Fighting Graffiti on a Crag

Protect… stir… slop… spread… sit… scrub… sit… spritz…scrub… rinse… and repeat many times on hundreds of crags in the best bouldering area in DC and a place where families love to hike and be together. Over 11o people hours in the last three months have been dedicated to removing graffiti that’s littered boulders at the fall line in Northwest Branch Park.

This past summer graffiti spread like wildfire at this favorite climbing spot. Once it started, it was difficult to stop. On Sunday, over 7o rock climbers joined together in a Rock Project of stewardship to remove graffiti, clean trash, fix trails and cut down invasive plant species. Under bright sunshine and blue skies, a unified community contorted their bodies and exhausted their deltoids to scrub spray paint where fingers and toes attach themselves to crags on a wall. Brut force and pure will pervaded in removing most unwanted art from a metamorphic surface. What’s left are a few pretend Picasso’s due to the taggers medium.

Persistence pays off in spite of incessant vandalism of a picturesque and challenging nature scape. The work continues with hope the taggers don’t return but in the meantime, many thanks are given to Mid-Atlantic Climbers, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Montgomery Parks, The Access Fund, Earth Treks  and REI. Love and passion for a place and pastime unit people in stewardship.

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Art or Graffiti?

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What do you think? Is the Anasazi wall art graffiti? Is there a place for art? Is there a place for graffiti? What is the difference?

Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill or imagination.” Graffiti is defined as  “writings or drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.” Unwanted art.

There is no place for art in nature because nature is art. When I hike a trail, nature’s art constantly changes from location to location and time after time. There is no constant; hence, an added beauty to nature’s art.

This summer one of my families favorite places to hike and play was inundated with graffiti. It started in late spring with a few. As the summer progressed, the graffiti spread like a virus. The boulders in Northwest Branch Park became the summer “it” spot for local youth fueled by Instagram and Snapchat. At least this is as much as this mom has figured out. Once graffiti starts without it being removed quickly it spreads incessantly. And that it did.

So now begins the hard work of cleaning up the graffiti before every boulder in the park showcases a Rembrandt. Therefore for you locals that read my blog, ask your teen a few questions about the boulders in Northwest Branch Park. Did they like a photo of a DaVinci inaction or a Van Gogh’s final masterpiece? If so, strike up a conversation about the appropriate place for art? Is it on a rock face next to a stream or rather on their bedroom wall? How do the many Picasso’s affect the living and non-living in nature, the hiker’s eyes and the hands and feet of rock climbers?

The hard work of removing these masterpieces will take many human hours to remove. Already 35 and its only the first day. We’ve barely made a dent into removing over a hundred rock canvases filled with multiple bright colors. How many more people hours will it take for nature’s canvas to return?

#LeaveNoTrace #LeaveWhatYouFind


A Journey… on a Trail…

Whether in a lifetime, a 40-mile hike,
in a span of time, a 3-mile hike,
I listen.

Why am I on this journey?

The trail is before me.
Whether with a foundation of knowledge, experiences and strategies
with calloused feet in stable, cushioned boots,
I hike an unknown journey.
I listen.

Why am I on this journey?

On the trail before me,
whether I struggle with the uphills determined to have stamina,
coast the downhills letting gravity pull my feet along the slope 
hike the flats getting muddy,
I hike through it, never around it.
What sticks often sheds.
What remains is cleansed.
But yet I listen.

Why am I on this journey?

On the trail before me,
whether I step on a skinny log bridge
slippery, unstable rocks, I pass needing focus and balance.
With the swift water as a distraction,
I sometimes need a stick but more often use my core.
And still I listen.

Why am I on this journey?

On the trail,
whether with others
I listen to words of wisdom but I must listen to my own.

Is it destiny or is it a journey?

Art Inspired by Nature – “Wonder”

When did you last observe nature through your artist eyes while hiking? Did a color, shape or texture catch your eye? Was it off in the horizon or something at your feet? Did you stop and wonder? Maybe you knew the species name – did that increase your appreciation? Maybe you couldn’t categorize what sparkled at you – did it make you wonder more? Did you share or keep it to yourself? If you shared, what conversation did it ignite? Did it heighten your awareness to look for other artifacts among nature? Art is in the eye of the beholder seen through a personal lens of unique neural pathways to create an interpretation.

