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.   

Safe Drinking Water in the Backcountry, Part 2: Filtration

Saint Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
In my previous post on using bleach to treat water in the backcountry, I said my method for treating water is a combination of household bleach and an inline filter. You might be wondering why I would use both. Especially since most people only use one or the other and some don't treat their water at all... read more >

If I was only going to take one treatment method, it would be a .1 micron inline or straw filter every time, but below are good arguments for carrying both.
  1. It's good to have a backup method... read more >
  2. Filters allow me to drink up at the source and carry less... read more >
  3. An eyedropper of bleach only weighs 1 ounce, so even though I prefer an inline or straw filter, 1 ounce isn't a noticeable addition to my pack.
  4. Filters, unlike any chemical treatment, are very effective at removing Cryptosporidium and Giardia, the two most common water-born illnesses in American backcountry... read more >
  5. Bleach is very effective at removing viruses and bacteria, filters are not... read more >
  6. Bleach can be used to sterilize my toothbrush and eating utensil... read more >
  7. Filters improve taste... read more >
My preferred filter:

Sawyer Squeeze Filter
With the variety of filters on the market, I haven't found a good reason to continue using my traditional pump-style filter. If I can help it, I'd rather not get down on my knees, dangle a filter hose in water, and pump it into a bottle. I prefer inline or straw filters.

4-Way Filter Bottle
Rather than pump water through the filter, an inline or straw filter uses your suction to filter as you sip. You can just scoop and go, without having to take off your pack. And to fill a cook pot, you can use gravity or squeeze the water from the pouch or bottle.

When on a trail with plenty of water sources, it's not inconvenient to get water, so I don't carry around as much water weight. In addition, the inline filters themselves are also lighter than a pump filter. My favorite inline/straw filter is the Sawyer Squeeze Filter or the Sawyer 4-Way Filter Bottle. Here is why:
  1. They have a .1 micron filter... read more >
  2. Multiple ways to use... read more >
  3. Easy to use... read more >
  4. Small and Lightweight. The Squeeze filter with a pouch weighs about 3 ounces, the 4-Way Bottle, about 5.
  5. Sawyer has a one million gallon guarantee!... read more >
  6. Easy to clean/backwash... read more >
  7. Cons, because there is always one, right?... read more >
At the time of this post, Amazon is selling the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter for $42.38 (Click here to order or read more reviews). For that price, you will get: three lightweight collapsible pouches (0.5 L , 1 L, and 2 L pouch), Sawyer 0.10 Absolute Micron Hollow Fiber Membrane Screw On/Off Water Filter, Replaceable Pop Up Drinking Spout, Cleaning Syringe, and the 1 Million Gallons Guarantee.

The 4-Way Filter Bottle is currently $36.86 at Amazon (Click here to order or read more reviews). For that price, you will get: a 1L water bottle, Sawyer 0.10 Absolute Micron Hollow Fiber Filter, faucet attachment for backwashing, extra straws, hose adapter for hydration bladders, and the 1 Million Gallons Guarantee.

See the Sawyer Squeeze Filter in action:

See the Sawyer 4-Way Filter Bottle in action:


More water related information:

Why I don't use Sterilizing Pens... read more >
 
How much water to carry... read more >

Using Bleach To Treat Water in the Backcountry... read more >
Why I use plastic soda or water bottles... read more >

Safe Drinking Water in the Backcountry, Part 1: Using Bleach

Click here to skip right to my method for treating water in the backcountry with household bleach. If you're like me, you hate reading through a lot of unnecessary paragraphs when you're looking for specific information, and I can be unnecessarily long-winded. Here's proof...
- - - 
As many of you know, this blog has primarily been a place to share stories and photos from my trips, but my next trip won’t be for at least a couple months. So until that time comes, my blog will be more of a practical guide to backpacking. Or with the direction my life has taken, a practical guide for the deliberately homeless.

Either way, I've learned a lot from my experiences and I love to chat about this stuff. I get a lot of questions and could spend hours answering them, as many unfortunate people have realized after asking me a seemingly simple question.

Many of the questions I get involve obtaining safe drinking water in the backcountry. When I tell people I use common household bleach, they often look at me like I have a death wish. So that's where I'll start.

Few things are as refreshing as drinking all-natural water straight from a cold mountain stream, untainted by chemical treatments. Or to just plunge your face into a spring on a hot day and quench your thirst without fussing around with filters, pumps, and hoses.

If you are smart about choosing your water source, you could go for days, weeks, or even years without treating your water and never get sick. It's a gamble, but after spending a few days stepping over moose poop, or seeing a bloated dead animal floating in a water source, or worse yet, having to witness your friend doubled over with stomach pains and running off into the trees to decorate that beautiful foliage in vomit or explosive diarrhea... I'm getting a bit off the rails here... what I'm trying to say is, that stuff kind of diminishes the "all-natural" romanticism of drinking from a cold mountain stream. So, I treat my water.

Everyone has their own preferred method, but here’s what I do:

My Water Treatment Method:
My method for treating drinking water in the backcountry is a combination of household bleach (one drop per 16 oz.) and/or an inline or straw filter. And don't forget the often skipped step of cleaning your hands after touching potentially contaminated water. I carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer for this. Not doing so could negate everything you do to treat your water.

First, I should say that nothing is more effective as boiling to treat water in the backcountry. Boiling water vigorously for 60 seconds, or three minutes at altitudes higher than 6,500 feet, will kill everything. No other safe chemical or filtration method can claim that. If you're already boiling water for cooking, it's great. For drinking water, however, it is perhaps the most impractical method... read more >
.
Why I use bleach:
1. It's safe... read more >
2. It's effective... read more >
3. It's cheap... read more >
4. It's easy to find... read more >
5. It's lightweight... read more >
How I use bleach:

My method is based on recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Red Cross, and hours of additional reading. If you find any mistakes or have questions or suggestions, please contact me at grayson.ryan@gmail.com. I will always be happy to learn something new and will update this information accordingly.
1. Fill an eyedropper with bleach.

Before heading out, I fill an eyedropper bottle with common household bleach. I use an old Visine bottle or breath drops bottle. Since bleach will degrade in direct UV light and become less effective, consider covering the bottle in duct tape, or paint, or something.

To fill the bottle without spilling bleach, I often use a ZipLoc bag as a funnel. Put the desired amount of bleach in the bag. Hold it by one of the top corners, so one of the bottom corners is above the bleach. Cut a tiny bit of the corners off, then tip the bag and pour the thin stream of bleach into the dropper bottle.

I keep the bottle in a ZipLoc freezer bag or in an empty wide-mouth Gatorade or Powerade bottle to prevent damage to gear and clothes. So far, I have not had a problem.

Also, keep in mind, the decomposition rate of bleach increases by a factor of 3.5 for every 18° F increase in temperature, so if not stored at 60-80 degrees, it's probably a good idea to dump it out and replace it after a couple weeks to be safe.
2. Fill your water bottle with water.

The best water source is actually the top few inches of lake water. The longer time under the sun’s UV rays does a lot of the sterilization for you. Otherwise, a spring or swift moving creek will be fine.

If the water source is not clear, I tie a bandanna around the top of my bottle when filling. If your water is still cloudy, let it sit until all sediment has settled, then pour the clear water into another bottle before treating. Chemical treatments are much less effective if the water is not clear or contains free-floating organic material. Organisms that are clinging to free-floating particles are harder to kill.
3. Add one drop of bleach per 16 oz. of clear water.

Use two drops if the water is really cold, cloudy, or discolored. If your bleach is not the common 4-6% solution of sodium hydrochlorite you may have to use more or less. The amount of sodium hypochlorite added to bleach may depend on the season. More may be added in the summer to compensate for the higher temperatures. It could be as high as 10%, so check your bleach bottle’s label and adjust dosage accordingly.
4. Shake it like a Polaroid. 
5. Screw the cap nearly all the way on, then squeeze the bottle until it starts to pour out, and then tighten the lid.

This ensures that the entire bottle, including the cap and threads, get disinfected.
6. Wait 30 minutes. And in the meantime, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer. Not cleaning your hands after touching a contaminated water source could negate everything you have done to prevent a water-borne illness.

If after 30 minutes, your water does not have a slight chlorine smell similar to municipal tap water, repeat steps 3 through 5. Think of bleach as an army of soldiers you're sending into battle. They kill organisms, but die in the process. The more organisms there are to kill, the more soldiers you need. That's why it may be necessary to treat a second time. And why sometimes you'll smell or taste more chlorine than other times. Keep in mind though, this isn't the fault of bleach alone. It's true for any chemical treatment.


More water related information:

Why I don't use Sterilizing Pens... read more >
 
How much water to carry... read more >

Using Filters To Treat Water in the Backcountry... read more >
Why I use plastic soda or water bottles... read more >

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.
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
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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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Gear Review: Zelph's SS Starlyte Alcohol Stove

I will still be posting weekly trip journals, but decided to start writing occasional gear reviews as well.  I want to start with something I recently purchased that I’m kind of excited about. Actually, giddy might be more accurate, because as an adult, new gear day has replaced Christmas as the day you'll most likely hear me let out a schoolgirlish, "Eeeeeee!".

