Sunday, June 18, 2017

The ADVENTURE continues!!!

Last spring a group of coworkers decided that hiking the Appalachian Trail was on their bucket lists. Determined to go, and inviting me to join, we researched what we needed and made a plan! 

This year all of us felt a little as though we were forgetting something important- thankfully we weren't! The major difference was that last year it was all brand new and it required a lot more planning, reading, and researching. We researched equipment, maps, food, clothing, and picked the brains of folks who had hiked it. We learned as much as we could before getting our feet muddy. You can read all about it here

Prep this year was waaaaaaaay easier. I knew how to prep the clothes I already had to prevent ticks and pests from bothering me. I could base what foods to pack and how much I needed on notes from last year. I was ready to air out my tent for waterproofing. Yeah! I could do this! WE were DOING this! Again!

Food packing looked like this. Each meal was labeled in a bag and put into a larger one labeled "DAY 1", and so on. This kept things tidy in my pack and easy to get to when I need it. The goal was to have enough calories and protein without the food itself weighing too much. With home renovations making messes all around me, it felt good to have something tidy and controlled for a change.

I laid everything out to make sure I had all I needed and to see what I could possibly leave behind. Every single thing packed adds weight, and those tiny little comforts add up quickly. I read "The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide" by Andrew Skurka last year, and skimmed bits of it as a refresher this year as I prepped to pack. It was extremely helpful in my prepping, purchasing, and packing. 

We set out by car at 4:30am! My pack weighed roughly 29 lbs this year, very close to last years weight. It's not ideal, but for me there are comforts that are worth the weight to carry. 

Last year we hiked from Palmerton, Pa. to Eckville. It was tiring, it was difficult, but in the end we felt accomplished. This year we picked up where we left off and hiked 43 miles to Bethel. 

On our first day we ate our lunches at Pinnacle Rock in Hamburg. We met a lady lunching there, airing her feet, socks and shoes as she lunched as well. We are always intrigued by what inspires folks we meet to start on this journey. She shared that she quit her job to test out a possible new business venture, making her own ultralight meals for backpackers. What better place to test out such an idea than the AT?! She's a "flip flop thru hiker". These hikers begin their journey at the midpoint of the entire trail in Harpers Ferry, WV. They travel north or south to the end, then return to the midpoint and hike in the other direction, eventually hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. 

The Pennsylvania portion of the AT is known for its rocky terrain. 

When you tell hikers you meet on the trail that you began your AT adventure in Pennsylvania they are genuinely surprised that anyone would choose such a difficult stretch as a starting point. As "section hikers", we attempt to hike small bits of the trail each year. It made the most sense for us to stay close to home, especially since none of us had ever done it before!

Hiking is hard, smelly, and often uncomfortable. Once you accept that that's how it's going to be for awhile, you can focus on the positive. 

There are beautiful things everywhere around you.

The trail you're hiking changes quickly from mud to rocks to boulders and back again. 

The woods you pass through change from thick and full to low and covered in ferns. 

Last year water sources weren't reliable and we were thirsty. Thankfully this year we found several streams to refill our water bottles in! 

When terrain gets extra rocky you walk with your eyes to the ground for safety. While walking I often look for heart shaped rocks and puddles because it makes me think of people I love. 

My husband loves fonts, old things, and metal. I thought of him when I saw this on the trail.

We hiked through a controlled burn area. Everything low was black and charred. 

You can see the burn date was from May of this year and already green was reclaiming the forest floor. 

When you chat with other hikers they often warn you of what is ahead of you- lots of rocks, beware of snakes, no water for so many miles, etc. One hiker told us to look forward to some "trail magic" and shared that a man living close to the trail would let you stay at his cabin for $5 a night. He'd feed you, you could shower, and it was awesome! We weren't interested in hiking 2 miles out of the way for this, but for those on the trail for days longer than our trip it was a pretty big deal. 

