August 26, 2014

Another One

I had another baby!

The last time I had a baby it took me two months to sit down and write the story of his birth. Once again, I'm afraid I'm going to forget it all.

The unending winter of nausea.

The way my water broke like a real-life water balloon on our brand new organic latex mattress.

The literal out-of-body experience it is to first handle the newborn baby that grew inside you.

Who can forget that? I hope I never do. I probably won't because I am always telling my birth stories.

I love birth stories. We exchange them all the time, my friends and I. Whether it's at the beach or on a couch or in a noisy restaurant, we find ourselves reminding each other how our babies were born with unfading interest. Heck, I can tell almost everyone else's.

I have a friend who gave birth in the front seat of her car on the Fourth of July. And another one who almost did because her husband wouldn't run a red light (I laugh all the way through that story). Another felt her C-section (and I listen to that one with one eye closed). One friend was in labor for 30-some hours, and another barely two - ate dinner, had a baby, ate dessert (I was there). Maybe it's just the stage of life we're in, young mamas and dads welcoming tiny new people into the world, but aside from "how did you two meet?" the question of how a baby's birth went down seems to bring out storytelling at its finest. Those tales can be hilarious, full of statistics and debatable details, beautiful, confessional, educational, graphic, inspiring, terrifying and sometimes devastating. I can't tell you how many times I've heard anecdotes from my own birth. How a nurse jerked my mom's socks off and told her "you're not having a baby this easy." And how my dad sat in the waiting room, because those were the days of Fathers in Waiting Rooms, and when he saw a nurse carrying a fat baby with lots of hair he said, "That's a pretty baby," to which she replied, "That's your baby!"

These stories get shaped and memorized with time, like a perfect pair of leather boots, never worn out, only dearer with familiarity. Coming to this little spot on the internet to give an account of my baby's birth - now for the second time - is one of my favorite things to do. This is me, plunking down some boots over many late nights and stolen naps when I should be sleeping. You'll have to endure all my details and rabbit trails. I include them because I will re-read this over and over, and remember. And because I love birth stories. Never underestimate the power of a good birth story!

I spent a lot of time during both pregnancies reading books full of birth stories. A lot of those books will tell you that birth is the most important thing. I should say right off the bat - I don't think birth is the most important thing. I think birth is like the food we eat. It has importance. And I want my birth the way I want my food - as un-fiddled with as possible. (Except for when I want a circus peanut). We all know the irony of how difficult it is to get the un-fiddled with version of pretty much anything. Dustan and I learned that big time when our first baby was overdue. I remember watching my belly grow with Bear, amazed that "it" was working. When I finally went into labor and pushed out a baby and then pushed out tiny clots for days as my uterus healed and shrunk, there I was. In an ultimate state of health. My body had done exactly what it was designed to do. I was lumpier than I had ever been in my life, leaking milk, and never so beautiful. It felt more victorious than Mt. Katahdin. And unlike hiking a mountain, I had very little to do with it. I can't make sure an egg gets fertilized any more than I can make sure it turns into a healthy fetus or gets born on a certain day. I don't make my cervix open up. I can't do something to keep an umbilical cord in the right place. All of that happens to me, and I am just along for the ride. This is crazy to me.

All that to say, when I got pregnant a second time, Dustan and I were already convinced of the notion that under normal circumstances, birth is a bodily function of genius design that is safest when left to progress on its own.  We knew without much talk that we would plan for a home birth. We live five minutes from a hospital that would be there if we needed it, and our midwife Rosy gave me a level of prenatal care that was impressive. I was healthy and strong, my baby looked great on ultrasound, I didn't have gestational diabetes or any signs of preeclampsia, baby's heartbeat was always spot on, I was group B negative, baby and placenta were in a great position, water broke and was clear - there were so many little green lights along the way that helped us proceed with our plan. I was careful to always say we were planning a home birth, because I knew that things could change at any point. Throughout my whole pregnancy I was "listening in" to my body, making sure the light was always green and that I felt good about being home. I never had any fear or paranoia. Early on I asked God to speak to me about our decision and I felt him say I will be with you. Pretty simple but heavy enough for me. Dust was totally on board. We would stay home together so I could push my baby out in a lovely familiar space.