I didn't take a cook stove on my last few trips, mostly to cut weight, but also because I've never been a big fan of cooking and cleaning without a modern kitchen. I want to give it another try, however, because sometimes after hiking all day, you just want a hot cooked meal. And I miss that hot cup of tea on a chilly night.

I initially planned on making my own alcohol stove, but when looking for design ideas, I saw Zelph's SS Starlyte Alcohol Stove ($17-$20), and decided that what I would create wouldn't be as good. That and, anyone who knows me would promptly agree, I really shouldn’t be making anything that involves combining alcohol and fire. 

This is not exactly a scientific test, but I tested it twice to get a more accurate average.  Here’s what I’ve found so far. 

Boil time: 

The starting temperature of the water was
 60 degrees F. The air temperature outside was 55 degrees F, with a slight breeze.  My altitude was about 700 feet above sea level.


It took about 7 minutes and 15 seconds to bring 2 cups water, to a boiling temperature of 212 degrees F.

Fuel Use:

I used .75 ounces (22 mL) of denatured alcohol, which burned for a total of 11 minutes. I will probably pack .75 ounces of fuel per day, so for my weight estimates below, about .7 oz in weight (20g) per day.  I may adjust this as I test the stove on windier/colder days and will update this post if that changes.

In the Box

· Stove with integrated wire pot stand
· Wind Screen with paper clip fastener
· Aluminum Tray (circa 1986 Burger King style ashtray) 

· Fuel Measuring Cup


Weight: 
   · Stove - .53 oz. (15g) 
   · Stove with tray - .635 oz. (18g)
   · Windscreen w/ paperclip - .741 oz. (21g) 
   · Total with stove, tray, and windscreen - 1.377 oz. (39g) 
   · About 7 days of fuel in a small plastic bottle – 5.507 ounces (156g)
   · Total with 7 days of fuel – 6.884 ounces (195g) 

Pros 
   · Spill-proof design (due to the mesh top and fiberglass insulation core)
   · Relatively fast boil time 
   · Ease of use. Just pour up to 1 oz. of denatured alcohol in, and touch it with a flame.
     I have also used Heet (only use the yellow bottle!), which worked just fine and is
     easier to get if resupplying in a small town. I used denatured alcohol for this test,
     however. I have heard that Heet doesn't burn as hot, so cook times may vary.
   · Very lightweight. No reason I can't still have my hot tea under the stars.
   · Quality construction and durability considering the lightweight materials.
   
· Very small and easy to pack and setup, partially due to the integrated pot stand.

Cons 
   · Small pot stand diameter a bit unstable with my MSR Soloist pot, but manageable.
     To remedy this, I use a large tomato juice can that I cut  to about 2" high and cut
     holes into for air to get in. I set the stove in the can, then set my pot on the top of 

     the can. Works perfect.
   · As with most alcohol stoves, you can't adjust the heat.  Although, I only boil water,
     so not a problem for me.

Where can I buy the Starlyte Alcohol Stove?
You can buy the Starlyte Alcohol Stove on Amazon. Click here to view the stove on Amazon
UPDATE: I have recently thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with this stove, and it worked flawlessly time and time again. I'm still very happy with it.

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

Part 2
Into the Valley
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The taxi came to a stop outside the station, just as a departing train began to trudge forward. Palm trees circled the building with a cloudless blue sky over its Spanish tile roof. I could tell I wasn't in Indiana anymore. I grabbed my pack, paid the driver, and walked inside.

“I can help you right here,” said the guy behind the counter.

I slid my ticket confirmation under the divider. “Hi, I got here quicker than I thought, is there an earlier train to Merced?”

“Sorry man, that’s the earlier train right there.” Through the window, he pointed at the caboose end of the train I saw when I arrived. He checked me in and slid a ticket back. I had three hours to kill.

“Are there any good restaurants near here?” I asked.  One of the joys of traveling is finding that great hole-in-the-wall restaurant the locals recommend.

And so there I was, walking down the streets of an exciting unfamiliar Golden State city, toward an IHOP.  The franchises will gradually turn our cities into clones, but I didn't care, I love having a huge breakfast before a hike. A big meal here meant two fewer meals to pack, and one less pound to carry. I tossed my gear in a booth and sat on the opposite side.

"What can I get for ya?" the waitress asked.  She didn't seem to think it was strange that I had the backpack, and never asked where I was headed. I felt at home in a place where backpackers are normal.

The frantic morning finally calmed down. I took my time eating the cinnamon and apple pancakes, hash browns, eggs over-easy, and crispy strips of bacon. I didn't need to hurry back to the station, so I read my book and nursed a glass of orange juice.

The train station was empty when I got back, but slowly filled with people as the time on my ticket neared. I started to pace. The quickness of the morning travel made me anxious, now it was the idleness of standing still making me anxious. I knew once I got on the trail that would go away.

It's like when I go kayaking.  There is all the effort to make the plans, check the weather, get dressed, get packed, load the kayak on my car, and often a long drive to the river or lake.  Then I unload everything, carry it to the water’s edge, pack my gear into the hull, and then ease into the wobbly kayak.  The morning can be stressful, but then you push off into the water.  The kayak slides across the sandy shore, sssssssshhh. And then, silence.

I take a deep breath and pause to enjoy those tranquil seconds before paddling away.  It's as though the hectic morning never existed.

Hiking is a lot like that.  There can be a lot of stress while planning and getting there, but once you disappear into that green tunnel of trees at the trailhead, everything becomes simple and quiet.  You can’t help but leave the stress or anxiety behind you.

My train arrived right on time.  The doors slid open and the conductors came out, followed by the arriving passengers.  I threw my pack on a luggage rack just inside the door then found a seat on the upper deck. I couldn't stop thinking of my gear sitting by the open door. It was too critical for this trip. Two minutes later, I went down to make sure it was still safe, like a paranoid little bird checking her eggs.

When the doors closed and the train eased into motion, I stopped worrying about my gear. We accelerated to full speed toward Merced, horn blaring. Graffitied walls and grain elevators whipped by out the window. I felt a renewed enthusiasm to fulfill number 25 on my life list, "Travel cross-country, any country, on a train".

Tracks and stations aren't generally the most awe-inspiring parts of a city, but once leaving the urban area, that changed. Soon the train rambled through orchards ready for harvest, the green parallel lines of vineyards, and acres of golden fields. A mountain range materialized behind the thick hazy sky.

At the station in Merced, I had another hour to wait for a bus to take me into Yosemite. I sat on the ground outside facing the tracks, with my back against the station’s brick wall. Spanish music blared from a dilapidated pale blue motel turned apartment building, a hundred yards away. Voices en Español vociferated from its open windows and doors. From somewhere far away, live Spanish music was being amplified throughout the city. 

When the bus arrived, I bought my ticket and loaded my pack in the luggage compartment. For two and a half hours, we meandered along the curvy roads entering the valley, picking up a few more passengers along the way. As the sun set, the view of golden fields merged with sharp granite cliffs and pine tree forests.

By the time we got into the valley, it was too dark to see anything, except the infamous Merced River, which flowed parallel to the road. I watched it speed by with my head against the window.

Hello, Merced River. I've heard so much about you. Nice to finally meet. 

The bus came to its final stop in Yosemite’s Curry Village. I got out and looked around, unsure of how to get to the backpacker camp.  I decided to look for food first.

There was a crowd of people gathered around the only restaurant still open, a pizza stand and a bar. I took my place in line, surrounded by twenty to fifty year old eternal frat boys.  They talked in that loud inebriated voice, like a person talking while wearing headphones, not realizing how loud they are.

While the line slowly crept forward, I thought of John Muir.  He was a naturalist whose poetic writing and activism helped inspire Americans to preserve our most beautiful places, before it was too late.  When he learned of plans to make the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir, he fought against it vehemently until his death in 1914.  He called it the second Yosemite Valley.

Of those pushing for a Hetch Hetchy reservoir, John Muir wrote: "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

Sadly, years of pleading were not enough to sway nearsighted politicians. Hetch Hetchy is now three hundred feet underwater.

The defeat crushed him. Afterwards he wrote in a letter to his daughter, “I wonder if leaves feel lonely when they see their neighbors falling.” That quote always breaks my heart.

I thought of John Muir, and I write about it now, because I was curious what he would think of Yosemite today: the crowds, traffic, shops, restaurants, hotels, bars. There have been some amazing improvements over the last few decades, and obviously filling the valley with cars, stores, and this drunken nightlife is nothing like filling it with water, but at the time, I felt a bit of an aversion to it.  At a different time, in a different mood, that may change.  A  big reason I felt this way was because what makes Yosemite so grand, was still veiled in the darkness.

When I reached the front of the line, I learned that there was an hour wait for a personal-sized pizza. Hot dogs rotated on a gas-station style cooker, however, ready to eat.

“Okay, just give me two hot dogs and a large drink,” I said. They were stale and tasteless, but filled me up. They would have been perfect, though, if used for crossing number 55 from my life list, "Start a Food Fight".

I was ready to get away from the crowd and found a shuttle to take me to the backpacker campground. Interior lights lit up the shuttle like a huge fish tank on wheels. In the front, a few seats were lined up on each side facing each other.

“Where you headed?” a woman of about forty, sitting across the aisle, asked.  Due to her and her friend’s attire, I could tell they were fellow backpackers.