"Trail magic" is an unexpected act of kindness that helps hikers in their journey. Several miles after hearing about trail magic we found this! The cabin man we'd heard about also leaves two coolers, one filled with water and the other with snacks (granola bars, hummus, cheeses, and Werther's Originial candies) on the edge of the trail for thru and section hikers only! Two garbage bags hung from trees to collect the trash hikers are packing out (you never litter when hiking, take out what you take into the woods). We didn't take anything, but we left with smiles. Such kind gestures truly do mean a great deal to hikers. 

We've set up camp in several "campsites" along the trail (the ground is flat and there's a makeshift fire pit), but this one was my favorite. It was spacious (most are very small). Water was close by. The trail went through the middle of the site. It was beautiful. 

After setting up tents it was time to build a fire and rest our feet!

Not every evening ended with a warm fire. We had rain more than once that made fires difficult to make so the idea was often abandoned in favor of hot food and sleep. Our group included 7 people last year. We shared supplies, including cook sets. This year we hiked with just 4 people. Half of the group used a Jetboil portable cook set, and I shared my tiny Esbit set. The fuel is lighter and smellier, but it's perfect for my needs and pack weight. 

This is what's for dinner each night on the trail! I buy them at Walmart in a variety of meal options, but this is my favorite. During a cold and stormy night dinner in my tent I decided that the folks on the package definitely were not hiking the Appalachian Trail together. While dining I thought about the lady we'd met the first day at the Pinnacle. I follow her on Instagram and will be watching for her ultralight meals for hikers next year!

Crawling out of a tent in the morning before the sun has time to warm things up isn't easy, even with the hope of a warm cup of coffee and some hot oatmeal for breakfast. 

But when you open the tent and see how gorgeous the woods are in the morning....

..... it makes it easier to get up and moving. 

And keep moving!


At the end of our hike we drove by all that we'd just spent days conquering to pick up our other car. It felt strange to see it all from the road, so we stopped for a picture! We drove in 30 minutes what had taken us 4 days to hike. Very strange....

We learned a lot our first year, and we learned even more our second. Already looking forward to the next adventure!

Until then, I'm going to do my best to enjoy this summer!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Floral Frida Sugar Skull Planter

Life gets crazy sometimes, and the McKee family sure has had a lot of that lately! We bought a new house! Exciting! But so. much. work. Seriously. Electrical work, tearing out old crusty ceilings and staples, ripping out old smelly carpet, shrieking over dead mice and their little, shall we say, "surprises". There's a whole lotta mess and gross goin' on these days. But it's also been pretty awesome. My kids are learning to play with mud and sticks. I check 'em for ticks every night. Once this big house project is finished we are so gonna appreciate our beds with sheets and couches! Just before buying this house (which happened really fast and just fell into place), I entered an art project contest in the hopes of scoring some cool new supplies and ideas for my classroom. After all, I want the best for my students! But trying to fulfill that commitment with moving, renovations, kids sports schedules, and set design sure has been tricky, to say the least. One sunny afternoon I dove in between house projects, and chipped away at it whenever possible. Let's take a closer look at what I came up with...

Since the inside of the house has been a busy work zone, I set up a cozy little nook for myself on the front porch. It's been a favorite gathering place for my family to have meals, share ideas and new discoveries, and to have art time when our creative cups are nearing empty and it's time for a refill. The fine folks at Activa Products sent art teachers interested in their contest a neat-o "mystery box" filled with samples of goodies to explore. I had to use 3 of the items sent, along with any additional materials of my choice, to create an original project that could be created in a classroom setting. I was THRILLED to find celluclay in my box! 

It's a papier mache clay that is packaged dry, just add water, mix it around, and voila! Sculpting gold

I decided to roll up my sleeves and use what I had on hand (since it was Easter break, most of my art supplies have been packed away, and I wasn't in school) to MacGyver and Mary Poppins my way through this challenge! 

