Cleaning Clothes in the Backcountry

"Alright," I said to Lightfoot on our John Muir Trail hike in 2012. "Smell this sock again and tell me if the baking soda made any difference." The sour look on his face gave me the answer as he slowly handed the sock back to me.

After a while on a long distance hike, you start to lose your ability to smell yourself, at least to a certain point. This is a blessing when you're alone, otherwise it's a curse. It would be great if I was a cartoon and could just look up to see if there were stink lines drawn above my head, but sadly I'm not, so Lightfoot offered to smell my socks after a thorough rinse and again after they had soaked in a baking soda and water solution for thirty minutes. Only a true friend would take a bullet like that.

"Hmm, alright, next time I'll let it soak longer or add more baking soda."

I began experimenting with environmentally-safe ways to clean my clothes in the backcountry after hiking the Appalachian Trail. Since I started backpacking, I've pretty much started to define "clean" as "dry," so don't get me wrong, clean out there isn't the same thing as clean at home. I decided, however, that long-distance backpacking would be more enjoyable if I could feel cleaner. Being tranquil and at peace in the natural world is a lot easier if you don’t smell like a corn chip’s foot. That's why cleanliness is next to godliness, and why you haven't seen a drawing of Buddha with stink lines above his head.

First, I pack a recycled plastic bread bag or a one-gallon Ziploc and at least 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Since I'm usually only washing one or two pairs of socks, a pair of underwear, and a lightweight shirt at one time, the bread bag or Ziploc is big enough.

1. After setting up camp at the end of the day, I put the offending clothes into a one-gallon Ziploc bag.
2. Then I add water.

Don't put the clothes directly in the water source. Clothes hold residual detergents from previous washes, which you may see proof of in the form of suds during the next step. Clothes may also contain other chemicals from deodorants, bug sprays, etc. Consider putting your backpacking clothes through another rinse cycle after you've washed them at home.
3. Seal the bag with a little bit of air inside. Now, shake it vigorously. This is where most of the cleaning happens, and the longer you agitate the clothes the cleaner they'll get.
4. Make sure you're at least 200 feet from all water sources then empty the bag and squeeze as much water out of the clothes as you can. Avoid twisting wool and synthetic fabrics when wringing out the water. It's less damaging to roll them up and squeeze the water out.

Repeat steps 2 through 4 as often as necessary. I usually do it 3 to 5 times, and agitate for at least a couple minutes each time.

This alone will make a tremendous difference, and more so the longer you agitate and the more times you replace the water as you do it. Your clothes will be a lot less smelly, and a lot more comfortable to wear. Actually, if your clothes weren't that dirty to begin with, water and agitation would probably be enough to get them clean. After wearing the same clothes on the trail for a couple days, however, they'll probably still smell at this point, but hey, at least people won’t be able to smell you from ten feet away.

If you want to stick with slightly smelly clothes to save weight in your pack and have as little impact on the environment as possible, feel free to skip the next two steps. If you want to get them cleaner, however, it's time to get out the baking soda.
5. If you want to remove a stain, mix a little water with baking soda to make a paste, apply it to the stain, gently rub the stained fabric into itself, and then continue.
6. Fill the bag with about a quart of water and about 2 tablespoons of baking soda (more on why I don't use detergents below). Shake vigorously to mix. If you need more water to cover your clothes, just increase the baking soda as well by roughly that same ratio. It doesn't have to be exact.

Now, let that soak overnight.
7. In the morning, go about 200 feet from all water sources, squeeze the baking soda water out the clothes, and then rinse them in the same way as steps 1 through 4.
8. I attach the wet clothes to my backpack using safety pins, so they can dry while I hike. If it's warm enough, I'll just wear the shirt wet. The synthetic or merino wool fabric my shirts are made of dry quickly from body heat.
Safety pins also work great to hang clothes on a line, so wind doesn't blow them off and so you don't have to fold them over the line, which makes them take longer to dry.

The odors will continue to decrease as your laundry dries in the sunlight.
9. And finally, go find Lightfoot and have him sniff your sock to see if it worked.

More Uses for Baking Soda


Before I go into why I don’t use detergents in the backcountry, one reason I take baking soda instead of the other alternatives is it's useful for other things on the trail. For example:

1. You can mix some baking soda and a little water in the palm of your hand to form a paste and use it as a gritty hand and foot scrub to remove dirt and odors.

2. Relieve the itch of bug bites, bee stings, or Poison Ivy by applying the baking soda paste like a salve onto the affected skin.

3. You can scrub cook pots with that baking soda paste solution, as well. Or just sprinkle some on a damp bandanna and scrub away.

4. The paste can also be used to brush your teeth. It doesn't contain fluoride, but it makes a decent toothpaste if you run out.

5. You can also dissolve a teaspoon in 4 ounces of water to make a mouthwash. Slosh it around in your mouth to get rid of bad breath or relieve canker sore or tooth pain.

6. Dust some under your arms and on your feet to use it as a deodorant. Not a good alternative if you're going on a date, but it helps a little bit on the trail.

7. You can cool a sunburn, windburn, or other minor burns or rashes by saturating a bandanna in a warm water and baking soda solution and gently dabbing it onto the affected area.

8. Supposedly, you can rub dry baking soda on your roots to degrease your hair, and then just towel out the excess after 1 to 3 minutes. I haven’t tried this yet, but I have heard of people doing it.

9. Sprinkle some dry baking soda on your dirty clothes so they don’t stink up your whole backpack.

10. Relieve a sore throat by gargling a mixture of ½ teaspoon of baking soda and ½ teaspoon of salt with a ½ cup of warm water a few times a day until it’s gone.

That's a lot, but I'm sure there are many other uses for baking soda on the trail.

Why I Don’t Use Detergents

I'm not totally opposed to people using certain environmentally-friendly biodegradable detergents, but I'm just not convinced any are 100% safe. I prefer to keep as many chemicals out of the backcountry as possible and baking soda is useful in so many other ways.

If you prefer to use a detergent, there are some that are considerably safer for the environment, and safer ways to use them.

First, there are no detergents safe enough to dump directly into a water source, even if the detergent's label has a bright blue sky and green leaves on it, and you can only buy it in a locally-owned co-op from a barefoot hippie drenched patchouli oil. Always dump the wastewater into a 6 to 8” deep hole dug at least 200 feet from a water source, and use it sparingly.

It’s hard to tell which detergents are the safest to use because they don’t have to disclose all ingredients on the label. So, choose a detergent based on what they claim they don’t add. They don't have to legally tell you if it does contain certain things, but false advertising is still illegal (sort of). For example, look for detergents that are phosphate-free, chlorine-free, fragrance-free, dye-free, and ones that are plant-based and contain no petroleum solvents.

Fragrance-free is also important because it can attract animals, but also because companies may be able to hide certain chemicals in their fragrances and still legally claim the product is free of it. (As of this post, that is the case, but there is a proposed law in the US that may change that soon.)

Biodegradable Soap

Also, in addition to the advice above, only use biodegradable detergents. Just remember that no soap is biodegradable in water. Biodegradable soaps are only biodegradable when buried in the soil.

Spend enough time on the trails and you'll eventually hear something like, “I have biodegradable soap, so I just jump in the lake to bathe.” If that is how you’re using it, it’s not biodegradable soap. If biodegradable soap accumulates in water sources, it can lead to excessive plant and algae growth and decrease dissolved oxygen in the water.

To print biodegradable on a label, the product just has to be “capable of being decomposed by biological agents, like bacteria, fungi, or algae, and break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass in a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment.” Further, it could take up to six months to biodegrade in the soil, and still be deemed biodegradable. By then, if not properly buried at least 6" in the soil and 200 feet from a water source, it could work itself into the aquatic ecosystem.

Biodegradable soap is a good example of the cobra effect, when an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse. Overall, biodegradable soaps are a good thing. They are technically much better for the environment, but because the term is often misunderstood, the product is often used in an environmentally unfriendly way. So, a product with good intentions can actually end up being worse for the environment.

It’s like being okay with producing more garbage, because you recycle, or leaving an energy-efficient light bulb on more often because it uses less energy.

Also, since there is an assumption that it is safe for the environment, some people may end up using more of it than they would otherwise. With the method above, a couple drops is all you need.

Here are a few other tips for keeping your clothes clean in the backcountry:

1. You can reduce odor and the number of times you have to wash your clothes, if you wear clothes made of merino wool. It doesn't absorb body odors or hold onto bacteria like most synthetic fabrics, like those used in Under Armor for example.

2. Choose clothing made of materials that will dry fast in the sun. Hiking clothes made to quickly wick moisture from your body will likewise dry fast in the sun after you wash them.

3. If it's overcast and your socks are still a little damp at the end of the day, put them in your sleeping bag at night. Your body heat will help dry them out.

4. Before heading to the trail, wash your clothes at home with just water. This will remove residual detergents and make it safe to jump in a lake with your clothes on to give them a quick wash.

Let me know if you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions by emailing me at ryan@abackpackerslife.com.

My Gear Checklist: Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad
12 oz.

Is it just me, or does that picture make you also want to be backpacking? This series of gear posts have partially been to show how inexpensive backpacking can be, but this is one item where I was able to silence my typical thriftiness. The comfort of that yellow sleeping pad contributed a lot to that sunset in Badlands National Park.

So, whether I'll be sleeping in a tent, hammock, or shelter, I bring along a sleeping pad. In the hammock, it's more for insulation than comfort, so if it's very warm, I can go without it. Otherwise, it's always with me.

Since I've been spending such a large percentage of my year sleeping on the ground, I justified buying the most expensive sleeping pad there is, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. I didn't actually fact-check that statement, but I've never seen anything more expensive. It was especially expensive when compared to my first sleeping pad, a $6 piece of blue closed-cell foam from Wal-Mart.

If you're looking to save money, definitely start out with a blue foam pad (8 - 12 oz.) or something slightly better like the $35 Therm-a-Rest ZLite Sol (10-14 oz.)

Before my first trip, I cut the blue foam mat down to torso length, to reduce its weight to 8 oz. That got me by just fine on my first few backpacking trips, but I didn't sleep very well and woke up with a sore back. Once I realized I was in love with life on the trail, and knew I would be doing a lot more of it, I decided to upgrade to a torso length Therm-a-Rest ProLite (11 oz.) for around $80.

Later, I realized that torso-length pads with my legs hanging off the end made me colder at night, so I needed a warmer sleeping bag to compensate. That meant I wasn't really saving much weight. So, I regretted that purchase.

Since I'm cheap and reluctant to add more ounces to my pack, I stuck with that pad for a few years. Until one morning when I woke up to the sound of a dog chasing a cat.

I had been couchsurfing with someone in Vermont when hiking the Long Trail. I felt her dog and cat run across me and my sleeping pad. I fell back to sleep, but a few minutes later, woke up again when I realized I was on the hard floor. The animals poked a hole in the pad. I didn't care, though. One, I loved her happy dog and believed it could do no wrong, and two, I finally had my excuse to upgrade.

The NeoAir XLite weighed about the same (12 oz.), but was full length, three times as thick, and looked way more comfortable. Then I saw the price tag.

"Oh snap, $160!?" What follows is a dramatization, loosely based on my actual decision-making process.

The figurative angel and devil popped up on my shoulders, "Ryan, you're spending most nights outside, this is your bed now. It's okay to spend money on it," said the devil.

"But Ryan, you're not working right now, you can't spend that kind of money," said the angel, who had a point.

"Good sleep is better for your health," the devil interjected. "You'll be happier and live longer if you start sleeping better."

"But it's $160, that's more than you spent on your real bed," said the know-it-all angel SOB who suddenly didn't seem to care about my well-being.

"This cozy and warm NeoAir has an R-Value of 3.2, one more than your old sleeping pad," the brilliant devil said. "And it's only one ounce heavier than your other Therm-a-Rest, that you regretted buying, the one you wasted $80 on. You want to waste even more money by buying something else you won't like?"  The devil just about had me convinced with the idea that I would be wasting money. He used my cheapness against me.

"And," he continued, "The NeoAir XLite packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle, that's simply unprecedented. We need this sleeping pad. Ryan..." He leaned closer to my ear and whispered, "We deserve this sleeping pad."

He was right, of course.

"But Ryan," said the angel who, foreseeing defeat, collapsed to his knees and began to beg. "We could just patch your old one for next to nothing..."

"Oh shut up, angel, nobody likes you!" Which I'd like you to pretend I whisper yelled to my empty shoulder in the crowded outfitter. "And honestly, angel, I'm starting to question the very point of you? We need this to be happy and healthy, don't you see? It's as though you want us to die sad and bitter, because that's exactly what will happen if we don't buy this."

Betrayed and alone, the angel vanished. I made my way to the checkout.

And... Scene.

Back in reality, what followed were weeks of buyer's remorse. The thickness of the pad seemed almost uncomfortable at first, and I missed the days of being able to throw my sleeping pad on the ground to sit on, without worrying about getting a hole in it.

Every night, I was on the ground fastidiously removing every sharp rock before setting up my tent. I didn't exactly resemble Rick Moranis searching in his backyard for his tiny children in 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids', but sadly, I can't say it wasn't similar.

Eventually, I forgot about the money and realized I didn't have to be so careful with it. For its thinness it holds up pretty well. I also started using the sit pad that doubles as the back padding of my Mariposa Plus backpack, so I still have a worry-free thing to throw on the ground to sit on without adding more ounces.

On my first night below freezing, I realized how much warmer I was. And once I figured out the right amount of air to blow into it for maximum comfort, I did sleep much better. For the first time, I could sleep through the whole night without waking up once.

And so, I lived happily ever after. The End.
M Y   G E A R   L I S T

• Backpack
• Backpack Liner
• Shelter
• Sleeping Bag
Sleeping Pad
• Cooking Supplies
• Food
• Food Container
• Water Treatment
• Clothing
• First Aid & Toiletries
• Hand Sanitizer
• Ziploc for Laundry
• Baking Soda
• Bandannas
• Headlamp
• Ziploc Wallet
• Lighter and Matches
• 50' of Paracord
• 15' Braided Mason's Cord
• Bug Repellent
• Camera
• All-Weather Journal
• Space Pen (Refill)
• Map & Compass
• Book
• Cell Phone
• Knife
• Duct Tape
• Extra Ziploc bags
• Trekking Poles
  
Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under
a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
  

My Gear Checklist: Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Bag
26 - 45 oz.

One morning on the Appalachian Trail, Liv woke up and said, "I can't wait until the day is over so I can get back into this sleeping bag." She hadn't even gotten out of it yet. I mention that to illustrate how great a great sleeping bag can be.

I carry one of two synthetic bags. A lightweight 40°F bag in the summer that weighs 26 oz., and if temperatures could get colder than that, I take a 15°F bag, which weighs 45 oz.

Note: I fill my sleeping bag stuff sack with extra clothes, rain gear, bandannas, or any other soft gear I'm not using that night, to make a pillow.

If you can't afford two sleeping bags starting out, a 30°F - 35°F bag is a good compromise, and you can always add a sleeping bag liner to reduce the temperature rating an additional 8 - 15°.

S L E E P I N G   B A G   L I N E R S

If a 30° bag isn't going to be warm enough on a particular trip, and don't want to spend a couple hundred dollars on a second sleeping bag, for about $50 - $60 you can get a sleeping bag liner and subtract up to 15°F from your bag's temperature rating. I'm currently working on making my own for a fraction of this cost, more on that later.

They offer other benefits as well. Liners are more comfortable against your skin than the typical sleeping bag nylon or polyester. They will minimize wear and keep your bag cleaner. A liner can be washed separately, reducing the number of times you have to wash your sleeping bag. Washing can compress your bag's insulation and make it considerably less warm. Not to mention cause even more wear and tear. In other words, a liner can save money in the long run by extending the life of your sleeping bag.

And if you're camping in very warm weather, you can leave the bag at home and just sleep inside your lightweight 8 oz. liner.

T E M P E R A T U R E   R A T I N G S

When deciding on which temperature rating you'll need, remember that manufacturers assume you are wearing a layer of thermal underwear and laying on a sleeping pad. And since metabolisms vary, and the rating methods vary from one manufacturer to another, temperature ratings are only a guide. If you're a cold sleeper, if you're not staying in a tent, or you're not using a well-insulated sleeping pad, you'll probably want to add at least 10-15 degrees to the rating.

W H Y   I   U S E   S Y N T H E T I C   O V E R   D O W N ?

Because I'm cheap. I'm not proud of that, but I am what I am. Down bags are much lighter than synthetic, so I would love to have one, but the weight savings comes at a significantly higher cost.

When trying to get my pack weight lower, I made a list of all my gear that I knew could be lighter. Then I figured out how much it would cost to replace each item and how many ounces it would save. (Yeah, I used an Excel Spreadsheet. I can't decide if I should be ashamed of this attention to detail. You could say this is either smart or borderline obsessive compulsive and I'd agree with you either way.) Next, I sorted the list by highest weight savings per dollar and slowly replaced those items first. Replacing my sleeping bag was near the bottom of that list, so I haven't replaced it.

Rather than admit my cheapness, I could have told you I go with synthetic because a down bag won't dry as fast and will lose 90% of it's thermal properties if it gets wet, which is definitely true, but so far, I've never gotten one wet. I keep my sleeping bag in a water-resistant stuff sack in addition to the two trash compacter bags that line my pack. I could drop it in a lake and it should stay dry.

So, yeah. The real reason I use a synthetic bag, is that they are much cheaper. I found my 40° bag on clearance off-season at Backcountry.com for $38, not bad for a 26 oz. bag. If I wanted to spend 10 times more than that, I could have bought a high quality down bag and saved 10 or 11 ounces, but I have a hard time justifying that.

My 15° synthetic bag cost about $170 and weighs 2 lbs. 13 oz. When I'm able or willing to spend 2-3 times that amount on a 15° down bag, I'll be able to shave a pound off the weight. Again, I haven't been able to convince myself to do that yet.

O T H E R   F E A T U R E S   T O   C O N S I D E R

Sleeping pad sleeve - I haven't used a bag with this feature yet, but it intrigues me. Some sleeping bags have the underside insulation removed and replaced with a sleeve for your sleeping pad. It has the added benefit of preventing you from rolling off your sleeping pad at night, which can make you cold and interrupt your much needed sleep.

Zipper compatibility - If you're backpacking with your significant other, you can purchase sleeping bags that zip together to form a two-person sleeping bag, but still use them separately too.

Finally, I won't recommend specific sleeping bags because there are so many great ones that will work just fine and I can't try them all. I'll just say that you're doing fine if your summer bag weighs less than 2 lbs, and your cold weather bag weighs less than 3. Also, if you're new to this and reluctant to use a mummy bag. Remember they are warmer for the weight. When I bought my first mummy bag I thought I would feel claustrophobic, but I quickly got used to it. 
M Y   G E A R   L I S T

• Backpack
• Backpack Liner
• Shelter
Sleeping Bag
• Sleeping Pad
• Cooking Supplies
• Food
• Food Container
• Water Treatment
• Clothing
• First Aid & Toiletries
• Hand Sanitizer
• Ziploc for Laundry
• Baking Soda
• Bandannas
• Headlamp
• Ziploc Wallet
• Lighter and Matches
• 50' of Paracord
• 15' Braided Mason's Cord
• Bug Repellent
• Camera
• All-Weather Journal
• Space Pen (Refill)
• Map & Compass
• Book
• Cell Phone
• Knife
• Duct Tape
• Extra Ziploc bags
• Trekking Poles
  
Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

My Gear Checklist: Backpack Liner

Two Trash Compactor Bags
3 oz. each

No rain cover will keep your gear dry in a downpour, so I don't bother carrying one anymore. Water is insidious, it will find a way in. A bag liner is much more effective. And it's cheaper and lighter.