“Right now the backpacker camp,” I said. “But tomorrow to the north rim, starting at the Rockslides trailhead,”

“I haven't heard of that one,"

“Oh, it’s not on any published maps anymore,”

"You going up there alone?” she said. “You’re brave. I don’t think I would ever do that.”

“No, not brave.  Naive, maybe.  It’s just not the same if I'm with someone.  The first time I went alone I thought it would be a little frightening, but it wasn't.  You get used to it.”

We talked the remainder of the ride about trips and gear, things backpackers never get tired of talking about. The shuttle screeched to a stop, its air brakes exhaled, and the doors folded open. The last of several modes of transportation, other than my walk to the backpacker camp on foot, finally came to an end.

My new shuttle friends led me to the camp, which would have been difficult in the darkness on my own. We followed our three circles of headlamp light as they panned the ground in front of us.

The night didn't last long after that. Once I set up my tent and crawled inside, I was out almost as fast as my headlamp. In my final conscious moments I stared through the tent mesh up eighty-foot towering pine trees stretching toward a starry sky.

I woke a few times as the temperature dropped. One time to get in my sleeping bag, another to zip it up, and a third time to sink into it and pull it over my head. I must have rolled off my sleeping pad at some point, as my nose was against the side of my tent when I woke a fourth time.

I heard rapid sniffing and quiet footsteps walking along the side of my tent, then it stopped at my face. It pushed its nose to mine with only a thin layer of polyester taffeta between us. Sniff, sniff, sniff.  My head jerked back instinctively and, whatever it was, scurried away.

I poked my head outside and looked in every direction. I would have been excited to see just about anything, except maybe a crawling human. How creepy would that be?  I expected to see the back of a fat raccoon, but saw nothing.  I went back to bed figuring it was nothing of much interest. Unless the people I would meet tomorrow were correct.


Part 3 >
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Yosemite, Part One
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 1
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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The room was still dark, but my alarm insisted I wake up.  I slowly surfaced from the depths of sleep and rolled out of bed. Hitting the snooze bar would be pointless. I knew for the nine extra minutes I’d only stare at the ceiling anyway.

A backpack sat on my floor, waiting. I triple-checked it last night to make sure I had everything.  If it’s not in the pack, I’ll be stuck in the woods without it for a week.

I tossed it in the backseat of my car and headed toward the airport.  For ninety minutes, I drove passed houses with bedroom lights still turned off.  The only lit open signs were on 24-hour gas stations.  Cracker’s cover of “Rainy Days and Mondays” played on my radio.  I sang along.  Some songs seem to demand it.

-  -  -

“So, you sleep outside in the woods at night. And you’re going alone?  Man, you’d never catch me doing that,” said a maintenance man working in my office last week. “But, what about bears?”

“That’s the first thing everyone asks me, but if you keep your food protected there really is nothing to worry about,” I said. “Besides, there has never been a fatal bear attack in Yosemite.”

“Heh, well there could always be a first,” he said.

When you’ve been in Indiana your whole life, your experience with bears mostly comes from watching television shows with titles beginning with, “The World’s Deadliest…”

The truth is, the typical encounter is not unlike the typical encounter with a raccoon.  If they see you, they flee. Or look at you, sniff the air, then carry on with whatever they were doing before you barged into their woods, singing “Rainy Days and Mondays”.

It’s not even all that common to see a bear on a hike.  It’s probably no more common than walking around Hollywood and spotting a celebrity.  Just like with a bear, you point, you take photos. You never EVER try to feed them.  And while it’s true that in the past celebrities have murdered, few people will scatter in terror when they see one, questioning whether or not they’re supposed to run, climb a tree, or play dead.

As with most things, the more you learn and experience something, the less irrational fear you have of it.

-  -  -

Now, I’m in the back of a small 37-seat airplane sitting on the tarmac, waiting for my first flight to depart.  On most Saturday mornings, I’d still be in my dark bedroom snug and warm, wrapped in a comforter with my head sunken into a pillow.

“Good morning folks.  This is your captain speaking,” his gruff morning voice spoken too close to the microphone. “We’ll be departing in a few minutes, but I wanted to remind you that today is the ninth anniversary of September 11th. Please consider getting to know the person sitting next to you, for security of course, but also just for the joy of getting to know one another.”

Telling people what day I was flying out frequently conjured up another irrational fear.

I looked at the person next to me, an Asian girl with a black hoodie cinched over dyed red hair.  She slumped in her chair the moment she got situated; chin to her chest, arms crossed.  Lisa Loeb glasses framed her closed eyes. The only thing, other than the personal wall she had built around herself, that would make me not talk to her is, she’s kind of cute. And I have self-diagnosed clinical shyness.  Well, that and a decent possibility she doesn’t speak English.

On the other side of the aisle sat a rather fidgety African-American man in his twenties. His legs bounced nervously.  His eyes also closed, his arms on the armrests. His head was nodding rhythmically, to music I assumed, but then I noticed he wasn’t wearing headphones.  Either he’s an extremely anxious flier, or he can hear music I can’t.

The flight attendant walked towards us down the narrow aisle. She noticed him while closing an overhead compartment, her lips in a thin tight grin.  “How are you doing, sir?”

“I’m doing okay,” he said, with a failed air of confidence.

“Aw, you’ll be fine, and your son will appreciate that you went through all this to go see him in California,” she said. It’s always good to see someone not letting their irrational fear keep them from the important things.

That was the extent of me getting to know the people next to me.  I don’t really mind, but truthfully the last few months of my life have been, to say the least, unfulfilling.  I’m ready for a change and I know getting over my shyness would be a great way to start.

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

I sat quietly, writing in my journal, and said nothing.  I mean, not everyone wants to talk to a total stranger anyway, right?  And I’m not lying when I say that, for the most part, I like to keep to myself.  It is a major reason I’m heading into Sierra Nevada wilderness.  To be alone.  It’s the only way I know how to simplify life, relax and be myself, and calm this restlessness I’ve felt after another year going through the same motions; traversing the same rut.

And when I’m hiking, I never feel like I’m wasting my life.

The plane glided between two layers of clouds that stretch on like white linens. The red morning sunrise poked through the occasional opening in the bottom layer.

- - -

“Do they have poisonous snakes out there? What if you fall and break your leg, or hit your head? What if you get lost and can’t find water?” the maintenance man asked. “I got an email one time with photos of a guy that got attacked by a polar bear, have you seen that?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen that one, it was pretty gross,” I said.  We were interrupted by another co-worker who, once seeing the maintenance man, started talking to him about motorcycles.

“You ride a motorcycle?” I asked. “You do realize that’s more dangerous than hiking, right?” I said. “I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, but I always thought there would be a great sense of freedom when riding one.”

“Oh yeah, there’s nothing like it,” he replied.

"If I went on the Internet right now and found some photos of a guy that got into a motorcycle accident, would you sell yours and give up riding?”

“Alright, point taken,” he said. “I still wouldn’t do it, though.”

- - -

At a time I would normally be sleeping in on a Saturday, I landed in Milwaukee. I rushed to the opposite end of the airport to be corralled through another TSA line.  I was as fidgety as the man on the plane, worried I would miss my next connecting flight.

And when I would ordinarily be eating breakfast cereal, blissfully indifferent to my bedhead cowlick, I was speed-walking to my third plane in Phoenix.

I hoped I’d have enough time for a quick restroom visit before the final boarding call. I did, but in my haste I splashed water when washing my hands. Of course it landed in just the right place to make me the perfect poster child for urinary incontinence.  And where else would it go?  Don’t you remember Newton’s forth law: All moving liquids must remain in a uniform flow unless near my crotch, in which case said liquid must follow the path of least resistance to aforementioned crotch.

When I left the restroom they were boarding the underprivileged requiring wheelchairs, and the over-privileged with first-class tickets.  I felt like all eyes were on me and my wet pants. It’s okay people, I didn’t piss myself. It’s just water, nothing to see here.

I know nobody cares, or probably even noticed, but this is how my brain instinctually works.  It knows that at least one pair of eyes is always on me, and always for negative reasons.

When I’d normally be having another predictable lunch and feeling guilty for having no weekend plans, the treadmill on the Fresno Airport baggage carousel started whirring.  I had finally arrived, but the traveling didn’t end there.  I stared eagerly at the rubber flap doorway, wondering if my crucial gear made all the same connections and security screenings.  It was the first bag to come out.  I could breathe easy.

When I walked out of the airport through tall automatic sliding glass doors, it dawned on me that I was over two thousand miles from home with nothing but the forty pounds of gear and food in my pack.  No vehicle, only a train ticket and bus schedule in my pocket.  No roof over my head, only a permit to live in the woods for a week.  Wonderfully contrary to that mind-numbing rut I just freed myself from.

A man standing next to a car, with the words “Airport Taxi” on the side, seemed to be waiting for me. Or at least his eyes seemed to follow me even though he was always pointed straight ahead.

“I need to go to the Amtrak Station?”  My statement morphed into a question, like I realized telling him wasn’t polite and I needed to actually ask. Or maybe I thought he might say, “You’re doing this all wrong, you freakin’ hayseed!”

I’m not an experienced traveler yet.

Without saying a word, he put on sunglasses and opened the trunk of the car.  I put my gear in, then hopped in the backseat.

- - -

“But, what about bears?  Are you taking a gun?” asked a worried co-worker a few days ago.

