Hiking Tips for Big Creative Projects (I’m Looking At You, NaNoWriMo)

Last week, I hiked up to Ruby Jewel Lake with my husband. The three-mile trail was steep and rocky, with patches of ice and snow, and the air was thin (we were over 11,000 feet). To add to the fun, we lost our way and wound up making an exhausting climb off-trail to get to the top. As I was hiking, I kept thinking two things. The first was my Difficult-Hike Mantra (which is a similar to my This-Workout-Is-Kicking-My-Ass Mantra; more on this later). The other was that all the tricks and tools I was using to get me up that mountain were the same tricks and tools that get me through daunting creative challenges, like writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days with the other NaNoWriMo* fans.

Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.
Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.

(ASIDE: For those who were wondering, yes, I’m taking on NaNoWriMo again. This will be my ninth consecutive year of participation and I hope I’ll write my best first draft ever. I just have to decide what the heck I’m going to write about. I’m not too worried just yet. I usually get a great idea sometime before November, usually on October 31st.)

Here are my hiking rules that also apply to writing a novel:

1) Wear layers, eat right, and drink your water. To perform at all, I need to take care of myself. The better care I can give myself, the better my performance can be. Eating healthy food, getting exercise and plenty of sleep, and even dressing warmly on a cold day can help me to get my novel written. (Many NaNo veterans swear by caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. As someone with food sensitivities, I stick with fresh, whole foods, but you know what you need to survive. Sometimes a tasty bribe can give you the little kick of motivation you need to get to the next ridge.)

2) Take a map, a GPS, or both. After we lost the trail under the snow and had wandered a bit, the GPS helped us find our way again. Story maps or outlines can be essential to staying on track with your novel, although sometimes it’s the detours that lead you to the true heart of your story. I work with guideposts more than outlines, but some sort of map, no matter how sketchy, can make all the difference.

3) Use all the support you can find. While hiking, trekking poles propped me up when I was exhausted and shaking, in danger of losing my balance on the rocks. My biggest NaNoWriMo prop is my supportive husband, who will cook dinner and otherwise inconvenience himself so I have time to write. Other key props are my battered copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, the NaNoWriMo forums and pep talks, and the buddies I keep in touch with while we are all struggling with our rocky novels. (In case you didn’t know, you’re allowed to get some help with achieving your goals.)

4) Focus on what you want, not what you fear. This is where my mantras come in. When the hike was the hardest, I found myself thinking “I’m not going to cry” and feeling the tears well up. Focusing on what I didn’t want was making it come true. When I switched to thinking “I can do this; I am strong,” the tears went away and I actually felt better. It was still a hard hike, but I was right. I did make it to the top, and I’m sure focusing on what I wanted — to finish the climb — made it possible. I think the same way when I need to get my word count in for the day: “I can do this.” And so can you.

The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.
The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.

5) No multi-tasking. I have to follow this rule whenever I get tired or the air is thin. I get fumble-fingered and clumsy. If I try to put my coat on while I’m walking up the trail, I’m sure to stumble, possibly even twist an ankle. Instead, I stop, put on my coat, then start walking again. Otherwise, I risk an accident to myself or my equipment. I have only so much time and energy to devote to my hike and I don’t want to do anything that could cause a delay or keep me from the top. I find the same rule helps with my NaNoWriMo writing sessions. I turn everything else off and focus on writing until I hit my goal for the day. I also focus on the one thing that needs to happen next in the story as I write. I don’t worry about poetic descriptions, clever metaphors, or award-winning symbolism. I just get down the key information for the scene and move on. I can add layers when I re-write.

6) Pace yourself and take breaks. My most important rule, whether I am climbing a mountain or writing a novel. If I go too fast, I’m sure to burn myself out and never make it to my goal at all. If I don’t take breaks and rest, I am in danger of getting overly tired and hating what I’m doing. Having to push extra hard when I’m already feeling beat-up is a sure way to turn me into a cranky kid who just wants to go home now, please, when what I really want to do is finish my hike. Or my novel.

Do you have hiking rules that apply to the creative process? Or tips for those taking on NaNoWriMo? What have I missed?

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and if you want to know more, check out their great website.