I use trash compactor bags because they are thicker than regular trash bags. I use two in case one gets a hole in it, but also because I use them for other purposes at camp.

When using a tent or cowboy camping under the stars, I use two as a ground cloth. When sleeping in a hammock, I'll lay one on the ground beside the hammock to stand on when changing clothes or when getting in and out of my sleeping bag.

I sometimes use the other bag to store all my gear in at night to keep it dry or to waterproof my food bag hanging in a tree.

Pack Rain Cover
A pack rain cover will cost $25 - $40, but if you want your gear to stay dry, you'll still need to line your pack, or use several dry bags which can cost $10 - $30 each. I bought a pack of trash compactor bags for $10 in 2006 and didn't use them all until 2012,  and my gear has never gotten soaked. So, if you're looking to save money, this is an easy way to do it without reducing any comfort, convenience, or safety.

When I want more protection for more sensitive items, like a digital camera, or when I want to keep small items organized like my first aid kit, I use Ziploc Freezer Bags with the double seal. Avoid generics, Hefty brand zip locks, or any bag with the zipper top, they can't be trusted. ZipLocs are cheaper and lighter than dry-bags, especially lighter than clear dry-bags, but admittedly, ZipLocs are not as environmentally-friendly, so someday I may switch. That being said, nothing is better for the environment than a population that has developed a deep fondness for the outdoors. If finding ways to save money gets more people to try backpacking, then I believe in the long run we'll all be doing more to protect it.

At least that's what I tell myself to reduce any eco-guilt.

Anyway, enough preachiness, every once in a while I get a small tear in the liner, as you're probably assuming, but it doesn't happen often. When it does, I patch it up with a small piece of duct tape, which I always have wrapped around my trekking poles.

One final note, if using trash compactor bags for a ground cloth, be sure to fold in the parts of the trash bag that stick out under your tent. Otherwise, it will divert rain water under your tent, which defeats some of it's purpose.

M Y   G E A R   L I S T

• Backpack
Backpack Liner
• Shelter
• Sleeping Bag
• Sleeping Pad
• Cooking Supplies
• Food
• Food Container
• Water Treatment
• Clothing
• First Aid & Toiletries
• Hand Sanitizer
• Ziploc for Laundry
• Baking Soda
• Headlamp
• Ziploc Wallet
• Lighter and Matches
• 50' of Paracord
• 15' Braided Mason's Cord
• Bug Repellent
• Camera
• All-Weather Journal
• Space Pen (Refill)
• Map & Compass
• Book
• Cell Phone
• Knife
• Duct Tape
• Extra Ziploc bags
• Trekking Poles
  
Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

What I Carry With Me Out There

My first set of gear, all of which has been replaced
One of the great aspects of the backpacking life, is the freedom you feel when you only have what you can carry on your back. I get asked what I have on mine quite a bit, so below you'll find my list. It's amazing what you can live without.

Today, I'll just talk about the backpack, but eventually I'll post about each item. I'll give advice for buying gear, suggest tips for saving money, and in some cases, give detailed instructions on how to save money by making your own gear.

Most of my advice will be for new backpackers (especially those wanting to save money on their first set of gear), because with experience your gear gets modified and minimized until it is unique to your own comforts and needs. Mine certainly has evolved over the years.

Nevertheless, I hope I can also give a few ideas to a seasoned pro to consider or criticize. Please leave any thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

Mariposa Plus, by Gossamer Gear
26 oz.
I purchased two other packs before finally settling on the Mariposa Plus, by Gossamer Gear. There are a couple ways to save money on a pack, but none would have saved me more than getting more experience before buying my first one. My problem was that I didn't have a friend with a pack to borrow and I didn't lived near an outfitter that rented out gear (such as REI).

My first mistake was buying my first pack online. Since I didn't have an outfitter nearby, I didn't get fitted or get to try on multiple packs. Consequently, the pack didn't fit right and I didn't have enough experience to even realize that was the problem. All I knew was, after my first three miles, my shoulders were already getting sore and I was wondering what I got myself into.

All packs will seem comfortable when empty, so a good outfitters will give you sand bags to put inside the packs to simulate the full weight and will be able to tell you if it's fitted properly.

For my second pack, I drove ninety minutes to the nearest outfitter. It fit much better this time, but after a few trips I decided to reduce my gear weight and found backpacks that were 2 lbs. lighter, but just as comfortable. That's important to remember when looking for an ultralight pack. A one-pound backpack, with a total packed weight of 21 pounds, might be less comfortable than a five-pound backpack with a total weight of 25 pounds. Lightweight is important, but not more important than comfort.

Also, the comfort of a pack will drop the heavier it is. That might go without saying, but generally an ultralight pack will not hold more than 25 - 30 lbs. comfortably. Make sure to put enough sand bags in when testing one out. It might feel great at 25 lbs., but terrible at 35.

So, finally, three packs and $550 later, I had a pack I was happy with.

B U Y I N G   O N L I N E

If you're lucky enough to have a knowledgeable local outfitter, who can answer all your questions, it's well worth it to support that business. That being said, there are a couple benefits to buying a backpack online other than finding a better price and seeing a wider selection.

The first that comes to mind is that I haven't yet seen a backpack in an outfitter that has an interchangeable suspension system. With some online companies, like Gossamer Gear and ULA Equipment, you can customize your backpack by selecting different size hip belts, torso lengths, and shoulder straps. If you're like me, and nothing seems to fit exactly right, you may find it beneficial to be able to order a pack with a large torso length, let's say, but have them attach their medium-size hip belt.

Also, many online outfitters have pages devoted to sales and clearance items that you can check periodically for deals, such as these pages at REICampmor, and Backcountry.com.

When buying online, checkout the return policy. REI, for example, will let you return any item for almost any reason, even if you have used it on the trail. If you live near an REI, or any store with a similar policy, that's a good place for a beginner to start.

B U Y I N G   U S E D   G E A R

Expect to spend at least $125 - $250 on a backpack, if you buy new. If that's not an option for you, start by looking for a used pack. Many people buy backpacking gear, but after one or two trips find out it isn't for them and want to recoup some of their money. It's like exercise equipment, you can find good deals on barely used items. Many outfitters sell used gear in their stores, or you can find a lot of used packs online at sites like GearTradeeBay, or Craigslist.

When looking for used gear, remember that many outdoor gear companies will repair their products for free, for life. If you find a good deal on a pack with some kind of defect, call the manufacturer and see if they'll fix it for free. I recently sent a backpack to Gregory Packs that had a pretty major flaw, a torn zipper that left a giant hole exposed. I suspected this would be covered under their lifetime warranty and it was. They fixed it free and sent it back. It only cost me $4 in shipping. Some people don't want to mess with the return process, or don't even know their pack has a lifetime warranty. Take advantage of that if you can.

G E T T I N G   A   P R O P E R   F I T

If you're unable to get to a good outfitter to be sized properly, or if you'll be buying online, here's how to fit yourself for a pack.

First, get your torso length. Have a friend measure your spine between two points. The starting point is your C7 vertebra (the vertebra at the base of your neck that protrudes when you touch your chin to your chest). Next, imagine a horizontal line on your lower back going across the top of your hips (the Iliac Crest). Where this line intersects with your spine is the ending point for your measurement. If you're like most adults, your torso length will fall between 16 and 22 inches.

Next, measure around your waist at the top of your hipbones. Those two measurements will get you close to a perfect fit, without having to try it on before ordering.

There are other factors that you still won't know before trying it on, though. For example, how it feels with a full weight, the placement of shoulder straps, or the location of side pockets, which you want to be able reach without taking off your pack. Check out the return policy before ordering and if something isn't right, send it back. Losing a few bucks in return shipping is much better than being uncomfortable on the trail.

C A P A C I T Y

I didn't want to get into specific pack features on this post, because everyone has their preferences. There is one more thing you'll want to consider when buying your first pack, though, the total capacity. This is largely a personal preference as well, but a beginner might wonder how big is big enough. For me, 3,600 cu. in. (Or 59 L) of total capacity, is the right combination of being large enough to fit what I need, without being so large that I'm tempted to carry something I don't need. I can fit all my gear and a week's supply of food.

That's it for now. Don't forget to leave your comments or suggestions below!
M Y   G E A R   L I S T

Backpack
Backpack Liner
• Shelter
• Sleeping Bag
• Sleeping Pad
Cooking Supplies
• Food
• Food Container
• Water Treatment
• Clothing
• First Aid & Toiletries
• Hand Sanitizer
• Ziploc for Laundry
• Baking Soda
• Bandannas
• Headlamp
• Ziploc Wallet
• Lighter & Matches
• 50' of Paracord
• 15' Braided Mason's Cord
• Bug Repellent
• Camera
• All-Weather Journal
• Space Pen (Refill)
• Map & Compass
• Cell Phone
• Knife
• Duct Tape
• Extra Ziploc bags
• Trekking Poles
  
Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Sixteen Months of Wandering

It has been less than a year and a half, but every day it gets a little harder to picture how my day-to-day life used to look. It’s like trying to recall a face I haven’t seen in years that I used to see every day. I close my eyes, but can’t quite get a clear image.

Used to be, a year and a half would pass by frighteningly fast, but life doesn't seem as short anymore. I credit that to doing more in 16 months than all my previous years combined.

I backpacked through 3,000 miles of wilderness and the occasional small mountain town. That's over six million footsteps with nothing but the bare essentials on my back. These trails had a cumulative elevation gain of more than 675,000 feet or 130 miles, twice the distance to outer space, or more than the height of 23 Mount Everests.

I'm not sure which has received more wear-and-tear though, me or my worn-out Honda Civic. It racked up 26,000 miles on American highways since March of this year. The car is one of the few things in my life that hasn't changed, although we are much more acquainted now.

If you haven't read every post on my blog, here's what I've been up to. On June 10, 2011, I quit my job, packed a backpack, left everything else behind, and then....

  • Hopped on a train to Washington D.C.
  • Saw the Smithsonian, the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial, the White House, the Library of Congress, the Capitol building, The Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and every other D.C. monument, artifact, and museum on my life list
  • Stayed in the first of many hostels and met people from all walks of life
  • Took a bus to New York City
  • Roamed aimlessly around Time Square and Broadway
  • Heard a never publicly performed piece of music played by a symphony in Central Park
  • Got lost in Central Park at night. It took a few hours to find my way, but after thinking about my upcoming hike from Maine to Georgia, you can rest assured, I fully appreciated the dramatic irony.
  • Then, at two in the morning, I went to the top of the Empire State Building to see the lights and bustle of the city that never sleeps
  • The next day, I took the subway to Ground Zero
  • Saw the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry
  • Unexpectedly witnessed Will Smith filming Men in Black 3 in Battery Park
  • Strolled down the "pre-occupied" Wall Street
  • Walked to Brooklyn on the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Watched a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, with Eddie Vedder and Cameron Diaz
  • Took a train to Boston
  • Walked the Freedom Trail and saw every historical site I know of in Boston, and some I didn't know of
  • Bought tickets from a scalper in Fenway Park and watched a Red Sox Game
  • From my stadium seat, sang Sweet Caroline and yelled YOUUKK!, without understanding why
  • Helped a schizophrenic homeless man update his blog (I always knew I would someday)
  • Took a bus to Maine
  • Met my new friend Erik (a.k.a Red)
  • Hiked the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, through 14 states. On the trail I...
  • Met Sam and Liv (a.k.a. Bambi and Thumper), who became my favorite people in the world
  • Backpacked through the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine
  • Hitchhiked for the first time
  • Spent the night behind an abandoned bank, a city park dugout, and many other random places like a hobo
  • Backpacked through the White Mountains in New Hampshire
  • And the Green Mountains in Vermont
  • Hiked through Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee
  • Had lots of fun in random mountain towns drinking with trail friends
  • Hiked along the Housatonic River through Massachusetts and Connecticut
  • Then through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland
  • Slept under Jefferson Rock National Historic Landmark in West Virginia
  • Met my new friend Gregg (a.k.a Lightfoot)
  • Backpacked the length of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park during the peak of fall colors
  • And in the snow in Tenneesee and North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains
  • Encountered several black bears, a wild boar, and interesting mountain people
  • Fell in love with a new and exciting way of life
  • And a girl
  • Reached the AT's southern terminus in Georgia 183 days after leaving the northern terminus
  • I went back home for the holidays and recovered from injuries
  • Then I went to Kentucky to visit Sam and Liv on their family farm
  • I was lucky enough to convince Liv to quit her job and go on an 8,200-mile road trip on old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. After an early morning start on March 3rd we...
  • Toured Chicago, Illinois
  • Visited Lincoln’s Tomb and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site
  • Accidentally went into a gay bar in Springfield, Illinois
  • Saw numerous aging roadside statues, attractions, and museums
  • Played legendary games of pool in the bars of Tulsa, Oklahoma with a level of skill that we have never been able to repeat
  • Trespassed on private property, so we could sleep in an 80-foot concrete blue whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma
  • Hiked into Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States, near Amarillo, Texas
  • Found Billy the Kid's Grave
  • But found no aliens while in Roswell, New Mexico
  • Sled down bright white gypsum sand dunes in Southern New Mexico's White Sands National Monument
  • Tossed a football on a vacant desert road in Southern New Mexico, and car camped under a dark starry sky
  • Explored the caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Had to deal with the exhaust pipe falling off the car in a New Mexico ghost town in the middle of the night
  • Found a saloon next to a mechanic's shop in Magdelina, New Mexico who we hoped could fix it, so we played pool, drank beer all night, and then slept in the car. 
  • Drove with a loud muffler-less car to the Very Large Array Radio Telescopes near Socorro, New Mexico
  • Stared out into Arizona’s Painted Desert National Park
  • Hiked in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park
  • Climbed a volcanic crater in Arizona’s Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
  • Saw ancient ruins at the Wupatki Monument in Arizona
  • Watched the sunset while driving through the Mojave Desert in Southern California
  • Peered into the deep and magnificent Grand Canyon
  • Listened to Grand Canyon tourists mutter about "that crazy girl" (Liv) boulder scrambling so I could get a better picture of her
  • Lived in our car for a couple days in Southern California’s Slab City
  • Drove many miles in silence while Liv concentrated on writing an epic poem about the trip
  • Hiked around Joshua Tree National Park and climbed a mountain named Ryan
  • Arrived at the end of Route 66 on the Santa Monica Pier
  • Drove up the Pacific Coast Highway
  • Walked along the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur State Park
  • Had dinner with Liv’s sister in Monterrey, California who she hadn't seen in two years
  • Hiked on 3 feet of snow to see the world’s largest tree in California’s Sequoia National Park
  • And more giant trees in Kings Canyon National Park
  • Sat on the ground at the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level, in California’s Death Valley National Park
  • Backpacked in Utah’s Zion National Park and woke up with snow on our tents
  • Nervously watched Liv climb up rocks in Southern Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park without a rope, and had to have her rescue me when I got stuck in a “pothole”
  • Saw the rock formations in Utah’s Arches National Park
  • Then watched the sun set in Canyonlands National Park
  • Toured ancient cliff dwellings in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park
  • Climbed sand dunes in Colorado’s Great Sands National Park
  • Then, after regretfully taking Liv back home in Kentucky, I picked up my AT friend Red to hike Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail, from Massachusetts to Canada. 
  • But first I spent a few days in New York City to meet Red's friends and family 
  • Took a tour of Long Island's wine country
  • Then headed to the southern terminus of the Long Trail
  • Slept in stranger's homes and a college "social house" during pledge week, to get out of bad weather
  • Got a free night's stay and a steak dinner at a fancy lodge
  • Spent the night on a Big Lots department store loading dock
  • Arrived at the northern terminus of the Long Trail and stepped into Canada
  • Took Red home and went to visit Sam and Liv in Kentucky again, the closest thing to home these days
  • Backpacked in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
  • Then my second westward road trip began
  • I camped at Badlands National Park in South Dakota
  • Hiked around Devil’s Tower in Wyoming
  • Backpacked for five days along the Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming’s Great Teton National Park
  • Saw Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and many other amazing natural wonders in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park
  • Backpacked a 75-mile loop in Montana’s Glacier National Park
  • Circumnavigated Washington’s Mount Rainier on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail
  • Climbed Garfield Peak for a bird’s eye view of Oregon’s Crater Lake
  • Drove down the northern half of the Pacific Coast Highway that Liv and I didn't get to see
  • Hiked while staring up at the towering trees in California’s Redwood National Park
  • Cruised down the “Avenue of Giants” in Humboldt Redwoods State Park
  • Watched Pacific Ocean waves crash on several beaches along the highway
  • Drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
  • Visited Port Reyes National Seashore in California
  • Thru-hiked the 219-mile John Muir Trail. On that Trail, I....
  • Backpacked through Yosemite National Park
  • Sat by a campfire with a backdrop of a moonlit Half Dome
  • Then backpacked through Tuolumne Meadows
  • Then the Ansel Adams Wilderness
  • The John Muir Wilderness
  • And alongside Devil's Postpile National Monument
  • Got to hike with my AT friend, Lightfoot, again
  • Took a 30-mile side trip over Italy Pass to resupply in Bishop, California
  • Then backpacked through Kings Canyon National Park
  • And Sequoia National Park
  • Climbed above treelines and over mountain passes
  • Sometimes while the sun was setting
  • Once while lightning streaked through a dark anvil shaped storm cloud
  • Was brought nearly to tears from another mountain view
  • Never got tired of the miles or sleeping on the dirt
  • Summited Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Contiguous United States
  • Hitchhiked, for the couple-hundredth time, back to my car
  • On my drive back I stopped to see friends I wish I could see more often, then went back to see the girls in Kentucky, and family in Indiana
  • And finally… spent many nights wondering how I could ever go back to that old day-to-day life ever again
I experienced a lot in these sixteen months, but also learned a lot. About myself and about the country I call home. I didn't always like what I learned about myself, but the country never disappointed. People have asked me if I plan on venturing outside of the United States on my future trips. And I do, but I'm glad I took the time to see America first. Knowing what I know now, I'm relieved that I didn't let my life go by without seeing it up close, slowly and on foot. The only way to really see anything. 

I thought I knew the country before leaving home last year, but I really didn't. I know now that it is beautiful beyond imagination. And even though bad things occasionally happen, its citizens are overwhelmingly good and caring. The number of people who went out of their way to lend a hand, a ride, a home, or home-cooked meal, were too numerous to count. They were people that knew nothing of me other than I was dirty, smelly, unshaven, and probably hungry or tired. And it seemed that the less they had, the more they wanted to help.

Ignore the news. Ignore the partisan politicians that get us worked up over nothing like they’re starving pit bulls just to win a dogfight. Ignore people that want us to believe we are divided. I learned that my favorite people and places align with me the least politically, scientifically, or religiously.