Sometimes in my head I work on replies to this persistent concern.  Such as, did you know that 2,800 Americans die from choking, every year?  And, I live alone.  I’m flattered that so many are concerned about my well being, but if you really want to worry about something, worry about the left over pizza in my fridge.

“But, what about apples? Surely you’d never eat an apple by yourself?  Oh my dear heavens. You should never eat fruit alone!”

I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t dangers when backpacking alone: dehydration, getting lost, falling, hypothermia, sudden illness, contaminated water, an approaching melody of dueling banjos in the distance. But when you’re prepared and careful, the risk is low, and absolutely worth the potential for reward.

Without trying too hard, I could come up with several reasons to never leave the safety of my home, but how enjoyable would that life be?


Part 2 >
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Two Lakes Loop Trail
- The Hoosier National Forest

My backpacking trips aren't always filled with beautiful alpine views, babbling brooks, and relaxing waterfalls. At times, they can be hot, sticky, itchy, and completely unforgiving. 

From my hiking journal,
the night of July 3rd, 2010

I can hear fireworks, but only see the flash of fireflies. Bangs and pops, but no whistles or screeches. High-pitched sounds don’t travel as far. And with the banning of fireworks within the boundaries of the Hoosier National Forest, the night is mostly silent.

It’s July 3rd. I’m hiking alone overnight on the sixteen-mile Two Lakes Loop Trail. As usual for this time of year, when the sun finally sets, the pyromaniacs can’t wait any longer to light their fuses and blow shit up to show their love for America.

The temperature is finally starting to drop from low-90s to tolerable. Both sweat and humidity test the old adage that teamwork divides the work while multiplying the success, by effortlessly sticking a nylon sleeping bag to my skin.

I put my book down and climb out of my hammock tent to brush my teeth before I fall asleep. My headlamp reveals a blue-tinted forest around me and illuminates the toothbrush and toothpaste in my backpack. Moths fly dumbly toward the light on my forehead. Dozens of them stick to my sweaty face and neck, beating their delicate wings in a confused frenzy. I swat at them pointlessly, like a much less scary parody of Hitchcock’s, "The Birds".

I turn off my light, so I can brush in peace.  I stand barefoot and add the acoustics of teeth brushing to the nocturnal sounds of the forest. The moonlit surface of Indian Lake shimmers between the silhouettes of trees.

Bang, bang, pop. More fireworks.

Somewhere on the lake, a fisherman is floating in a boat. He occasionally scans the lake with his spotlight between short nicotine and tar coughing fits. I briefly wonder what he would think if he saw me in the woods. I could stand by the shore with an emotionless blank stare. His own monochromatic blue light would illuminate me for a moment as it passes by, then I'd quickly duck into the shadows. He’d look back, certain he saw someone standing there, but now wonders. I could give him a story to tell. In my opinion, that is the best gift of all.

Instead I retreat to my hammock. I really have no desire to stay outside its protective mesh and get even more blood mugged by mosquitoes. Right before nightfall I started a fire that is now ash and embers, to help keep them at bay, but near the lake I’m sure they are in swarms. A couple hundred are already flying around the forest, bellies engorged with my blood; my DNA buzzing above me like Mike Teavee in Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

With the mosquitoes, cicadas are also out, repeating the same harmonious mantra over and over like druids. It's relaxing, but ugh, what I would give for a cool breeze. The only breeze I’ve had tonight was from the flutter of moth wings in my face.

Fireflies are landing on the tent mesh giving me an opportunity to really study them up close from underneath. Even with a bit of knowledge on bioluminescence, their random flashing still seems like magic. At least I think it’s random.  Maybe they are trying to communicate with me. A message of great importance repeated again and again, every summer. “Ryan, you are the chosen one, you must stop the reactor. You're the planet’s only hope.” The distressing part is, I'll probably never know for sure.

The trail is only sixteen miles long, but I am intrigued by the intersecting American Discovery Trail, the coast-to-coast pathway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I thought if I wanted to extend my trip, I would detour onto it for a while, just to say I—

Ok wait, that was a flash, pause, flash, flash, flash, pause, flash, flash. If there is a firefly Morse code, I’ll figure it out.

Anyway, I might take a detour on the ADT. It seems fitting for Independence Day to be on a trail that spans the whole country. One of these days I’m going to get on it and not stop until I leap into the Pacific.

Two flashes, pause, then five.

I should note that I’m roughing it with Pinot Noir in a flask, probably why I’m writing all this. See, I’m not insane, as you may be thinking, but nor am I drunk. Just a little… wine happy.

Ooh seven consecutive flashes. Wait, 1, 3, 2, 2, 5, and 7? Those are all prime numbers. Interesting. Can’t be a coincidence.

Yep. All alone in a hammock, in the woods. Sipping Pinot Noir from a metal flask with sophistication and class. It would be impossible to sip it any other way.

Hmm, maybe the fireflies are trying to give me GPS coordinates. I should keep writing the numbers down and see where they lead me. It’s a good a reason to travel somewhere as any, right? It would be spontaneous. An adventure. Maybe I’ll find that reactor, or something.

There is a ridiculous number of bug bites polka-dotting my arms and legs. Maybe anemia is the root of my peculiar thoughts tonight. They haven’t started itching yet, but histamines are on their way to set off an inflammatory immune reaction that will irritate nerve endings all over my body causing me to itch uncontrollably. I can’t wait.

Regardless of the bugs, bites, and humidity, somehow the trip has still been worth it. My time spent in the hammock listening to cicadas has actually been nice.

My backpacking trips aren't always filled with beautiful alpine views, babbling brooks, and relaxing waterfalls. At times, they can be hot, sticky, itchy, and completely unforgiving… but I absolutely love it. No matter where or when I walk into the woods, I find a silence, solitude, and contentment that nothing else provides.

(By the way, I put my recordings of the firefly flashes into Google Earth as GPS coordinates. They took me to an isolated dirt road near Turrah, Sudan. Screw that! Sorry Fireflies, you chose the wrong messiah.)


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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Seven
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 7: Friday’s Journey Home
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I didn’t sleep well. I partially blame setting up camp after dark. My sight was limited to what was revealed in the beam of a miniature headlamp. The wind flapped the rain tarp all night, like someone trying to get sand off a beach towel. Eventually, I gathered enough motivation to slip out of my hammock and the warmth of that artificial down and nylon womb, also known as a sleeping bag. I crunched the cold and dry autumn earth, with my bare feet, and tried tightening the guy lines in the faint cerulean moonlight.

After falling back asleep the flapping began again. My groggy attempt to fix the situation with cold fingers and low light failed, but a combination of warmth and tiredness kept me from trying again. I slept as deep and undisturbed as a morning repeatedly hitting the snooze bar instead of turning off the alarm clock. Yeah, I don’t know why either. Sometimes I’m surprised at how unwavering my desire to stay in bed can be.

Many of the same elements that caused the frustrations the first night were back: the issues securing my bear bag, setting up camp in cold darkness, and the sporadic intervals of sleep. Only now, frustration and worry wasn’t getting any traction in my mind. This wasn’t a conscious effort, but the result of a reclusive week on a trail where your only task is to walk, where the noisy neighbors are the multitudes of singing birds, the traffic is an occasional white-tail deer or black bear, and your important meetings are with infinitely patient waterfalls.

When there was enough light to pack, I finally got up. For a short time I sat sideways in my hammock with my feet dangling a few inches above the ground. The rising sun turned the clouds to bright coral and revealed the surroundings to me for the first time. The dominant presence was that of a large tree with thick low branches stretching out perpendicular to an old wide trunk. It stood alone in a treeless circle on the forest floor, like a statue of Saint Francis in a courtyard holding out his arms to provide a place for birds to perch. I slipped on my shoes. The tree needed to be climbed.

I felt like the seven-year-old Ryan running around the neighborhood where I grew up. I climbed to the first branch and stood on its coarse bark in untied shoes. I began to find my way to the next height, at least until my brain rationalized what would happen if I fell. This isolated spot, at least a hundred yards from the trail, may not see another visitor for days or, this time of year, weeks, maybe not until spring. Rationalizing-adult Ryan sat on the branch and swung his feet back and forth above the ground, at a height that wouldn’t kill him. Rationalizing-adult Ryan is no fun.

A blanket of low gray clouds began to slip under the cheery coral ones, essentially ending any chance that the sun’s rays would chase away the chill; it was sure to be a wonderfully lonely and silent day on the trail. Before ever really settling in, I left another temporary home behind and headed to Hawksbill Summit, the highest mountain in the park.

The more I ascended to the top, the more the local fauna changed from tall trees and soft fluttering leaves to short ridged species with stern roots and needle-covered stems. Dead leaves that were probably still clinging to shrubs just a few days ago, sat at the base of bundled bare stems.

At the summit, the growing fog reduced visibility, but I could still see to the valley below. The treetops draped the rolling hills in specks of green, orange, gold, and brown, like bed pillows lumped together under the afghan your grandma knitted in 1963.

The receding mountain soil revealed a brown stone scalp with gray splotches of lichen and an assemblage of protruding jagged edges. I wandered around looking for a place to sit. I discovered a concaved portion in the rock where a puddle formed. There hasn’t been a convenient water source for a while and my supply was bone dry. The water looked clear, but on top floated a few insect cadavers (i.e. protein water). I filled up a plastic bottle just in case I got desperate. Having been dehydrated on the trail before, I learned to always have at least one bottle at hand, no matter how confident you are about future water sources.

