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Maine

My family is in the 100 Mile Wilderness now.

It's not a true wilderness. The land is owned privately, mostly by Plum Creek logging as far as I can tell, and is a managed forest area. I suppose what makes it a wilderness is that there are no towns or paved roads. But there are access roads, if you're willing to pay the daily fee. Which of course I am to see my family.

It's ironic that during this hiking week through the 100 Mile Wilderness, with its two paid access roads, I will see my family every day. Something I haven't experienced since the beginning of August.

At yesterday's road crossing on Katahdin Ironworks Road I delivered pizza to a crew of twelve hungry thru-hikers. Pizza delivery in the wilderness. See what I mean about wilderness?

They were beyond appreciative and I heard from more than one of them that earlier in the day they had been thinking about pizza. This is less serendipitous than it may seem, thru-hikers think about food, especially pizza, an awful lot.

It was grey, chilly and raining yesterday. When my family finally came through, two hours behind schedule at 4:45pm, Tenacious Bling was suffering from a head cold. With six miles to go before Carl A. Hewhall Lean-To and the wide and slick bottomed West Branch Pleasant River still to ford, I played my Mom card and pulled Brienne off the trail for the night.

Off we drove to town, finding a warm dry bed and thru-hiker camaraderie at The Appalachian Trail Lodge; a comfortable, clean and mercifully quiet hiker lodging in downtown Millinocket.

We met trail friends who had just finished their hike, summiting Katahdin on the previous day. I made (open package, add hot water) soup, rubbed oregano oil on Brienne's feet and DoTERRA's Breathe on her upper chest and tucked her into bed. As other hikers were coming back from their pizza suppers she was sound asleep and I was on my way there also.

Today is a beautifully clear late summer day. Off trail, it's a day for jeans and sweaters and hanging out The Appalachian Trail Cafe.

This afternoon it's back to the wilderness to camp with my family at Jo-Mary road and to resupply them in the morning for their last two 20 mile days. Tenacious Bling will hike again and I'll return to Millinocket for one last night on my own.

Only four more days, given or take one, of this adventure, where the road to Millinocket is nearly the road home.

I met Stephanie through Jill. I met Jill through blogging. Sight unseen, Stephanie hosted our family and four YWAM friends in her Canaan, CT home when we were hiking through the area.

We all fell in love, well, at least fell into cozy friendship. Nine of us and five of them, ages 4 through 40 something spent 36 intense hours together of eating, drinking raw milk from their cow Sylvia, laughing, and eating some more.

They insisted (actually hounding us with emails) that we come stay at camp when we reached Monson, ME. They found a cow-sitter and cleared their calendar, called Nana and said "let's have a party with a bunch of thru-hikers". And then they welcomed us with open arms, an open fridge, and open hearts.

This time there are thirteen of us, plus six of them. Our family of five, my parents, three YWAMers, the three Amigos, Stephanie's family of five, plus Nana, the generous soul who owns the camp.

This weekend was our last hoorah with the thru-hiker friends who have become so dear to us. We have cried together, we have walked hundreds of miles together, we have laughed - a lot, we have prayed together, we have seen each other at our best and our worst. We have sacrificed for each other and we are committed to supporting each other, seeing this adventure through to the end.

Next weekend is the end. The end of this epic family journey. A journey shared, with unexpected intimacy and dependency, with strangers, friends and family.

I can't begin to explain the importance of the relationships we've made while on the trail. It is relationship that has brought us this far and relationship that will bring us to foot of Katahdin next weekend. It is our relationships that will take us to the top, and down again.

The friendships we've formed on the trail, the things we've learned about our family, and the people we've met are, perhaps, the meaning on the trail. Of course there is the importance of nature and the time for self-reflection and assessment, but even those lack depth and their raison d'etre, without the context of relationship.

Why else do we evaluate ourselves and think of how to be the best version of ourselves if not to experience greater richness - love, understanding, acceptance, joy, kindness - in our relationships?

I have suffered a lot during this hike. (There is no thru-hiking without suffering.) I've ached physically and emotionally. But with Katahdin in our sights, watching the sun rise on the shore of this Maine lake, basking in the warmth and love of friendship and hospitality, I think it was worth it.