A sunrise or sunset, a vista or physical feature captures the eye of most and is often the art people observe while hiking. I see all that but much more as each footstep reveals a new canvas. Of course, this natural art only catches my eye when I am not distracted by kids, a conversation with a fellow hiker or the need to process life in my head. When I create present, mental space, nature is an art museum. I notice contrasting colors, like a sycamore’s white branches  against an azure, winter sky or the rainbow strips on turkey tail. I notice unique shapes and their relationship to negative space, like the alignment of tree trunks to each other, the ground or sky. I notice textures, such as the contrast between beech bark to oak when grown adjacent and the protrusions of a burl or fungi that extrude from bark.

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This past fall, the Renwick Gallery reopened with an inspirational exhibit of room art installations called “Wonder.” After many recommendations to visit, my kids and I took a field trip there. This 8-room show invites visitors to wander and define “Wonder” for themselves through the installation’s various mediums and textures. Before reading the exhibit’s purpose, my brain connected the artist’s language to the shapes, colors and textures of nature when entering the first room of undulating colors on the ceiling.  As I met each installation, some connections to nature hit me instantaneously while others invited me to ponder. Some hit a deep cord – the level of each artists’ s intricacy while summoning the big picture mimics that in nature. Each color, shape, texture on an organism has a purpose that is woven into the grand scheme of an ecosystem. Each brush stroke or molded shape is evidence of nature’s adaptability to create a balance in a system. The vision is survival. While roaming “Wonder”, I question – how did these artists dream the intricacies in their system to create a vision for each piece? What was their process for capturing their interpretation of wonder? Was it their intention to mimic nature?

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I am awe struck by the artistry of nature with each foot strike on the textural trail as I am awe struck by each woven stick, the placement of a bug in a pattern, the overlay of rubber, the undulations of string and the placement of a card or glass ball next to another. The artists of “Wonder” invite us to connect.

A Green Space’s Imprint on Teenagers

empty trailWhile my daughter sits in history class, I come upon five boys from the same high school just off the trail. I’m there to install a new interpretive sign when the other was smashed by a falling tree. As I approach them I say, “I know I’m off from school but you guys aren’t. What class are you supposed to be in?” It’s 1:15 pm on December 21st.

“PE.” One mutters as the others stare at me probably thinking, is this lady for real.

“Really? PE.” I respond, thinking why would they want to skip PE. It’s usually a more favored class. Then I remember, I am talking to high schoolers where PE is no longer anticipated but a drag.

“I think you guys should head back towards school,” as I stand there waiting and not giving them an alternative. Finally one of them sitting on a 24+ inch diameter blowdown rises for the trail that leads back to school. The others follow.

Many students hang out in the woods along the trail as evidenced by what’s left behind: Algebra I and Geometry homework, cigar wrappers, milk pints, hamburger foil, Nike-designer dime bags, gum and candy wrappers, energy drinks, pens and pencils, cigarette butts, chip bags and lined-paper which is often used to prevent their butts from getting dirty. This litter is usually found in areas where they create hang-out nooks. They move fallen tree limbs and trunks as if there’s an imaginary campfire ring. These nooks surround the trail scattered for a quarter of a mile.

Adults sometimes think the worst of teenagers. I do, as I pick-up their litter and come upon them in the woods during school. I ponder, why do these students seek sanctuary in this narrow spit of woods adjacent to school?

  • shining sun and warm air
  • escape class and/or a teacher
  • talk with friends without an adult’s listening ear
  • escape life
  • seek solitude under the trees
  • seek freedom from adults
  • hear the birds call for each other
  • rustle the family of deer that inhabit these woods
  • escape and shake off social misunderstandings

I challenge my initial thought about the student’s impact on this green space beside their school and ask, is this plot of woods leaving an imprint on them?

