Happy Thanksgiving! Pretty soon I’ll be working full tilt at the local outfitter, doing the Christmas Season stuff, so I may be scarce in the next few weeks. I’m not sure how busy I’ll be. For now, though, here’s something fun for you. This post was partly inspired by Grant at New England Outside— Grant’s prompt was “what you’ve learned from hiking,” but this is mostly about how I’ve learned my limits while hiking.
Adventuring around in the wilderness is all about learning. I learn new things every time I go backpacking, whether it’s about my surroundings, myself or my equipment. There’s always something that can pop up and surprise me, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy backpacking. You never know exactly how a trip is going to go.
Sometimes you learn more effectively from some experiences than others. As the saying goes, you learn best from exercising poor judgement and living to tell the tale. Here are a few things I’ve done on my big hikes in the past, each of which taught taught me lessons through bad judgement.
1. Walked Seven Hundred Miles with an Infected Blister
|Yes, that handicapped parking is for me.|
If that sounds painful, you’re right! Somewhere in southwest Virginia on the Appalachian Trail, I got a blister on the bottom of my foot, which is the worst place for a hiker to get a blister. Right on the ball, between the first and second toes. I tried to take care of it, but throughout Virginia all the way to New Hampshire, I was on a roll, hiking between 24 and 29 miles each day, with no days off for two months. At some point, after the blister had turned a mix of black and red, and had been open and oozing for days, I convinced myself that it would eventually go away on its own. And the crippling pain, as well. Oh, I can’t even describe how much it hurt to take those first few steps after every break, although the pain dulled after a dozen or so steps on the trail. It was bad news.
In Duncannon, PA, I finally took half a day off to see a doctor and get some antibiotics. The doctor took one look at my foot and said, “Oh wow!” Which is something you usually don’t want a doctor to say. Within three or four days on the antibiotics, though, the blister was gone as if it had never been there. The high metabolism of a hiker paired with some strong drugs can do wonders!
2. Underestimated New England’s Autumn Chill
|The worst kind of snow– wet and melting.|
On the New England Trail, I was prepared for temperatures down to the mid-thirties. Since it was October and I was heading south, I figured I would walk just ahead of the colder temperatures. I was wrong. A freak cold spell hit (well, only some of it was unusual), and I had temperatures down into the low twenties on several nights, as well as a lot more snow than anticipated.
Each day, I would get into camp, pitch my tarp and hang my bear bag as fast as possible, and then sit in my sleeping bag with all my clothes and insulation on, cooking dinner and drinking as much hot cocoa as possible before going to sleep at 7:30 or 8 PM. It was too cold to dilly-dally in camp, so I had to either keep constantly moving or be in my bag. There was no leeway for in between.
3. Charged a Bear
|Yeah, that’s him. After I laid the smack down.|
In the Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail, while my group sat down for dinner one night we were approached by the largest bear I’ve ever seen in the wild (not counting on TV). He was clearly not afraid of us, and looked like he was waiting for us to invite him to the party. My companions tried banging pots together and shouting, but he just circled us at about fifteen feet. Way too close for comfort. So I charged at him, yelling and waving my arms in the air like a crazy person. Which is exactly what I was, I guess.
Mister Bear ran away, as I’d assumed he would. But I didn’t think about what would have happened if he hadn’t until one of my hiking buddies brought up the subject. I probably would have stopped and not ran right into him, and maybe I would have made a mess in my pants once I realized what I was doing. I’ll probably be a bit more cautious next time.
4. Tried to make a Backcountry Milkshake
|Because who wouldn’t want a milkshake out here?|
Many years ago, I was on a semester course at NOLS in the canyons of Utah. On one of our base-camp days in the wilderness, I decided I wanted to use our extensive backcountry kitchen to make a milkshake. Easy enough, I thought. Brown sugar, powdered milk, water, a Nalgene, shake until thoroughly mixed. Maybe some extra powdered milk to get that richness you want in a shake. Maybe a lot of extra powdered milk…
What goes in must come out, and that nasty concoction came out like a rocket. I won’t go into the details, but you can use your imagination. If you ever need to clean out your colon in the wilderness, just eat a bag of powdered milk and get ready.
5. Listened to Music While Hiking in Rattlesnake Country
After a while on the Pacific Crest Trail, through-hikers tend to zone out for the long stretches of trail up north. Listening to an iPod helps pass the time. I don’t like to listen to music on the trail because it diminishes my awareness of what’s going on around me. For instance, as I was walking out of Chester, CA, earbuds stuck into my ears and blasting some good old Jefferson Airplane, I noticed something I should have noticed several steps earlier. I was walking within two feet of a reared-up and viciously rattling snake. And I just kept walking, barely aware until I was well past it. I don’t know why it didn’t go ahead and bite me, but I’m sure glad it didn’t. Lesson learned– no more headphones on the trail.
Do any of you have good stories of stupid things you’ve done while hiking that will make you change your ways? Or things your, uh, your “friends” did (it definitely wasn’t you)? No names need to be named…