Ok, let's get on with it. I already know you think home birth looks like this.

Fireplaces, skin touching, controlled moaning and a big ol' blue tub.

But it is way closer to something like this. (Spoiler alert).

A slimy cone head, a naked sibling in the background, a big ol' blue tub and shock.

Granted, that's me moments after I delivered a baby, which is kind of a big deal no matter where or how you do it. But still. I've seen too many pictures like the first one that forgets to capture the messy, painful side of birth. One thing you will hear a lot of natural childbirth voices say is that labor is "hard work." I find that comparison lacking. Weeding a large garden after heavy rains is hard work. Having a baby is filled with emotional highs and lows, false starts, second-guessing yourself and adapting to the unexpected. And make no mistake to avoid the word painful. Labor is painful. A baby comes OUT. Doesn't mean it wasn't made to, or that you can't relax through it, or that it can't be beautiful. But it hurts.

It is important for me to remember this, because newborns have a way of making sharp edges soft. Before I start saying "it wasn't that bad," let me not forget. It's more than just hard work.

A couple weeks before I went into labor I was desperate to feel the familiar pain of contractions, because there is no gift so great to the mama and the baby as labor spontaneously starting on its own. Under normal circumstances it means your baby is ready and your body is ready, and is already doing stuff to make sure that baby comes out. Any.little.thing. at the end of pregnancy makes you think you are going into labor. One day I was leaking. I called Rosy and told her I was pretty sure my water had broken. I was leaky. Was this it? I took my temp regularly and tried to imagine myself having contractions. Then, no more leaking. Days passed. Every time I climbed the stairs, rode my bike or loaded the dishwasher I would have a contraction. I would stop and wait on it. Was that my first contraction? You will drive yourself freaking crazy with that nonsense.

But here is the wonderful part, the part where I truly went into labor, the real beginning of my birth story. One July night, Dust and I were in bed and he was telling me a story I was half-listening to. Suddenly - pop! I interrupted Dustan slowly, because I could hardly believe myself. "Something just popped between my legs." He jumped up and came around and helped me get out of bed because we were both feeling protective of our new mattress. Ha! I got up carefully. Sure enough, amniotic fluid dodged our mattress and gushed onto the floor, just like in the movies. Just like what you hope will happen to put you out of your wondering misery. Now you are having a baby! I looked at my phone. It was exactly midnight.

I walked into the kitchen and called Rosy. I still hadn't had a contraction, but now the clock is ticking because my bag of waters is broken, and I had been here before with Bear (water broken, no contractions). She told me to try to sleep. Only, that's when Dust pulled out some power tools and started hanging a blind in our huge kitchen window because he finally believed I was going to have this baby, and our kitchen had very little privacy. I started to shake. I was cold and also it hit me mentally that I would need to push a baby out soon - something that is so much easier to process when you are distracted with contractions. But on this side of it, I was staring down the barrel without any pain to focus through. I remember giving Dustan a big hug and it was so important to me to stick close to him from then on out.

We went to bed and I stared at the ceiling, still shaky and feeling afraid. At 12:52 I had a contraction. I know it was then because I started a list of contractions on my phone that I would keep until morning. My contractions were irregular but I could tell they were productive. I kept toying with the idea to wake Dustan and call Rosy and Dana, my doula. But instead I slept intermittently and smiled. I was so happy labor had started, and only one day past my due date! What a treat. When I called Rosy back at 6am she gave me some news I couldn't believe. There was another mom in labor. Her water had broken and her contractions were three minutes apart. Her fourth baby. This mom was first in line to have a baby, so Rosy would have to arrange for a backup midwife for me. Somehow this didn't rattle me, and I just felt like everything was going to work out like it was supposed to. I was done being afraid now that contractions had given way to real labor, and I was ready to get it on.

Around 8:00, Rosy left that mom's house in South Milwaukee and brought me the pool. I ate a granola bar, drank water, had contractions and watched Bear fill it up.