Ignore overzealous preachers and doomsayers. Our country is far from evil. I have to believe that anyone who believes it is has not made much of an effort to really see it. Other than on a television screen, which is a lot like listening to a symphony on blown-out cellphone speakers then believing music is a dreadful thing.

I've learned a few other things in these sixteen months. I know that I don't need much to be happy. I could lose all my possessions and be alright, and possibly happier because of it. And I learned that no matter how many unknowns my future holds, or how daunting something can be, I know I can get through it and come out just fine on the other side.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in these sixteen months, is that you have to follow your bliss, whatever it may be. Life isn't permanent. I will continue to follow mine and continue to write about it.

I guess a better title for this post might be, "Sixteen Months of Wandering... and counting."


Our First Night in Andover

When we reached the summit of Old Blue Mountain, Red went to search for a cell phone signal. I found some exposed bedrock surrounded by spruce trees and laid down on my back. The sun warmed the bedrock all morning and now beamed in my eyes. I pulled my hat over my face. I was nearly asleep when I heard a familiar thump coming up the trail.

“I could hear those heavy boots of yours fifty yards away,” I said then put my hat on and sat up.

“That’s why they call me Thumper,” she said.

“Oh, so that’s why we call you that.”

Thumper loved her big Gortex boots that laced above her ankles. They must have weighed three pounds each, but she asserted that they would shield her from snakebites. Even though she was petite, the rugged boots matched her truer character, a kind of toughness or fortitude. By this point in the trip, both she and her boots seemed bulletproof.

Bambi reached the peak next, then moved on ahead. Her backpack, which always seemed to weigh as much as she did, disappeared into the pines, followed by Thumper then Red. We may have reached the summit before Bambi, but she was hard to catch on these steep descents.

Halfway down the mountain, the trees opened up to reveal the only sign of civilization for miles, a lonely stretch of road cutting through the dense trees in the valley. We needed a hitch to Andover to resupply, but the road looked seldom used.

I finally caught up to Bambi at the road. She was waiting by a car parked on the shoulder with the others.

“The day-hikers we passed said they would drive us to Andover,” she said.

This was great news. I loved spending night after night in the forest, but since we never had a plan, much less a reservation, the towns were always a mystery.

- - -

When I left home for Maine, I expected to spend most of my trip alone. Then I met Red on the bus to Bangor and we met the girls on our second day. We hit it off quickly.

I'm not a social person by nature. I've never been that great at making new friends and I rarely get close to anyone, but the trail's ability to attract like-minded people helped free me from that. We could gush about any aspect of the backpacking life and know we all understood each other. I miss that a lot, that connection with people. I imagine it's a lot like how those introverted Bigfoot enthusiasts feel when they walk into a Bigfoot Hunters Convention.

On the morning of that second day, before meeting the girls, we stopped to buy food at the Abol Bridge camp store, the final place to pick up supplies before entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness.

“You fellas heading to the Hurd Brook Shelter for the night?” an older hiker asked. The sixty-something man had one more day on the trail before finishing a multi-year section-hike of the entire AT.

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Red said.

“There are two cute girls from Kentucky staying there tonight,” he said with a grin. “When I saw them coming down the trail I thought it must be my birthday!”

I wouldn’t know until later that he was talking about two people I would share some of the greatest months of my life with. Two people that I would soon care about as much as any lifelong friend or family member. I can’t point to a single moment when I started to feel that way, but when I reflect back on it now, I think of a specific moment Andover.

- - -

When the day-hikers who offered to drive us into Andover got to the road, we piled our gear into their car’s hatchback and the four of us squeezed into the backseat. We hooked arms in case a door decided to pop open. When we told them we were hiking all the way to Georgia, they asked, “Why? Are you from the south?” They weren’t the first to ask us that, as though being from the south made sense of why we would hike a two-thousand mile trail through the Appalachian Mountains. It seemed like asking a skydiver, "So, why are you jumping out of this plane? Your house down there or something?"

They dropped us off in front of the Andover General Store. We thanked them for the hitch and offered the obligatory apology for the hiker smell. The small mountain town didn’t have much other than the general store, but that was enough. There was an ice cream stand next door. Inside were shelves lined with essential junk foods, coolers of soda, and a deli that served short-order foods. In the back sat a diner-style bar and a few tables topped with sweeteners for coffee and stacks of assorted jellies. A chalkboard advertised the triple cheeseburger with fries as the current special. In other words, every thru-hiker necessity.

We propped our packs against the back wall and sat at a table. I remarked about people asking if we were from the south and Thumper suggested that, while in Andover, we should start saying yes, in ridiculous southern accents. This prompted another trail name change. I went from Cam to Nathaniel Hawthorne III, a native of Tallahassee, but no relation to the literary giant. I don’t know why. The name just flowed off my tongue when I started speaking with that Tallahassee drawl.

While we waited for our server, we asked Thumper to tell us one of her folksy tales. As a proud Kentuckian, she used her best Southern Kentucky accent.

“Did I eva’ tell you we had a great grandma from far far away, in that uh, Switzer Land?” she said. “Well, I only met ‘er once, but she kind of just up and died on us a few years ago. It was real sad like, but I guess she hadda bit a money—

“It’s always sad when they die like that,” I said with what I hoped sounded like a Tallahassee drawl, but my knowledge of that accent came mostly from slick Florida politicians in movies and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

“Yeah 'specially when they just up, and die,” Red said.

“Right, when they up, and die.” I said.

“Yeah she just up, and died,” Thumper said. “She was the oldest woman around, so a’ course that made her the most important person in the village. So, they gave her the house on the highest hill.”

“How’d she git up and down that hill?” Red said.

“Well you know, all the youngins in the village,” she said. “They just carry her up on they backs.”

“Oh, o’course,” Red said. “I mean that's how we do it down in Mobile, Alabama. I shoulda jus’ assumed that's how they do it over in that ah, Switzer Land.”

“Well that Switzer Land is kinda mountainous, you know,” said Thumper. “So, I reckon it'd be a lot harder to do it over there rather’n ah… Alabama.”

“Whew, sounds like she's a talkin' trash about Mobile, Red.” I instigated.

“You're damn right,” Thumper said then looked at Red. “You're damn right.”

“Well down in Mobile,” Red said. “We hafta carry our old folks over crocodiles, so it’s uhh, quite dangerous. I had tah carry me one of them Arkansas toothpicks.”

“Now see, what's the difference b’tween alligators and crocodiles,” Thumper asked. “I thought y’all had gators down there.”

“They're the same thang,” I lied.

“Oh yeah?” she said, playing along.

“Yeah, they're exactly the same thang,”

“Good to know I can lay that question to rest. It’s just one less thing to think about, you know.”

We kept our accents for two or three days before one of us broke character. Even weeks after Andover, we slipped back into them involuntarily.

“I guess we’re prolly annoying the hell outta everyone around here,” Red said.

“I reckon you're right,” Bambi said. “But who cares?”

“Oh we prolly sound like a breath’a fresh air in here,” Thumper said.

“A breath’a fresh air indeed,” Red said. “Up here in Maine they prolly don’t get many folks like us. I mean, I’m from Mobile and we got Tallahassee over here."

“And good ol' Kentucky girls!” Bambi said.

“From good ol' Kentucky,” Thumper said and gave Bambi a high five over the table. “Woo! Home of bluegrass, bourbon, and horses!”

“That’s right, yee haw!” Bambi said.

“How you doin'?” Red said to the waiter who came over to set silverware wrapped in napkins on our table.

“Good, how you doing?” he said. “Where are you from?”

"I'm from Mobile,” Red said.

“Alabama?”

“Alabama.” Red said.

“You sound like it. It's been a long time since I've heard that one,” the waiter said. “It's a great accent.”

It must have been an incredibly long time if he thought Red’s accent sounded authentic. I thought his accent had more of a “mentally challenged New Yorker pretending to be from the south” sort of quality to it. When he talked to people with his accent, they seemed to be thinking, "I don't know what it is exactly, but this boy's not right."

“Thank ya,” Red said to the waiter.


After eating a table full of triple cheeseburgers and deep-fried foods, we began to wonder where we were going to sleep. We asked one of the servers if she knew of any places that wouldn’t lead to our eventual arrest. We thought maybe she would invite us over to her house. It wouldn’t be the first time such a trick worked for us. She just suggested a field up the road out of town, so we left without a plan.

Red stopped at the ice cream stand for dessert. We hung back to wait for him.

"Hey, Thumpah,” Bambi said. “Tell th’ story ‘bout that time th' cows got loose.”

"Alright, well, I was up in mah room on daddy's farm in mah purdy navy blue cotton dress," Thumper said. "An' all a sudden, daddy yells, 'Girls, git yo' shoes on!'"

Meanwhile, as Thumper told her story, a girl walked up to take Red’s ice cream order.

"You want that on a cone or in a cup," she asked.

"Can I git that on a plate?” Red asked. “I’m so'ry. I'm from Mobile. That's just how we do it in Mobile."

Her glared proved our assumption that we annoyed the hell out of everyone around us. I don’t know what her problem was. We thought we were hilarious.

After some awkward silence he said, "Cone, will be jus’ fine ma’am.”

"So there I was,” Thumper was saying. “In mah purdy navy blue cotton dress, tryin’ t'usher a two-thousand poun' heifer this-a-way into a barn,"

Then Red showed up with a tall soft serve ice cream cone covered in rainbow sprinkles. He took a huge bite out of the top.

"Boy, you'll be shittin' rainbows fo' a week!" Thumper said.


Our search for a place to sleep wasn’t as successful as it had been in other towns. We walked up the road out of town, but couldn’t get a hitch back to the trail. We cut through the field our server told us about to get to a patch of trees on the other side. We picked wildflowers to garnish our hair, just because, and suddenly we were dive bombed by mosquitoes. After a few minutes of relentless biting, we gave up on that area and walked back into town.

The sun set as we strolled between rows of houses. I’m not sure what we thought would happen. Maybe we would start a conversation with someone taking out their trash and they would invite us into their home for the night. Or perhaps we'd find an abandoned building to crawl into like wild raccoons.

Under a full moon sky full of stars, we stopped at a city park that consisted of a baseball diamond, an old metal swing set, and a wooden playset with a plastic yellow slide. We stared up at the rainbow-colored canvas roof above the slide and contemplated squeezing together on the four foot square platform.

“That can be plan B,” I said.

“How ‘bout that’s plan F,” Thumper said.

I looked across the baseball field. “Hey look, there’s plan A,” I said and pointed to two dugouts. “They look like lean-tos to me.”

We walked across the baseball diamond to the dugout least visible from the road. We dropped our packs as if we were planting flags in newly claimed territory.

"If the police come, everyone pretend to be asleep,” I said. “And when they wake us up just say ‘Where’d everybody go? We was just waitin' for our turn at bat, officer. Musta fallen asleep.’”

We lined up along the bench happy to have found a home. The full moon lit up the baseball field in front of us. We chatted in southern accents while passing around a plastic soda bottle full of whiskey.

“I think I’m gonna hafta get off the trail for one of them root canals,” I said while tonguing the tooth I chipped a few days before. I took a sip of whiskey and handed the bottle to Red. “Watch them screw up a nerve and one half of my face gets all droopy?”

"Well I guess we’ll hafta change yo’ trail name to Two-Face." Thumper said.

“People would be like, 'so why do they call you uhh...', then they'll glance up at my half-slacked face, quickly look down at their feet, and say, ‘uhh, why do they call you Two-Face?'"

“Hah, that’s a belly-rumblin' knee slapper right there,” Thumper said and took the bottle Red handed her.

"Man, I would do anything for a joint right now," Red said.

"Oh yeah? Would ya wrestle a bear?" Thumper said.

"Would y’usher a two-thousand poun' heifer into a barn?" Bambi said.

We started to unwind, but we weren’t ready for sleep. At one in the morning, I invited Thumper onto the field for a game of invisible softball.

“How do ya play invisible softball?” she asked.

“Well, it’s just like regular softball, ‘cept we don’t have any ah them bats, balls, or gloves,” I said.

I jogged to the pitcher’s mound. Thumper was first at bat. I held the invisible softball up to my face with both hands, and peered over at Thumper taking a couple practice swings. I nodded at my invisible catcher then whirled the ball around and threw it underhand toward home plate.

The second invisible softball game the next morning
Thumper swung the invisible bat and cracked the invisible ball deep into center field. I sprinted after it. Thumper ran toward first. I reached down to snag the ball, fumbled it a bit, and saw Thumper rounding first toward second base. I bolted to tag her out. It would be close. Thumper slid boots first into the base. I looked at the invisible umpire, a portly man with chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip, I assume.

“Safe!” he yelled. Actually, I yelled.

“Oh come on, ump!” I protested.

Thumper stood up triumphant, but looked down at red lines scratched into her leg. That intensity would eventually lead her to the first invisible softball victory in history.

A car engine rumbled. Our heads snapped toward the sound and we saw headlights coming down the road.

“Get down!” I said. We dropped to the ground and laid flat on our stomachs in dewy grass mixed with baseball diamond gravel. The car parked in front of a house across the street. The driver turned off his engine then headed inside.

“Alright, now don’t move,” I whispered. “Their vision’s based on movement.”

We stood up and brushed off tiny bits of gravel that clung to our skin. After my turn at bat, Red and Bambi finally understood the glory of invisible softball and walked out onto the field. Red joined my team in the outfield, Bambi joined Thumper's and got up to bat.

Bambi hit a long drive deep into right field. Red sprinted toward the fence, leaped into the air to catch the invisible ball then slammed into the fence. But it was too high for him to catch it. The girls won.

After our defeat, we headed back to the dugout.

I pulled out my journal to jot down all the memories for the day I didn't want to forget. When I finished I took the liberty of using my pen to write, “I heart Cam,” onto Bambi’s leg. On mine, she drew a smiling sun rising behind a fluffy cloud that read, “I heart Bambi.” Then she drew a fox in a tuxedo with a top hat and cane, and then a tree and mountains in the background. Thumper sat on my other side to watch Bambi create her masterpiece. By the time she finished I had a collage of random trail-related drawings covering my right leg.

By three in the morning, we were understandably exhausted and the dugout grew silent. The girls rested their heads on my shoulders and I put my arms around them.

“Nathaniel?” Thumper said. “Tell us about life in Tallahassee.”

“Well dah-lin’, let me tell ya. Life moves a little slower down in Tallahassee. With my granddaddy’s lemonade fortune--Wait, did you know my granddaddy was the great lemonade baron of the 1920s?”

"We surely did."
The dugout in the morning

"Well, with all that lemonade money, we never had to do mucha anythang. We just sat in our rockin' chairs, on our front porch, sippin’ that ice cold Tallahassee-style lemonade."

“That sounds nice.”

“Oh it was,” I said.

We sat huddled together like that for a while. Above the baseball field, clouds drifted under the bright full moon. We stared at them hypnotically until we were almost asleep. As I said earlier, I can't point to a single moment when the girls became like family to me, but when I reflect back on it now, I think of this specific moment in Andover. 

  
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Trail Names

“What’s your name?” a guy at the 501 shelter asked.

“You want my real name or trail name?” I said. Trail name would have been implied if he was a thru-hiker, but he wasn’t backpacking, so I wasn’t sure if he would even know what a trail name was. 

Inside the 501 Shelter
Nobody really knows how the trail name tradition started on the Appalachian Trail. A pseudonym is common for hobos, or if you prefer: drifters, gypsies, nomads, vagabonds, wanderers, or tramps. It doesn’t matter to me what you call it, I’ll still romanticize the lifestyle all the same. I imagine the first AT thru-hikers also romanticized that life, so the tradition seems to have carried over. 

“Trail name,” he said. 

I deepened my voice slightly, held out my hand to shake his, and said, “Nancy Drew.” It’s important to lower your voice a little before saying something like that. 

Let me go back a couple of months and explain...

Red was always a faster hiker than me, but I could usually keep up. That is, if I wasn't taking photos. If you’ve read my blog or seen my Flickr page, you know I take lots of pictures. Since this habit slowed me down, Red gave me the trail name, Cam. A.K.A The Cameraman, or as Thumper and Sixgun would sometimes call me, Cam Cam the Cameraman.

I never liked the name Cam. Everyone assumed my real name was Cameron, and I wanted a name with a good backstory. One day, I told the group that I was going to just come up with a different name whenever someone asked for it. I gave them the responsibility to come up with the backstory on the spot if anyone ever asked, “Why do they call you that?” 

For example, someone asked me for my trail name after I chipped my tooth on a piece of candy. 

“Chip Drifter, D.D.S.,” was my reply. 

“He’s actually a dentist in his spare time,” Thumper said. 

“Well, I’m not a licensed dentist, but I dabble,” I said. 

It became a pretty fun game, so frequently changing names became our thing. One day, Red said he was going to use the trail name, “Whoopie Goldberg”.

“No wait, how about Sister Act, instead,” he said. “No, Sister Act 3, because there isn’t a Sister Act 3 yet,” he said. 

“There’s a Sister Act 2?” I asked. 

“Yeah man, it’s only the greatest film of all time. The Godfather, Citizen Kane, they have nothing on The Acts,” as he called them. “Seeing it for the first time was like looking into the eyes of God! Right then I knew I’d never be the same.” Actually Red didn't say any of the stuff in this paragraph. I just thought it would be funny to immortalize him (as much as a blog with a small number of readers can) as the world’s biggest fan of the Sister Act franchise.

Later, when a hiker introduced herself to Red, he said his name was Sister Act 3. I had a backstory ready to go. 

“Why do they call you that?” she asked. 

“Oh, he’s out here to write a screenplay.” 

We later found out the person not only believed us, but told other hikers that there was a guy on the trail writing the screenplay for Sister Act 3. Stories travel fast out here. 

Don’t let Red’s thick New York accent fool you. I would regularly get to a mountaintop and see him already there sitting on a rock singing bluegrass. He’d be swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed and an enormous grin on his face, like a white ginger Stevie Wonder. On a day someone would meet him on the trail for the first time, they might just assume it was on the best day of his life. He was always in a good mood, which made him a great person to hike with. So when his cell phone rang while we were sitting on a mountaintop, the girls and I were shocked to see him look down at the caller ID and say, “I’m going to take this over there. There might be some yelling.” 

He walked off and we looked at each other. “Yelling? Can either of you picture Red yelling?” 

“Cam, you need to find out what that’s all about,” Thumper said. 

“Alright, I’m on it,” I said. “It will give me a chance to show off my Nancy Drew skills.” 

When Red came back, I did just that. “So, Red, what was that all about?” That was all I had to say. He simply told us. 

“Alright, mystery solved. What do you guys think of my Nancy Drew skills?” I said. I don’t remember what they said next, but obviously they were impressed. How could they not be? “I guess you can start calling me Nancy Drew,” I said. And so they did. 

I went through many names: Cam, Bella Funk, Nathaniel Hawthorn III, Jackson Five, Diane Keaton, The Messiah, The Voice of Reason, Magnitude, U-turn, Quiet Thunder, and perhaps the second most frequently used name, That Guy Hiking with the Sisters from Kentucky. The name Nancy Drew, however, spread beyond my control. It made people laugh. Whether it was with me or at me, I didn't care. A few weeks later, a northbounder introduced himself. I couldn’t think of a new name fast enough, so I deepened my voice slightly and said, “How you doing? I’m Nancy Drew.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about you!” he said. 

