Choosing Family

I’ve written about the fact that the period between my birthday on December 18th through Christmas is not my favorite time of year. Soon I’ll have more to offer on the topic of family. I wish I could say it will be happy stuff.

So tonight – Christmas Eve – I reflect on my families of choice, because they make me happy, bring me joy, and sustain me. I have three.

The Alaskan Malamute who started it all: Opus, at Snow Lake in the Cascades of Washington in 1988. With Opus by my side I gained the confidence to hike and run trails with just her for company.

My Dogs

There are very few of my 63 years when I haven’t had at least one dog living with me. I cherish memories of those who are gone, and am grateful for my boys Finn and Conall. They are the best family this single gal can have. Always happy, never grumpy, living in the moment without worry about yesterday or tomorrow, eager each morning to help me wake up with kisses and snuggles, all the better to get me up and going so we can see what the day will bring, always expecting it will be amazing. It almost always is. I learn so much from my canine family, my pack.

Maia and Meadow curious what I’ve gotten them for Christmas, 2004.
Finn and Conall tolerating my attempt at holiday festiveness on the deck this afternoon.

Dog Campers

In 2002 I took a risk and started a hobby business. Family and most friends thought I was nuts. I created a dog camp, a place people and their dogs come for a weekend of off-leash frivolity and games, with few rules and the singular goal of having fun. I was inspired after learning of the original dog camp in Vermont, much too far for me to drive with my own dogs. Naming the new business after my dogs Maia and Meadow – Maian Meadows Dog Camp – I found a Camp Fire facility to rent, a kid camp during the summer that sits on a beautiful lake and is nestled under big pine trees. Cabins are rustic; that’s part of the charm. Food is…comfort food (think bacon, lots of bacon). We hike, swim, play dog-centric games for prizes, and just hang out on the beach watching the dogs swim for sticks. My personal favorite activities are the costume and limerick contests, where peoples’ dog-themed creativity shines.

A group of dog campers in 2012. Finn and I are second from left, back row.

Except for two years when life circs prevented me from hosting camp, I’ve welcomed campers and their dogs to two sessions each year (June and September). Very quickly I noticed a pattern: over half of each session was filled by returning campers, many who came every year, sometimes both sessions each year. After a few years, though, the sad part of such an annual endeavor became apparent: dogs who had been coming to camp for years became too old and frail to attend, or died. Their absence, along with that of their person, was palpable. But then, a year or two later, that person would return to camp with a new dog. And so the family grew and sustained itself. This felt to me like the best possible family because we all shared something essential to our beings: a love of dogs. New people show up every year, often becoming “veterans” of camp, returning annually. We exchange email addresses and become friends on Facebook. Now, almost 20 years into my crazy idea, I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to be welcomed into the warmth and love of all of these relationships. Dog campers – the people and their dogs – are my tribe, my family of choice.

Costume contest winners from 2014: Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.

Trail Runners

My other tribe consists of runners, especially trail runners. (Many have dogs, too!) I first started running trails in the 1980s, but I was just dabbling the first few years. Then in 1990 I met a few folks who were training for Western States 100 and invited me to run with them. I was instantly hooked, and began running ultra races myself. Back then, the ultra distance trail running community in Seattle was relatively small; we all quickly got to know one another, often training together on weekends. There weren’t many races back then, either, so when we did race – in Washington, Oregon, or British Columbia – we’d see the same people and strike up friendships. When you spend several hours with a stranger during a trail race, running companionably on single track trails through a forest, you talk about anything and everything and quickly bond. It’s hard to explain, but the usual social walls tumble away, people sharing much more about themselves on the trails so that you make connections in a few hours or over the course of a few training runs that would take years to accomplish in more typical social settings. After I moved to Idaho and quit racing, I sorely missed seeing these friends on the trails, but we stay in touch through emails and Facebook. They’re family to me, my other tribe.

A few zany members of my trail running tribe during an informal three-day run around Mt. Rainier in 2003. My dogs Maia and Meadow, alas, weren’t allowed on the park’s trails, so my boyfriend, the couple in leopard print and top hat and I each took one day off to take them running outside the park and help shuttle supplies to the next campsite.

Choose What Sustains You

For many, their family of origin offers love and support and is their family of choice. They’re lucky indeed. For the rest of us, it can be hard, acknowledging that your family of origin either won’t or can’t give you what you need. But that same admission can also be freeing, allowing you fill that gap with families you choose and create.

I’m grateful for all three of my chosen families.

Happy Christmas Eve and Christmas, Festivus (for the rest of us), Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, Winter Solstice and any other end-of-year celebration to my diverse readers and their families, however you define family ( including two- and four-legged members)!


Feature photo: Finn and Conall posing in front of my decorated Christmas cactus, December 23, 2017.

13 thoughts on “Choosing Family”

  1. The dog camp sounds amazing! What a great idea you had. Even though I am not a trail runner, more like a trail plodder, I can attest to the bonds you form out there. As you know I am an introvert but it doesn’t seem to affect me as much when I interact with other people on the trail.

    I can tell this is a hard time of the year for you but I hope you are having a good holiday season with Conall and Finn. My Finn and Sawyer send you all the best, as do I!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I enjoy my interactions with others on the trail because they’re almost always upbeat, and limited. Often just a quick “Hi!” as you pass on the trail, maybe a brief description of conditions, or greeting their dog(s). If I’m running/hiking with someone, it’s more involved but still within the constraint of the length of the outing, and I choose selectively. I admit, during some longer trail races years ago, I’d get annoyed if a chatty person tucked in behind me and talked too much about things I had no interest in (like – gasp – major league baseball); that’s when I’d suddenly need to detour into the trees for a pit stop 🙂 But with other racers, I could run and chat with them for several hours, forming a friendship that picked up at the next race. It all depended on the person and the topics. It’s not that we introverts don’t like to talk; we just don’t like small talk.
      Glad you’re on the mend, Ari, and blogging again 🙂 All the best in the new year/decade to you, yours, and Finn and Sawyer!


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