A Hard Hike Reminds Me Not to Compare Myself to Others

We went hiking on Sunday and it was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever taken.

We set out knowing that we had chosen a tough trail. Even though it was only two miles to the top of the mountain, we would gain 1000 feet with every mile, and the steep trail was full of large rocks that were hard to climb.

Add to that intense heat — it was 93 F but it felt hotter in the sun — and you have a recipe for exhaustion. Fortunately, we are experienced hikers. We had plenty of water, sunblock, and food with us. We wore hats, stuck to the shade, and took long breaks.

As we slogged up the mountain, lots of people passed us going both directions, including people who were running. (This is Colorado. The outdoor crowd is insanely fit.) We continued to slog.

By noon, I was done. I was struggling to make my leaden legs climb up yet another slope just minutes after I’d had a snack and a long rest break. I felt like crying.

We came to a fork in the trail. Dogs weren’t allowed on the section that led from the junction up to the peak. On top of that, it was spitting rain (lovely, cooling rain!) and thundering. So we sat for a while, waiting for the storm to pass, and trying to decide what we wanted to do.

Dory and I take a much deserved breather.
Dory and I take a much deserved breather.

In the end, my husband and our friend went on while Dory and I sat in the shade resting, waiting for their return. They were gone for about an hour and a half, and during that time I had a talk with myself.

I felt like a failure.

For over a year now, I’ve been eating a healthy diet that has been hard for me to follow but is actually healing me. For a year and a half, I’ve been sweating through a hard gym class every week, putting up with the fatigue and aches that go with it, but clearly getting stronger in the process. I’ve been adding other exercise whenever I can, doing my best to get fit.

I was now sitting on a mountain, drained and feeling ill, while my two companions, both a decade older than I am, climbed to the top without me. Every now and then people would go by on the trail, some walking, some running.

It was depressing.

I reminded myself: Compare and despair. Comparing my performance to someone else’s is a waste of time. It’s like comparing apples to armadillos. Whether or not I can keep up with someone else doesn’t matter. The only performance I should compare to mine is my own.

How am I doing compared to my past self? Amazingly well. Such a hike would have been impossible for me only a year ago. In addition, I was up early the following morning, full of energy. Previously, letting myself get so tired meant days of recovery afterwards.

On the hike back to the car, I found I felt pretty good considering how the morning had gone. The cloud cover protected us from the sun and the temperature was cooler. The long rest while the others were gone had revived my legs. Taking my socks off so they could dry left my tired feet feeling like new.

The stunning scenery was worth it. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)
The stunning scenery was worth it. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When they came back down from the peak, my husband told me more than once that the last part of the trail had been much easier to climb, and that I could have made it if we had been allowed to take the dog along.

At the time, I didn’t believe him.

Now I know he was right.

Finished Friday: What I Learned From Our Virtual Hike

We did it! Our virtual hike of Hadrian’s Wall is finished. In less than ten weeks, Dory and I walked a total of 94.5 miles. Woo hoo! I’m pumped. I can’t believe we actually accomplished this goal. Just ten days ago, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t make it. But we did, and we even finished a day early.

We succeeded because I set a measurable goal, picked a reasonable deadline, and was flexible about how I went about it.

Having an actual number of miles to walk came from the idea of pretending I was doing a through-hike instead of just wandering around our neighborhood with the dog. That gave me something to measure.

Then I thought about what was reasonable. I wanted to pick a number of miles to walk per week that was a stretch but wouldn’t require herculean efforts. I also didn’t expect to walk every day. I allowed for 5 walks a week. (We actually walked 42 out of 67 days, averaging 4.4 days/week.) Dory’s birthday was 9.5 weeks from our start date and would require us to walk 10 miles/week, so that was the day I picked as our deadline.

The super-hiking Dory is 6 years old today and ready to walk another 94.5 miles.

The only restriction I put on myself was that I couldn’t walk without Dory. I wanted us to both be in better shape, so she had to be with me if I wanted the walking I did to count.

I didn’t tell myself I would walk every day, or that I would follow a fixed schedule or a fixed route. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to walk at a specific speed, either. Being flexible about when, where, and how we walked turned out to be critical to our success. We had bad weather, sick days, and days away from home. We were constantly adjusting in order to get our walks in.