Oh no, I thought. Once thru-hikers start talking about a guy named Nancy Drew when you’re not even around, your kind of stuck with it. The name was a lot more popular than I would ever be.

So, it’s a couple months later and I’m at the 501 shelter in Pennsylvania. I didn’t plan on staying there that night, but it was one of the few shelters close enough to civilization for pizza delivery. Also, there were lots of women camping there. It’s not what you are thinking, unfortunately. They turned out to be lesbians. That is, except for one couple. When I told the guy my trail name was Nancy Drew the girls all looked at him. 

This wasn't the reaction I expected. Sometimes, especially when I got further south, I got mixed reactions to the name. There were less laughs and more awkward silences. I was told I might have to be careful in the south with a name like that. People might draw their own conclusions about me. One guy actually said, "Ahh, you gotta change that, man." If I was talking to someone who I thought might have an uneasy reaction to a guy calling himself Nancy Drew, I would sometimes introduce myself as, Nancy Fucking Drew, and strengthen my hand shake. It was sort of a survival reflex. You can't be too careful.

The reaction at the 501 shelter was unique though. They were all laughing and looking at him instead of me. 

“Oh man, are you a fan of the books too!?” he said. I’m willing to bet he was the only twenty-six year old male to have ever said that.  He probably thought for a moment, See, you guys, I'm not the only one!

“No, actually I've never read any,” I said.

“My favorite thing about Nancy Drew,” he went on enthusiastically, “Is that when she was working on a case and needed to clear her head, she’d go to the mall. Also, I liked that she always ended up catching a truly bad guy. It was never just the owner of a haunted carnival that stole some treasure or something; it was like a guy that beat his wife.”

That evening, we all sat around a campfire while one of the girls played Ani Difranco, Melissa Etheridge, and Indigo Girls songs on her guitar. As it turns out, my musical taste is not unlike a young lesbian woman’s, because I knew the lyrics of most of those songs and sang with them. They gave me a few cans of PBR and a couple shots of whiskey. The next morning, they made me a breakfast burrito. I was glad I decided to stay.

A few days later, I was sitting in the pub at the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. A hiker, who I had passed a few days before, walked in. 

“Hey, you caught up,” I said. “So, how’s the hike going?“ 

“I was miserable. I’m done hiking," she said. "I hitched from the 501 shelter to here. Hey, did you know that after your entry in the 501 shelter log book, someone wrote, ‘We loved Nancy Drew!’” 

It made me feel good. Now that Nancy Drew had fans, I couldn't think about changing my name again. And I never did.
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Thoughts About Death and Fun-size Candy Bars

(Photo: McAfee Knob, Virginia)
“Five people have died on the Appalachian Trail this year, did you know that?” a day-hiker asked me. He was hiking with his daughter to McAfee Knob in Virginia. I popped one of the fun-size Snickers bars that he gave me into my mouth and said, “hmm-umm.” 

“Yeah, I believe one had a heart attack. Another died in his sleep. I think it might have been one of those, what do you call it?" He looked down for a moment to think then said, "A brain aneurysm or something. Then there was a guy that slipped and fell in Maine. He died. Another guy had a stroke just twenty miles from finishing his thru-hike. The one everyone is talking about right now, though, is the hiker from Indiana that was beaten to death.” 

It's strange to imagine me as the Hoosier in that last headline, but this didn't make me feel any less safe. The Appalachian Trail is 2,181 miles long. It covers more square miles than most cities and millions walk on it every year. It would be amazing if nobody ever died on it. Besides, I know the stories that spread the fastest are about the rarest of incidents. Nobody bothers to say, "hey did I ever tell you about that hiker I never met that nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to?" And nobody ever clamored to get the movie rights from that hiker that didn't have to cut off his own arm.


Actually, a lot of day-hikers carried on about things that scared them about a thru-hike, like murderers and murdering. The thru-hikers, however, rarely talked about it. They spent far more time talking about how “fun-size” Snickers are actually less fun. Maybe this is what makes thru-hikers unique. I mean, to suggest that the fun in a Snickers bar is, somehow, not relative to its net weight... sorry, before I get all worked up I'll get back on topic...

“Have you ever heard of Randall Lee Smith?” he said. 

“Well, given our topic, and since you used his middle name, I suspect that he killed some people?”

“Yeah, in the early eighties," he said. "He shot two AT hikers near Pearisburg."

“Hmm, I’m two days away from Pearisburg,” I thought. 

“He went up to an AT shelter just outside of town with a shotgun. He shot one, then the other,” he said. “He went to prison for a few years, but got out on parole. Then in 2006, two fishermen were shot near the same spot near Pearisburg. A few days later, the police took Smith back into custody after he crashed a pickup truck that belonged to one of the two fishermen.” 

I don't know why he decided to tell this to someone who was thru-hiking. It almost seemed like he wanted to try to scare me or get me to question hiking the trail in the first place. I reached back to grab another one of those Snickers from the side pocket of my backpack. I suppose he was probably just looking out for me, to keep me on guard. I just refuse to believe that a man passing out free candy could have an ounce of menace in his heart. It’s surprising I made it into adulthood.

“Well, he went back to prison,” he continued. “And this time, he never got out. He died in there. If you ask me, he was murdered, but nobody really knows what happened to him.” 

When we were on the trail in Maine, Thumper asked me what my number one fear was. 

“Speaking in public probably, or dying,” I said. “Probably more the dying one than the speaking in public one.” 

I know I’m not the only one to have some anxiety about the inevitability of death. Unlike many people, however, I’ve never professed to know with any certainty that our consciousness continues after our brains die. Rarely, but on occasion, a thought would enter my mind that what I experience after death will be exactly like what I experienced before I was born. A lot of nothing. That idea could be almost paralyzing if I let it float around my mind for too long. 

I hadn’t thought about it much while hiking, but somewhere along the trail, the thought of death crept back into my brain. Actually, I remember the exact moment. I was in a shelter near Pearisburg, Virginia.

- - -

As the year progressed, the days became shorter. This meant more hiking at night to get the needed miles. I decided to stop for the night at one of the many three-walled shelters along the trail. I shined my headlamp inside. It was empty. I did what I normally did when I finished my day at a shelter. Before anything else, I sat down and made dinner. Actually, I typically shoved a honey bun into my mouth and then made dinner. 

I sat with my feet hanging over the side of the shelter and ate as I stared out at the dark moonlit woods. A flowing stream prevented a total silence. When I finished eating, I hung my food bag above the shelter floor away from rodents. Soon, I was wrapped snug in my sleeping bag and ready for bed.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I saw a yellow glow bob out of the shadowy trees. It was a man wearing a headlamp. There was a rifle in his hands. He walked across the front of the shelter. I tensed up. It happened too quickly to do anything, even if I wasn't constrained in my sleeping bag. Neither fight nor flight were options on the table. 

He turned and looked at me as he passed. His headlamp shined in my eyes. I said, “Hello,” because, you know, there’s no reason to be uncivilized. 

“How you doin’?” he replied and kept walking.

“I’m doing great, thanks, how about you?” I said, trailing off toward the end of my question as he walked out of earshot. 

It takes slightly longer to rationalize that a man walking down a trail at night with a gun is probably a hunter getting out of the woods late, than it takes to deem him a shotgun brandishing lunatic. I suppose there is some evolutionary survival value in that, so even though it only took a second to assume I wasn’t in danger, a part of me prepared for the worst. 

What would I have done if he was some kind of Randall Lee Smith copycat heading into the woods near Pearisburg with a shotgun over his shoulder? In that short amount of time, the only thing I could have done is roll back and forth in my sleeping bag like some carnival game duck with a target on its belly. Even if this was a cartoon, there wasn’t even enough time to plug the hole of the shotgun's barrel with my index finger. 

When he was gone, and I felt safe enough to consider falling asleep, I reflected about death again. I've heard people say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I think you'll find an equal number of completely confident believers in there with them. In the face of death, it wouldn't surprise me if most of the people in foxholes, regardless of their prior beliefs, are suddenly agnostic. I couldn't help but think, what if that man's sudden presence would have been followed by a bang and then dreamless sleep for eternity? Why should it be any different from the unconscious eons before I was born? Perhaps the more interesting question was, why didn't these thoughts freak me out like they have before? 

Of course, it should go without saying that I don't want to die, but there is a difference between not wanting to die and actually fearing death.While living the free and simple life on the trail, I came to accept this particular inevitability. At least to a point where I don't dwell on it anymore. I thought more about the misnomer "fun-size" than I did about murderers, falls, aneurysms, or bears. And it seemed, the other thru-hikers did as well. I think it's because my fear of death was largely a fear of never living the life I always dreamed of living. I was doing what I loved, I would continue to do what I loved for as long as I can, and que sera sera.

So, I've never been able to alleviate the fear of death by convincing myself that there is an afterlife, but does anyone really? I learned, however, that I didn’t need to. I just needed to live this life.

And as for my fear of public speaking... yeah, I don't see ever getting over that one.

  
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Florida Trail Update

If you've been following my blog, you may be wondering why I’m not back on the trail yet. I can assure you I’m desperate to get back. I have all my Florida Trail maps and I’m officially a card-carrying member of the Florida Trail Association, but I have to let my sore left leg heal before I can think about hiking again.

Many people have asked me how I injured it. It’s not due to a single accident, so I usually just say, “Well, I’m thirty-three and I just hiked 2,200 miles.” I’m hoping it’s just a torn muscle that will heal soon, since hiking 15-25 miles a day is the only plan I had for the next couple years. Meanwhile, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac and it’s not improving, so I worry it may be something worse than a torn muscle.

I’ve been a bit lazy lately, sitting on a couch with ice on my leg and popping anti-inflammatories, but since my mind is still very much occupied by my AT hike, and since I still can’t have a conversation with someone for more than two minutes without talking about it, I decided I’ll use this downtime to post more photos, thoughts, and stories about the trail. 

Like I said, I’m desperate to get back. My sister can attest to this by our recent trip to a Dollar General store. While she was shopping, I walked over to the food section. Not to buy food, but to be reminded of the Appalachian Trail. These stores were common in the south and I did a lot of my resupply there. I did so many resupplies in Dollar General Stores that I got tired of eating the same foods. Now I see those familiar packages with a feeling not unlike homesickness.

“Hello, apple pies with real fruit filling,” I thought. “How do you do, generic peanut butter and jelly in the same jar? And you, I could never forget you,” I picked up an oversized honey bun buried in a thick layer of chocolate icing, seven-hundred glorious calories for a mere fifty cents. “Greetings, old friend. It’s wonderful to see you again.”

Not that it has been proven clinically or anything, but I can assure you, I’m not crazy. I just miss the trail. How sad is it that I stared sentimentally at a god damn honey bun. I actually stopped to imagine I was just in some small unfamiliar Virginia town doing another resupply. I’d walk through those doors and rather than see the town I was so eager to leave months ago, there would be mountains forming the horizon. I’d walk down the road toward an AT trailhead with a backpack full of junk food and my thumb out, hoping for a hitch.

I’m writing this from our local McDonald’s. Sadly, my appetite is as ferocious as it was on the trail, but sitting on a couch with ice on my leg burns far fewer calories than hiking up mountains all day. I can already tell I’m gaining back some weight. 

I just stopped typing for a minute and caught myself daydreaming while staring through a little paper cup of ketchup. My mind inhabited by a fond McDonald’s memory. 

It’s August and I’m in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Thumper and Sixgun took a few days off to visit their parents. I waited for them to catch up in Lincoln. When they got to town, I was in a McDonald’s chatting with a woman who was traveling around the country in an RV. They burst through the doors. 

“Cam!” they yelled. Cam being the trail name given to me by Red on the second day of the hike, the day I met the girls. We crashed into a group hug in the crowded restaurant. Those few seconds, and the two days we spent in Lincoln afterwards, are some of my happiest trail memories.

It seems I can't go anywhere without something reminding me of the trail. I’m having another Dollar General moment and imagining this is a McDonald’s in a random Appalachian Mountain town. The girls would walk over with their tray of food anytime now. Soon they would have playing cards fanned out in front of them to continue our two-month-long game of Rummy. Unfortunately, the reality is that I’m sitting by myself in a McDonald’s. I have a sore leg I can’t hike on. I’m just staring blankly through a little paper cup of ketchup while rain distorts the view of an all too familiar town out the window.

While I’ve been back, inactive and waiting, the blues continue to accumulate as quickly as the pounds. I'm not a fan of sitting around and doing nothing. I'm not a fan of carbon-copy days. I need this leg to heal. I need to get to Florida.

Thoughts from Civilization

I loitered all alone on the summit of Springer well after Footwork left. The fog subdued the sunlight and concealed the view. Sounds were reduced to only the patter of rain. The combination of these things gave me a greater and much appreciated feeling of isolation. With the strong emotion I felt, I needed the alone time.

I sat on the southern terminus marker and flipped through the log books. It made me smile whenever I saw the name of a friend I met along the way who also made it to Springer. Most notably, Deckeye, Witticism, JTT, Right-Click, Lightfoot, Sponge, and Splake.

Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall
east of the Mississippi
It took a while to get myself to leave the summit. The realization that there would be no more white blazes to lead the way depressed me a little. When I finally left, I began to feel the post-hike blues. I'll be getting back on a trail before too long, but the AT is a unique experience. I was looking forward to seeing everyone back home, though, and spending a couple idle weeks out of the cold and rain. Not to mention eating massive amounts of holiday food.

 Pennsylvania
I hiked the nine miles down Springer to Amicalola Falls State Park. My cousin, aunt, and nephew drove the ten hours from Indiana to meet me there. Before getting into their clean vehicle, I asked a park ranger to direct me to a camp shower where I could wash away my hobo aroma. My sister sent along some of my old clothes for me to change into. After lathering, rinsing, and repeating, I slipped on my old jeans without needing to unbutton them first. I walked out of the showers and showed my nephew how baggy they had become.

Virginia
“Hey, check this out,” I said as I pulled my loose-fitting waistband away from my waist with my thumb. “I could fit Jared from Subway in these pants with me! Or, you know, something less weird of equal or lesser size.” 

Tennessee
During the ride home and the following weeks, I found it difficult to talk about anything but the trail. I decided to take advantage of this time when everyone wants to hear trail stories, because I’m sure people will get tired of hearing them long before I’m tired of telling them. Whenever there was a break in conversation, I often jumped in with a sentence that contained the words, “when I was on the trail.” 

New Hampshire
After ten hours on the road, I was back to where I left six long months ago. It’s incredible how efficient cars are at moving you around. For a measly three bucks in gas and half of an hour, I can cross a day’s hiking distance, even with hundreds of pounds of extra gear. Gas prices could double and it would still be an extraordinary deal. That's just one of the many things I see differently now.

Big Hump Mountain
The first night back in my hometown, my brother-in-law and I went to his bar. He let me have all the free celebratory drinks I wanted. I sipped on whiskey and drank shots of whatever the bartender brought over. A guy with a full beard walked in and sat at the table next to me. My instinct was to ask, “You thru-hiking? North or southbound?" but sadly, those words would have had no meaning here. I tried starting a conversation with a couple people, but I seemed to have lost my ability to talk to non-hiking strangers, unless I’m talking about the trail. My mind is still consumed with the AT. What else is there to talk about? 

The view from a hot tub
 in Rangeley, ME
The hangover the following morning made me regret drinking over a half bottle of whiskey. It reminds me of the hangover I had “when I was on the trail...”

It was five months ago, a woman in Rangeley, Maine invited us to stay in her beautiful lake house. We weren't the only people she's had over. She had photos on her walls of some others who have stayed in her home: Bill Clinton, Shaquille O'Neal, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore, to name a few. She had a wonderful photo of Barack Obama playing peak-a-boo with her granddaughter. She has lead quite an amazing life. Bambi and I got to hear all about it while relaxing with her in her outdoor hot tub under a bright full moon. When I got too warm, I jumped into the clear cool lake.

North Carolina
Red made a huge dinner that night on her outdoor brick grill. She opened up six bottles of wine, two of which I drank myself. The next morning I woke up early and walked back out to the lake. I couldn't see to the shore on the other side because the fog condensed my visibility to a few dozen feet around me. That also meant nobody could see me. I walked to the end of the pier. It was a little chilly, so I didn't plan on swimming. I didn't even put on shorts to swim in. I stripped down and dropped into the water. While I acclimated to the cold, two loons swam out of the fog toward me. They were so close that I could see their necks palpitate when they sang their infamous undulating song. I've never seen loons get that close to someone. 

McAfee Knob
The Last White Blaze
All that wine the night before gave me a bad hangover like the one I got from the free whiskey I drank in my brother-in-law's bar. The point in telling you this story right now is so you can see how all my thoughts lead to a trail story. Everything reminds me of the trail, and I reflect sentimentally about all of it, even a splitting headache with nausea.

The First White Blaze
After leaving the bar, I slept on the floor of my sister’s house. There was a perfectly good couch a few feet away, but I couldn’t fall asleep until I grabbed my sleeping bag and moved to the floor. I guess I’ve gotten used to the ground. I woke up the next morning and took my third consecutive daily shower. I haven’t had a streak like that in months. I understand the need for it in civilized life, but it almost seemed excessive. By trail standards, I’m already satisfactorily clean if I can step into a shower and not see a trail of dirty water circling the drain at my feet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very fond of cleanliness, but I kind of miss not caring about getting dirty. I smell like soap for god’s sake. Clean, fragrant, soap, like a common day-hiker! 

If I didn’t already have plans to get back on a trail, I think I would feel completely lost right now. I got used to letting white blazes tell me where to go next. I miss having my course so clearly laid out before me, with no decision-making, stress, or anxiety about what I should be doing next.

I also miss the simplicity of living outdoors with my possessions limited to what will fit in a twenty-five pound backpack. I would love to sleep in a lean-to tonight, fully enveloped by natural sounds and cerulean moonlight, even if it had mice scuttling around. Actually, especially if it had mice scuttling around for reasons I don't think I could explain. I want to go back to when each day meant new mountains to climb, new towns to explore, and new people to meet. I want to see all my trail friends again. I want to wake up every morning with purpose and that unquestionable confidence that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. 

The only thing that seems to diminish the post-hike blues is planning and thinking about my hike to Florida. I wonder if I should or could ever go back to life as it was.

I know it has only been a few days, but I believe the trail has changed me forever, and for the better. It seems living so simply for so long has ruined me for the traditional modern life, but I'm fine with that. I see people getting stressed so easily, and needlessly. I've been reminded of that dread of having to get out of bed to start another day of unsatisfying labor, to buy things that I've learned I don't really need. I don’t want to go back to that life. I have to believe there is a better way. 

Maine
I know living how I have for the past six months is ultimately unsustainable, both financially and physically, but I have to keep it going for as long as I can. I have to because since getting back home, I've begun to feel like I'm losing the thing I love most about the Appalachian Trail.
The feeling of knowing, beyond any doubt, that I’m living my life in a way that is worthy of life itself.

- - -

One last thing before I end this post. I've been thinking about a poem Footwork read to me one morning in the Smokies. Good or bad, depending on your interpretation, I feel that in some ways I'm becoming one of the men it describes. It is called, The Men Who Don't Fit In, by Robert W. Service:

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance; 
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha!  He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone; 
He's a man who won't fit in.