Historically, the woods have been a haven but also congered fear. These neighboring students who inhabit the woods during lunch or escape from class don’t fear it but view it as a sanctuary, a place to be themselves in a world where they are asked or demanded to play a role – the role of translator to a mom or dad learning to navigate the american way, the good girl in a family enshrined by a patriarchal culture, the overachiever stressed from two-overachieving parents, the caretaker to siblings whose parents work multiple jobs and the mediator who inhabitants a combative house. This narrow spit of woods provides opportunity:  a place of peace before or after a conflict, a place to be playful between their worlds of child and adult hood and a place for them to slip from their role and try on their authentic self. Will this green space change who they are or their feelings about nature?

Book Review: Utah’s Big 5 National Parks with Kids

I am in love with our national parks – each so unique in their stunning landscapes, awe-inspiring physical features, diverse biological characteristics and adrenline-filled adventures for everyone from thrill-seekers to drive-by tourists. My family has ventured to many: Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rock Mountain, Yosemite, Point Reyes, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Acadia and more. We desire to visit many more before our kids venture to college.

Next on our list of national parks to visit are those in the southwest: Arches, Zion, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. I usually spend a lot of time researching each park: lodging, campgrounds, best places to visit, off-the-beaten-path must-dos, traveling to and from and between parks and each park’s logistical information (see my post on the 20 questions you should ask when visiting a national park). In preparation for next summer’s trip, I read Abby and Harley McAllister’s e-book guide, Utah’s Big 5 National Parks with Kids. The biggest reason I like their book is it has cut my many hours of research on the web in half. The McAllister’s are a seasoned outdoor family with four children. They have taken the guess work out of planning a family vacation to Utah’s national parks from suggested itineraries and hikes to a driving distance matrix and map.

  • Whether your family has three days or two weeks, the McAllister’s provide helpful itineraries detailing the amount of time you should spend in each park and the must-dos.
  • Tips for exploring the southwestern landscape safely with kids.
  • They devote a chapter to each park providing the family must-sees, areas to avoid, descriptions of family-friendly hikes, other activities such as rock climbing and lodging options, in particular camping.
  • A map and driving distance matrix between parks and to transportation hubs.
  • An itinerary and information for families who desire to make a side trip to the Grand Canyon.
  • Suggested rafting options for the adventure seeker and families. Rafting is an incredible, off-the-beaten method to experience the amazing landscapes of the southwest (or for that matter any landscape). Read the McAllister’s blog for tips about rafting with your kids.

The McAllister’s blog, Our 4 Outdoors, is full of trip reports to many western national parks and other public lands that are a must-do adventure for outdoor families. If your family is considering or planning a trip to Yellowstone, then definitely check out the McAllister’s book entitled, Yellowstone National Park with Kids. Take advantage of their expertise to make your life simpler when planning your next trip to Utah’s national parks.

Arches National Park by Jill Ortman-Fouse

Arches National Park by Jill Ortman-Fouse

Summer Snapshots: Families Seeking Adventure

For obvious reasons, summer is the perfect time for families to seek adventure outdoors providing space for them to share quality time. “Seeking adventure” is defined broadly by families from fishing or swimming together in a local river to backpacking or hiking in the most magnificent landscapes in the United States or abroad. This photo essay, in addition to ones on Mountain Mom and Tots, The Kid Project, Adventure Tykes and Play Outside Guide, showcases the breath in which families seek adventure together in the great outdoors.

By The Kid Project - Backpacking in Millcreek Canyon, Utah. Nothing like a "bear" encounter on the trail.

By Alyssa Erickson of The Kid Project – Backpacking in Millcreek Canyon, Utah. Nothing like a “bear” encounter on the trail.

By Kristian Whipple of Kristian Whipple Photography - Mount Monadnock, NH.

By Kristian Whipple of Kristian Whipple Photography – Mount Monadnock, NH.

By Jill Ortman-Fouse - Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park, MT.

By Jill Ortman-Fouse – Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park, MT.

By Chiara D'Amore of Columbia Families in Nature - Patapsco River, Patapsco State Park, MD.

By Chiara D’Amore of Columbia Families in Nature – Patapsco River, Patapsco State Park, MD.

By Holly Rothrock - Canyonlands National Park, UT.

By Holly Rothrock – Canyonlands National Park, UT.