I sat my camera on one of the boulders and set the timer to take my picture at roughly the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. I hiked back down to the Appalachian Trail and continued north.

Every time the trail descended, my hiking poles double as orthopedic canes to take weight off my right knee. The pain began to worry me. Not because I wouldn’t get to my car, it wasn’t that debilitating, but because I hope to have at least another 35 years of backpacking in me. I can’t have my body failing already. I would skip the remaining side trails and summits to keep my mileage at a minimum. Getting to my car today, and thus having an extra day to recover at home, was beginning to look like the smart choice.

Shortly after giving in and drinking sterilized “protein water”, I heard the unmistakable gurgling sound of a flowing stream. I didn’t see anything at first, but as I approached the source and kicked aside some dried leaves, I found clean water flowing from an opening in the side of the hill. At two feet from the trail, only a standing drinking fountain would have been more convenient. The only downside to this discovery was that now the bug in my teeth was completely unnecessary.

The fog continued to thicken and had soon condensed the views to mostly foreground. When one side of the trail would open to a sharply descending view into the valley, I saw nothing but white. I turned to look directly into it and it nearly filled my full view. Knowing that mountains and a valley floor was somewhere hundreds of yards beyond it made the white fog imposing, like swimming in a murky lake that you know is deep, but you can’t see to the bottom.

Even though the fog limited my view, it made the colors nearer to me stand out even more. The remaining miles on the Appalachian ridge were edged in the entire Crayola catalog: Granny Smith Apple ferns, leaves of Sunset Orange, Harvest Gold, Asparagus Green, and Goldenrod, and dead leaves and twigs of Raw Umber, Mahogany, and Burnt Sienna. All that was missing was a sky of Periwinkle or Cornflower Blue.

Somewhere in the fog, I heard voices, faint and muffled. For a time they seemed to hover around in the white void. As I closed in behind them, they eventually became louder and intelligible. A three-generation Italian family came into view, hiking single file down the narrow trail in front of me. I joined them at the back of the line.

The middle generation son and father, who incidentally looked like a good person to have standing behind you if you ever needed to look intimidating, told the others to let me pass. While doing so, his questions trapped me in the middle of their convoy. He was in that category of people who are surprised to learn that anyone would solo backpack for a whole week. Regardless of the man’s presence, he was kind, jovial, and “would never hike alone out here”.

I asked them if they heard any weather reports recently. “Ninety percent chance of rain tonight and supposed to be colder”. They offered to feed me when returning to the picnic area, and under different circumstances I would love to have let them. I mean, unless the Olive Garden commercials have lied to me, Italians have a hell of a lot of fun at the dinner table. I thanked them but declined. I decided I needed to finish my journey today.

The temperature continued to drop as promised, intensified by a mist in the air that clung to any exposed skin. My knee continued to throb. I stopped to eat when I came upon a shelter with a large brick chimney in its center and picnic tables on each of its four sides. The break was more about getting out of the weather and off my knee than to eat.

With the chimney shielding me from the wind, I set my pack on the table and pulled out my food. My knee ached and popped like some geriatric as I sat down.

A couple of cars drove through the picnic area, taking in the limited view from heated vehicles, but nobody ever got out. I felt like I had the entire park to myself. If the cost of this luxury was having my teeth chatter anytime I stopped focusing on preventing them, it was worth it.

A few miles later I took my final rest at a three-walled AT shelter before hobbling down the final couple of miles. On a picnic table sat an AT log book. I read entries from both day hikers and those of the more adventurous attempting a hike of the entire 2,200 mile trail.

Not long after leaving the shelter, I passed a couple doing just that. I knew it before talking to them; the youthful twenty-something face peeking through a long gnarly beard gave it away. “How long have you been on the trail?” I asked.

“Three months,” the beard said.

“Ah, I thought you might be thru-hikers.”

They began their journey at Mount Katahdin in Maine and would put one foot in front of the other until they reached Springer Mountain in Georgia. It was easy to see he didn’t want to stop long to chat. It had been several days since they have seen a camp store and seemed frustrated because of that. Stopping them to ask questions didn't help. I assured them they would get to one tomorrow.

The girl gave me their blog address so I could follow their progress. He glared at her with eyes that seemed to say, “Are you crazy? We don’t know this potentially murderous jackass.” So, I wished them luck and went on my way. I envied their journey like most people envy the rich. If a week in the woods can transform me as it has, what would 25 weeks do?

They reached the summit of Springer Mountain two months later and 2,178 miles from where they began.

When I reached the end of my own much shorter trip, I felt a sort of gladness at first. I could finally get off my knee and get out of the rain and warm up. But it felt odd to be in my car again, like I haven’t seen it for weeks. I sat in its comfortable seat, turned on the heat, and pulled onto Skyline drive for a nine hour trip back home.

Going from trail, to car, to road, and thus officially ending my trip, happened too quickly. I had been thrust back into my normal life in an instant. There wasn’t a sense of finality, no feeling that I had finished my task, and yet, here I was heading home. It was still nice to be off my knee and warm, but much of that gladness faded when passing the park sign thanking me for my visit.

Pulling out on the highway made me feel like the man being air rescued, in every book or movie about a solitary person getting stranded on a deserted island. He thought it would be great to head back to the comfort and safety of civilization, but realizes he’s grown attached to the wilderness and part of him misses it already.

Just then an enormous black bear barreled out of the woods a safe distance in front of my car. I had never seen one moving at full speed like that. Here was confirmation that there would be no outrunning one if I ever tried, no photo finish, not even close. In a few seconds, it galloped across four lanes of highway, then disappeared into the woods on the other side.

Clearly that wild world I was leaving would carry on just fine without me, but I didn’t want it to have to. Not only was I not ready to leave the gratifying and uncomplicated life on the trail, I mostly wasn’t ready to stop being the person I became while out there. I wasn’t only leaving the wilderness behind, but the version of myself that I like the most. The version of me that is imperviously happy and contented to simply wander and wonder. It is increasingly difficult after every trip, to return to the routine and maintain any resemblance to that backpacking frame of mind.


A few days later, I walked out of the factory where I work. When I pushed the door open I felt cold crisp air and began to breathe it in like so many mornings in Shenandoah, but soon noticed it blend with the smell of heat, burning resin, and wire that wafted out of ventilation ducts. It wasn’t the satisfying deep breath I, for some reason, was expecting.

I walked down the long straight parking lot edged with cars. On my right, a large flock of birds were gathered in the grass. They scattered when I got near them. Dozens of black birds soared through the air like they shared one mind. I felt an instant desire to join them. My heart rate increased. I was ready to be wild like them once again. To take off my uncomfortable shoes and run into the nearest woods, and, as Thoreau said, “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." The feeling pushed at my chest.

I need to be in the wilderness, I thought, away from the murmur and clang of an active factory floor and the monotony of my everyday life.

Soon, and as it always does, the strength of that feeling started to drift away like dandelion spores. I fully returned to my old self. At some point I decided my life is going pretty good, and it truly is, as good as it has ever been actually. Good enough to not risk it with a major change? As I write this I’m still uncertain of the answer to that question, but I continue to have this longing that a couple of weeks on the trail per year can’t pacify.  Will I ever gain the courage to embark on my own 2,178 mile adventure?

I watch as my time on earth slowly collects like gathering droplets of water. The seconds accumulate like insignificant raindrops on leaves, which pour into puddles of minutes, and flood into hour-filled lakes. The years flow downstream like rivers carving the landscape. Some rivers simply erode. Some flow underground forever unseen. But some create grand canyons that endure for ages and inspire long after they’re gone. Is my time better spent in contentment and safety or with the risk of adventure? How do I want my river to flow before it quietly drifts into that eternally endless ocean?

There are many questions I wish I knew how to answer, but as I reflect on that autumn week in Shenandoah and those daily escalations of joy, introspection, and wonder, there is one revelation that I have had. John Muir was right: a week in the woods is not enough.

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-RG
See all my posted photos from this trip




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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Six
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part Six: Thursday’s Blissfulness
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          “Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day.
           Far more time should be taken. Walk away quietly in any
           direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb
           the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace
           will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds
           will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their
           energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

          - John Muir

Today my mood shifted from happiness towards blissfulness. On day one I was cold and frustrated; now it’s warm and I have an almost childlike giddiness.

This afternoon I’d set foot on the Appalachian Trail and fulfill number 13 on my life list, “Hike Overnight on the Appalachian Trail”. (Not to be confused with number 14, “Hike the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail.” Some dreams need to be big.) First, I would finish my waterfall tour on the Rose River Falls loop, Dark Hollow Falls Trail, and then see my final Shenandoah waterfall on the Lewis Falls Trail.

I stopped frequently this morning as I found the beauty of the area incredible, not that it was any better than before, but it was exaggerated by my exceedingly good mood. At my first rest stop I sat on the ground with the pack beside me and my journal in my hand. I stared at a fern sitting on top of an algae covered boulder. Its leaves dangled over the edge inches above the water. A single yellow leaf caught my eye when it fluttered to the creek below. Days alone in nature give you time to closely examine such things. I contemplated the leaf's ephemeral existence.