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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Amazon Kindle Review, For Backpackers

I should start by saying; I’m not generally a fan of gadgets on the trail. That being said, on the Appalachian Trail, I had a few. On long distance hikes, a little distraction can go a long way. The one gadget I have begun to take on every trip, however, is my Kindle. It has become my most favorite, non-essential, item that I carry.

Below, you’ll find my review of the Kindle as it pertains to backpacking. I have also included links to various handy resources you may want to have on your e-reader of choice, when on the trail.

So, why is the Kindle my favorite non-essential item?

1 – It shaves ounces from my pack
I can carry hundreds of books and it will never weigh more than 8.5 ounces (9.5 oz. with my homemade protective sleeve, see below). Before the kindle I normally packed two books for a one-week trip, which weighed about 12-13 oz. Also, I will often pick up a new paperback before heading out, and just not get into it, so it just becomes dead weight. With an ebook reader, I can take anything I think I may want to read, and purchase new books along the way, without worrying about the weight.

Not only do I carry dozens of books, but also hiking-related reference books and documents that I created myself, that I would never carry with me including: 
  • Wilderness survival books and quick reference guides
  • First aid guides and emergency phone numbers
  • Town and Backup Trail Maps
    • An ebook reader doesn’t replace the need of a good paper map, of course, but can be used for a backup trail map. These maps can also cover areas you doubt you will need, such as towns and side trails that could be needed in emergencies or resupply. Saving screenshots of Google Maps as PDFs (see below) and syncing them to the Kindle can be very useful.
    • On the Appalachian Trail, I purchased Awol’s loose-leaf AT Guide and scanned it into a PDF file for the Kindle. I kept the pages I would need for a section of trail in my pocket, and put the ones I didn't need in a bounce box that I sent to the post office in my next resupply town. On several occasions it came in handy to have the entire book on the Kindle.
  • Keep information on airports, taxi and shuttle services, and Bus and Train stations. Such as phone numbers, addresses, and schedules. 
  • Miscellaneous backpacking notes, documents, or spreadsheets
    • For example, instructions for tying useful knots, wildlife and plant field guides, tips for predicting weather, or information on what plants or berries can be safely eaten. 
To easily create PDFs, you can download the free PDF creator, Cute PDF. After installing, simply print the document and select the CutePDF Printer to save the file as a PDF.

2 - Battery Life
One reason I’m not a fan of gadgets on the trail, is batteries. The kindle will last up to three or four weeks on a single charge, if wi-fi is turned off. Two weeks is a good estimate if you are a heavy reader and use the kindle for note taking or playing a game.

The e-ink display on the kindle, will only use the battery when you turn a page, or when the screen refreshes while typing or using an app. This means, when I fall asleep in the middle of reading, it won’t drain the battery. Also, when I wake back up it will be on the same page I was reading. 



If longer battery life is needed, I also carried a USB charger (.883 ounces) with two lithium AA batteries (1.06 ounces) that I used for an emergency backup for my cell phone, or if I needed it, to get another couple weeks of power for my kindle.

3 – FREE Internet Access
Free, as in Amazon does not charge you to connect to their 3G network (note: All Kindle's allow you to connect to wi-fi, but to use Amazon's free 3G service, a 3G capable Kindle must be purchased.)  You can't watch videos or visit flash web sites, and the browser on the kindle is a pain to use. But, that is a good thing, in my opinion. I don’t want to be tempted to browse the internet on the trail, or have access to a million apps. It does come in handy, however, if you are able to get a cell signal and want to check the weather, trail conditions, or read trail journals of other people on the trail. It's also handy if you’re nearing a town and want to know what stores, restaurants, or hotels are available, or make reservations. I can also email friends and family. If nothing else, it’s nice to know you have a way to search for phone numbers of business, taxis, or emergency services.

If the kindle ever becomes a better internet browsing tool, I may have to stop carrying it. I don't want the distraction. As it is now, its perfect. Annoying enough to use, so that I only use it when I have a good reason.

4 - The Kindle Store
When in cell phone range, you can access more books, or books about a specific topic you may only have thought about while on the trail. For example, when hiking in Yosemite, I was inspired to read the writings of John Muir. Or, I could have gotten a book about the park in general. It was also nice to be able to download something new to read while sitting in a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, without having to wait for the next resupply town.

5 - Cost
The cheapest Kindle is currently only $79 with wi-fi only. I prefer the $139 3G model with a keyboard (for note taking). The extra $60 is worth it to me to have the unlimited free 3G service, since wi-fi is useless on the trail.

Special Care
The only real downside to the Kindle or any other ebook reader is that they requires special care that books don’t. I found an inexpensive way to protect my Kindle that has survived 2,400 miles of hiking and cramming it in and out of a backpack a couple hundred times. I cut a blue foam mat to torso length and used the excess to make a cheap case. I put my Kindle in a zip-top bag to waterproof it, and slip it into the foam case. I've dropped it a few times without problems. In the zip-top bag, I've dripped water on it and handled it with greasy fingers while I'm eating and it still looks brand new.

I could say much more, but this is strictly a review of Amazon’s Kindle as it relates to hiking, camping, and backpacking. For more specs, and demonstrations of how it works, please visit the Kindle page on Amazon.com.
   
Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Yosemite, Part Ten
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 10 
Back Home
Go to Part: 12345678910

The bus zoomed out of Yosemite Valley on curvy narrow roads. I was in the back with my head against the window. Boulders and cliff walls zipped by, sometimes only a few feet from my face. Tree branches growing over the road whacked at my eyes behind the thin pane of glass. I sat unflinching, thinking about the months that would follow. My next excursion was a long gray winter away and I was consumed by wanderlust.

Returning home from my last few trips have been met with prolonged feelings of anxiety. Feelings that stem from knowing there was something I needed to do, but I was not doing it. I knew I needed to leave Indiana, at least for a while. Well, not just Indiana, everything. It’s not the first time I felt this way, but I have always managed to convince myself to take the easier path instead, to always side with the comfortable and the familiar. But no matter how good that can be, it is no substitute for adventure and the thrill of the unknown.

Outside the window, the granite terrain of the Yosemite Valley merged into less dramatic rolling hills, the color of California sun-bleached hair.

Since the time my grandpa told me about a lawyer who quit his job to hike the Appalachian Trail, I dreamed of living my own simple nomadic life. All morning, I thought of the two hikers I met yesterday on their trip of a lifetime. They were doing it, and they seemed okay. Why did I always squelch these desires? They too were consumed by wanderlust, but they didn’t struggle with it. They ran with it. 

I have tried to satisfy this feeling with weeklong journeys into the woods, but rather than quench these feelings, they have only served to embolden them. 

The two hikers, or at least the version of them I built up in my head, weren’t waiting for some external thing to happen to set them in motion. Nor were they waiting for someone else to lead them. 

- - - 

We approached a bus stop where a girl was sitting on the ground, next to a backpack that seemed to weigh more than she did. She jumped up and hoisted it on her back as the bus came to a stop. Her long dark hair was tossed and twisted like it only does when you’ve been living on a trail for a while. 

On that final morning before heading into the valley, I convinced myself that the next chapter of my life had started now. That somehow I would forever think of Yosemite as where it started. But when I turned down the invitation to hike the John Muir Trail so quickly, I wondered if anything really changed at all. 

For a time, however, that regret took a back seat when she got on the bus.  I knew she would sit somewhere near me. I knew I would drum up the courage to start up a conversation. And I knew that I would no longer be disappointed that I was leaving today, because I wouldn’t have met this person if I wasn’t. 

I now feel that I was simply struggling to not be dragged back home. I was grasping at anything, or anyone, to keep me there. The poor unsuspecting girl, you really had to feel sorry for her. 

I think the reason the idea of destiny or fate is so appealing to us is because we don’t want to make big decisions. It is much easier to say, “If it was meant to happen, it will happen.” It allows us to push the blame onto something outside ourselves when we fail to step outside our comfort zone and take control over our own lives. 

She climbed aboard and walked down the aisle, scanning for a friendly face to sit next to. She sat in the crowded front half of the bus. Okay, so maybe I was wrong. And I couldn’t just walk up to someone on a bus and start talking. What would I even say? 

Meanwhile, in the back of the bus with many empty seats around me, two teenage girls jabbered about their pregnancies and the baby names they were considering. They gossiped about how so-and-so in their high school was pregnant too, and how like, so crazy it is, all these babies.  "I know, riiiiiight?” one said with a high-pitched kryptonite voice. 

There are moments like these when I wish I could just turn off my hearing. That moment of silence would have been so soothing, like when you finally turn off a loud radio that has been struggling to find a static-free station. 

I did the next best thing, though. I took a nap. The kind of nap that feels like it lasts for hours, but mere minutes pass by. The highest ranking nap there is. 

When I woke, I could see that the backpacking girl was reading a magazine.  The article's headline in large bold print proclaimed that $75,000 was the cost of happiness. As though what you had to do to obtain that salary didn’t factor in at all. The very idea made me kind of angry, because it brought into question everything I confirmed on this trip about living a simple minimalist existence. 

Money and possessions have never been motivating goals in my life. I always felt that the true measure of success was in experiences, even though I don’t feel I’ve lived like I believe that. I want to wake up in the morning not knowing what the day will bring. I want each day to feel like collecting a new precious gem, that is beautiful and rare, instead of endlessly polishing the same one in a vain attempt to make it into something prettier or new. 

For some reason, I wondered what she thought about it. 

We arrived at the train station. I went inside and sat on a chair with my backpack on the floor between my legs. I rearranged gear to get it ready for two more airplane rides. The backpacking girl sat a few seats away, within talking distance. 

The course of many lives have been changed by the simplest of words: hi. 

But I couldn’t get it out. When the train arrived in front of the station, a part of me was relieved. Sorry, can’t talk now; I have a train to catch. 

I loaded my backpack on the train’s luggage rack and took a seat on the upper deck. Over a few rows of seats, I saw that tossed and twisted dark hair. Oh good, I would get another chance. Dammit. 

A man with a conductor hat, name tag, and walkie-talkie strolled down the aisle checking our tickets. He attached little blue tags, which displayed our arrival location above our seats. As we approached the next stop, the conductor walked by to remove the tags of those that would be getting off. I looked up from my book, that I was really only pretending to read, and saw the top of her head again, leaning over her cell phone. 

Another unrecoverable half hour went by. The conductor made another pass, pulling my blue tag, then the next, and the next. I watched him walk by her seat, but he passed without grabbing hers. So, she wasn’t getting off at my stop. My window of time was closing. 

I’m not even sure why I cared. But not unlike the offer to hike the John Muir Trail, she made me see that there was an endless number of forks in the road. Brand new paths not rutted by routine. I didn’t have to be this person spending fifty weeks out of the year simply deepening the rut. It made me realize that next year could be completely unknown, and that thought was powerfully thrilling. 

I sat and stared at that lingering blue tag, but I did nothing. If this was fiction, I would have written the ending in a lovelier way, but it is not. It’s my life, and the dismal and often perplexing way I live it. 

“But, what about bears?” several said before this trip. I mocked their irrational fears, but I’m no better. My fears are no more logical than theirs. Most of us have something keeping us from another, possibly more rewarding, life. If it’s not bears, or a fear of quitting an unfulfilling job, or a particularly intense shyness, it’s something. 

When I was sitting on North Dome a few nights ago, having one of the best nights of my life, I made a wish on a shooting star. I wished that the way I felt at that moment never had to change and that I could always feel that joyful and free. Life is constantly offering us moments like those, but I have to face the fact that there is no destiny. There is no fate. Wishes only come true if you make them come true. 

- - - 

On my last flight, I sat next to a stout ginger man wearing camouflage. When the seatbelt sign went off he stood to grab a camo backpack out of the overhead and pulled out a portable DVD player. 

I turned to rest my head on the window and stared dumbly at the flashing lights on the wing, blurred by clouds. For a moment, the sky cleared and I could see the lights from an unknown city in Middle America. Thick storm clouds, orange with the glow of city lights, hung over it like smoke-gray anvils. At every moment, lightning streaked through the clouds. It reminded me of a computer animation of firing neurons in an active human brain. Even though the city’s inhabitants haven’t seen the Milky Way from inside city limits in decades, above the storm clouds the sky was clear, and magnificently starry. 

The plane disappeared back into storm clouds. The view from my window was now the reflection of my scruffy week-in-the-woods face. I shut the shade. 

I looked at the portable DVD player sitting on the man’s camouflaged lap. He was watching “Over the Top”, the greatest arm wrestling/child custody movie ever created. Well, top three anyway. 

Eventually I started a conversation with him. We talked about the trips we just experienced. My whole life I’ve been presented with different paths to take. In nearly every instance, I’ve taken the safer route. For example, when given two opportunities to talk to a traveling stranger, I chose a guy in camo that owns “Over the Top” on DVD instead of an attractive backpacking girl. 

Suddenly, strong turbulence jarred the plane, stronger than I’ve ever felt before. The first thing that went through my brain was how tragic it would be if the plane went down when I could have been hiking the John Muir Trail. Everyone would be screaming for their lives and I would be berating myself for thinking this was the safe option. Life is unpredictable. There are so many unknowns. You think you’re playing it safe and suddenly, your airplanes wings fall off. 

I looked at the flight attendants face. It was calm, and therefore, so was I. Although, thinking I’m safe is really a falsehood. I need that fear for motivation. Nobody lives forever and the fact remains that death doesn’t wait for us to have lived our lives to the fullest. 

- - -

When I got home, I was so tired I crashed into my bed without changing or unpacking. When I woke up, I immediately turned on the shower. I peeled off my socks and flicked them right side out. An endless cloud of dusty soil flew from them with every flick, like beating a rug on a clothesline. The smell of soil transported me back to the pine forest on Yosemite’s north rim. 

I turned on the space heater to warm the bathroom. I thought about how I warmed myself by lying on a sun-drenched slab of bedrock just two mornings before. It seemed like ages ago. For a while, everything went back to normal. The next morning my alarm blared at 6:30 AM: work, stress, Indiana, boredom. The rut. 

My dreams of finally starting the next chapter of my life were stifled by the realization that change was hard work. I started to question again why I would even want to change things. My life is not bad; honestly it’s better than it has ever been. But if my life list has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much to experience and so little time to experience it. A safe and comfortable life is fine if that’s what suits you, but I’m not satisfied with a “safe and comfortable” life anymore. At least not right now. I think for now, I’d like to take a shot at having an “amazing” one. 

I have been thinking about the billions of years that passed before I was born, and the billions that will pass after I’m gone. I get this tiny sliver of time in between to be conscious. To experience everything that I can. It is such an incredible gift, such an astonishingly rare gift. Playing it safe is no way to spend it, because in the grand scheme of things, whether it lasts for thirty years or ninety is insignificant. What matters is that I recognize it for what it is. One chance to take advantage of it while it lasts. One chance to live an amazing life.  

Clicking send on my Letter of Resignation
By the time you read my next post, I will be jobless, homeless, and heading to Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail. I’m not exactly sure what stories I will have to tell over the next few months, but then again, that’s exactly why I’m doing this. Yes, I’m finally doing this. Right now it still feels like a dream that I will soon wake up from. 

Please stay tuned. 

- - -

The blog will be updated as frequently as possible from the trail. Through both good times and bad. Please come back and see how things are going. Whether I remain positive and blissful for the five-month journey, or the trail manages to drive me insane, I can assure you it will at least be entertaining for you.

As always, thanks for reading -RG



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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Yosemite, Part Nine
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 9
Back to the Valley
Go to Part: 12345678, 9, 10


“When you’re alone in nature, a second week is really important. Right before the second week, that’s when you start to feel that bliss, you know what I mean? When you feel connected to everything,” a co-worker said the day before I left for Yosemite. “You really need two weeks.”

I’ve had many fleeting mentors in my life. Some I’ve never even met in person. Some I only talked to in passing or while helping them with a computer. Sometimes we live thousands of miles apart but meet briefly while hiking on the same trail. They go about their lives not realizing they carry words like chunks of flint. One day they rattle off just the right sentence, at just the right time, and a spark ignites something in me.

“If only I was your age again,” he said.

“If you were, if you don't mind me asking, what would you do differently?” I asked because I saw a lot of me in him. In a way I felt like I had an opportunity to ask my sixty-year-old self for direction. If I continued to work here for another thirty years, even though my passions were elsewhere, what would I want to tell my younger self?

"I would go live in the mountains,” he said. 

- - -

I emerged from my tent. The forest was chilly in the shadows. Through the trees, I saw rays of sunlight warming bedrock by the cascades of Snow Creek. I grabbed breakfast and a water bottle then went to lay on the rock to absorb the heat. 

After a backpacking trip, there is often a part of me that is happy to be heading home; happy to find the absolute nearest greasy diner or to feel the heat of a much needed shower. Sometimes I daydream about falling onto my bed and sinking into that marshmallow-soft pillow. But not this time. Not even a little bit. I needed that second week. I came to the woods to cure monotony. Stopping the treatment after only a week was too early.

Two nights ago, on North Dome, I looked into the valley and fantasized about eating pizza and drinking a bottle of cold beer. I didn’t even want that anymore. I wanted to drink from the stream. I wanted cold trail foods like pop tarts, trail mix, or foil packages of tuna salad and Spam. I wanted to sleep on the ground even though I’d be woken frequently from back pain. I actually wanted the burden of pack weight on my tired shoulders. I wanted to warm myself on solar-heated bedrock on a chilly morning, even though my home could be warmed with a slight turn of a thermostat dial.

The sound of the gurgling stream made me crave a drink. I didn’t mess around with purifying it. I crawled to the rivulet, plunged my face in the water, and sucked it down. It was ice cold, flavorless, perfect. No aftertaste of chemicals or rubber filter hoses. I came up for a breath then went in for one more drink. I pulled back with cold water dripping down my face. I didn’t bother to dry off. I laid back on the warm bedrock and let the wind and sun do that. 

As I lay there, that feeling of bliss washed over me again. That co-worker would know what I’m talking about. With it came a fervent resolve to start a new chapter of my life. Not because life was bad, but because life is good. And unfortunately, it is also short. There isn’t enough time to do the same things again and again. I wanted a life built on a wealth of experiences, not possessions. I wanted a tensionless job over money. And contrary to the norm, I actually wanted uncertainty over security. I wanted to see if I could cherish simplicity and embrace the unknown, rather than cling to things that make my life safe and comfortable, but dull.

I wondered if I would be able to maintain this sentiment when I got back home. Would the trees go back to being just trees? A safe and comfortable life has a way of convincing you that you shouldn’t change. And what did change even mean? Would I leave Indiana? Would I go back to school and start a career that would allow me to spend more time outdoors? Did I need a career? Would I use the next few months to have one life-changing adventure? I had no idea. All I could really say for sure was that I’d take down my camp for the last time on Yosemite’s North Rim. I would head down the mountain. Beyond that, who knew? And not knowing was exactly how I wanted it to be. The rut has to die, preferably before I do.

- - -

The first couple of trail miles were undemanding. I stared down at my shadow deep in thought. This would be the last day, for a while, when the length of my shadow told me all I needed to know about time. Tomorrow I would be back to schedules, deadlines, and alarm clocks. 

The trail turned into a three-thousand-foot descent into the valley with over two miles of switchbacks. Back and forth I hiked the narrow twisting trail. Each time I looked at the valley, I was closer to that blanket of pines I watched over all week. 