Rosy has a great presence. She has ten kids of her own, nine born at home. She has a thick black braid laced with strands of silver and hands fit to deliver babies, calves and kittens. Bear adored going out to her farmhouse for our prenatal visits. He'd start out clean and end up muddy and happy. I would sit on Rosy's couch and talk about everything. Once I told her, give me a good birth book. A fruity one. She put this in my hands.

It changed everything. By far the fruitiest, most psychedelic birth stories I've ever read. In order to prepare for Bear's birth we took Bradley classes that focus on total relaxation. With him I was eerily inward the entire time. I didn't chat between contractions and I didn't want anyone else to, either. I treated contractions with reverence and focused on relaxing to the point that I learned to stave off the pain. It definitely worked to help me stay in control, but I think it also made my labor longer than necessary. Spiritual Midwifery is one account after another of births at The Farm in Tennessee with renowned midwife Ina May, and it was telling me the opposite of all the things I knew.

Don't take yourself too seriously.

Be grateful you are having a baby.

Be good to your husband.

Don't complain or whine, it'll make you tight.

Don't lose your sense of humor, that'll help your bottom stay loose.

Make eye contact with someone you trust during contractions. Give them some, touch them, it will open you up.

Laugh. Make out. Sing.

There are a lot of devastating things happening to people all over the world right now, but this isn't one of them.

Don't feel sorry for yourself - you get to have a baby!

I saturated myself with this thinking. I was curious enough to keep reading and stunned at how countercultural it all was. One midwife told a lady in labor "You're being sweet to us midwives, but you're snapping at your husband." Another mom was told "You sound kind of complainy." The idea is that kind of energy keeps you tight, slows labor and makes it hard for your body to relax and open up. Before I read this I assumed, like many of us, that the pain of labor gives the mom license to say or do anything she wants. We all know the cliche "You did this to me!" line. Well, there's none of that on The Farm. I'd sit around and re-tell these birth stories to Dustan with incredulity. I talked to Rosy about it. I told Dana about them on the way to the park. "Be prepared for me to touch you," I told her. "And kiss Dustan a bunch."

The thing is, it worked. Instead of going into myself when contractions got harder and harder, I'd look right at Dustan, rub his arms or legs and tell him "You're such a good man." We would laugh until I was just too serious to laugh anymore. I loved this strategy.

We decided to keep Bear around for the birth of this baby, as you can see. He was so invested in the pregnancy, the last thing I wanted was for him to go away, come home and see a new baby. I'd be answering his three-year-old questions for the rest of time, trying to fill in that gap. Early on when I was couch-bound with nausea he would pray for my belly to feel better. Every morning near the end he would ask me "Is your baby ready?" When I started filling drawers with tiny onesies, he couldn't get enough. Bear is one of my best friends, and I knew the second someone took him away I would miss him and then I'd be distracted with missing Bear. Plus, there was a pool in our living room and this boy would never forgive us if he missed out on that.

Having Bear all up in our space made me feel normal. I think for him it felt so normal, he finally took himself to the bedroom and watched a show on the iPad.

By now it's probably 9 or 10am. We all decided Dana our doula should come before Rosy left so we wouldn't be alone. She arrived (I really have no idea what time she got here) and started taking all these wonderful pictures. Rosy downloaded all my information to Kimberly, a backup midwife, via phone. She took my vitals and listened to baby's heartbeat one last time. We were having a lot of good laughs and I asked, "Do you think I've earned the tub?" Once I got in there I kept asking "Do you think I should get out and take a walk around the block?" I was afraid I was going to slow down labor. Dana and Rosy exchanged looks. I could tell they thought I was a long way away from having a baby. thought I was a long way away from having a baby. That was probably all Rosy needed to push herself out the door and get up to the other mom who was having much more frequent contractions, and probably wasn't considering a stroll around the block.

When Rosy left I was having good, strong contractions that I could only sing through with birth music. But we didn't call Kimberly to come yet. The last thing I wanted was someone showing up that I'd never met just to sit there and watch me have contractions.