By Christine Jasper - Sibling Love in Lake Balea, Fagaras Mountains, Romania.

By Christine Jasper – Sibling Love in Lake Balea, Fagaras Mountains, Romania.

By John Lucas - Hiking basalt columns in Iceland.

By John Lucas – Hiking basalt columns in Iceland.

By Allison Corbett of Allison Corbett Photography - Looking for beluga whales on the Rivière Saguenay at Baie Sainte-Marguerite in the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay, Québec, Canada.

By Allison Corbett of Allison Corbett Photography – Looking for beluga whales on the Rivière Saguenay at Baie Sainte-Marguerite in the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay, Québec, Canada.

By Melissa Avery of Chasqui Mom - A summer full of memories was packed into a weekend camping trip at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.  A great day hike with friends to Elizabeth Lake which was at the base of Cathedral Peak!

By Melissa Avery of Chasqui Mom – A summer full of memories was packed into a weekend camping trip at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. A great day hike with friends to Elizabeth Lake which was at the base of Cathedral Peak!

My family’s favorite “seeking adventure” summer snapshot is displayed in Mountain Mom and Tots photo essay. A hint – it features us exploring one of the natural phenomenons in the world. Can you guess?

Don’t shut down that mobile device quite yet – there are more photos of families seeking adventure on these outdoor family bloggers websites:

The Kid Project   –    Adventure Tykes   –    Mountain Mom and Tots   –    Play Outside Guide

Thank you to the above partners for participating in this year’s Summer Snapshots photo essay and all my friends and colleagues behind the lens who shared a little piece of their families with us. To take a look at the past two years of Summer Snapshots photo essays, visit “Summer Snapshots Through a Kid’s Lens” and “Summer Snapshots Through a Personal Lens”.

Share your family’s favorite summer snapshot seeking adventure in the great outdoors in the comments below.


Biking the Great Allegheny Passage Cheaply

GAPNo matter what I do, I can’t escape from getting butt blisters. Every bike trip, always by the third day! So instead of fighting it or complaining, I accept the price I pay for a biking adventure. The pain is worth it because I enjoy a girlfriend’s getaway from kids, my husband, the house, my computer and all the responsibilities of life to be outside, be physical with my body, experience new beautiful, natural surroundings and most importantly share stories, opinions, thoughts and laughter with girlfriends.

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A few years ago, my girlfriends and I rode the 184 miles from Cumberland to DC on the C&O Canal tow path albeit after it flooded which left a wake of mud and destruction. This summer, my friend and I rode the 150 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) from Pittsburg to Cumberland. Wow, what a difference a trail makes – night and day! The GAP is like a new paved four-lane highway compared to a pot-hole infested road, a.k.a the tow path. On the GAP, our speed was faster and the ride less jarring on the GAP; however, just as dusty, though we were caked in mud biking the tow path. Another positive difference is the close proximity of services, such as food and lodging, on the GAP. We didn’t need to venture far off the trail, if at all. While the services were more numerous within 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, they were every 10-20 miles beyond Connellsville until Cumberland.

Many people bike the entire 330 miles of the GAP and the tow path from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, connecting in Cumberland. However, my friends and I couldn’t devote 5-6 days to bike both. Therefore, we opted for two three-day trips, biking 45 to 60 miles each day on the GAP and 60 miles on the tow path and in our opinion the easiest direction, north to south/northwest to southeast. This choice is clear for the tow path because it is downhill; well, 600 feet over 184 miles but it is still downhill. The GAP has a different elevation profile. Bikers can choose a long, gentle incline over two days and then a short, steeper decline over one day biking from Pittsburg to Cumberland. Or, bikers can choose a hard first day up the Eastern Continental Divide and then two days of sailing (well, maybe not sailing but definitely less strain on your legs) to Pittsburgh. We opted for the former – constant peddling for two days and then a fast, sail downhill to Cumberland.