I caught up to a young couple also finishing their trip. We reached the valley and got to know each other while strolling down a mile of flat wooded trail. The man was a doctor who used his career as an opportunity to work all over the world, rather than to acquire the highest salary. More inspiring words like flint. I had become increasingly fascinated to learn how others managed to lead interesting and unconventional lives.  I enjoyed talking to them, but my voice was raspy, like I had been screaming at a Paul Anka concert all night. (Yes, that's right, Paul Anka.)

“Wow, my voice sounds terrible,” I said. “It’s hoarse from not talking much all week.”

“Oh, it’s not normally like that?” The girl asked, and then we all laughed at me.

The road parted, and so did we. At the backpacker camp, I set my gear on a picnic table and sat down to rest. At the adjacent site, two guys were sitting on the top of a picnic table with their feet on the bench. They wore cotton t-shirts, flannel, and jeans, so I didn’t think they were backpackers, but just taking a break from walking around the valley. When one of the guys headed toward the restrooms, the other walked over to me.

“Where you headed?” he asked and ran his fingers though his shaggy mop of curled dark hair. 

“Well tomorrow, back to Indiana. I just finished my hike.” 

“We’re getting ready to hike the John Muir Trail.”

The John Muir Trail is arguably the best trail, with the most spectacular mountain scenery on planet Earth. They will hike over two hundred miles through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and some of the most breathtaking wilderness areas in the country. They will gaze at numerous scenes made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams and will end their journey on the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.

“That’ll be amazing,” I said. “It’s on my list. I plan to come back to do it someday.”

“You by yourself?” he asked and I answered. “That’s cool. So, you’re from Indiana, huh? Do you take a lot of trips like this?”

I told him about a few of the places I’ve hiked. When I mentioned Shenandoah, he told me about his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, as Shenandoah makes up 105 miles of the nearly 2,200-mile trail. 

“You should add the Wonderland Trail to your list,” he said. The 93-mile trail circles the base of Mount Rainier and is considered, by many, one of the best trails in the country. 

“It already is,” I said, knowing that only getting one week of vacation at a time limits my opportunities to complete these longer trails.

“We hiked all but twenty-three miles of it,” he said. “Then the weather got too dangerous and we had to get off the trail.” 

“Hey, hold this.” His friend came back and handed him a metal mug. He had thick dark hair and a thick matching beard.

“What for?” he replied.

“I need to go lay down on top of that big rock over there.” He pointed at a large round boulder ten or fifteen feet high, and ran off. 

“So, you’ve been living on a trail quite a bit then.” I said.

“Yeah. Everyone says I should have gone to college, but this is what I want to do for now. I just asked myself, do I want to live the life I want, or the one I’m supposed to live.” This sentence has been smoldering in my brain ever since. It was like my own subconscious talking to me, the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other. 

They seemed like drifters, wanderers with no particular place they would call home. The kind of guys that would get a job only long enough to fund the next big trip, without worrying about savings accounts, 401ks, or promotions. But could anyone look them in the eyes and say they are wasting their youth? Actually, I can imagine many people saying to them, “You’re doing it wrong. You should be getting your degree. Don’t you know you need a career? You need to make money, so when you’re old and retired, you’ll have the time and freedom to travel.” I can imagine many people saying that, but never noticing the irony.

“So, how many days are you taking to hike the John Muir?” I asked him.

“Well, he’s made a work commitment,” he took a sip from his friend’s mug. “So, we only have thirteen days.”

“Wow, so that’s what—” I tried to do the math quickly in my head, “—seventeen miles a day?”

“Eighteen,” he said. His friend jogged back with dirt and leaves stuck to his hair and clothes.

“Jesus, what’s all over you?” he asked. “What happened over there?”

“What? I was laying down on a rock. What do you expect?” He brushed the debris from his hair and shirt. “So, did you tell him about our 2010 Summer Expedition Madness?”

“Yes he did. But, I didn’t know it had a title,” I said. “I’m jealous. It doesn’t get much better than The John Muir Trail.”

“Why don’t you come with us,” he said without considering his friends thoughts on the matter.

“No, I can’t. I’d have to quit my job to do that.”

“So, quit your job,” he said it as though it shouldn't even require any consideration.

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. You decide you need to explore new opportunities and one falls in your lap almost immediately. There’s nothing magical going on. There are opportunities everywhere, I just don't notice if they aren't part of my usual routine.  Just like how when I'm driving home, I don't really think about all the roads that don’t lead to my house. That is until a day comes when I don’t feel like going home. Sometimes I turn down a road I've never been on just to see where it leads.

Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those moments. The offer didn't even seem like a possibility at first. I had responsibilities. I had people depending on me. These kinds of things required planning, right? I wasn’t even back home and my determination to dramatically shuffle up my routine was slipping. 

“No, I can’t,” I said.  

“Are you sure?” said the guy with the mop of curly hair. “We lost the third member of our crew. His partner,” he nudged toward his bearded friend.

“Yeah, that was too bad. I miss her,” he said. “She had really nice eyes.” He stared down for a couple of silent seconds. “We need to go get our gear. You camping here tonight?” he asked.

“Well, I’m going to head into the village and find a shower and do laundry,” I said. “Mostly for the poor bastard that has to sit next to me on the plane tomorrow, but yeah, I’ll be here.”

“Cool, we’ll see you later then." And they headed off to their car.

After setting up my camp, I walked toward the village. I passed them at their parking spot, pulling out gear that was scattered in the back seat of a car with New York plates. I realized I never asked them where they were from. I’m not surprised that they drove three-thousand miles to get here, but this made me want to learn more about this, “2010 Summer Expedition Madness”.

“See you later,” I said as I passed.

- - -

I walked by a parking lot in the heart of Yosemite Village. A coyote sauntered across the road then stopped in front of me. He looked around, appearing groggy and out of place, like he had just woken up in an episode of the Twilight Zone and found himself in a mysterious futuristic version of his familiar world. It was curious why he looked out of place and not the parking lot, the hundreds of cars, the crowds of tourists. Not the stores, restaurants, canvas tent cabins, or Yosemite shuttles. The coyote seemed out of place in his own territory. After a week on the trail, I kind of felt the same way. He walked between parked cars and out of sight. A few tourists closed in on him, camera phones in hand. 

The laundry room hummed with the sound of washers and dryers. Clothes thumped and clanked in tumblers. The air was moist and smelled like dryer sheets. I threw my clothes into a washer then went to the showers next door. 

The small room had individual curtained-off stalls lined up on both sides with a narrow aisle between. A man with a white crew cut stepped out of one of the stalls and walked down the aisle toward me. When he saw me, his face seemed to light up in a friendly way. 

“Hi,” he said. 

“Hello,” I replied, but barely looked at him. I quickly retreated into a stall, so he could fit down the aisle. I kicked off my shoes then realized the man was the tax attorney from Ohio. I blew him off again! I felt terrible. I rushed outside with bare feet, but couldn’t find him and went back to the stall.

The shower was old and worn, but clean. I stood on a grated floor whose main purpose seemed to be to irritate your feet, so you’d be less inclined to take long showers. I pressed the button that delivered less than a minute of pressurized hot water blasting against my grimy skin. 

God. Damn. That’s amazing.” It was one of the best showers I've ever felt. I pressed the button at least thirty times. 

After my clothes dried, I went to Curry Village for that pizza and large soda with free refills. I planned on getting that cold beer, but I was so thirsty that the alcohol in the quantity of liquid I wanted to drink would have made even David Hasselhoff's liver cower.

After eating, I began to walk toward camp. It started to get dark so I hopped on a shuttle. 

“The next stop is the Village Store,” the driver said. “The only store still open until tomorrow morning, folks.”

I got off to pick up a couple things to eat for breakfast. I passed a cooler and went back to grab three tall cans of Guinness. This would be my pretext to have another conversation with the John Muir Trail backpackers from New York. I wanted to hear more about their trip. Maybe have their particular approach to life rub off on me. Actually, I think I wanted to be convinced to go. 

When I got back, the campground was full of backpackers. It was too dark to see much of anything other than the light around all the campfires. At the John Muir Trail hiker's campsite, food covered their picnic table where they sat immersed in conversation and laughing. There was a girl with them now. “He must have talked the girl ‘with nice eyes’ into going after all,” I thought. I didn’t want to bother them. I decided to have a snack and read, and then maybe head over after their meal.

Later, I looked up from my book and saw one of the guys and the girl walking down the trail following circles of headlamp light on the ground.  When they passed I said hello then noticed it wasn’t even them at all. Someone else must have taken their site or they decided to setup somewhere else. 

There was no chance of finding them in the dark. I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t convinced myself that my decision to say no to their invitation was the right one. Had I gone with them, my history would be unwritten. At home, I more or less knew the life waiting for me, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable. I climbed on top of the picnic table with my feet on the bench. Feeling down about the missed opportunity, I knocked back two cans of Guinness.


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Yosemite, Part Eight
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 8 
Snow Creek
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It’s hard to get out of bed before sunrise, even when you know you have to. But what about when you don't have to? The forest was still blue and shadowless.  I could have stayed asleep. My body definitely lobbied for more sleep, but I got up anyway. When this is the first decision you make in the morning, you know the day isn't ordinary.

When I was seven, all it took to get me out of bed was the promise of Saturday morning cartoons and a bowl of Mr. T Cereal. Today it was my addiction to moments like last night. It lured me back over the spine of North Dome to wait for the sunrise, even though the wind blew cold streaks of yawning tears across my cheeks. 

At the top, I sat on a large flat rock. My back straight, my feet pulled up in front of me. My silhouette was halfway between the statue of the young meditative Buddha, and sadly, the version with the big proud belly. I soothed my tired eyes by clenching them shut and rolling them against my eyelids. And sometimes keeping them closed, while breathing in deep. 

There was no sound, like being underwater. At home silence makes me anxious. I turn on the TV, as though silence is something to be eradicated. At work, the monotonous hum of the factory floor outside my office goes silent when the shift ends, and I turn on music. I don’t know why it’s different now, but it is. The silence here doesn't make me feel like something is missing, rather something significant has been added to the scene. Turning on that noise now would seem like graffiti on the side of Half Dome. 

When the sun came up, it didn’t turn the sky to bright pink, orange, or red. It simply faded to a brighter blue with a golden halo around the sun. For those living and working in the valley, I’m sure it was ordinary. I wonder what it's like to be able to call this ordinary? 

Back at my camp, I slipped inside my sleeping bag to get warm. I oscillated between sleep and wakefulness. The tent slowly turned into a solar oven in the late morning sun. I unzipped the door to let a cool breeze in.

Ants crawled along the huge log just outside my tent. I was back in the micro-world of the trees again. Each with its own ridges, peaks, and valleys. Every trunk a world inhabited by monsters. Ant armies gather to battle winged beasts ten times their size. Eight-legged captors in fields of sticky webs sit motionless, biding their time. The ants disappear under shingles of bark and into wooden tunnels perhaps tending to food stores or fertilized eggs. I wonder what kinds of cities they have built around here. There was evidence that bear claws had shredded part of the log in a search for grubs. How does it look, from the ant’s point of view, when an entire neighborhood is destroyed by one swipe of that hulking leviathan? 

While floating in prosaic routine back home, it’s so easy for me to get bored. How is that possible? I want to tell that version of me to quit being so pathetic, to get up and just look around. There is always something amazing happening. 

I romanticize nature. There is no denying it.  And if you are reading this, I suspect you already know that. I often wonder, though, how I would do on a long hike. A really long hike. When I was a young boy, my grandpa told me of a lawyer who quit his job to hike the Appalachian Trail. He told me that he walked so long and so far that he had to keep buying new shoes in order to finish. I remember thinking, "Wow, imagine going on a walk for so long that you had to stop off for more shoes!" My boyhood imagination pictured a pyramid of worn out shoes piled up on a floor somewhere. Would I still romanticize nature after something like that? 

My grandpa’s story had certainly planted a seed. I thought about that lawyer a lot over the years. I’ve had many moments where I wanted to head out my front door and just walk until I couldn’t walk anymore. How far could I get? What story would I have to tell by the end of it?

Every nature-loving backpacker has their own romanticized stories. But it's a lie if any of them say they have no stories of frustration or discomfort. On a walk so long that I wear out my shoes, would the forest become another banal routine that I would get bored with? Could I actually get tired of watching the sun rise over a valley? Would I spend more time romanticizing the lives of ants, or cursing the lives of ticks and mosquitoes?

Still I wonder, if a week alone in Yosemite could alter my outlook so much, what would several months do? 

The afternoon certainly had its share of aches and irritations. Since last night, the temperature rose forty degrees. I spent much of the day without any shade. My skin burned red, demanding to be taken out of the sun. My sunscreen sat somewhere at home in Indiana. I triple-checked my pack before leaving, but still managed to forget it. Water would be scarce for a few miles this morning as well, so I conserved, compounding my discomfort. 

At the spur trail to Indian Rock, I nearly decided to skip it to shorten my time in the sun. The rock is a granite arch, commonly seen in sandstone, but rare for granite. I’m glad I didn’t let my discomfort get the better of me. When you have a chance to see something rare and beautiful, its a good general rule to always take it.

As I walked, I stared at the trail passing under me. Images of condensation dripping from a glass of ice water flashed in my brain. Airplane noise polluted the silent forest, as it had for most of the day. I didn’t realize just how thunderous it was until the moment it stopped. I stopped too. I shut my eyes and just listened. The reversed image of the passing trail had burned into my retinas. On the back of my eyelids, it looked like trillions of stars were being sucked into a black hole. Snow Creek hissed on my left, but out of sight. A soft wind glided across my ears. I binaurally listened to the faint songs of birds. A resonance so beautiful it almost seems impossible that they were emanating from delicate beings that could sit in the palm of my hand. 

The airplane noise came back. The peaceful moment ceased for now. 

The sound of Snow Creek grew louder and louder as the afternoon progressed. The discomfort from today melted away when I saw it cascading over rocks with plenty of shade. Behind the cascades, I could see a clearing in the woods. I walked back and found a great place to setup camp. A large flat boulder sat near a fire pit, ideal for my sleeping pad and book. The creek filled the air with a relaxing hiss and gurgle. 

Maybe I could finish a really long, multiple-pairs-of-shoes, hike. There are discomforts of course, but they are always temporary. And it takes so little from nature to turn my mood around. Such as lying on a flat stone with the trees towering overhead, reading a good book in their shade, and sipping on all the cold water I could drink.

It was another late night before turning in. I broke a dead branch of pine into small pieces. Many dried needles still clung to it like thin brown leaches. The fire loved this like kerosene and roared with demented delight every time I threw a piece in. It was my last Yosemite campfire. Tomorrow I’d head back to the valley. I felt that foreboding back home in Indiana feeling. It's alright though. I didn't know it then, but my week in Yosemite wasn't finished altering my outlook.

Part 9 >
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Yosemite, Part Seven
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 7
North Dome
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It was another lazy morning with no reason to rush.  My next campsite on North Dome was only six miles away.  It was quiet, with the exception of a numerous variety of bird calls.  In the valley below, I watched two birds chase each other.  Seeing their backs from above gave scale to the deep valley.

“Let’s have cereal for breakfast,” I said.

“Mmm, that sounds good, but maybe put pants on first?” I replied.

“Right, good idea,” I agreed.

Yes, that conversation actually happened.  No reason to pretend we don't all talk to ourselves on occasion. It happens considerably more often when I've been alone in the woods.  And the amazing thing is, these short conversations with myself are generally friendly chatter and not just the usual berating.

I put on pants, ate cereal, and said farewell to another great campsite.

I made my way toward Yosemite Point, but my first stop today was to stare at a tree.  It wasn’t exactly part of the itinerary, but the size of the tree made me stop.  The micro-world taking place on its surface compelled me to get out my camera.  When closely examined, it was easy to see it as a world as wonderful as Yosemite itself.   Every lofty pine is a planet covered in lime green moss meadows, timberland ravines and cliffs.  There are grooves in the bark like tiny dry riverbeds and deep gullies. Spider webs stretch over them like tightropes and zip lines.

Anyone that happened to walk by would have seen a man with his hands against a huge pine tree, leaning into it, his eyes inches from the bark, panning its surface slowly.  I was engrossed in a world that I have often looked at, but never saw.  

I didn't actually see anyone until I got to Upper Yosemite falls. The creek was too low for the falls to draw the crowd it usually does, but I passed two couples coming up from the valley.

“Did you just come down the mountain?” one of the men asked.  “Is it hard to hike up?”

I have found that the level of difficulty is so subjective, that I didn’t know how to answer him.  After a short  pause I just said, “Not hard enough to not give it a try.”

They didn’t give it a try.

I crossed a wooden bridge over the creek then began my climb to Yosemite Point.  Enduring the heat with rare moments of shade was well worth the reward that awaited me. The sky was bright blue and nearly cloudless.  The sharp peaks of the battleship gray mountains rose high in the distance like big top circus tents. I crept right up to the edge and saw the whole of Yosemite Valley laid out before me: the village, the serpentine highway, and cars that raced along like toy Hot Wheels. The opposite effect of that micro-world on the tree. My familiar macro-world was now in miniature.

When nearing North Dome four miles later, I stopped at a summit thinking I had arrived.  The view offered a new angle I hadn’t seen before, and was every bit as impressive as the one at Yosemite Point.  It planted a wide grin on my face.  It was the kind of elation that pours over you making the hair on your neck rise and your skin shiver.

I was ready to put down my pack, set up camp, and stare at the view for the next few hours, but after reviewing my map I realized I hadn’t yet made it to my destination.  North Dome was actually the smooth rounded peak two thousand feet away and two hundred feet below.  From this height, it looked like a great white whale.  Not a real one, but the version in cartoons with the disproportionately large head that slopes down to an undersized tail.
   
I dropped my gear off on the tail and hiked along the spine to the top of the big round head.   When I returned, I decided to setup camp where I left my pack. I unrolled my tent on a rectangle patch of land that had been flattened by previous tents.  On the other side of the log there was a fire ring and an unobstructed view of the large flat face of Half Dome.  What started as a tiny point in the distance, that I was hiking toward all week, was now up close and massive.  I sat on the ground against the log and enjoyed another tuna salad pita while considering my good fortune to be alive and sitting at another amazing campsite.

The sun began to tuck behind the horizon. I climbed back onto North Dome as the sky turned salmon pink.  I watched a shadow creep up Half Dome until it covered all but a sunny cap on top.    Soon that too was gone.  

Drivers heading down the serpentine highway began to turn on headlights.  From up here, all that bustling activity was completely silent.  I couldn’t even hear a single cricket’s chirp.  It was so quiet, that occasionally I heard faint voices coming from backpackers on the other side of the valley. 

“There is pizza and cold beer down there,” I said to myself, all alone on the granite dome.  I began to see the appeal of a restaurant or two.

I found a boulder with a perfect dimple worn into it forming a comfortable seat. With the sunlight gone, and the pink faded from the sky, a few campfires on the other side of the valley popped into view.  Not even a wisp of cloud shrouded the brilliance of the starlight. 

“Eee, eeee, eeeee.”  The sudden presence of a bat fluttering above my head startled me.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Bat. I thought I was alone.”