With the next surge, I felt like I might poop in my birth pool. I couldn't stand the thought of that. I jumped up and out of the pool and I remember Dana saying "Look how spry you are!" I made it to the bathroom and as soon as I sat down on the toilet, a contraction started and didn't stop. For minutes. I moaned a low note to plod through the pain of it, kept my chin down and caught my breath to start over. My longest whale song. Dust came in and I hung on to him. It was still going. That was the contraction that changed everything, and caused me to dilate almost to complete. I hobbled back to the tub, barely resembling the earlier me. I said "I'm not spry anymore." Now this is having a baby. I'm not asking to walk around the block, but I'm also not trying to dodge my contractions. I wanted every one of them to count so I could be done, and the best way I could relax was touching Dustan. I said "Put your swimsuit on!" He went and started clunking ice around in the kitchen, filling a water bottle. I could've strangled him. Why wasn't he hurrying?? I could hear the click click of Dana texting the backup midwife. I could hear Kimberly's voicemail pickup again and again.

By the time Dust jumped into the pool with me, I was gone gone gone into the Mushland of Transition and all I remember is laying back against his chest and lacing my fingers through his on the bottom of the tub. Two perfect handholds. I didn't care that no one was able to get a hold of Kimberly. I gave a tiny little push at the end of a contraction, just to see what would happen. What happened is my baby started coming down down down. I opened my eyes to look at Dana. "You ready to catch this baby?" She looked back at me as if she thought I was joking. Another contraction, another push, this time enough to make my back arch. She said "Are you pushing?" I could feel the energy of Dustan's eyebrows going up behind me. Dana looks down and sees my baby's head. I watched her face change. She said, "Ok we are really gonna have a baby now," and starts looking for sterile gloves. There are none. Rosy took all her supplies when she left, assuming the backup midwife would have all of that with her. Nope. Cause she still wasn't there herself.

There was a brief moment when it flashed through my head is this ok? Where is Kimberly? What kind of midwife doesn't answer her phone? And up rumbled from somewhere down deep I will be with you. This promise didn't seem so simple anymore. Now it was rich with new meaning. I'm not at a hospital, there are no nurses or doctors. And then I knew a midwife wasn't going to make it to this birth either, but God is with me. I was not afraid at all. I'm so grateful.

Dana was a pro. She left behind the doula role of encouragement and essential oils and shifted into the role of a midwife seamlessly. As soon as I pushed again and a baby's head came halfway out, she started laying down a plan. "Ok, Betsy, wait for the next contraction so you don't tear. I'm going to check for a cord..."

All I know is a softball was between my legs. I waited. There was no one to video or take pictures. Bear wandered into the room asking a question and stopped mid-sentence. Finally, another contraction. I pushed and there was no waiting to check for a cord because the whole baby tumbled out. Into the water, into Dana's hands and right up onto my belly. She was pink and screaming and we knew everything was perfect. Only, I could not put a smile on my face.

Dana didn't have that problem...

We sat there for a million years, watching our baby cry. It was unbelievable, what just happened. Only forty minutes ago I was joking and laughing between contractions. Rosy had just barely made it to the other mom's house when she got a text from Dana saying we couldn't get in touch with Kimberly, and she knew my baby was coming faster than any of us imagined she would. At noon on the dot, my baby was born, exactly twelve hours from midnight when my water broke. I held her up and told her we were going to call her Scout.

Bear found his goggles. I found my smile.

This moment lasted. And lasted. My placenta didn't come on its own, I asked Dana what we should do and she said, "I don't know!" Ha. Suddenly I realized I wasn't client and she wasn't a doula. We were just two friends in my living room and she just caught my baby. I swear it wasn't that irresponsible. We really all did want a midwife there. Later we pieced together that Dana wasn't getting any service on her phone at my house, so her calls and texts weren't even going through. None of us thought for her to use the landline in the middle of all the action. Kimberly actually did show up, and she brought a team with her.

That's Christy, Kimberly and Andrea. All guts, no glory. My birth janitors. I felt so bad that they had to clean everything and everyone up without the adrenaline rush of having seen a baby be born. They were awesome. After forty minutes of sitting in the tub, I was ready for a change of scenery so I could get a good look at my girl. Kimberly delivered the placenta, which stayed attached for two and a half hours - Kimberly's version of delayed cord cutting. We thought we did that with Bear in the hospital at eight minutes later, but I guess not. So we lugged around our baby and a ziploc bag with the placenta in it. We joked it was like having twins. The point was to get a full blood supply in our baby. Whatever. At this point I was having some brutal uterine cramps. I couldn't even really hold my baby.

