The Right Way

I’ve been haunting the various Facebook hiking and backpacking groups, trying to get more information about the right way to do things, and I’ve come across some interesting discussions. In one, a fellow asked if it were possible to hike the PCT without seeing anyone, and apparently, it’s all but impossible these days ever since THAT book and THAT movie. In fact, some people were downright rude in their responses, telling the poor fellow that one of the major benefits of hiking such a well-known trail was the camaraderie among hikers and that he’d be better off hiking somewhere far from them. Very few seemed to understand why he would want the trail to himself; most acted as if he were committing some sort of crime against the community by wanting to be alone on the trail.

One person who did understand suggested other hikes, such as The Desert Trail, which apparently runs parallel to the PCT, but goes through the desert portions of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It sounds interesting, but there isn’t a lot of information about the trail, not like The Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. He also suggested the Ouachita Trail, which is one I actually considered hiking. In fact, before my road trip turned into more of a friend trip than a camping trip, I’d planned to hike the trail. I even printed out all the maps and instructions and rules for the trail. I’ve kept all that information because it still fascinates me, not just because it’s an east-west trail, but because it goes through states I would never have considered, and also because the best time to hike the trail is in the winter rather than the summer when so many people are out and about.

Other discussions center on cost. Apparently, a thru hike on the PCT costs about $1,000 a month. If you add home rent on top of that expense, plus all the extravagantly expensive gear, thru hiking becomes a pricey undertaking. (When I first considered it, I thought I’d be homeless and so the $1,000 a month seemed reasonable.

There seem to be two groups who thru hike, recent college graduates and recent retirees, probably because both groups have the money and the time and little responsibility. A lot of retirees do manage to complete the hike, though many have to bail out because of health issues or bad knees. At least one older woman who completed the trail had to have her knees replaced afterward. Eek.

Many discussions in the various groups are about basic pack weight — the weight of all gear except for perishables such as food, water, and fuel. It seems to be a matter of status to hike the lightest possible hike. In fact, one fellow’s base pack weight was five pounds. Yep — tent, backpack, sleep system, emergency gear, clothes, all less than five pounds.

Outside of the understandable need to carry as little weight as possible, the real reason for ultra light is for thru hikers to be able to go as fast as possible, which seems a bit ridiculous to me, but what do I know. I’m just a saunterer or a plodder or even a trudger, no matter how much or how little weight I carry. This ultra lightweight gear is horrendously expensive (coming near to truly costing their weight in gold), and seems a bit counterproductive. The lightest weight backpack has no hip belt, just shoulder straps, which means all the weight is on the shoulders. If it were just the five pounds of basics that needed to be carried, that’s one thing, but if you add food and water, especially water enough to get through the dry places (six liters minimum at two pounds a liter) that’s a whole heck of a lot of weight to be hanging from one’s shoulders. Some of the ultra light tents are enclosed spaces, but some are not, and if you’re going through a buggy or snaky area, I for one would prefer a totally enclosed tent.

There’s quite a bit of snobbishness when it comes to light weight backpacking. One person sneered at the folks who spent all that money on ultra lightweight gear, but carried many extra pounds of their own weight. So what? At least the huskier folks are trying. And they have as much right on the trail as the thinner ones.

I left one forum when the talk turned political, as if I care whether or not the various companies catering to backpackers aim for diversity or not. All I know is that they are not catering to me. There are clothes geared toward women backpackers now, but very little for hefty women, even though a lot of not-thin women are interested in hiking. For example, the hip belt of the lightest backpack with a hip belt would in no way fit me. And most sleeping pads, especially ultra light sleeping pads, are too narrow.

Which is why I have to go lightweight and not ultra light. My base weight is, at a guess, seventeen pounds, depending on what sort of emergency and electronic gear I would bring in addition to extra clothes. (Unheard of in the early backpacking days, my tent is three pounds, my backpack three pounds, and my sleep system four pounds.) Of course, the ultra lights don’t bring many optional items. As one person said, “If you have energy to read or write at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right.” As if there is a right way or a wrong way. Each person who hikes or backpacks has different goals, and although “hike your own hike” seems to be a mantra of the hiking bunch, they don’t all seem to live by it, at least not for other people. (To be fair, I should admit that most hikers seem helpful and supportive of one another.)

I don’t suppose any of this really matters since there is a good chance neither you nor I will ever meet these folks on the trail.

There’s a good chance you will never meet me, anyway. I’m not sure I enjoy carrying any weight on my back, regardless if it’s ultra lightweight or just lightweight. With what I can carry and for how long, I’ll still be able to do short backpacking trips, dispersed camping, and various other activities that will get me out in the wild and away from people who think they know the “right” way to do things.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Impossible Dreams

Quixotic means capricious, foolishly impractical, rash to the point of absurdity. But it can also mean (more because of the musical Man of La Mancha than because of the original Don Quixote story) dreaming impossible dreams.