Maybe an hour later (but who really knows) I was beginning to get cold and sore from sitting on granite, but leaving wasn’t easy.  This night has made the short list of the most amazing nights of my life.  And in that ephemeral moment I wanted to memorize every mountain slope lit by the half moon, every tree forming the saw-toothed edge of the horizon, and the position of every star that hung so radiant above a view that stretched for miles. 

I started to head back to camp in the darkness, thinking of a warm crackling campfire, but turned for another look.  Half Dome looked so beautiful under the azure glow of the half moon.

I’ll just stay a bit longer, I thought. I laid on my back and stared up at the stars. 

The temperature continued to drop, but I needed to feel that moment of closure when I felt like I could call it a night without having wasted any of it.  In my life, most of my anxiety comes not from the bad things that could happen, but all the good things that could happen, but through some fault of my own, might not.  This night was too great and too rare to allow it to end too quickly.  Consequently, that “bit longer” turned into an hour.

In the deep silence under the stars, my eyes kept closing slowly, but I wouldn’t allow myself to fall asleep.  Just then a bright meteor shot across the sky exactly where my eyes were focused.  The fiery tail lasted for a few seconds then faded away.  I grinned. There was my moment, I had my closure. 

I wished on that shooting star that nothing had to change.  Not that I didn’t want to eventually leave and experience other things, but that the way I felt never had to change.  I want to feel like that always.  And why not? Life is constantly offering opportunities like these if only we choose to make them happen.  I know that I can’t do this all of the time, but is it more crazy to measure a successful life in moments like these, than in dollars in the bank?  Everything I surround myself with in pursuit of having a comfortable life cannot hold a candle to how I feel in these moments when I have the least.

I got up and stood with both hands leaning on a trekking pole. I panned around in a complete circle to see it all one last time then headed back to camp.  Reflective flakes in North Dome’s granite surface sparkled. Its color in the moonlight looked like snow and even the fine gravel crunched like snow under my steps.

When I got back to camp, I struck a match and dropped it into the fire ring onto dried pine needles surrounded by finger-thick twigs that I arranged earlier.  It roared to life in a few seconds. As it burned down, I placed wrist-thick branches on top.  I warmed myself while watching them burn for quite some time. When I couldn’t keep myself awake any longer, I crawled into my tent.

“But, what about bears?” several asked me before my trip.  What about living a version of my life that didn’t include this unforgettable night on North Dome?  Honestly, I do appreciate the concern, but the latter worries me far more.


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Yosemite, Part Six
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 6
Yosemite Creek
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I slipped out of my tent before sunrise. I tried to be quiet. My neighbors were scattered on the ground in sleeping bags, like caterpillars that cocooned last night. My shoes gnawed noisily at the gravel, so I made a wide arch around their camp. Once out of earshot, I walked freely and alone on El Capitan.

The sun was still behind the mountains.  It colored the sky above me pink, but left a layer of blue over the valley, like a sunrise in the plains turned upside down. I sat and stared at Half Dome with my camera sitting in my lap and my sleeves pulled over my cold hands, waiting.

During Yosemite’s peak season, as many as nine hundred people will hike to the top of Half Dome in a given day. I preferred to see it from across the valley where there were no crowds. 

To further guarantee this solitude, I came to Yosemite after the tourist-luring waterfalls had dried up for the year. Some might say I didn’t see Yosemite at its best, but I believe being there alone in silence, with or without waterfalls, was seeing it at its best.

The sun crested the granite skyline and beamed at me like a lighthouse beacon. The point of golden light soon fanned out and illuminated the tips of distant mountain peaks. If I spent as much time watching sunrises as I do watching progress bars crawl across computer screens, could I be this happy every day?

I watched until the sun was high enough to shine onto the quiet valley below. The campgrounds were filling with light. A few bleary-eyed campers were surely up and breathing in this brisk morning air with me now. I got to my feet and went back to camp. My gangly shadow walked in front of me like a man on stilts.

I crawled back into my sleeping bag to get warm. I dozed off and woke when I heard my neighbors getting up. I took down my tent, ate breakfast, and got back on the trail.

Every time the trees parted this morning, Half Dome was in the distance, growing larger and more detailed with every mile. 

When again surrounded by tall pine tree trunks, I saw a squirrel running toward me, leaping from branch to branch. He stopped in a tree overhead just off the trail. He stared me down and chattered angrily. I’m unable to spell the sound he was making, but I’m sure it translated to, “You shall not pass!” His body convulsed with every chirp and squeak. His tail twitched and flicked. 

He tried hard to instill fear into me, seemingly unaware of our significant size differences. He only managed to put a grin on my face and for a moment the loudest sound in the forest was my laughter. It’s great to be in such a mood. I wish I could bottle it and take it home. If I was in this mood at home, however, those familiar with my normal demeanor would suspect recreational drug use.  And justifiably so.

I hope my laughter didn’t make the squirrel feel inadequate, though. This was his shining moment to prove he could defend his enchanted forest. I couldn’t help it. I was in an extraordinarily good mood and his defiance was adorable. 

Regardless, I eventually moved on. I guess as far as the squirrel knows, his defense worked. His home was, after all, safe from the human intruder. I liked to think that as I walked away, his squirrel friends scurried out of hiding to celebrate the successful standoff. Maybe he was approached by the attractive female squirrel that he had a crush on for years. The one who never thought he was good enough for her. Maybe with his new fame she finally noticed him. Maybe he walked right passed her and embraced another, a cute-but-nerdy female. The one he suddenly realized had always loved him, and would have loved him no matter what happened with the human. Maybe the attractive female squirrel stormed off upset, but the others didn't care because they all thought she was a bitch anyway. Or perhaps a childhood watching bad eighties movies severely limited my imagination.

I walked away smiling at the thought. I hiked into these woods to cure my boredom, and it was working. Sometimes I'm in such a good mood on the trail that I stop to write these thoughts down in my journal, believing they are actually interesting or humorous. Then I come back home wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I suppose every cure has its side effects, a general apathy towards work and responsibility of course, but in this case euphoria and an unusual cheerfulness as well.

Another frequent side effect of hiking is increased appetite. I turned on the spur trail to Eagle Peak to find an unforgettable spot to eat lunch. My shadow was now squished to the shape of a bulbous dwarf, with the sun blazing hot overhead.

I found some shaded bedrock facing the valley and Half Dome. I pulled food out of my bear canister as a man walk passed on the trail behind me.

“Quite a view isn’t it!” he said. 

Over three million visitors to Yosemite each year and he was the only person I remember seeing today. 

I didn’t leave immediately after eating. I wasn't hiking many miles becuase I wanted to camp near Yosemite Creek tonight, which wasn't far away. I wanted this to be a relaxing vacation. I left plenty of time to slow down and enjoy the views. I could stay up late next to a campfire, sleep in as long as I wanted, and take drawn-out lunch breaks like this one.

I took so long that I got sore from sitting. I stood at the edge and looked into the valley. I imagined leaning out, catching the wind underneath me, and gliding peacefully to the valley floor. (Go hang gliding, number 35 on my life list.) 

I searched around Yosemite Creek for a campsite. I wanted to be close to the creek so I could drink as much as I wanted tonight and at breakfast. A minor thing, perhaps, but made wonderful when rationing water all week. A minimalist life is filled with small, easy to acquire pleasures. This joy is indistinguishable from the joy I get from the more expensive things that require more work to obtain. Or maybe it’s just that new things keep life exciting, and deprivation makes old things seem new again. Either way, in the end I’m happy.

I found an area fifty yards off the trail that had many worthy places to setup camp. It was hard to choose. Feeling light as a feather without my gear on my back, I rambled through the sparse trees over granite bedrock to locate the best spot. Not a single care, or person, in sight.

I chose the highest spot on a plateau of solid rock that had the best view of the woods around me. In the middle a fire ring circled white ash and the remains of blackened logs. Surrounding that were several crisscrossing logs to sit on. 

I spent the remaining sunlight collecting firewood. The thought of sitting by a fire with my book made me happy all day. Before the sun had even set, I had the fire going. As I sat on a log to read, the sky dimmed to dark purple and the stars came out. My world a few hours ago stretched out for miles, as far as the eye could see. The night shrank that to the three-foot radius around my fire.

The flames warmed the left side of my face, but the wind kept my right side cold. I moved closer to the fire, sat Indian-style on the ground, and continued reading in the flickering light. 

It took less than an hour to realize I was too old for Indian-style. I stood to get more logs for the fire and my spine, ankles, and knees popped like I was walking over dry twigs wrapped in bubble wrap. The fire showed its enthusiasm for the extra fuel. It crackled and gave excited flicks like a flag snapping in the wind. I continued to read for hours in a more age-appropriate sitting position. 

Sounds emanated from the fire all night, often loudly. A log broke into two shooting fireworks of ash into the sky. On another log, the red hot bark made a tinging sound like cracking glass. Air escaped one log with a high-pitched buzzing hum that felt like something dramatic and unsafe was about to take place, but faded with an anti-climactic silence.

When the fired died down the night went perfectly silent, other than the wind calmly whooshing through the valley. My eyes got heavy, but I fought sleep as long as I could. I wouldn’t have had to if I had more days like today. The rareness of them forces me to hold onto them as long as I can.  I took my book to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag.  I read until I dozed off.  My book slid out of my hands and dropped to the ground, my headlamp still glowing on my forehead.


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Yosemite, Part Five
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 5
El Capitan 
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Most Monday mornings I’ll roll out of bed eighteen or twenty seven minutes after the time set on my alarm, depending on how many times I hit the snooze bar. I get ready for work then shuffle off to sit in my windowless office. I answer emails and take phone calls, all for the purpose of keeping a factory's computers running.

Rarely does one weekday feel any different from the others. Fifty weeks out of the year I'm immersed in my routine, often daydreaming about a future where rolling out of bed is met with enthusiasm. The other two weeks of the year, however, I'm on a trail.  And during that time that depressing reality never enters my mind.

This Monday morning could never be confused with any other.  It began with a stop at Cascade Creek, potentially my only water source until tomorrow. It looked like boulders rained down on the land eons ago, some as large as Airstream Campers.

The creek was indifferent to the piles of rock in its way. It moseyed over and around the boulders as needed. Gradually it carved the rock into granite waterslides and pools. Meanwhile, ferns and a variety of green-leafed plants filled every niche between water and stone. 

Before pouring over a small waterfall then escaping into the woods, the creek filled a pool with clear water. I sat next to it filtering it into my hydration pack. My freshly rinsed shirt lay drying in the sun on warm bedrock. I put it back on when it was still damp.  I felt cool and refreshed; ready for the new day on the trail.

The morning stroll started out easy, but became more demanding as I ascended to the top of El Capitan. The path was dusted in a fine soil, like powdered cocoa. It meandered through a forest of giant pine trees, with thick trunks covered in bright lime green moss, and cones the size of thermoses.

The air smelled like a mixture of Christmas trees, cedar sawdust, and the aroma moments before a thunderstorm. My nose was pleased. It was the kind of scent that gets implanted into your memory forever. The whiff of a similar fragrance, even years from now, will indeed transport me back onto Yosemite’s North Rim. 

I saw another hiker a hundred yards ahead, the first I have seen since entering the trailhead. Slowly our distance dwindled, as he frequently stopped to rest. When I finally passed him, I saw he had a white beard and a green bandana covering a white crew cut. He wore cargo shorts, boots, and thick wool socks pulled around his calves. An eight-inch sheathed hunting knife hung from his belt. If passing him in the city, I may have given him a wide berth, but out here we were kin. 

About halfway to El Cap, the dusty trail turned to grayish-white rock, porous gravel, and coarse sand that crunched under my steps. It radiated the heat and light of the sun. The trail became less discernible now that it was made of rock. I momentarily went a few yards in the wrong direction, and paused to look for a cairn to show the way. The white-haired hiker caught back up with me. 

“Do you see where the trail picks back up?” I asked. 

“Actually I was following you,” he said. 

“Well, clearly that was a mistake,” I said with a smile, but he seemed to take my joke as an obvious statement and remained straight faced. We soon found cairns to lead the way and I put some distance between us again. 

Finger-sized lizards and the occasional slender snake scurried along the ground in front of me. Grasshoppers frequently jumped wildly to get out of my way, their short flight accompanied by rapid clicking. So much activity on the ground, but at eye level everything was serene. The number of trees thinned out and opened the view for miles. The mountains seemed to go on forever, each distant ridge a fainter shade of blue as it faded into the horizon. 

Under the shade of a tree sat a boulder, curved on top forming a perfect place to laze. I laid on top. The bend in the rock and the cool surface felt wonderful on my spine. I closed my eyes and listened to the breeze jostle the leaves. 

“Looks like a good spot for lunch,” said the white-haired hiker catching up with me again. 

“Sounds good to me,” I said. He sat on another boulder a few feet away that lay beside two short trees. He pulled out a camp stove and set water to boil. 

He lost the name, “white-haired hiker”. Through conversation I began to know him as, “the tax attorney from Ohio”. At least my job didn't sound as mind-numbing as that, I thought.

"I backpack five weeks out of the year," he said.  "I get ten weeks of vacation, but spend the other five weeks with my wife."  Alright, so, he wins.

We discovered that we had planned the exact same route. I worried I would lose my precious solitude. He pulled a hammock from his pack and walked over to the two nearby trees.

"So, how'd you do coming up that scree slope at the end of the rockslides?" I asked.

“I started late yesterday," he said while tying the hammock to the trees. "I didn't find a way up before it got dark, so I just slept at the bottom of the hill then figured out a way up this morning.”

I was selfishly pleased that he had as much trouble on the scree slope as I did. I did not like how my difficulty shone a light on my relative inexperience, but if he had trouble… 

He told me the story of when he ran out of water in Death Valley. As a person that loves to talk and write about backpacking trips, it’s a little disturbing to know that the best stories I'll have will be from when my life was in danger. His trouble in the hottest desert in the United States trivialized any issue I’ve ever had, so far, on the trail. 

Stress on the trail is different than stress at work. I feel like I’m gaining useful experiences and learning important things about myself. I feel proud of myself once I’ve gotten through it unscathed. At work my job is usually repetitive, so the stress is just stress. 

His food finished cooking, so I pulled out a foil pack of tuna salad, a half piece of pita bread, and a mixture of nuts and dried fruit. He ate then nap as promised. I got a head start on the trail, but when there were no bends or hills, I could see him behind me. 

He caught up again when something caught my eye and I had to stop for photos. I didn’t notice at first because the word “Snakes!” was written in the gravel ahead of me, along with an arrow pointing to flat rocks just off the trail. I curved around to avoid the area while scanning the ground for movement. When I looked back up, the volume of bright green moss growing on the pines was too brilliant to ignore. 

I struggled to get a picture that would do it justice, but I couldn’t do it. I heard the crunching footsteps of the tax attorney from Ohio behind me. He walked toward me while staring at the warning on the ground and looking out for snakes. 

“Hi,” I said. “Just had to stop for another photo,” 

“Of what?”

Granted, in a land of a million photo opportunities, most people wouldn’t consider this one of them.

“All the green,” I said. 

“Hmm? Oh yeah, look at all that.” He pulled his camera from a hip pocket, snapped a photo, then continued up the trail. 

We leap-frogged each other this way all afternoon. I’d pass him when he stopped for a break. He’d pass me when I stopped to take photos. At one such passing, he mentioned that he was low on water, so I helped keep an eye out. I knew he wouldn’t get to a source of water the ranger guaranteed until the following morning. There were stagnant puddles here and there, but nothing safe. I passed him again at Rainbow Creek. 

“Bone dry,” he said. “I saw it on the map, thought this is where I’d finally find water.”

"We might find some puddles in the creek bed,"  I said.  "You can use my filter if you want."

We hiked down the empty creek until we found something. There was a meager source of trickling water, that looked clean.  He filled his bottles, and then we got back on the trail and put some distance between us again.

Not a mile later, I was tiptoeing over stones to cross a portion of Rainbow Creek that had plenty of clear water flowing by. Like gas stations, you seem to pass water sources all day, until you really need it. 

When I neared the El Capitan summit, the view stopped me in my tracks. My mouth hung open like a cargo bay door. So far as I experienced it, Yosemite never looked more beautiful. The granite rock I traversed all day dropped three-thousand feet to the pine carpeted valley floor. Beyond the valley the layers of blue mountains were back, fading into the horizon. The tax attorney passed me again as I took photos. He stopped to do the same. 

“Why do I live in Indiana?” I asked. He didn’t have an answer either. 

The summit of El Cap was flat, nearly treeless, and jutted out into the valley giving us amazing unobstructed views. We dropped our packs on the ground and hiked toward the edge. We passed a group of backpackers; a couple with their daughter. We all wandered around El Cap fusing that unbelievable view to our memories. I found a tree and sat in its shade. Before long, the tax attorney from Ohio joined me again. 

“My name’s Rick, by the way, I don’t think we ever formally introduced each other.” 

“I’m Ryan,” We shook hands. 

“You plan on staying on El Cap tonight?” he asked. 

“I think so. I passed an established camp site on the way out here that looked pretty good.” I worried we would end up hiking together all week. I actually enjoyed talking to him and I know I could have learned a lot from his experience, but I get so few weeks like this. I really wanted to spend the time alone. 

The site I referred to was perfect. It had a stone fire ring, spectacular view to watch the sunset, and only one nearby tree. I noted that specifically because I knew he slept in a hammock. I felt bad, but what could I do? I mean, of course, besides just being honest. 

When we left the summit, I stopped at the campsite. He continued toward the tree line. I stood for a while looking at the valley. The family of three plopped their gear on the ground fifteen yards from me, making it clear they were staying there for the night. 

I searched for another site, but failed and came back. My tent has to be staked in the ground to stand upright, and finding a spot where I could stake a tent on ground made of solid granite proved to be as difficult as you’d expect. Not only that, but I had my heart set on watching the sunset and sitting by a warm fire, which are only allowed in the limited established fire rings. 

“Do you mind if I setup camp right over there?” I asked the family of backpackers. I didn’t expect them to care, but asking made me feel better about it. 

“Oh of course not, go ahead,” the father said in an accent I couldn’t place, but I assumed they were from a Scandinavian country. Throughout the night I could hear their chatter, but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I loved hearing the accent in their words and laughter, even though I didn’t understand any of it. They could have been laughing and talking about how they planned to murder me, and I would have been grinning dumbly at the wonderful sound of their voices. 

I ate another meager supper and watched the sunset. It was beautiful. The setting sun turned the sky to amber. The color of everything around me: the coral white granite, the pine needles, the stone fire ring; all suffused with the orange glow in the sky.

 At nightfall, I gathered wood and got a fire going. It was another brilliant starry night. City lights from miles away popped into view. Their light mirrored the starlight like they were not cities at all, but majestic lakes. 

Backpacking has a way of simplifying the pursuit of happiness. Place yourself all alone on a beautiful trail. Put one foot in front of the other, repeat. All too often my default mood is one of cynicism or boredom, but with enough time given to hiking, giddiness becomes my default. That transition began to solidify tonight while I looked at the amber sky and listened to the crackling fire.  And would continue to do so exponentially every day this week.


Part Six > 
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a 
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Yosemite, Part Four
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 4
Rockslides
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For three miles, I climbed over the boulders and fallen trees that covered the old vanishing road. I moved like a chameleon crawling along branches, each careful step verified before going forward. A fall here could have made the rest of my trip quite difficult. I suppose a fall here could have made staying alive quite difficult.