Throughout its life, it was the flowers that got the attention, but now its color rivaled that of any petal. In its peak of loveliness, a breeze detaches it from its branch, sending it spiraling into black mirrored water. Lazily, it floats down the stream. The calmness occasionally interrupted by short burst of speed, as it is poured over cascading stair steps. Along the creek’s edge it stops, in a place with no significance. It is here that it will wait to return to atoms, nourish the soil and become something new again. Not at all an empty existence.

All things are fated to decay: fallen leaves and human beings. I know this may sound gloomy, but it isn’t meant to; rather it should be humbling and motivating. The atoms will become part of tomorrow’s trees, forest soil, bear cubs, and breathtaking views. So, everything is worthy of our reverence, and nothing should be taken for granted. While I can, I’ll collect these moments like fine jewels, cherish them, and share them with others.

Paying attention to these details has become second nature. I am not the man I was last week, or even yesterday. I am a man that is noticing the simplest things, the breezes, the softest sounds, the life of a single yellow leaf.

As much as I love the writings of John Muir (especially the quote above) and many others like him, I'd have to say it’s the scientists that have inspired me the most. Give me the words of Muir or Emerson, but not without the passion of Carl Sagan or the endless curiosity of E.O. Wilson. I owe much of my love of nature to scientists and find immense joy in learning about the natural world, but this morning I gloried in the life of a tree, without any consideration for the process of photosynthesis. I simply sat and paid attention.

This was a time that I will always remember when I hear the word Shenandoah. Sitting there alone in the early morning, I felt this almost indescribable feeling of joy. An even stronger feeling than I had on Tuesday afternoon. The solitude, beauty and simplicity has filled me up so much, it seemed the only way I could release the pressure was through tears. I closed my watered eyes, released the air from my lungs, and a weight seemed to lift away from my chest that I didn’t realize was there until it was gone.

In only the rarest of moments have I been this happy. If there were ever a time in my life where I could have produced an absolute perfect Care Bear Stare, this was it.

I pulled out my journal and tried to scribble down any words that would describe how I felt, but I’m not poetic enough to justify it, nor did any of the words in my vocabulary seem to fit. The last line I wrote however was, “Note to self: devote your life to the national parks.”

I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I felt like I wanted, actually needed, to quit my job, go back to school and become a park ranger or something. I'm not quite sure, but I definitely knew I wanted to dedicate more time to these aimless wanderings through natural worlds, while noticing the brilliance of something as simple as a falling leaf. It meant I wanted to be a part of the never-ending struggle to protect these remaining wild places, so others would grow to understand why they are necessary, to convince them to spend more time in them. So few allow themselves to be all alone in nature for even one night, let alone the many nights required to understand this feeling that has become so profoundly important to me.

A couple strolling down the trail, asked the obligatory, “How you doing?”

“Never better,” was my reply.

At Dark Hollow Falls, I stopped for a photo and checked my map. I see I’m coming up to a black square with a white letter P written inside. I know this symbol stands for Parking, but for me it meant People, since most don’t venture far from their car. As much as I don’t understand why, and as much as I want to convince people to head deeper into the backcountry, there is some good in it. The deep woods are left empty where the only life you come across are wild animals, and the occasional silent devotee of solitude and nature. In fact, I’m grateful for this solitude because without it, this fantastic morning, one that I’ll remember forever, probably wouldn’t have existed.

Higher up the falls, a crowd of people were packed together taking pictures, resting before their short hike back to the letter P. I wandered through the crowd looking at faces, feeling enlightened, like I knew something special about this place that they did not. And perhaps I did.

After passing the parking lot and crossing over a road, the number of people dwindled considerably. Only two remained, which were heading back to their campground. The trail, and forest, now seemed to be relatively new. Saplings grew inside protective cages and the trail still had grasses trying to poke through.

Another white-tailed deer stood in my path, grazing with her fawn. As before, they stared at me with those glistening trustful eyes for a few seconds then put their heads back down to eat. I pulled out my camera and took several photos. I moved slowly, to keep them from bouncing away into the forest, as I watched them through my camera’s LCD display. Sometimes I wonder if I watch too much through my camera, trying to preserve memories rather than completely living them.

The path now looked different from the map I held in front of me. My intersection should be around here, but I wasn’t seeing it. To find my bearings, I hiked a little further to a road which led to the campground. I circled the area for fifteen minutes when I met a couple who too were lost.

The young woman was certain she saw a signpost for my trail a quarter-mile back, near where I had just hiked. I show them our location on the map and point to what they were looking for, that same little black square with the white letter P. So, the three of us backtracked in that direction. They seemed interested in what I was doing. Which I admit I love because on our short hike together, I got to talk about backpacking and the places I’ve been.

We came to my intersection, which had two large and plainly visible signs. I saw wire cages protecting saplings and two grazing deer, then realized I missed the intersection while staring into the camera’s LCD display earlier. The answer to my question was, yes, I do watch too much through the lens of my camera.

The feeling of stupidity was fortunately masked by the confidence of being back on track. I trekked along at a good pace to make up some time, but froze suddenly when I caught an adult black bear in the corner of my eye, 40-feet from the trail.

I slowly turned to look at it scratching the ground in search of grubs. The bear seemed pleasant and affable enough. It definitely didn’t care about what I was doing, so instead of sanely continuing down the trail, I just stood there transfixed. Much like the deer, it gave me a somber look for a few seconds, and then continued poking is nose through the dried leaves on the ground. I would still never approach one, but any fear I had of these creatures diminished.

According to my map, a park restaurant was nearby. I initially didn’t want to leave the trail and join the civilized world, but decided everyone needs the occasional cheeseburger detour. I stopped at a trashcan by the entrance and rid my pack of extra garbage weight, because every ounce matters when you’re a human pack mule.

“You a thru hiker?” a grubby pot-bellied man exiting the restaurant asked while sucking the leftovers from his teeth. By thru hiker, he was asking if I was hiking the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.

“No, just here for the week.”

“How many miles you gone?”

“Uhh, almost fifty, I think.” He didn't seem impressed, not that he should have been as it wasn't an impressive pace. I know of people doubling and some even tripling this pace, but you meet two types of people on the trail, those shocked to hear you’ve been hiking alone all week, and those with experience backpacking (or experience talking to backpackers) that think of fifty miles as no more than a nice traipse through the woods.

I put my pack back on and headed through the double doors. The building split into sections: souvenirs on my left, a camp store straight ahead, and the restaurant to my right. The restaurant was crammed with tourists. I didn’t trust leaving my gear out of sight this far from my car, so I stood in line with it on, bumping into people and drawing some attention.

“Your combos are too big for us. We’re going to share one cheeseburger combo and add a drink,” said a woman with her husband at the front of the line. He told her what he wanted to drink and then she told the girl behind the counter for him, as if he was a child. But all I focused on at the time was, “Ooh, cheeseburger combo that’s too big for one adult human being? Do I need one or two?”

I’ll remember my personal rule to limit beef intake when I’m back at home. I have tried on several occasions to completely become a vegetarian, but I can never keep it up for long. I think if I ever utter the phrase, “this is my last cheeseburger,” I will collapse like a marionette in a puddle of tears. Overdramatic yes, but an accurate portrayal.

I walked away from the crowded building, found a tree to sit under, and devoured the calorific sandwich. The lettuce, tomato, and onion struggled to stay under the bun, slipping on ketchup, mustard and melted cheese. I ate every bit including the parts that fell off and the cheese stuck to the wrapper. Grease and condiments slathered my lips like an infant enjoying his first birthday cake.

Backpacking, or maybe its deprivation, makes any food taste better. The savory burger could have been peanut butter and jelly and would have been incredible. Either way, it was an order of magnitude better than if I was eating lunch at work right now. In fact, right about now on a normal week I’d probably be picking peas out of the cherry vanilla crisp section of a healthy choice meal.

I left the populated area, and made my way back to solitude and my final waterfall view, Lewis Falls. Miles later I came to the Appalachian Trail intersection and pulled out my camera. I needed to document the moment. I reached out and touched my first AT white blaze, a well known marker on trees along the AT that let backpackers know they are still on course.

My first AT white blaze
I was near a park campground when an elderly couple passed by on their late afternoon stroll. They saw my hiking poles and backpack and seemed incredibly excited to ask me about what I was doing. It was as though they’ve never heard of such things.

“You’re out here alone? For a whole week? And all you have is what’s in that backpack? Where do you get water? Do you sleep in a tent? A hammock, really? That’s amazing. I don’t think I could do that.”

I really enjoyed the company of these people.

As I rounded the campground I saw another black bear. It was much larger than the previous. I wanted to get the attention of the campers nearby so they wouldn’t miss it. The campground felt like a mobile home village. A clearcut section of forest filled in by heat absorbing blacktop, the stench of pit toilets, and oily automobile engines. A couple, probably in their 30s, sat on folding camp chairs angled towards the woods. A few yards beside them sat a car, a road, and a park dumpster. They couldn’t see the bear. Surrounded by nature, but still limiting themselves to the confines of their rented rectangle of land. It kind of made me sad. You've come so far, don’t stop now, you’re going to go home without seeing Shenandoah.

I decided to do the bear a favor and never pointed him out to any of the campers.