Who hasn’t listened to the song “The Impossible Dream” and not got caught up in the romance of those powerful words? I certainly get caught up and did again today when a friend posted Jim Nabors’ version on Facebook. As I listened, I wondered what it would be like to have such a dream, wondered if I should go out and get myself one, then I realized I already have an impossible dream. Maybe even two.

(I say maybe two because one of the dreams has to do with selling enough books to make a living, and though it is highly improbable as things stand now, who’s to say if it will always be impossible?)

Ever since I first heard of the long national trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I wished I could do such a hike. The first time I was young (well, younger), but had little experience hiking, no experience backpacking or camping, no money to support such a dream, and no fitness for it either. What I had was a very ill life mate/soul mate, whose death, I knew, would devastate me. I thought one way of dealing with my grief would be just to take off down (or up) such a trail and let my life run its course.

That particular time, he got better, but the idea of walking into oblivion remained in the back of head. Years later, when he got ill for the last time, I was too shattered to follow through on such a ridiculous idea. And anyway, my nonagenarian father needed someone to stay with him. But when my father got bad, and knowing I would soon be ousted from the house, I again resurrected the dream, but researching what it would take to do such a hike made me realize the impossibility of my ever undertaking such a project.

Instead, I went on a five-month cross-country trip in my ancient VW, but still, the idea of an epic hike keeps coming back. I do know why such a rashly romantic idea, such an impossible dream, keeps recurring. Partly, it’s the desire to run away (it was strongest when I was housebound because of my arm). Partly, it’s the desire to run toward something (it’s also strong when I am out hiking in the desert by myself.) And partly, well . . . what an incredible adventure!

I have often felt foolish to still be thinking of such an impossible thing because I am so not fit physically for such an escapade. I can hike for a couple of hours, can even set up camp (I have learned that much!), but carrying a heavy backpack is beyond me. (What is considered ultralightweight for others is immensely heavy for me. I remember when I hiked in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I used my backpack for emergency supplies and extra water in case I got lost, and it felt oh, so heavy. And yet, when I met a fellow along the trail who offered to carry it for me, he picked it up with one finger as if weighed nothing.)

Periodically I think about how to offset the problems that would arise. For example, I did one day hike on the PCT where the trail was eroded, I had to take a very long and unsteady step on a narrow ledge to get past the erosion. A backpack would probably have pulled me over. But what if I could find someone who would be willing to carry the pack for me, sort of like a Sherpa? That’s no more impossible than the rest of the dream.

I also periodically research how to get in shape for such a thru hike, but the exercises they suggest are totally beyond me. Use a park bench for stair-stepping? Uh, no. A curb, sometimes, is too high! But I do go hiking to stretch my ability. I walk wherever I can. I take dance classes for strength and balance.

And I collect items that would be necessary, such as hiking clothes and lightweight camping gear.

Foolish. Quixotic.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

Maybe I will be better for this. Maybe the world will be better for this: that no matter how hopeless, no matter how far, one woman still strove to reach an unreachable star.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Do You Absolutely Need?

I’ve been searching the internet for information about ultralight backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags in case I ever decide to walk up the Pacific Coast. Apparently, the lightest weight for all those things combined is about five pounds. Which, since I am interested in walking rather than struggling along with heavy pack, is still too much weight considering everything else I would need to bring. I suppose it would be possible to forget the tent and just sleep under the stars, or rely on relatives of friends and online acquaintances for a place to California sunrisestay, but emergency shelter is still a good idea.

But let’s forget that for now. It seems to take way more planning than the spontaneous adventure I dream of. Let’s also forget food and water, and assume that whatever I need will appear when I need it. As ridiculous as that might sound, it’s quite logical, since the first month or so of walking up the coast would be rather urban — San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara.

And let’s not talk about clothes. That too seems to take more planning and research than I want to do, at least for now, though I am thinking something gaudy. Sometimes camouflage is good, but human hunters so often choose their prey from among those who won’t be missed, and I want to make sure I would be noticed and would be missed.

So, what besides sleeping accommodations, food, and water, and clothes do I really need? Emergency supplies, I suppose, such as bandaids and water purifying tablets. A phone. Maybe extra batteries for the phone. Camera. A sun hat. Bug repellent, though supposedly there are few mosquitoes near the ocean. Toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss. Lip balm. A bit of cream or lotion to keep my skin from chapping. Handkerchief. Toilet paper. Pee rag. Flashlight. A few pieces of duct tape. Treking poles. Pen. A small notebook. A flower or something frivolous for my hat or backpack to remind me that the trip is supposed to be fun.

Sheesh. That’s a whole backpack full of stuff right there!

If you were going off on some sort of adventure, what would you absolutely need to take along?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.