I love repurposing things. My kindly neighbor, Mr.Shaefer, saves little fruit and yogurt cups for me. They sure do come in handy in the art room, but for this challenge I decided to transform a cup into a tiny planter. Celluclay sticks surprisingly very well to plastic. 

Just add bits at a time and use water to smooth out rougher textures.

To cover the plastic lip of the cup I formed a celluclay coil and attached it to the top of the cup, blending it into the sides of the planter and leaving the inside bare. 

Before the planter surface dried I used extra bits of celluclay to make parts of a face for the pot. I was aiming for a sugar skull Frida, so I coiled the signature unibrow. 

The bits and pieces stuck to the pot! No extra glue or fancy steps needed. It was really that easy! 

While the planter dried in the sun, I took a foam ball (I have a ton of them in my storage closet at school).....

and hot glued it to the bare insides of the planter cup. 

Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite artists. She's a strong female example of grit, something we attempt to explain to our students and expose them to as often as possible. Each year 3rd graders learn a bit about her while we explore Mexican culture, including Day of the Dead. I wanted to merge some of the things we discuss and roll it into one fun and memorable project. With this idea in mind, I moved forward in my project development.....

Frida loved nature and flowers. How perfect that I was making a planter?! Rigid Wrap to the rescue!

To begin, I found some fencing wire, needle nosed pliers that could cut wire, and Rigid Wrap, of course!  

Rigid Wrap comes in rolls that I simply unrolled a bit at a time, cutting it into strips for wrapping around my wire. 

A few rough bends to the tips of my wires and they were ready to be transformed into flowers!

I dipped one strip into water at a time, carefully wrapping around the wire. I shaped a rough flower at the top and wrapped another strip around the wire, leaving a bit of the tip exposed so I could poke it into the foam insert. 

And I left them to dry in the sun!

Before painting I tested the arrangement with the pieces I'd made. She still seemed to need a bit of filler on top. I chatted with my 10-year-old son and his best friend, who happened to be over to play for the afternoon. She suggested using Easter grass. Brilliant! Why hadn't I thought of that myself?! It was Easter weekend, with discounted prices on all Easter stuff! PERFECT!!! So I snatched up a few extra bags of my favorite kind, the crinkly paper bits. 

With all the parts dried from the sun, it was time to paint! However, I was in a pickle. Yes indeed, a real pickle. What's an art teacher to do without a trusty paintbrush to see her through this messy step?! I wasn't in my classroom and my art supplies were packed away from our move! I searched my purse and surprisingly emerged empty handed. A first, that's for sure. Next, I decided to try my husbands car. It's an eclectic collection of forgotten projects, papers he wants to save but won't put away because he'll forget about them, and stuff from our kids school and sports lives. It all just kinda just rolls around together in there and smells a little like pizza...I found a brush! Under the seat! YES! I didn't care that it was floppy and awkward, it was something, and that was more than I started with! Things were looking up! Until they weren't...

The brush was one of  those brushes students complain about. The kind that loses it's bristles so fast you're almost positive it'll be completely bald by the time you complete your painterly task. After painting my base layer of white and sprinkling it with Scenic Sand for a sugary look, I had to problem solve this paintbrush problem. What would Mary Poppins do in a situation like this? What would MacGyver do?

They'd both remind you that you have an old Mary Kay lip gloss floating around in your purse that you keep telling yourself to toss but you save it because you think maybe you'll scrape a little more out just one more time. 

You get real, and clean off that applicator tip, and start painting! It's not perfect, but that's ok! It looks handmade by someone determined to get the job done, no matter what!

I used acrylic paints and sprinkled Scenic Sand to the paint before it dried, making Frida appear to be sugary! The Easter grass was the perfect addition to her flowery top. 

She's going to look pretty adorable at the new house this summer! If you're looking for fun projects to try, visit Activa Products online and follow them on Instagram! Your kids will love it, and you will too!