GAP & C&O Canal Elevation Profile

No matter which direction you choose, you are in for a visual treat. My favorite was the ride from Connellsville to Rockwood – steep, shale slopes with tall trees and a lush understory while listening to the movement of the Youghiogheny River as it washed over boulders. My friend enjoyed the ride from Pittsburgh to Connellsville because the scenery had so much variety from shopping centers to rail yards, steel mills to town centers and highways and railroads to nature’s green all the while we crossed over the Monongahela River several times. Whether you decide to camp or do B&Bs (or AirBnBs), biking the Great Allegheny Passage is a scenic adventure must-do for any biker young and old.

The Mark of the “Z”

If you are a film buff, then you know that the mark of the “Z” comes from the 1920 film, The Mark of Zorro, when the protagonist, a self-identified superhero, marks his villainous victims’ foreheads with a “Z” using the point of his sword. Today, many outdoor enthusiasts wear the mark of the “z” on their feet due to a z-strap binding attached to a rugged, durable sole. Incessant summer wearing (or all-year wearing in the tropics) of Chaco sandals leaves a prideful contrast of two skin hues in the shape of a “z”.

Assumptions are made from one z-marked person about another:

  • love the outdoors and adventuring in it
  • wear Chacos consistently and constantly during warm weather (some even more loyal as to wear them with socks)
  • love non-claustrophobic feet
  • don’t mind wet, dirty and muddy feet (even when some want pretty toes), in fact often take pride in it
  • love flip-flops but desire more support than what they provide for outdoor adventuring
  • wear them in many situations from dress-up to dress-down and walking urban streets to hiking rugged trails
  • like being noticed for our z-marked feet as it is a symbol of outdoor enthusiasm
  • are loyal Chacoists – once worn, always worn (me –  20 years)

Like Zorro who used his superhero powers to save the underdogs from oppression, many Chacoists use their developed relationship with nature to be stewards of the environment, saving Mother Nature from its own human kind. Chacoists come from all walks of life and represent a colorful ribbon in the outdoor world. We are linked by the mark of the “z”, a symbolic tattoo of a Chacoist’s relationship with the outdoors and our desire to conserve it.

Adventures on Old Rag: #Hiking It With Your Kids

IMG_5408Old Rag mountain in Shenandoah National Park is the hiking rage in the Mid-Atlantic. Each and every weekend, the 200-car parking lot reaches capacity by early afternoon with no option of parking alongside the road. For this reason, I never hike it on the weekend, always choosing a weekday for the challenge of a 9-mile circuit hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain and over a half mile of intense rock scrambling.

I purposefully didn’t write about Old Rag mountain in my book Best Hikes with Kids: Washington DC, The Beltway & Beyond because this is a strenuous hike for children. Old Rag is not appropriate for all kids. As a parent with kids who has experienced hikers, Old Rag gives me pause and requires complete preparation than just a three mile hike on a trail in the DC metro area (see recommendations below).

This summer, I felt my son, age 10, was old and experienced enough to complete this strenuous circuit. My daughter had perviously done it around the same age. Therefore, he and I set out together for this adventurous challenge on a steamy day. When rechecking the forecast before leaving Silver Spring, the new prediction of scattered thunderstorms in the late afternoon rattled me and my intuition was to stay home. But I listened to my husband and we drove west to reach the parking lot by 8:45 am. After checking in with the ranger, we hiked the .8 miles up the road to the trail head at the old parking lot.

A half mile into the uphill walk on pavement, my son said, “my legs hurt.”

“Already. We haven’t even made it to the trail yet.” I replied.

For the next half mile, one complaint after another was expressed along with the body language that matched each complaint. I first tried the drill sergeant approach and then the cheerleader but neither worked. For me this wasn’t a question of his physical capabilities because I knew he could. He had backpacked in Sequoia National Park the previous summer on a strenuous trail. So tactic #3 was deployed – distraction. For the next almost two miles as we switchbacked to the scramble, we peppered each other with the “best” and “worst” questions, such as “where would you most like to visit in the world?” or “what would be the three worst bugs to eat?”

The best part was that before we reached the car I asked, “What did you like most about today’s hike?”

He replied, “Hiking the rock scramble and asking and answering all the best and worst questions.” Little did he know that there was a method behind my madness!