My hike along the Appalachian ridge was gorgeous at every step. The sun was setting, but I couldn’t keep myself from stopping at every view of the valley, and there were many. I moved forward until daylight was nearly gone and finally stopped to setup camp about fourteen miles from where I started this morning.

I turned off the trail and hiked into the woods looking for a clearing. A few hundred feet in, I decided I would hang my bear bag while I still had some light. While rushing, I got my rope and counterweight stuck in a tree. It took thirty minutes to get it back down. By the time I got to my camp site, the sun was long gone. I setup camp by the light of my headlamp.

The night was not unlike the others. Only now, I was talking to myself more regularly (another feature of the solo backpacker after a few days). I was glad to get off my aching right knee, which I knew would make the final miles difficult, but every uncomfortable step today was worth it. It was one of the best days I've ever had. I stayed up late in the hammock to finish my book about serial killers, often times reading aloud, and yes, doing different character voices, until it weighed on my eyelids.

Part 7 >
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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Five
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 5: A Wednesday Alone
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       “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of
         being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the
         glory of being alone.” - Paul Tillich


Yesterday, after leaving Corbin Cabin, the temperature began to feel more like summer.  I have experienced a year of seasons in five days. After looking around to make sure I was alone, I changed into warm weather clothes.

When the trail intersected a fire road, I stopped to check my location.  I slid my pack onto the ground, sat next to it with my map, and leaned my back against a trail signpost.  For no immediately apparent reason, I was overcome with a deep feeling of happiness. I rested the back of my head on the post with a peaceful grin on my face. 

It wasn’t a unique or exceptional spot in any way, just an ordinary forest floor covered in dried leaves.  There was no jaw-dropping view, or extraordinary sight or sound, but for whatever reason, I felt like I did that first time I got behind the wheel and pulled out of the driveway alone for the first time.  I felt free.

I’m sure many things contributed to the sentiment: not knowing what would be around the next bend, a backpack full of everything I needed and nothing more, nothing distracting my thoughts, and not needing to be anywhere, do anything, or answer to anyone.  Solo backpacking doesn’t even give you the option to have it any other way. It’s incredibly liberating.

It helps that I love being alone. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” I remember reading those words when I was 24 in my tattered copy of Walden by Hendry David Thoreau.  It struck a chord with me.  Suddenly it was ok to love being alone, without wondering if it was a social disorder.  Not that that stops others from wondering.

I finished Tuesdays's hike meandering through the oldest trees in Shenandoah, then into Whiteoak Canyon, the most spectacular waterfall hike in the park. Just before sunset, I found a place to camp for the night.

Wednesday morning, I looked over my map and ate breakfast on a car-sized stone jutting out of the ground at the top of a hill. Even in late-October, the trees that covered the ground, sloping down hill forty feet below, still clung to their brilliantly green leaves.


I started the day hiking out of Whiteoak Canyon and onto Cedar Run Trail, which curled through the forest up hilltops, passed yellow leaves flowing down streams that crashed into boulders. Waterfalls poured over polished rock and surged into clear pools, many large enough for a swim.


With the grim of showerless days, I desperately wanted to hop in.  Some of these waterfall grottoes were just deep enough to sit down with water up to my chest, like natural hot tubs. The only problem, they were fifty-degree hot tubs. If the temperature was right, I would have had to add a day to my trip and would have had constantly pruned toes and fingertips.

The trail became steep and exhausting, so I stopped to rest at a small waterfall spilling into a pond shaded by trees.  The water cascaded from there through narrow channels, tumbling into puddles of varying sizes, until finally plummeting into one of the hot tub pools fifty feet below.


Surrounded by the shushing of flowing water, I sat by a deep puddle and took off my shoes and socks. I dipped my head into the puddle’s ice-cold water and then sat on the edge with my feet in.


I realized I loved being barefoot. I hadn’t really given it much thought before. It may be something insignificant and ordinarily taken for granted, but I grew up with shoes on from morning until night.  In fact, my only memory of being barefoot outdoors, when I was growing up in the eighties, was when my friends would run down our gravel driveway without shoes, while I pointlessly tried to keep up with unhurried cautious steps like Brook Shields walking over glass in Circus of the Stars. (It's surprising how many eighties references I can fit into this journal.)


So, rarely allowing myself to be barefoot outdoors, this is kind of new to me.  Now it seemed like strapping rubber soles to my feet just anesthetizes my brain from a fundamental human sensation. Imagine wearing gloves everywhere you went, what experiences would you miss?  It seemed the equivalent to kissing someone while wearing a Halloween mask, pulling it off, and realizing, “Wow, this is much better,” that millimeter thin mask might as well have been miles thick.

I discovered that I want to feel the warmth of sun-drenched bedrock on the arches of my feet, dig my toes into fresh mud, feel dry leaves and thin twigs crunch under my weight. I want to curl my toes over the edge of a granite pool, plunge my feet into the shallow water, and watch the cloud of silky sediment roll out from underneath.

Backpacking has shown me that in my effort to make life comfortable, there have been casualties that just made life duller. Being barefoot outside is only one of them.  Some of my favorite things on earth I sacrifice daily: the complete absence of unnatural noise, the excitement of wildlife confrontations, the lack of walls silencing nocturnal sounds, and being far from the city lights overwhelming the starlight.  My solo hikes in such beautiful places keep me from forgetting.  This contributes to the fact that I’m not the person today that I was last week or who I'll be next week.  I need this escape like I need the right amount of sleep and clean air.

Fully rested, and my feet sun-dried, I slipped my shoes back on and returned to the trail, the connection to the earth broken again by rubber soles. Miles later, I turned onto the horse hoof tilled Skyland-Big Meadows Trail. The rumble of cars on Skyline Drive was now in earshot.  To provide an unobstructed view for motorists, a large swath of trees had been removed, a manmade ecotone segregating two combating ecosystems. I was unhappy with this accommodation.  It made me feel like the wild wilderness didn't exist as it once did.


At the turnout on the other side of the divide, a woman got out of the car’s passenger door and sat down on a guardrail, her back to the view. Her husband stepped out of the driver’s side to get a picture.  They hopped back in and drove off. The windshield experience is almost no experience at all. Another casualty of a comfortable life, not knowing how much more majestic such a view is when it caps the end of a day-long hike.

With the lack of shade from missing trees, the sun beat down on me with more intensity that it had all week. The sweat began to pour and I sipped my water quickly. I walked with my gaze pointed down. The first day the ground was soggy, the second snow covered, but now I kicked up dusty soil and crunched through dry autumn leaves with every step.

At this elevation, the trees had fewer leaves, which had mostly taken on their brown mid-autumn hues. The balder plants opened up the view deeper into the forest. The wildlife found sneakiness impossible.  I could easily hear every one of them scurrying around on crunchy leaves, making even a sparrow sound large and significant.

I turned my gaze up and saw that I was being stared at by the glossy black eyes of a white-tailed deer.  We both stood unmoving, locked in a staring contest.  Our actions mirrored, but I assume our thoughts did not. Unless she was thinking, “Ooh, a human. Don’t move too suddenly, you’ll scare it. I can’t get tired of seeing these on the trail, so majestic! Where's my camera?” but she probably wasn't. She gave her tail a rattle and continued grazing.

I still hadn’t eaten since breakfast ten miles back, but was only a couple of miles from Rose Falls, so decided to wait.  It was worth it. Not only for the falls, but the declining elevation meant more color in the trees. I climbed down and sat on a rock near the base of the falls and decided I'd feast as much as I possibly could. A backpacking feast isn’t exactly Thanksgiving, as I ate less calories than I would normally eat on a lazy day at home: tuna salad in a half pita, cereal bar, crackers, and a couple handfuls of dried fruits and nuts.

I moved closer to the falls with my water filter and pumped water directly into my mouth.  Again I wished the water were warmer so I could get in. I craved a shower. I looked at the falls and visualized moving under it with my head pointed up and eyes closed, feeling each drop splash on my face.  I’ll never take warm showers for granted again.

On a sort of peninsula a short distance from the falls, I spotted a perfect place to call it a night. Two creeks converged to form a U thirty feet below, accompanying my hammock and I with the soothing murmurs of rippling water. Exhausted from a particularly grueling day, I setup camp, pulled my sleeping bag on like overalls, then laid down in the hammock without a struggle.  I've come a long way since that first night.


Lying in my bed of nylon and rope suspended from the trees, I heard a large animal only a yard or two away. This time, it wasn’t a sparrow rustling through the dry leaves.  It had heavy footsteps and a sniff that sounded big. With my headlamp on, I slowly poked my head out.  The forest was pitch black, but a pair of reflective yellow eyes stared back at me.


I fully expected to see a black bear, but to my relief, it was another deer.  A relief since this is one of the few large animals you’ll encounter in the woods that will rarely generate headlines such as, “Hiker Mauled to Death by Soulful-Eyed White-Tailed Deer.”

It stared at me for a few seconds then lowered its head to continue grazing, unconcerned with the man with the glowing forehead, hanging from the trees.

Throughout the rest of the night, it was apparent I picked a popular spot. The air was filled with sounds of nocturnal life, a constant reminder that wild, does in fact, still exists.



Part 6 >
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The Shenandoah Valley, Part Four
- Numbers 13 and 96 on my life list.