I did keep track of our miles in a spreadsheet, so I could see how much progress we had made and if we were on target to reach our goal.

I hate to admit it, but my initial idea didn’t really work. I had thought that using a trail to track the miles we covered would help me to be more interested in our walks.
Except for setting our mileage goal, Hadrian’s Wall didn’t enter into it much. I didn’t have the time to read up on it like I thought I would. If I had used a paper map of the HWP to track our progress, I would have been more conscious of the trail. But using the spreadsheet made it more about the numbers and less about the virtual environment that we were pretending to pass through.

Fortunately, I found another way to make the exercise fun. I kept track of the birds we saw and heard. By the end, I was carrying binoculars with me everywhere and looking up new birds when we got back to the house. Since it’s spring and migration is under way, this is a great time to be watching birds. Birding made the walks fun.

So, I won all around. We met our exercise goal, we both are in better shape, and we had fun doing it. Best of all, we got to watch spring unfold all around us.


P.S A friend of mine is actually hiking Hadrian’s Wall right now, so I am getting to see and hear all about it from her. I have already recognized the names of places she’s mentioned and feel like I’m getting a second virtual hike of the HWP. I’ll try to pay more attention to the actual trail this time.

Virtual Hiking Update: Why I Refuse to Panic About My Deadline

My Hadrian’s Wall virtual hike is nearing the end. There’s only 11 days left but Dory and I still have 23 miles to go. If we had been able to keep to our earlier pace, we’d have a doable 12 miles left, but my assumption that things would get easier as we got farther into the spring has proven completely wrong.

It seemed obvious that as summer approached, the weather would warm up and there would be more nice days for taking a walk. Initially, the weather did improve and made walking a pleasure. But instead of a steady gradual improvement in conditions, the weather has been erratic at best.

Some of our warmest days were also horribly windy. The howling of the wind around our house was so bad that I could barely stand it while I was indoors. Going out to walk in the maelstrom seemed impossible.

Dory riding in Kurt's vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She's ready for spring!
Dory riding in Kurt’s vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She’s ready for spring!  photo by Dana Geary

We’ve also had some winter flashbacks. Right now, we’re in the middle of a snow storm. Lots of heavy, wet snow coming down steadily, making it too cold and too wet for Dory to be out. So we’re losing time even as I type.

If I’d thought about it, I might have realized I couldn’t count on the weather. But I was certain that as my fitness improved and I got in the habit of walking nearly every day, it would get easier to reach 94.5 miles of walking. I was right and wrong about this one.

My fitness has improved and I look forward to our walks. But because of the bad weather days, I’ve found myself at the gym, taking a yoga class or lifting weights, to get my exercise fix. Great news, except that I’ve remembered how much I love yoga. I’m back to three classes a week, plus our weekly training session, so on those four days it’s hard for me to find the time for a long walk as well.

As far as improving my own fitness goes, this is a win-win. But helping Dory build up some endurance before we start our mountain hiking season was one of my goals. Without our walks, she doesn’t get the training she needs.

If we take our long  walk for 10 of the coming 11 days, we can still finish the virtual hike on schedule. But a quick look at this week’s weather forecast has me wondering when exactly these walks are going to happen.



If we don’t meet the mileage goal, I will still consider this project a major success. We’ve already walked over 70 miles since March 17th, and we would never have gotten out this much if I hadn’t set a goal. Dory’s in better shape than she was, and so am I. Also, I’ve had fun while getting some exercise.

So I’ve decided not to panic. It won’t really matter how many miles we’ve covered by the time the 23rd rolls around.

Only it does. Despite the obstacles that have cropped up, that competitive part of me will do its best to get those last miles walked before time runs out.

Have you had unexpected obstacles crop up when trying to reach the goals you set? How did you deal with them? Is reaching the goal you set more important than what happens along the way?

Virtual Hiking Update: Imperfect Efforts Give Great Results

Our virtual hike of Hadrian’s Wall Path in England is not going at all the way I thought it would. I have not made time to read in detail about the places on the HWP that we are passing when we walk. We have not walked every day. Even my records of the birds I encounter while we are out are full of questions marks. Despite all that, we are on track to meet our goal and I am amazed that our less than perfect efforts are working so well.