IMG_5412The rock scramble was hard, even for me, made even more challenging with worn-out treads on my son’s hiking boots (note to self, check this before hiking Old Rag) and his desire to remove his pack a few times to maneuver the rocks easier. To reach the top we needed to slide, belly shimmy, squeeze and duck – basically whatever body contortions needed to follow the blue blazes.

One experience we didn’t anticipate, even though my son asked, “Do you think we will see a bear today?”

“Maybe, more likely today than on the weekends.”

Sure enough, we did – a mama and her cubs. While the cubs (about a year old) were super cute, the mama was NOT happy to see us and expressed her feelings with a snorting grunt and a fake charge. After two attempts to pass and needing to retreat, we had gathered enough hikers to try again. This time our group of 14 hiked towards the summit without incident as she had decided to retreat with her youngsters.

I was so thankful that it didn’t rain until we were hiking down the Saddle trail which felt so good on the hot, humid day. As we scrambled on the boulders, I watched the sky like a hawk and prayed for no rain or thunderstorms because I didn’t want to be on the slippery, injury-inducing rocks when they were wet. Furthermore, our survival depended on us not being on the rocks during a thunderstorm.

On our descent, the Saddle trail and Weakly Hollow fire road were a piece of cake compared to the Ridge trail. The Saddle trail descends from the summit for a bit over 1.5 miles on rocky tread while the fire road is a wide, easy trail with gentle elevation. If you decide not to hike the rocky Ridge trail, the summit of Old Rag can be reached with this 8-mile out-and-back hike (and 2,200 feet of elevation gain) on the fire road and Saddle trail.

Before completing the circuit, we found a large boulder in Brokenback Run just off the fire road. We took off our shoes to soak our feet in the cool mountain water. We were treated to a cascading massage and a tickle by fish.

Waiting in the car were two big bottles of ice water in a cooler as our 2-litters of water for each of us were demolished way before we reached the end. We celebrated our time together and the competition of our hiking challenge with a large pizza at Rudy’s in Sperryville.

Recommendations For Hiking Old Rag With Your Kids

  1. This 9-mile, 2,200 feet elevation gain circuit hike (via the Ridge trail) is strenuous for children. Shenandoah National Park doesn’t make any age recommendations for parents. Therefore, it is important to know your child’s physical and mental limitations and abilities.
  2. Be prepared and pack the 10 Essentials: water (at least 2-litters per person), food to last 8 hours, whistle, headlamp, rain gear (layers in cooler temps), map, hiking boots with good tread, knife or multi-purpose tool, sunscreen and a first aid kit, all put into a backpack (one preferably with waist and chest straps as it becomes one with your body which is important when rock scrambling). I also packed baseball caps to keep rain off our faces, a cell phone for photos (I got cell service at one view, otherwise there is none on the hike or drive), a garbage bag to pack out trash and a poop kit (there are privies at the Old Rag Shelter and parking lot but with kids you never know when they need to poop; therefore, I always carry this homemade poop kit on hikes with my kids).
  3. Look at the weather before you drive to Old Rag. I never recommend rock scrambling on trails (Billy Goat Trail included) while or after it rains – the rocks are slippery and kids often don’t know the physics of reduced friction and their body mass. Never hike Old Rag when a thunderstorm is predicted for the time during your hike. Your family is a sitting duck on the rocks during a thunderstorm.
  4. Read Shenandoah National Park’s Old Rag webpage and watch the safety video.
  5. Practice Leave No Trace – the most important being “Plan Ahead and Prepare” for your Old Rag hike. This is the most important principle to follow for your family’s safety and to reduce the impact on the mountain’s natural resources which are affected during a rescue (many occur each year).
  6. Have cold water, gatorade or sodas plus a fun snack waiting in the car for your return.
  7. Be flexible, always have plan B (and sometimes plan C). You never know with kids, the unexpected always happens. Therefore as parents, fast thinking and problem solving are the name of the game for a successful adventure (success defined differently for each family).
  8. Pack your patience, check your attitude and enjoy the journey. Plan for this hike to take all day – start early. The hike is not about the destination, the summit of Old Rag, but about the challenge and discovery enjoyed by everyone during the hike.