I’ve been told by my friends that I don’t need to explain myself. That I am free to close my studio, leave my house, abandon my pets and take my family hiking for two months. I appreciate those friends but maybe you (or I) want a little more explanation.
As always I can’t tell a story without providing an entire blog post’s worth of context. Our lives are imbedded in bigger stories and who doesn’t love a good story?
If you read my post about my 100 Mile Wilderness Challenge then you already heard about how 20 years ago I started hiking north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Campo, CA. While going through things this spring and packing up boxes to get ready for this summer’s trip, I found my journals from that hike.
My best friend from college, Aubin, drove me to the trailhead and hiked the first two days with me. This is my diary entry from my second day on the trail:
April 16, 1999 Campo, CA
We awoke to beautiful chaparral scenery, lots of wind, and 15 border patrol chevy blazers whizzing by. We left Aubin’s car at the Train Museum, and walked up the road a mile and a half to the border and the start of the trail. Border Patrol had no interest in escorting us there, though they made sure to stop and let us know there were lots of “aliens” out there. Hence the 75 trucks on site and ready for action.
After the ceremonial pictures at the border (a six foot high metal fence) and then the trail monument, we headed north towards Canada, passing Mexican sardine cans, discarded shoes, and two pairs of underwear hanging from a tree branch. We saw a bobcat right off, sneaking through the sagebrush, and later, an enormous rattlesnake that I almost walked into.
For the first night on the trail we set my tent up a hundred feet from the trail in a sandy wash and awoke a few hours later to the sound of at least a dozen feet shuffling and the quiet murmuring of voices. We lay silent, listening to the band of immigrants pass by us on the trail. I admit I was scared. Drinking water, food, shelter and clean clothes are precious resources in this part of the desert and I wondered how desperate a group has to be to pick a fight with two gringas camping alone among the thorns.
And here’s the entry from my last full day on the trail. I completed the trail with a small group of hikers I had met along the trail during the weeks and months before. Though it is common for thru-hikers to have trail names, for some reason many of us didn’t use trail names that year on the PCT.
September 16, 1999 Near Manning Park, BC
Seven miles to the border, we are camped at the edge of a cirque surrounded by high walls of schist and granite. It’s our last night on the trail, and just as we were sitting down to a fire that Jason built, enjoying hot drinks and starting to tell our now age-old trail stories . . . Jim heard a thump coming from the direction of his camp set up under the trees about 50 ft away. Since we had been surrounded by curious and bold deer all evening, Jim decided to go investigate. In a few moments we heard “um, where’s my sleeping bag . . .” Well he found it and several other items scattered about the near by woods, all slightly damp and clearly chewed on by the salt-craving deer. When he retuned with the news, we were all already giggling uncontrollably at his bad luck when Packrat remembered that his sleeping bag was drying on the top of his tent, so off he went. Again a few moments later we heard a “yechk”, which of course sent us into another round of uncontrollable laughter. He returned with his sleeping bag so soaked in deer saliva (at least he hoped that’s what it was) that it weighed about five extra pounds. He attempted to dry it in front of the fire while we couldn’t stop laughing (and chasing away deer) for the rest of the evening.
So much happened between those two journal entries. But maybe most poignant is the memory I have of feeling “at home” during that trip.
I’ve felt it happen many times, a distinct shift in my nervous system when I live outside full time. Even in my 20’s, when screen-time wasn’t really a thing and cell phones and GPS were still rare, I observed a settling, organizing force envelope me and fellow travelers after about 7-10 days of wilderness immersion. It is an experience best described as the proper balance between alertness and ease.
I observed this shift in my child last summer when she spent five days outside at a small wilderness survival camp. For the previous two years she had been suffering the consequences of several concussions and Lyme disease, including chronic migraines, blood sugar issues and a perennially bad mood. She returned from that week smiling and laughing for the first time in two years. She does not love backpacking but she does love to share a tent with her family, run around barefoot and swim in any puddle or stream she can find.
I observed the same shift in my twin brother when he took to the Appalachian Trail only four months after having a brain tumor partially removed from his frontal lobe. When I hiked with him a few months into his trip he was more clear-headed, happy and organized then I’d seen him in years.
I’ve often wondered if other humans, like me, are barely surviving domesticity. It seems we need a lot of propping up to make it through this odd life style we’ve created. Is the glut of calories and safety from predators worth it? Surely there are people who can thrive in a wide variety of environments, but maybe there is a sub-group of people that do best planted in partly shady, mountain soil.
That’s why ten years ago, shortly after we bought our house, I asked Jerome if, in addition to paying down our mortgage, he would join me in putting a small amount of money into a “Family Adventure Fund” every month. Depending on our jobs and expenses the amount varied but the rule was that we would never dip into the Adventure Fund. We would pretend it didn’t exist and figure out how to pay bills other ways. It sounds so rosy and well thought out so I’ll spare you the gory reality of marriage and shared finances (but maybe it’s helpful to know that none of us are immune to these realities).
For me that savings account has been a life-line. It’s not that I loathe domestic life, but I don’t thrive in it. I need to know that I can escape. That we are not stuck grinding it out just to show our kids how to grind it out. I need to feel that wilderness and mountains are a choice I can make.
This past fall we felt clearly that it was time to make that choice. The time for our “Adventure” has come. The girls will be 11 and 13 which seems like a good age: young enough to still be willing to hang out with their parents and old enough to hike in big mountains.
What’s the plan?
We have a long-distance hiking permit to hike the Pacific Crest Trail north from Kennedy Meadows, CA (at the Southern end of the High Sierras) starting July 1. This will cover the John Muir Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mt. Whitney to Tolumne Meadows, and then north through some spectacular wilderness areas past Lake Tahoe and Mt. Lassen.
The details of the trip are still slightly fuzzy because there has been a ton of snow in California’s High Sierra’s this winter, but what we know so far is that we are driving west starting June 20, with a stop in Denver, CO to visit friends. Then onward to Davis, CA where we’ll leave our car and send our food resupply packages to points north.
Yes we saved money, but this is still going to be a budget trip, which I think only increases the adventure part. (Ask me about that in four months).
Preparation and planning is one way to save money, so I’ve spent a ton of time looking at maps and inventorying our existing gear and outdoor clothes. Thankfully we already have most of what we need. Which, incidentally is not much, Jerome’s pack will be the heaviest with a base weight of 13lbs, while the girls will be carrying 5lbs before their food and water is added. I did buy us four lightweight, waterproof, used down coats on Ebay (Jerome has been happily wearing his purple one to work every day). And a bear canister, which is required in many of the areas we will be passing through.
Next up is food preparation. Aren’t you curious how one feeds a family of four on a long-distance backpacking trip? I know I am.