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I Have MS, So My Family Hikes Without Me

One mom's story of parenting with a chronic illness

I Have MS, So My Family Hikes Without Me

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I remember in 2015 when my older son stood in the doorway at four years old, ready for his first hiking adventure with my husband. He filled their bags with meals and snacks and hung a small hiking pack from my son’s tiny shoulders. A few years later, my younger son stood in the same spot, ready to embark on his first hike.

When I met my husband in 2007, one of the first things he told me was that he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t realize people left their hectic schedules behind for five months to live in the wilderness as they backpack along the longest hiking-only trail in the world. I was amazed, but I knew it was something I couldn’t enjoy alongside him.

I’ve had MS since I was 21, although it took a while for doctors to diagnose me. Muscle stamina has always been my greatest difficulty. When walking or standing my legs tire quickly. My husband has been hiking since he was old enough to walk, so when we met, we knew we’d have to find activities we could enjoy together so that his love of hiking didn’t form a ridge between us.

Author Lindsay's two sons out on the hiking trail Lindsay Karp
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Finding other ways to connect

As a young couple, we biked rail trails together, enjoyed meals at unique restaurants, and watched shows like The Office and Lost at night before bed. He hiked without me, but there was always dinner in the city and Jim and Pam on the TV screen waiting for us later that evening. Sometimes he’d leave for days to backpack and camp out overnight. But we always had our activities to return to. We’d dodged what could have been a relationship deal breaker, but then we had kids and I had to readjust all over again.

There was my kiddo in the doorway, his tiny hiking sneakers ready to tackle hills and climb boulders. Although his pack was empty, it made him feel strong and ready to see the world, just like Daddy. He hugged me tightly and they left the house together for my son’s first hiking adventure. That was just the beginning of my family’s favorite activity—one I couldn’t partake in.

When the garage closed, I cried, imagining all the moments I was missing—his little legs pushing upward with zest, his first meal beneath the tree canopy, his smile as they reached the peak. When my younger son was old enough to join, I missed double the memories.

Every time they left the house, it was another reminder that the activity they loved most in this world was something I couldn’t share with them. For years, I let it eat away at my contentedness. I felt motherly guilt as I missed their happiest moments.

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After a few years on the medication I receive now, my strength improved enough to allow me to hike shorter, gentler trails with my family. I couldn’t hike mountains, but we’d walk short trails through the woods and flat loops around lakes. On better days, I’d surprise myself and hike a trail I didn’t know I was capable of.

On vacations, we’d drive to the top of mountains when that option was available so I could experience being on top of the world with them.

In smaller, more manageable ways, I joined them. But as my kids got bigger, so did their desire for adventure. The last thing I wanted to do was limit them from seeing the world because of my limitations so their hikes became longer and more frequent.

Author Lindsay's two sons on the hiking trail Lindsay Karp

How photography allowed me to join them

My husband’s interest in photography saved me. After reading and listening to podcasts about recommended products and creative photography techniques, he bought the camera that became my lens into their adventures. From the trail, he sent candid pictures of my boys meandering through streams and learning to follow trail markings.

He sent portraits of them together, taking in their surroundings wholly. I saw the trails, the canopy, the wildlife. Most importantly, I saw them. It wasn’t the same as being there, but it connected me to them in the best way we knew how.

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As they’re hiking, my husband checks his phone for a signal every so often. When he can, he Facetimes and I almost feel like I’m there with them. We have conversations as they eat lunch and I ask questions about what they’ve seen. My younger son loves to show me the meals they cook atop the camping stove.

My older son informs me how far they’ve gone and how many miles remain as he shows me a 360-degree view of their surroundings. They’re happy—so I’m happy.

When they return home, their packs are emptied into our mudroom along with the dirt and pebbles their shoes picked up from the trail. I hear stories of them swimming with their clothes on to cool off, adventures of climbing from rock to rock with precision, and then acknowledgement of legs that worked hard and need rest.

I see their hiking trips through the camera lens. I hear their voices through Facetime. And I listen to their stories as we snuggle before bed. I’m not there, but in some ways, I feel that I am.

My boys are now 8 and 12 years old. Like my husband, hiking is their biggest passion. And each time they stand in the doorway to embark on another hike, I remember the little boys that once stood before me ready to experience the great outdoors for the first time. I see how immensely these trips have changed them—how they’ve grown in strength, but more importantly, how they’ve expanded their self-confidence through tackling mountain after mountain.

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Each time they leave, they come back a little stronger and a little wiser. Hiking teaches them everything I can’t.

While I’ve missed the physical steps they take during their hikes—and I know I’ll miss plenty more in the coming years—I remain connected to their adventures through photos, Facetime, and the stories they tell so vividly.

And that is enough for me.

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