Launch Time

I am counting down to another undulating adventure on the Appalachian Trail, to seek out a warm Spring. To boldly go where I have never gone before — in Pennsylvania. My brand new waterproof map follows me around the house like my old cat. Unless it’s pinned underneath the cat.

I have an extensive collection of maps. Somehow, when I feast my eyes on all those colored lines and symbols, I am eight years-old again. The girl who woke up one summer morning to blue skies and a big YES! This is the day the long-awaited day of roller coasters, cotton candy, and palpable fantasies of winning a large, neon-purple dog. All strung together with a shimmering, anything-is-possible feeling.

Switchbacks Blog pic

My present-time version will involve bingeing on 36 miles of unfurling ferns, flowers, and songbird symphonies not available on Netflix. Not to mention a few boot-busting rocks. I have no clue how my various compromised cartilages and tendons will fare, or how blisteringly freaked my skin might be after a long winter sleep. No clue which wonder of nature will reach out, tap my shoulder, and say Draw me. No clue what surprises are in store, good or bad. Bring it on! A hiking adventure is a privilege. And anticipating it is like unwrapping a gift, a joy in itself.

Life is packed with adventures of all shapes and sizes, map or no map. Some come disguised in every-day clothing. Or envelopes in the mail, like the one that came last month with self-employment estimated tax forms. Huh? Yep, running a business can be a pretty epic ride. Another whopper for me is writing. This.

Why are some adventures, particularly the creative ones, so crushingly hard to launch from plan into action? Is it just me, or can certain countdowns slow down to an imperceptible crawl? It seems the more longed-for the adventure, the longer and more circuitous the groundwork-laying becomes. Switchbacks is an apt title for my ramblings, that much is clear. Besides, the word itself has an interesting story…

‘Switchbacks’ is an integral part of a hiker’s lexicon. Following a zig-zag trail pattern designed to fend off erosion, switchbacks make it easier to ascend or descend steep hills. The word has roots in the coal-mining mountains of Pennsylvania, serendipitously the same mountains I will soon be hiking. Back in the early 1800s, the ‘Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway’ used gravity and an inclined track to carry the coal down to the canal. Mules rode in the last cars so that after unloading, and after the train’s direction was switched, they could spend five grueling hours pushing the train back up to the summit.

Later in the 19th century, the steam engine cut the poor creatures a break and cranked everything else up, including human imagination and the joy of a ride — a motorized ascent switching to gravity power for the descent. The train hauled coal by day and people by night who paid a dollar just for the thrill, which was the inspiration for the first roller coaster at Coney Island, NY, in 1884, also named the Switchback Railway, designed by LaMarcus Thompson. Which must explain why in British English, the word ‘switchbacks’ describes a road that sharply rises and falls, like a roller coaster.

A journal depiction of a passenger carriage of the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway by a German explorer named Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, in 1832. (Wikimedia Commons)

What is it exactly about roller coasters? A shiny taste of flight with a safety bar. An easy way to go wild. Today there are coasters with names like ‘Twisted Colossus’ and ‘The Intimidator,’ dropping at an 85-degree angle. Um, I’ll take that walk in the woods, thanks very much. With my color-coded, laminated trail map. I guess everyone has their own version of wildness and their own way to tame it.

Switchbacks Blog pic

Back on the real or proverbial mountain, switchbacks remind me to stop rushing. By guiding me on a careful, back-and-forth rhythm, they show me different angles of the same land, and that shortcuts are an illusion. They suggest times to rest, just inhale, and exhale. Or maybe to unload completely, take inventory, and write something. Or not, for once. To do whatever zigs my zag.

Not to say no sweat is ever involved. Switchbacks can be damn scary on edges of cliffs. Ever drive a car up or down Mount Washington? I’d rather hike it. The truth is, with any mode of travel, far outside or deep within, those hairy, hairpin turns inevitably arise to demand change and courage to match.