A triumphant after-birth selfie with my sidekick.

That's Bear, watching them and watching me. Watching it all - head measuring, mesh panties, more vitals and the one he will have to share doughnuts and backseats and boogie boards with.

Straightaway we were nuts about this girl. It was so special to stretch out in our bed and appreciate her. While she nursed, people buzzed around. They cleaned, washed towels, brought me mango juice, pushed on my uterus and left. Late that night Rosy came back to see me. We were both a little bummed that she missed the birth. After all those long prenatal visits we'd established a great thing, and there was no one I could imagine bringing more solid peace to a birth than Rosy. But she said I got a beautiful birth, and it was true. When babies come fast and furious like that, it's usually a good sign that everything is ok. Sitting around with Rosy on the bed debriefing birth were some of my favorite times. She came back to my house to check me and Scout so much, I felt like I saw her every day for a week. Because Kimberly didn't have any scales with her, Rosy was the first to weigh Scout that first night, nine hours after her birth. By then she had passed two epic meconium poops and puked up amniotic fluid twice. She came in at 7 lbs. 11oz, not getting any credit for all the ounces she lost in bodily fluids.

Bear, back in his observation spot.

The next day I woke up to my favorite people in bed. I walked around and took pictures of the carnage of home birth, deliciously happy with all the details. I loved the odd heaviness of my saggy belly, the shrinking of my uterus for the second time, the smell of frankincense in my bathroom, the kitchen full of food I had no hand in preparing, teeny baby clothes showing up in the laundry already.

A sitz bath in my peri bottle and frankincense spray.

February 25, 2012


I've been reliving what this day, and these past few days, meant for me a year ago.  I was waiting, waiting, trying not to be impatient as my baby took his time.  I had no.idea. what was in store for me when Bear was born.  I had no clue if any of "it" would work.  Could I push him out? Would he drink milk?  Would the diapers hold the pee?  Would he pee?  I would fold and reorganize teeny baby clothes, doubting that there would ever be a baby to put in them.  And oh, I held the lowest expectations for any possibility of cuteness.

I pulled out the little blank book I was using last year to take childbirth notes in and pump myself up.  I had written "Now it's mental gymnastics, one day he will be here.  Don't take him for granted," and "I really hope I remember to look at the cord while it is still bright blue," and then a big long list of my cloth diaper stash.  The best pages are the most worn out, water-dotted pages in the whole book, and I remember when Dust gave me back this journal after coming home with my new baby.  He showed me that he and Dana had recorded most all of my contractions until he was born.  I was ecstatic to have that list of contraction times!  I love reading the notes beside them.

8:30 - doozie
8:41 - standing
9:38 - fizzled out
2:59 - you whistled, we laughed
3:35 - you felt a pop
6:15 - puking
8:50 - urge to push
9:40 - born

That little book takes me back in time.  I was so cumbersome and preggo, wearing the same freaking black dress over leggings with a different scarf every day.  I bought two pairs of boots that I promptly blew the hubs out of, because my feet and ankles were so swollen I had to do lots of extra jamming to get them on.  Bending down to put those boots on was a break-a-sweat way to start my workday.  I can still feel the basketball pushing against my ribs pushing against my lungs, and how Dustan was no help to me, in the same way it's easier to put on your own gloves.

Those days were so cold, and filled with roadtrips to the northern side of Milwaukee to visit my CNM's telling me I would shortly get induced.  I'm not going to hash through all of that again.  This is more me remembering how ignorant I was of all the beauty that was in store for me, when I really didn't know to hope for anything more than being able to throw those boots away after my baby was born!  Had I known, I would have been breathless with excitement and obnoxious with obsession my entire pregnancy to get that baby out and spend my days watching his hands go from the desperate-newborn-fist stage to the dimpled, curious paw stage.