It was a bittersweet weekend, but mostly sweet. Maybe the end will feel the same.

When I got off the trail officially, two weeks ago (after being off already for two weeks of "recovery"), I gave myself permission to mourn my loss. I was going to mourn it regardless. Instead of trying to feel better, or even trying to hide my disappointment, I let myself cry - in public, in private, with friends and around strangers.

I tried not to concern myself with how these outbursts made other's feel. It is hard to watch someone grieve, to be at a loss for words to express your sympathy. But I didn't want any words of wisdom, or advice. I wanted nothing but a bit of space and maybe a listening ear (if you ask how I am doing be prepared to hear how I really am doing), and from good friends, a shoulder to cry on.

In a few days the crying was done. And when that was done I gave myself permission to experience something else - the pleasure of personal freedom.

Family thru-hiking is a constant exercise in compromise and team work. The team work part I knew going in, that was part of the appeal. What was unexpected for me was the unrelenting compromise and give and take required to move five unique individuals 2,180 miles north, on foot, in the space of 177 days.

Setting aside, for a season, things I enjoy and value, while living an intense experience driven by other values, was one of the contributing factors to my mental struggles while on the trail. The lack of personal freedom, "I don't want to hike today so let's stop at 2pm instead of 5pm" wasn't an option but for a handful of times. There was a distinct loss of personal choice, for all of us, as we worked together to reach a difficult goal.

Last month, in the final days of my hike before knowing the final disappointing outcome, Damien and I discussed the options for me moving forward. "If you get off the trail I want you to start writing again, return to doing the things you enjoy", he encouraged.

I didn't need much prompting in this direction but I appreciated the sentiment and the heart behind it. If I got off trail I was to enjoy myself as much as possible. I resolved to make lemonade out of lemons. (I mentioned this in passing to another thru-hiker, and I think his calorie-deprived brain interpreted the metaphor literally, imagining me at roadside crossings serving homemade lemonade trail magic.)

And so in between the road crossing meet-ups, our once a week grocery store resupply, shuttling other thru-hikers to and from town, driving north, shopping for my family (socks, nail wraps, audiobooks), managing our video series, and planning trail logistics and Sunday zeros, I am resting, recovering and "retreating".

I haven't had this much alone time since before Celine was born. And even though the heartache is real, especially when waving goodbye, going to sleep, and many moments in between, so is the freedom I am experiencing in being responsible only for me.

While Damien carries the weight of moving our family north on foot, I am carrying the weight of supporting him in that endeavor. But the weight is very light spread over six days and with the aid of a vehicle. It isn't a weight at all but a nice anchor in my otherwise self-directed days.

Self-directed days, something I sorely missed on the trail.

I have time to read, write, and linger. Time to eat my meals, slowly. Time to go to the farmer's market (if I'm in town on the right day), time to sit and chat with new friends, time to wander a quaint downtown main street and window shop for a new pair of earrings, time to picnic in the town common. Time to do each activity, separate, unto itself, savoring the experience of easy walking, beautiful sunsets, and eating fresh vegetables once again.

Expectedly for me, thru-hiking was a multi-tasking experience, with very little time to do much else besides hiking. And our time off trail was multitasking to the extreme, fitting in two days worth of town chores into a precious few hours.

Time, days and days to be exact, of savoring one experience and then the next, on my own schedule and according to my own needs, has been a much needed retreat and rejuvenating experience.

I've enjoyed hostel stays with trail legends and new hostel owners alike. I've camped in the woods with friends and family (I can sometimes drive into the woods or camp with my family at a late afternoon road crossing), and most recently I've been given a three night stay in a furnished apartment, in downtown Rangeley, overlooking the lake. (Thank you so much Laura, you have blessed me incredibly.)

Yesterday my mom joined me off trail for a couple day to help heal an IT band inflammation, her presence adding to my joy and vacation-like experience.

Yes, my heart aches each day with my family in the woods, a separation unexpected and difficult. But there's this too. An unexpected rejuvenation for me, having time to do my own things, on my own schedule and at my own pace.

When, since becoming a mother, have I had such an opportunity? Never.

It is an unexpected blessing - the loss of one thing making space for the gain of another.

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