I have learned a few things in this long countdown-to-blogging journey. I have held a press-conference in my mind, playing all the roles. Kinda noisy but more constructive than those on TV these days. A few conclusions: Nothing will prepare me for what I have never done yet, Control is not Adventure’s friend, being vulnerable is a strength-training practice, and while goals matter, there are two little words which happen to be essential to backpacking that matter more: Lighten Up!

On that note, I recall a roller coaster ride as an adult, years ago at Disney World with my small-but-tall-enough daughter. Space Mountain. I had been there, done that, as a teenager, once. But I was The Mom now. I had legit qualms. She didn’t. She was thrilled we had a FastPass. I wasn’t, not for this.

Switchbacks blog rollercoaster illoSo, our rocket of doom promptly arrived, wide open in front. Of course we sat there. Of course I sat behind her, throwing loony, repetitive cries her way as we rattled up to speed, ‘AreYouOK? AreYouOK? AreYouOK?’ Then her voice took charge and I listened, as she laughed and screamed with unbridled abandon at all that darkness.

When the ride was over and I confirmed my teeth were still in place, my daughter’s shining eyes were brighter than the sun. There it was again, that shimmery, anything-is-possible feeling.

The most valuable map I own is the one drawn on my heart, dotted with symbols of the memories that guide me today. Winking beacons across the foggy abyss of fear, telling me it’s launch time. I am good to go. Boldly.

More to come around the bend…

8 Responses to “Launch Time

  • So excited for you! So many well timed events- the launch of the website, the blog and this hike. Extra glad that I read the blog today, not knowing all the connections. Blessed to have you as my BFF and be able to share so many memories and experiences – if not but second hand! Forge ahead and have a great trip!! Xoxo

    • Thanks Laura! Happy to be BFFFA (Best Friends Forever Forging Ahead). Love ya xox

  • Elsa Southam
    6 years ago

    Congratulations on the launch of this wonderful website and blog! We’re bursting with pride as we read through this latest creative adventure, weaving together your literary and illustration talents.

    Your family tree is deep with creative roots, with sturdy branches nourished by several generations of artists. We’ve watched in awe as your own artistic roots have grown and spread from early childhood days, always evolving as you eagerly explored various imaginative pathways. Climbing Tree Design is a perfect name for your art studio, as you’ve always had a love of nature and a special fondness for trees, all shapes and species. Perhaps this fascination was seeded long ago, looking up from your baby stroller at magnificent old trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

    We’ve been exceptionally blessed to witness your ever-expanding creative talents. Over the years we’ve been the fortunate recipients of personally designed cards, drawings and paintings; uniquely designed gifts and special projects; and countless letters, e-mails, and emoji-filled texts sharing your life experiences and reaching out to us at all times.

    Life’s journey takes us along routes that are ever-changing, switching back and forth gently, or bringing rapid roller coaster changes that can be exhilaratingly exciting or devastatingly painful. Wherever your own switchbacks take you, we know that you’ll embrace life to the fullest. You’ll continue to climb high and travel far on exciting adventures, whether in your art studio, walking in the woods alone or with family and friends, or hiking for miles on the Appalachian Trail.

    We’ll be thinking of you as you begin another AT hike. Wherever you are, we follow you in love and admiration.

    Mummeth, Dad, David

    • Awww haha WOW thanks guys for all the ongoing support, and for showing me the way…love you loads xoxox

  • Karen,

    I’m so excited that you’ve launched the website and blog! You have an amazing outlook on life that needs to be heard (and seen)! I especially love the roller coaster image as it really capture the wonder and thrill of the first ride. Can’t wait to read on about your adventures!

    Lots of love, Cass

    • And I am so grateful to share life’s journey with amazing friends! Thanks Cassie <3

  • First—congratulations on your launch! This will be a pleasure to follow. I had a similar Space MT experience. Jake was only 6 and somehow managed to snag a front row seat with me behind him. I spent the whole ride sweating it out thinking of all the things I hadn’t told him—don’t stand up! don’t put your hands outside the car! And of course he was victorious and thrilled when he got out at the end. I’ll try to take your Lighten Up message to heart. Love you!

    • Thanks so much, Candy! haha yay, a fellow sweating-it-out-Space-Mountain-Mom! xoxoxox


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