Dory walking with determination. She is undaunted by goals and free of perfectionism.
Dory walking with determination. She is undaunted by goals and free of perfectionism.

Having a goal has really helped me to be more active. My Inner Perfectionist moans that we’ve “only” walked half of the days of the last month, but we’ve covered 43 miles. Thanks to our May 23rd deadline, I’m constantly watching the weather and getting out whenever I can, even when I don’t feel like it. Twice in the last week alone, I looked out at warm sunny weather and wondered if I had the energy to walk. But I got a walk in on both days by lowering my standards and taking the shorter of our two walks (1.4 miles instead of 2.6).

For no reason other than I like to record things, I wrote down the birds we saw on our very first HWP walk back on March 17th. Once I started, it became an obsession a habit, and I decided to exercise my brain along with my body. I began to memorize all the bird species that I saw or heard and then wrote them down when I got home. Identifying all the birds sounds anal, but I am not doing it perfectly. I don’t worry about the birds I don’t know. I label them the best I can, resorting to LBB when I glimpse a “little brown bird” or adding a question mark to an ID that is uncertain.

A western meadowlark: we hear this bird daily but only see him now and then.
A western meadowlark: we hear this bird daily but only see him now and then.

I don’t know if my memory is improving, but watching and listening for birds has sharpened my awareness of my surroundings. I stay in the moment, pay attention to the world around me, and see things I would otherwise have missed. Not doing it perfectly keeps it relaxing and fun.

As for our virtual progress along Hadrian’s Wall, we’re currently somewhere between the Roman fort at Brocolitia and Sewing Shields, well out into the country, where sections of the stone wall still stand. I can’t tell you anything about the things we have passed so far, but I can share this beautiful image of the temple to Mithras at Brocolitia, which I wouldn’t have found if I wasn’t using Hadrian’s Wall to track my progress.

A natural rock wall we passed on one of our walks this month. A reminder of the virtual setting of our two month hike.
A natural rock wall we passed on one of our walks this month. A reminder of the virtual setting of our two month hike.

My effort is nowhere near perfect, but it is effective. Having a goal is helping me to push myself, but letting go of perfectionism means I don’t worry about doing things perfectly.

Did I walk yesterday? The day before? It doesn’t matter. I just do the best I can do today.

We are on track to meet our goal because even the short walks I’ve taken on my bad days have helped us inch towards the finish line.

Using a Virtual Through-Hike to Make Exercise Fun

Dory: Adventure Dog and Hiking Enthusiast
Dory: Adventure Dog and Hiking Enthusiast

Hiking season is nearly upon us and it’s time to start training up. True spring is at least two or more months away, especially for those of us hiking in the Rockies, but if I’m going to keep up with my husband when May gets here, I need to start walking more now.

Our miniature poodle Dory is an enthusiastic walker and can easily hike ten miles when she’s in shape, but she lost her endurance over the winter. Because she is so small, she doesn’t like to be out in the cold and snow, so she hasn’t been getting as much exercise lately.

Dory riding in Kurt's vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She's ready for spring!
Dory riding in Kurt’s vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She’s ready for spring!

Now that the weather is starting to improve, I want to make sure we get outside whenever we can. We are blessed with a lovely walking trail that runs right by our house, but I still find myself reluctant to get moving.

Exercise is not at all natural to me. It’s too much like work, so I try to find ways to make it more fun. I’ve decided to use the idea of a long through-hike, something that both interests and scares me, to set my training goals.

Dory and I are going to walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path (HWP). I adore the British Isles, and when I first learned you could hike across the country this way, I was entranced. But the real reason I’ve chosen it is that, as through-hikes go, it’s short.

Hadrian's Wall at Greenhead Lough (via wikipedia.com)
Hadrian’s Wall at Greenhead Lough (via wikipedia.com)

The HWP is 85.3 miles long, but Dory and I will be walking 94 miles total. Our neighborhood walks are nearly flat, but there’s over a mile of cumulative elevation gain on the HWP, so I used Naismith’s rule to make the adjustment*.

We will take our virtual hike without leaving Colorado, and we will tackle it in stages. I’m going to keep track of the miles we walk each day with the goal of covering the full distance of the path in nine weeks. My hope is that this concrete if whimsical goal will help me to keep up with our walks.