If there's anything I've learned through Bear's entrance and first year of life, it's this.  In the world of birth, babies, and parenting, there are countless philosophies.  There is a wrong way and a right way to do practically everything, and everyone - even that one over there, with no children - has some type of opinion.  I can't get exasperated with this, because I have my own strong opinions about many things.  I just think all the angles are a testament to the fact that babies, and how we handle them, is something that matters so, so very much.  They're our little people, our little citizens.  They're us, just at the beginning.  Take care about how you feed us and how we should sleep and how we should hold one toy over another and how a developing mind needs this at this stage and that at that stage.  Someone found a secret key to getting a baby to sleep? That's book-publishing material right there.  It can get crazy, listening to all those voices.  I know from experience that any time someone is a little nutty about something they believe (about anything!) go easy on them (us).  Because the passion up top is usually tied to some heavy place down where big stuff sits.

But here is what I'm most grateful for.  After Bearboy finally showed up on his own watch (and there he was in flesh and blood, wearing the onesie I had been waiting to put him in), I got clobbered by the most unexpected permission to relish this baby.  I didn't see it coming.  It has helped drown out all those voices about how to do or not do everything.  It doesn't mean I haven't had to make choices all along the way.  I have, and I've actually really enjoyed the learning curve as well.  It just means all those choices and philosophies are such a tiny fraction of the baby experience, and I - well, I just didn't see it coming.  While I was pregnant, a lady told me that the best advice given to her was this.  Enjoy your baby. 

Every night he goes to bed and I sit down to plunk around on the internet or stuff some diapers, and I miss that boy.  I didn't expect that.  That being a mama, when stripped down from all the trappings that word implies, means I got a dooders sprouting teeth who tries to eat dogfood every day, and awards me the broadest, most familiar beep-falling-out grins when we're home from a walk.

One day he will be "my oldest," tying knots in Trail's leash and filling his water bottle on his own.  Unbelievable!  But today he is a baby - and however close to one years old he thinks he is, he's still a baby.  I drag him along to everything, and show him how it works to be a person.  That's what it is to be a mama, and it's the best thing I never saw coming.

January 1, 2012

Food on the Trail, Part 4

I've been meaning to finish my little series on trail food for oh, months.  But you know how it goes.  Babies get older and start pushing peas around with their pointer finger and it's so endearing it knocks the wind out of you.  So I've been set back a few times, but I haven't forgotten.  Probably a year ago, I went through all of my pictures from the Appalachian Trail and realized how many I loved and wanted to re-see a million times.  Here is a final sampling of photos like that, including the one thing (besides rain) that made all the difference in a good day of hiking and a bad one.  Food.

The deli hop in New England.  Completely blindsided us with how delicious and accessible subs could really be.  Salami, pastrami, prosciutto, pepperoncini. Yes.

New York City food.  We paid $8 for a tiny glass of orange juice that tasted like it was fresh.  But it probably wasn't... The food was beautiful, and came out on even more beautiful and eclectic plates.

I ate a Reuben here.  It was hard to do because someone once told me corned beef is only possible by dehydrating cows on purpose.  That just sucks all the joy out of eating that cow.  Anyway, good old Seinfeld. 

I think it was this $13 burger in Connecticut where we realized we were spending way too much money on food.  You can see that realization sinking in around Dustan's eyes in this picture.  This was the same state where sodas came bottled - no fountain drinks.  No free refills.  And definitely no more biscuits n' gravy.

Vachon - don't even remember what that was from?  But as we entered the Northern states, hiking became more and more job-like and predictable.  We could look at an elevation map and get a good handle on what the day would hold before lunch, read a description of a shelter and decide to stealth camp, run into a killer view near a good water source and make camp early.  It was so nice to be with friends all along the way, made lunching at a shelter and campfire talk so much fun.  I could never understand the crazy-fast solo hikers for this reason alone.  They'd be all lanky and quiet, pull a tiny energy bar made of seeds from their fanny pack and eat in solitude.  At first I thought they were all elitist, and some were.  But really, they just hiked too freaking fast to make friends and tell stories.  We loved to find ourselves alongside Vachon and his sloping Virginia accent, different than mine which is from the boonies.  His is more like old-school Richmond.

