirling in a stiff autumn breeze, I am reminded that life with a newborn or toddler is a passing season, too. So whether I’m dealing with teething or sleepless nights, temper tantrums or potty accidents, nature tells me that just as spring turns to summer and summer to fall, this too shall pass. And that knowledge helps me to appreciate the phase my daughter is in a little more.
Sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve had good days and bad days on the trail just like I’ve had good days and bad days as a parent. I’ve hiked through hail, through thunderstorms and snowstorms, and through hundred degree heat. I’ve been turned around for hours at a time, and I’ve hiked with shin splints, with ankles the size of grapefruits and with blisters the size of grapes. Some days are just like that. And the same goes for parenting. Being the parent of a young child can really tax you physically and emotionally, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, the storm will pass, the pain will subside, and things will inevitably get better.
When life as a mother gets overwhelming, look to Mother Nature! While I love taking my daughter into the woods, I am also aware that hiking by myself may be the best therapy available for a stressed-out parent. More than a margarita or a mommy's night out, I feel refreshed and comforted in the forest. The silence and solitude I find there is good for my brain, my body, and my soul. Hiking reminds me that I am a beautiful part of nature. It also reminds me that as much as I love being a mom, I am also an individual. And fully embracing my individuality helps me be a better mother.
Jennifer Pharr Davis is a hiker, author, entrepreneur, and speaker. Her adventures range from hiking on six continents to exploring trails in all 50 states with her husband and two-year-old daughter to setting the endurance record on the 2,185 mile Appalachian Trail (47 miles per day for 46 straight days). She owns Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, NC and is passionate about introducing anyone to hiking, at any age.