I originally thought I’d get a paper map and mark off our progress as we walked so I could see us moving along the trail. Then I found a website that covers each stage of the trail in detail and decided I would use it instead. I can move from section to section as we cover the miles and also see pictures and read descriptions of the things we would be seeing if we were on the trail in person. It even includes elevation gain for each section, so I can adjust the mileage using my formula.

I am setting May 23 as our deadline. It’s Dory’s sixth birthday, and is just over nine weeks away, which will require an average of ten miles of walking per week. If we walk five out of seven days and take the longer of our two walks three out of five days, we can meet this goal. As the weather improves, we will probably get some extra walks in on the weekend with Kurt, making up for any days we might miss.

The big question is: will this work? I can be competitive, even with myself. So my hope is that a goal and a deadline will help me to get moving. But I’m guessing the real key will be tying this goal to a real hike and tracking our progress. That sounds like fun to me, and I’m so much more likely to do something I think is fun.

What do you do to motivate yourself to meet your goals? Have you found ways to make less than enjoyable tasks that you really want to do more fun? Please tell me about them! I’m always looking for more ideas.

*Naismith’s rule is used to estimate how long a hike will take and accounts for both flat miles and vertical gain. I applied the suggested 8:1 ratio to the HWP to find out the equivalent flat mile distance.

Snowy Mountain Backpacking

Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Last weekend, we intended to spend four nights camping in the Snowy Mountains near Medicine Bow Peak with friends. We picked an easy loop hike that would allow us to backpack in, camp for a few nights in one spot, and do interesting day hikes on side trails. One of the advantages of our choice was being able to start at high altitude, so that the hiking itself wasn’t all that strenuous. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.

The hiking itself was as intended – exercise, but not the backbreaking slogging that can go with climbing endless trails with a pack when you’re not really in shape to begin with. However, the area we picked for our first camp spot turned out much wetter than we realized. (There was a little “marshland” symbol on the map, but none of us noticed that…!). We were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes that made cooking and eating dinner so unpleasant that the teenagers with us were happy to forgo dessert in order to retreat into their tent.

Molly and Sarah before the Bugs. (Photo by Dana Geary)
Molly and Sarah before the Bugs. (Photo by Dana Geary)
Photo by Dana Geary
Photo by Dana Geary

We did have a net tent that we set up and used as a place to get a break from the mosquitoes. Even the dog learned the joy of being able to go into this shelter and get away from them.

The next morning wasn’t as bad, though it was still buggy. The girls did not want to stay out another night, so we packed up and hiked the rest of the loop to get back to the car. The day started well but it rained heavily all afternoon, making the last few hours of the hike cold and wet.

This picture of me only hints at how wet I was. I'm not wearing my hat any more because it was soaked through. (Photo by Dana Geary)
This picture of me only hints at how wet I was. I'm not wearing my hat because it was soaked through. (Photo by Dana Geary)
It's still raining, and the signs they are sitting by gave us the cheery news that we had almost 4 more miles to go. (Photo by Dana Geary)
It's still raining, and one of the signs they are sitting by gave us the cheery news that we had almost 4 more miles to go. (Photo by Dana Geary)

Remarkably, the scenery was still gorgeous. If it hadn’t been raining so hard, I’d have taken endless pictures. There were some things (like flowers) that I just couldn’t resist.

Photo by Dana Geary
Photo by Dana Geary

It was hard to get good pictures at all with the low light, but Dana got a couple that really captured the beauty of the place. I imagine the rainy part of our hike might be easily replicated in parts of Scotland (although I’m not so sure you would see snow…)

Photo by Dana Geary

We saw a little wildlife and lots of wildflowers.

A pine grosbeak that hung out with us in the parking lot. (Photo by Dana Geary)
A pine grosbeak that hung out with us in the parking lot. (Photo by Dana Geary)
Columbines (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Columbines (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

I am dying to go back and stay longer, and I think we now have a better idea of which sections of the trail are likely to provide better camp sites. Maybe Kurt and I will head back up there before the year is out. He bought a Wyoming fishing license but didn’t get to use it.

More of my photos from this trip can be found on my Facebook page.