Part 4: Tuesday Morning at Corbin Cabin
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Standing on the middle stone of five crossing a creek, I paused to look downstream. I breathed in the view meditatively until interrupted by an unfamiliar, sort of higher pitched, Chewbacca-like moan coming from the trees. I scanned the area closely, but didn't see any movement. I stepped over the remaining stones. The noise repeated, I stopped, and searched again. My eyes connected with a young black bear's, high up a slender tree. Startled, it hurried down as quickly as a firefighter down a pole; its paws hit the ground, and vanished behind a trail of shaking leaves.

Bears are generally safe if you take some necessary precautions. First of all, any bear expert worth his salt will tell you that under no circumstance should you try hugging or riding on one, regardless of how overwhelming that temptation may be. That being said, they'll also tell you to make noise so it knows you're coming, keep a clean camp, and do your best to hide the fact that you are carrying food. A black bear can detect strong smells from miles away and sniff out that energy bar in your pocket seven times better than any bloodhound, or 2,000 times better than any human. Another interesting item worth noting, a human or trained bloodhound will find it much more difficult to chew your face off while trying to steal your Snickers bar.

Regardless of this superpower, and the subsequent thieving of hundreds of pic-a-nic baskets, there has never been a fatal bear attack in Shenandoah National Park. On the other hand, If it does happen, I’d put my money on it happening to a hiker who inadvertently finds himself between a mother bear and her cub.

Adult bears are usually silent, but the sound in the trees came from a young cub. As they approach adolescence, they become intrigued with the idea of independence, and venture further and further from the protection of their mother. In times of danger, however, they lose confidence and realize they still need the security of an adult. Like when you’re six and a librarian ghost roars at you in the opening of the movie Ghostbusters. Don’t judge me, I was six.

I worried that the Chewbacca-like moan was a distress call. Was he calling for backup?

I spun around looking in all directions for an even larger mass of black fur, but didn't see mama bear. Even though I knew the danger was low, my heart raced, and I'm not ashamed to admit I moved at a faster pace for the next hundred yards. A futile attempt, since an average bear could chase down even the world's fastest human with ease.

Once I knew I was in the clear, my adrenal gland eased up on the adrenaline, I soon returned to the peaceful state of mind that I was enjoying on that middle stone in the creek. I now felt thrilled that I got to see my first black bear up close in the wild.

Through the trees up ahead, I spotted a mediocre, but inviting little cabin that once belonged to George Corbin. In 1909, he and his friends hewed logs from surrounding trees and constructed the dwelling. George lived here, in the smallest home on the smallest farm in Nicholson Hollow, for 29 years on what his family could grow or make themselves. George provided other necessities by supplying moonshine to the nearby resort town of Skyland.

During a harsh winter, George's wife died while giving birth to their third child. Her body was laid to rest a few hundred yards from the cabin, in a family cemetery. In 1938, when the land gained national park status, George and his children were forced to pack up and leave.

It is one of the few log houses still intact in the park after a fire destroyed nearly forty mountaineer homes. Corbin cabin is one of the last monuments of the vanished mountain community, and still provides shelter to passing backpackers. Today it served three: Jimmy, Jarrett, and Jonathan.

“Hey, do you know what time it is?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, I have a cell phone in my pack, just a sec.”

“Oh you don’t have to go to so much trouble. I thought maybe you just knew.”

“It’s alright, I’m ready to have that off my shoulders for a little bit,” I said, and pulled my phone out of my bag and gave them the time.

“You’re more than welcome to take a break here for a little while. Here, have a seat.” The man stood and offered the porch rocking chair. “It’s my turn to fix breakfast anyway. I should get started on that.”

“You think? Since it’s already ten?" scoffed the second person on the porch. "Hi, I’m Jimmy,” he put his hand out to shake mine. “Yeah have a seat, take a load off.” I sat down on the rocking chair. “So, where are you coming from?”

I enjoy the differences in the getting-to-know-you chitchat on the trail. The questions are more interesting, and more enjoyable to answer. The ones typically heard are: where are you coming from, how long have you been on the trail, where are you from, where have you backpacked before, what is your favorite trip, why do you do this, are you insane?

You rarely hear my least favorite introductory question, “What do you do?” In other words, what do you do for money? This is usually the least interesting thing about a person. It’s definitely the least interesting thing about me. I get the impression that as soon as I say, I work in IT, the person I’m talking to will immediately regret asking and go talk to someone else in the room. To which, I can defensively react with, “Yeah, but can that guy tie a clove hitch? That loser probably doesn’t even know what a clove hitch is!” Then, “Oh no he didn’t,” a passerby would invariably say.

“So where are you coming from?” I pulled out my map and briefly went over the trip so far. They pointed out areas I should try to visit. They highly recommended Whiteoak Canyon, which was luckily already under yellow highlighter ink.

I asked about the cabin, which they talked about adoringly. To a backpacker a modest shack like this is a fancy summer home, especially when you’ve been on the trail a few days or weeks.

“Jarrett is getting married so we’re trying to get one last trip in.” They looked at each other smiling, but I detected a slight feeling of trepidation. Maybe I just assumed, since it’s how I would feel if I ever utter the words “one last trip”.

“So, she doesn’t like this kind of thing?” He shook his head. “Maybe she’ll be glad to get you out of the house for a week every year so you can all go again?”

“Ah we both have fiancées too, so I don’t see that happening.” Jimmy chuckled, pointing to himself and Jonathan, followed by a short awkward silence. I felt very happy to be single.

“You want to take a tour of the cabin?” asked Jimmy. Jonathan went inside to check on breakfast. Jimmy and I followed.

Weak floorboards creaked under my hiking shoes. The living room was dark. A small amount of light seeped in through an opened nearly opaque window and from a small fire crackling in the fireplace. It felt good to feel heat again.

Backpacking gear suspended on hooks clung neatly to the wall below spider webs that stretched across the corners under the ceiling. A plaque with a brief history of the cabin hung beside an old sepia photo of George Corbin. He may have lost his home, but with it, gained a slice of immortality. Last night’s entertainment littered a large wooden table: a deck of cards, cigarettes, and ashtrays made from folded aluminum foil, not to mention long blade hunting knives and a couple of handguns. The weapons did little to add to the hospitable charm.

Corn beef hash simmered in an iron skillet on top of an old wood-burning stove. I thought of poor Mrs. Corbin. Pots and pans hung on the walls above the stove. Left by different generations of hikers, each varied in age and wear.

The smell of sizzling breakfast reminded me how much I craved a warm meal. “Ryan, you staying for breakfast?” Jonathan asked.

“Oh no, I’m alright. I’ll get going here pretty soon,” I replied, even though I secretly wanted to shove him out of the way and cram it into my mouth by the fistful.

“No, I can’t eat your food. It's not like there are supermarkets out here to restock.”

“You’ve been out hiking, I know you’re hungry. How do you want your eggs?” he asked. “Seriously, we’re leaving tomorrow morning and we have a dozen eggs, so either you eat them or we’ll be throwing some out I’m sure.”

“Ok, over easy.”

Jonathan cracked more eggs into the pan and Jimmy continued our conversation. “I used to work at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Michigan, you ever get up there?” This may have been the first time I had more than brief conversation with another backpacker. Sleeping Bear was home to one of my favorite nearby backpacking destinations, North Manitou Island. He also worked at an outfitter and he had plenty of backpacking knowledge. He didn’t have a career, didn't stick with one job for too long, but did something he loved.

“Hey Jimmy can you finish these eggs? I’m out of commission.” Jonathan’s head was tilted back and he was pinching his nose. “I’m getting a bloody nose from this dry air; I need you to take over… Come on, I’m out of commission!” Later it seemed like they must have been doing Karate Kid lines during their trip, so I assume that is why he kept saying “out of commission”. This made me like them even more.

Jimmy picked up the spatula, but kept talking and asking me questions. When Jonathan’s nosebleed seemed to have stopped, he busied himself with other tasks. “You want to finish these now? “ Jimmy asked. “No, I can’t. I’m still out of commission.”

I moved out to the porch and sat on the rocking chair. “So what do you do Ryan?” Jarrett asked, sitting down on the nearby wooden bench. The question is bound to come up eventually; at least it took some time to get there. I told him about my job, in as few words as possible, and he told me about his.

“I’m a freelance photographer and graphic designer. Jonathan is a firefighter and Jimmy… Hey Jimmy what are you doing now. “

“I’m making eggs, dude.”

“No, I mean for a job, what are you doing, like, for money.”

Jimmy paused for a couple seconds, “Political consultant.”

Jarrett laughed condescendingly and shook his head, “heh, political consultant.”

Later, Jimmy brought out a large plate, nearly overflowing with a mountain of corn beef hash and two fried eggs over-easy. Nothing short of an actual mountain could have looked as magnificent at that moment.

It was mouth-watering, the eggs cooked to perfection. A few minutes later, Jonathan brought me a cup of steaming black coffee in an old chipped black-and-white checkered coffee mug, a packet each of cream and sugar. I felt very thankful, and incredibly guilty.

To help ease some of the guilt, I offered to chop the remaining logs for firewood. The five logs I chopped, which were the first I’ve ever chopped, didn’t really make up for their hospitality, but I know they really didn’t care.

“Well, I better get back on the trail so I can get to my next site before it gets too dark.” I hadn’t planned on staying at the cabin for the two hours I was there. I thanked them for everything, but couldn’t thank them enough.


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