After stepping from one boulder to another, my camera was unleashed from the cord holding it against my pack’s shoulder strap. It swung from the strap around my neck and banged into my arm. I watched my lens cap pop off and fall between a pile of large stones and out of sight. For a moment, the gentle breeze was accompanied by hushed expletives.

I had no intentions of leaving the only lens I brought unprotected. I laid face down over one of the boulders, so I could reach for the lens cap. “No snakes, no snakes, no snakes,” I willed as I blindly stretched my arm in. When it comes to things I want to avoid on a solo backpacking trip, not taking photos rates only slightly worse than a venomous snake bite. Luckily, I felt the cap instantly and retrieved it. I blew off the dirt, secured it to my camera, and devised a way to make sure that would not happen again.

After traversing the final rockslide, the trail dead-ended into a thicket of trees, shrubs, and thorned bushes. I looked up a scree slope to my right. A scree slope is an accumulation of broken rock fragments sometimes found at the base of mountains and cliffs. The pieces ranged in size from coarse sand to pea gravel, mixed with larger jagged rocks.

“It’s not that bad, only about sixty feet,” the ranger said this morning regarding how far I'd need to climb to reconnect with the trail.  He didn’t say it was a scree slope, but this had to be it.  I put my camera in my pack. I didn’t get photos of this area, but I would need to bushwhack and use all fours to make it up.

With every two or three feet I went up, I slid down one, like climbing a mound of gravel at a quarry. About a quarter of the way up, it got much steeper. Disturbing images of falling down the hill and rolling over jagged shards of granite, entered my mind, followed by the desperate descent back to civilization that would follow. I stopped to look for cairns, flat stacked rocks that mark a trail. The ranger said I would see some. I saw nothing; no trail, no road, no cairns. I eased back to the bottom, mostly by sliding on my butt.

I paced back and forth along the trail looking for a safer way up. At the dead-end's side of the scree slop there was foliage growing through the gravel. I worked my way up grabbing shrubs and thorn bushes for support. I got further than before, but got stopped at another obstacle that seemed too risky, considering the ranger’s insistence that it wouldn't be that difficult.  I was getting frustrated.  I went back down for one last futile attempt to find cairns, but gave up and went back the way I just came.

Every move was cautiously considered. I grabbed rock ledges with nervous, sweaty hands. My knuckles turned  white when gripping plant stems and tree branches. Trekking poles were nearly useless in the gravel, but worked well when holding them horizontally behind a pair of tree trunks and grasping them like ladder rungs. At this point, it was more dangerous to turn back than it was to go forward, so I pressed on.

I chose my route based on the next thing I could grab. This inadvertently led me to an area on the hill that, if I were to fall and slide to the bottom, would give me a few hundred foot free fall to look forward to. My rising blood pressure swelled the ugly veins on my forehead. Each footstep sent pebbles rolling down the hill. I heard them falling over the edge. Then falling. Then falling. A rather disturbing sound.

I spotted Manzanita shrubs up ahead. I sold Manzanita branches in my pet store for parrot perches and recognized their smooth twisting trunks and branches instantly. The wood is too hard for large parrots to easily destroy with their powerful beaks. I never thought that information would come in handy again, especially for this reason.

I crawled on hands and knees while grasping them for support. They were indeed strong enough. Their contorted branches scratched red lines into my face and arms, but I didn’t care dammit, I was getting up this hill!

The lower branches pushed at my forty pound humpback and forced me to lay flat to finish my climb. I felt like I was in boot camp crawling under barbed wire, only I was on a gravely hill that ended with a deadly drop.

I want to believe that in a parallel universe, there is a Ryan that didn’t open a pet store, a smarter Ryan perhaps, but nonetheless a Ryan with no knowledge of the tensile strength of the Manzanita branches. Maybe this other Ryan would have chosen a different path up this hill and fell to his death. I want to believe that because it would validate my decision to waste my early to mid-twenties running a pet store.

Wishful thinking maybe, but after spending four years cleaning animal shit every day, who wouldn’t want to believe that it would one day save their life in Yosemite National Park?

While still crawling on the ground, grasping at the branches, I looked up and saw a rock wall that had once supported a side of the old road. I was able to get to my feet, over the wall, and back on track. It was easily the most nerve-racking moment I’ve ever had on a hike, but I made it. I wanted to get on hands and knees to kiss the trail, French kiss it even. I was that happy. But instead, I took off my pack and had lunch.

The road was more intact up here. A long section curved into a tunnel of trees, without a single rockslide blocking my path. The traffic has been gone for decades, but I imagined the road in its glory days. Open carriages and Model Ts coming around the bend, passengers leaning out to point at the view. For some reason, I could only imagine this in black-and-white, running at the wrong speed, and accompanied by honky-tonk piano music.

Fade to today and it’s a dilapidated overgrown stretch of road, no longer on maps. A man is sitting alone in the middle of it, crunching on crackers and turkey pepperoni, minding his own business.

Somewhere in the trees, a branch cracked. I turned to see what it was. The leaves rustled. The heavy footsteps of a large animal fled into the woods, fracturing more sticks as it ran. I didn’t see anything, but I thought it sounded more like a bear than a deer.

“Rainy days and Monday’s allll-ways get me-eee dowwwwn!” Probably too late for that, but I sang the chorus anyway, and made myself laugh out loud.

It wasn’t until I stopped for water that I realized there wasn’t much daylight left. I searched for a good place to setup camp while I hiked up another mile. The trail curled around a hill that I suspected would have a good place to setup camp on top. I wore myself out rushing uphill to secure my place to sleep before nightfall.

The top was a rocky plateau with few trees, perfect for viewing the stars. A scorched ring of stones lay in the middle for a fire. I slid out of my backpack and stretched my shoulders. After removing that burdensome weight, the feeling in my legs gives me a sense that I could jump on top of buildings. I leaped into the air, probably twelve inches off the ground, but for a brief moment felt like Superman.

I surveyed the area and chose a place to pitch my tent. I moved a few sticks, logs, and dry pine needles next to the fire ring to use later. Within a few minutes I had fire crackling and ate a small meal. The sun, that I thought would be gone before I setup camp, seemed to wait until I was finished before heading in for the night. The Milky Way splashed a celestial river across the dark sky.

The sky at Yosemite isn’t the darkest I’ve seen (that award still goes to Isle Royale), but sixty percent of Americans can’t even see the Milky Way due to light pollution. I gazed at the sky and wondered why we bother to light up the night. Especially in small towns, like back home, that more or less close by 6 PM. The night lights have not been shown to reduce crime, nor have they been as effective at reducing car accidents as reflective lane markers. My assumption for why we do this reminded me of something I mentioned before.

“But, what about bears?” Maybe it’s just another irrational fear. Nyctophobia, fear of the dark. I'm certainly not without my own fears, but I’m convinced that an important first step to living an interesting life is learning to accurately assess risk. If nothing else, maybe doing so will convince us to bring back one of the most beautiful things any of us will ever see: a truly dark sky.

I grabbed my book, kicked off my shoes and socks, then sat by the fire. I leaned my back against a log. I warmed my feet by resting them upon a stone of the fire ring. The light from the fire shrunk my pupils, dimming much of the starlight, but the crescent moon still beamed brilliant. Moments like these make all the effort worthwhile.

I let the fire burn down to reduce the light, so I could see more of the stars. I lay on my back with interlaced fingers behind my head. I reveled in that feeling of getting dirty, but not caring. A log popped, sending ember and ash fireworks into the sky to join the starlight for a brief moment before winking out.

As my pupils dilated, the Milky Way came back into view. When is the last time you went somewhere you could see it shining so brightly? I took three planes, two buses, and a train, climbed over miles of rockslides and traversed a dangerously unstable scree slope.

And it was absolutely worth it.


Part 5 >
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Yosemite, Part Three
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 3
Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail
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I woke to the sounds of rustling nylon and plastic bags, the clanking of cook stoves and mess kits.  Backpackers quietly took down their camps while talking in low polite voices. The cool air smelled of dirt and cedar wood chips.  I crawled out of my tent and onto my feet, and then stretched my stiff spine.

The night's veil lifted while I had slept.  Granite cliffs and colossal pine trees surrounded me on all sides.  There was no doubt, I was in Yosemite.

The sun was still below the rim of the valley, but soon it blazed a bright cap on top of Glacier Point. The light gradually melted down its sides while I took down my tent.  A backpacker at a neighboring site, and the source of much of the rousing morning sounds, saw I was awake and walked over.

"You starting your trip or finishing it?” He was a skinny man with long thin hair. A two-week beard insulated half his face.  He could have played the hippie guidance counselor in any high school sitcom.

“I’m starting. Heading up as soon as I pack.”

“We just got back last night from two weeks up there. Man, it’s beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful. I already want to go back,” he said in reverent tones. “I’m not ready to leave.”

“I bet. I already wish I had more than a week,” I said. “How cold did it get?”

“Oh man, it was perfect.  Upper forties, fifties,” he said.  That was nice to hear, although I was prepared either way. I’ve learned from past mistakes.

We talked a bit more, then he went back to help his wife take down their camp.  When I got everything packed and hoisted onto my shoulders, I walked over to say goodbye.

“You heading out?” he asked as I approached.

“Yep. You wouldn’t happen to know the way to the permit office, would you?”  I had no reason to rush.  I didn’t even know what time it was. I just thought he could point me in the general direction. Mostly it gave me an excuse to walk over and say goodbye. One of the women I met on the shuttle last night overheard and walked over.

“Yeah he came in with us after dark last night; he’s probably a little disoriented,” she said, but her eyes were saying, "Oh my, you’re already lost and going up there alone. He’s going to die for sure. That’s too bad, he seems nice."

They both simply told me how to get to the nearest shuttle, but I wanted to walk and see the valley. I took their directions to get out of the campground, but veered off and went my own way. I wondered if she would be checking the newspapers for missing hiker reports.

Next to the backpacker camp was the North Pines Campground. I passed RVs with satellite dishes, cluttered picnic tables with condiments from last night’s feasts. There were tents the size of small cabins, containing cots with thick mattresses.  It reminded me of car camping before I went on my first backpacking trip.  I enjoyed those trips too, but nowadays, if I can’t carry it on my back I'm better off without it.

I wandered through the park and gawked at the two to three thousand foot peaks edging the valley floor, like a New York City tourist staring up at skyscrapers. I stopped on a bridge over Merced River and leaned over the railing.  When your only goal for the day is to hike up five miles and setup a campsite, there is no rushing required.

Before long I was jogging to board a parked shuttle that was loading passengers, my pack bouncing on my back like a tiny bull rider.  I was in a maze of canvas cabins, shops, and parking lots and couldn’t find where I needed to go. I decided to just let a shuttle take me. Okay, so maybe the worried eyes on the woman back at camp were a little justified.

The permit office opened moments before I arrived. A line had already formed that still had not moved after fifteen minutes. A park ranger came out of a back room and asked me where I was heading. He had long hair and leathery skin, I trusted that he had roughed it a few times in his life.

“To the rockslides trailhead,” I said, and showed him my reservation and itinerary. “I heard the trail can be hard to find from that trailhead, so I thought I’d see if I could change my reservation to the Big Oak Flat Trailhead instead,” I said.

“You could. So you going to hitch down there then?” he said.

“Oh so, the shuttles—”

“No, our shuttles don’t go that far, but it’s not too bad from rockslides. I’ve taken groups up that way a dozen times. There’s only one difficult spot.”

The first leg of my journey was no longer on any published maps, but I chose it for the chance of solitude; a rare commodity in Yosemite.  He went to the back for a larger, more detailed map, and then unrolled it like blueprints on a table.

“The rockslides trailhead will take you onto an old carriage road,” he said while pointing at it on the map. “It’s really wide, you can’t miss it. You'll spend a lot of time climbing over rockslides, though. Eventually you’ll get over one rockslide and won’t be able to see where the trail picks back up again.” He points to a break in the trail. “You’ll have to climb uphill here to reconnect.”

“How far up is that?” I asked.

“Ah, maybe sixty feet,”

“Oh is that it? I’m sure I can handle that, no problem,” I said, but would prove myself wrong. “Can you show me any guaranteed water sources?”

He pointed to three on the map, recommending I carry a gallon to get me through the longest dry stretch. He went to the back to finish up the paperwork.

“Sorry it took so long, the printers were down," he said, handing me my permit. "Do you have any other questions?” My instinct was to ask if I could take a look at his printer, but I fought the impulse. Years of IT work has made it a reflex. A sad, sad reflex.

“Do you recommend a place to get breakfast?” I asked him instead.

“Yeah, go over to Degnan's Deli. A lot of the young kids that work here go there in the morning for muffin sandwiches. They’re good, I’ve had ‘em. And they’re cheap.”

People often say things like “and they’re cheap”  to me when making suggestions on something I might buy.  This is probably normal for everyone, but sometimes I wonder if I give off a strong destitution vibe.  I choose to believe he just thought I looked like a young penniless college student.

I ordered two muffins; thick with meat, egg, and cheese. Knowing that I’ll burn far more calories than I’ll eat this week means I can eat whatever I want, in whatever quantities I want. And knowing that is a wonderful thing, maybe the best of things. It’s a kind of guiltless freedom that you only get a few times a year: Thanksgiving lunch, Christmas dinner, and the breakfast before hitting the trail.

After eating, I went to the El Capitan shuttle stop to wait for my ride to the trailhead.

“Where you headed?” said a woman with short blonde hair sitting on one of two benches.  She seemed like the adventurous type.

 “First, to a trailhead near El Capitan, then to hike along the north rim.” I stood with my backpack on the other bench, riffling through it, reorganizing a few things.

“We’re going to El Cap too. But just for the day, for a picnic,” she said while looking at a man joining us. His slacked face lacked the jovial spirit of the woman’s.  He sat on the other side of my bench, sandwiching me between them.

“You going alone?” she asked. “Is that normal for you?”

She asked numerous questions.  After each, she had the next ready, loaded in the chamber. “Do you backpack a lot?”

“Sort of, in the last few years anyway,” I went over the list of places I’ve been in the last four years: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Isle Royale, Olympic, Shenandoah, Rocky Mountain National Park, and North Manitou Island.

“Plus a few trails near where I live,” I said. “And now Yosemite.”

“Where’s that? Where you live?” she asked.  With my gear put away, I cinched up the straps and answered her.

“Indiana?” she said. “So, this is a pretty big change. Indiana is flat right?”

“Yeah, not really known for backpacking,” I said. “I’ve hiked all the trails around there, so now I have to venture further out.”

“That’s cool, so do you like, have a job?” she asked.  The man she was with laughed at her question.

“Yes,” I said. “I do get vacation time.” Again, penniless college student, destitute, or both?

Just as I got everything secured, a shuttle came towards us. A sign in the front window said “El Cap”.

“That’s us,” I said.

Its brakes whistled and hissed to a stop and the doors folded open. We climbed aboard the empty shuttle and took our seats.

“So, your first time in Yosemite, huh?  I come here about every year with my girlfriends.  This is his first time too,” she said. “So, if you love backpacking so much, why do you live in Indiana?”

“Good question,” I said. “I wonder that sometimes myself.  I shouldn't say that, I'm sure Indiana is fine.  I've just never tried living anywhere else."

“You see any bears yet?” The man asked.

“No, not yet. Not here anyway,” I said.

“She saw a mountain lion out here once.”

“I’ve seen two out here actually,” she said.

“Usually you find them where deer graze,” he said. “They’ll perch up on a boulder, wait for one to come close by, and then pounce.” He imitated a pouncing motion with his hands. “And then they sink their teeth into the deer’s neck.”

“Once we saw a big black bear walking through our campground,” she added. “Everybody gathered around to watch it. Then it walked up to this guy that was sleeping outside his tent on a cot. It just sniffed his face then walked away. The guy never knew what happened.”

I told them about my Eskimo kiss with a wild animal last night. “It seemed like a raccoon, maybe.”

“Oh, where did you stay last night?” she asked with enthusiasm. “At the backpacker camp?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re staying in North Pines. We saw a yearling bear cub go in there last night. I wonder if that was it!?” she said.

“Wow, that would be interesting.  I’ll just say it was either way. I mean, how many people can say they rubbed noses with a wild bear?”

“Well, now we know two,” she said.

The shuttle stopped and opened its doors. We gathered our things and said goodbye. They went toward the picnic area and I walked down the street looking for my trailhead. Parked cars crowded the roadside. People were staring through binoculars and pointing at a broad-faced vertical rock formation called El Capitan.

“There’s one,” a woman said while pointing. I followed her finger to a speck clinging to the side of the granite monolith hundreds of feet above the ground. It was a rock climber. I looked a couple thousand feet to its peak and thought, I’ll be sleeping up there tomorrow night.

After some searching, I was relatively sure I found my trailhead. I confirmed it when pieces of paved road appeared through the dusty forest soil. It was the Old Big Oak Flat Road.

In 1868, local businessmen created the Chinese Camp and Yo Semite Turnpike Company to build a toll road from the Chinese Camp mining settlement to Yosemite Valley. Early travelers labored down the narrow road over inches of granite dust, around sharp curving switchbacks, and along dizzying cliff edges.

The road was so treacherous that not only were early travelers encouraged to bring extra parts for their vehicles (drive shafts, springs, wheels, etc.), but several died on their trip into the valley. As it turns out, I’m not the only one that believes the scenery here is worth a slight risk. Besides, I managed to survive half of the most dangerous part of the trip: the planes, trains, and automobiles.

Over time, the road had been rerouted, updated, and maintained as a one-way scenic drive until a large rockslide took out the switchbacks in 1945, officially closing it forever. Since then nature has slowly reclaimed its land. Additional rockslides have continued to block more and more sections. Soil is scattered over the pavement. Trees and other plants have invaded it from the sides, slowly erasing the fact that it ever existed.

For those that seek solitude, the road that no longer appears on maps, is a welcomed companion. As I hiked alone up the 1,800 foot ascent to the rim, I imagined the ghosts of stagecoaches, bumping and rattling their way down the historic road, being pulled by clip-clopping horse hooves. I thought of women in feathered hats, of men in fedoras and thick wool suits; images of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir.

So then, why couldn’t I get "Rainy days and Mondays" out of my head? It’s a good idea to make noise while you hike, so you don’t startle a black bear, increasing the chance that it gets defensive and aggressive. So, to make my presence known, this became the tune I would instinctually whistle, hum, or sing when I came to a bend in the trail, or heard footsteps in the woods.  Yes, I’m a true mountain man.

After emerging from the cover of trees, I turned to look at my first unobstructed view of Yosemite Valley.  Across from El Capitan was Bridalveil Falls, an unexpected sight this late in the season. The wind wafted it into a mist before it could join the Merced River, two thousand feet below. Travelers entering the valley on the old road called the lookout, Rainbow View. When the conditions are just right, a rainbow forms in the mists.

From miles away, I saw Half Dome for the first time. For those not familiar with Yosemite, these are iconic sights. Sights that for years I've only read about and seen in pictures. I just started laughing. I’m not sure why this was my reaction to the joy I felt, but it was.

“So this is Yosemite Valley.” My eyes watered. Yep, true mountain man.


Part 4 >
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