That was the most delicious Caesar salad I ever built at a grocery store in a town I begged to stay in because Dustan was watching thunderheads roll in.  We spent the next two days hiking under pack covers.

Oh, Rutland.  I could say so much about you.  I'll leave it to Blaze, though.  What I will say is this smoothie probably added eight solid months to my life, it was packed with so much goodness, and the people that made it for me were from the Twelve Tribes community.  I think they're some form of Jewish/Christian but really neither.  They kinda loved hikers, and we loved their food.

Everything eats.

 Here's a late-night planning meeting over dinner.  Mac n' cheese (which somehow never gets old) and Brahma's all-time favorite side dish: peanut butter M&M's.  I love that this picture captured my poor, sad thumbnail from a horse bite in Virginia. 

 Salt-encrusted hiking shirt, evidence of the amount of climbs in the sun we just tackled.  Purple-stained lips, evidence of the grape slushies we consumed when rolled into this small New Hampshire town.

Pasta, by firelight and headlamp.

 Ugh, such a miserable hiking day.  We were pansies when it came to rain - big time.  Southbounders passed us like warriors, with so many notches in their hiking-through-rain belt I'm sure they scoffed when we pulled out rain gear before the first drop fell.  They were pelted, soggy messes.  We northbounders just didn't have it as bad.  So on days when we were required to not only walk in the rain, but set up camp and (God forbid) wake up to rain, we felt so sorry for ourselves.  I remember this spot in Maine so well, because I was too cold to sit down and eat lunch.  I was too cold to pee, or sign the shelter journal, or do anything but stand there stamping my feet, inhaling whatever snack I had stuffed into the hood of my pack, which turned out to be a whole bag of Cheetos.

Frito Lay, Kraft, Con Agra, Hershey - they served us well.  Way to get off the beaten path and support The Man all the way to Maine!  I love many things about this picture.  How shredded my thighs were by this point, how my eyebrows were growing together, how I had band-aids on every finger, how I had snacking down to a science (find a warm rock, rip off your sweaty shirt and put your puffy on before the brisk Maine air could make you stiff and chilled).

We forded a river one day to discover this little gem, left for us by Hoot and Sundance, who, apparently carried a Sharpie in their packs?  This was the kind of stuff that made you feel for two seconds like you were on The Amazing Race.  

Here we are at Poor Richard's Pub, days after the summit of our final mountain had come and gone.  Poor Richard's is the bar made infamous by Roy in The Office, when he threw a shot glass at a mirror because he got so mad at Pam.  We couldn't drive through Scranton, Pennsylvania and not stop.

We also couldn't go through Philly without reuniting with the Awesome Amy Miller, our great friend from Williamsburg.  She made us pasta, and the next morning we walked around and drank coffee, and this is the kind of thing you long for when it's 9:47am and you are shouldering a thirty seven-pound backpack before gaining a thousand feet in elevation with half a Milky Way in your tank.  It's also surreal to come back to life and do these normal things, like coffee with friends.  Because there you are, picturing what you would be doing otherwise, summitting a craggy height that splays out grandeur all around you, taking a swig of water that tastes better than life because you pumped it and packed it and earned it, and suddenly you pity the poor people that just drive to work every day and have coffee with friends.  

Last meal worth commemorating - we hit up our family JJ & Don in Manassas when we entered back into Virginia, and they treated us to Viking food.  Charred meat and frothy lager and more butter than bread.

We definitely did our share of card-swiping to make it from Georgia to Maine, but the number of phenomenal meals that were treated to us, prepared for us, laid before us, at all different times of the day and in so many different cities and tiny towns, in states all up and down the coast, from strangers and family and instant-friends alike, was really staggering and over the top.  Whether it was succulent salmon in a restaurant or pancakes at a hostel, under the awning of a hoity-toity grocery store or beneath the eves of a pitter-patter tin roof shelter, with a smattering of dirty hikers or just us in the confines of our tent with our smushed Poptarts, meal times were the best times to relax and laugh and retell our favorite stories and learn about all kinds of different, inspiring, tiring, long-winded, gracious, audacious, benevolent, driven, charming, unlikely and always interesting people.  Besides the hiking, that's the whole of the trail.