Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I haven't gotten a stick of equipment yet. No tent, no sleeping bag, no boots. (I do own camping gear, but it's old, too heavy for backpacking, and suited for summer weather, though it did keep me dry through a week's worth of rain on The Island last year.) Yet somehow, I feel like I'm done obsessing over equipment. I've done enough research to narrow my options to a reasonable number, and my next step is to go to REI, EMS, and the much-anticipated Hilton's Tent City in Boston to actually try stuff out. Basically, I've thought all I can about equipment without leaving the house. So my mind has moved on. My next obsession is food.

That's not really fair. I'm always obsessed with food. I'm a lazy cook but a highly motivated eater; my other big output for inherited money is farmer's markets, pastries, and meals out. I read cookbooks with no plans to use them. The New Yorker's food issue is my absolute favorite of the year. So being obsessed about backpacking food is more like normal life, just focused.

The food that requires planning is the stuff I'll take into the backcountry. My backcountry jaunts may run as long as six or seven days at a time--in fact, the food I can carry will be the limiting factor. There is no refrigeration. There is limited fuel, and certainly limited utensils, work space, and patience for cooking. And there will certainly be a weight limit. Lunches and snacks can be fresh foods or no-preparation snacks I get on the road. But meals in camp--breakfasts and dinners--will have to be planned for. Given those restrictions, I have several options for eating.

1. I could buy ready-made freeze-dried backpacking meals from camping supply stores.

2. I could buy ready-made instant meals from the supermarket (ramen, Lipton mixes, etc.)

3. I could carry ingredients and cook on the trail.

4. I could make and dehydrate my own meals ahead of time.

Option 1 has advantages, in that everything will be ready-made with all my restrictions, needs, and parameters in mind. It'll be high-calorie, lightweight, easy and fast to prepare, and nutritionally complete. It'll also be expensive, and might taste like ass. Option 2 is far cheaper, and I generally have a good idea of what tastes yummy (according to many backpacking guides, blue-box mac and cheese, a savored guilty pleasure of mine, is a trail staple), but that stuff is mad nutritionally suspect, and often bulky. Option 3 sounds romantic and would probably taste the best, but it also sounds like a pain in the ass; when I've finished a day's worth of hiking and only have maybe one pot and one pan and a rickety stove and a folding knife, I'll probably give up and eat cold gorp and go to bed rather than try to chop onions on a slab of wood by headlamp. I don't even like gorp.

It's a long trip, so of course there will probably be a mix of all, but it looks like Option 4 is the best way to go. There are disadvantages to this--it's by far the most labor-intensive, plus I'll have to make a six-months' supply of food and then figure out how to either store it or get it to myself when I'm on the road, as I won't have much ability to cook and dehydrate while living out of a tent/truck/hotel. But making my food has a lot of other advantages. I can make things just how I like them, modifying recipes to my taste. I can make as much or as little as I like. Though I love trying new things (I had my first steak tartar the other day), I'm also good at subsisting on a favorite for several days at a time--and doubling a recipe for a week'sworth is easier and cheaper than buying twice as much prepared food. Other than the initial investment of a food dehydrator, it's pretty inexpensive all around. I can also make and test everything beforehand, which if you couldn't tell is kind of a thing for me.

I'm excited to try the recipes from a couple of library books, both by Linda Frederick Yaffe: Backpack Gourmet and High Trail Cookery. Both include foods that sound totally edible as regular meals--no reliance on TVP, obscure grains, or f'ing lentils (I HATE lentils--backpackers seem to love them). The recipes sound relatively easy to make. And they all come with instructions on how to dehydrate them at home and reconstitute them with boiling water on the trail. Maybe these books will even give me the urge to do more cooking.

There will also be, of course, smoked cheese and crackers and summer sausage and instant oatmeal and beef jerky. There will be un-mixed trail mix, with nuts and chocolate and dried fruit in their own separate little bags, as I like all the ingredients but hate the way they end up seeming slightly damp and tasting all the same when combined. There will also be fast food at truck stops and scones at coffee houses in Portland and a nice meal at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. I have a (arbitrary, I know) taboo against eating at McDonald's, with the caveat that if I'm traveling and there is no other convenient option, it'll have to do. And honestly, I just might be looking forward to my first Bic Mac in many years somewhere in the middle of Idaho. Thinking about food is the funnest part of my fun obsession.

As an aside: I've noticed that the guidebooks I end up favoring were all written by women. This isn't intentional; I came home with several "backpacking for women" style guidebooks, and I found them a bit whiny/preachy, if not so hopelessly out-of-date that they felt obligated to reassure readers that no, your ovaries won't fall out if you hike too much. But there is something to be said for a book whose tone is reassuring and non-competitive, a far cry from the Idiosyncratic Guides or XTREME Gear Guides, even if I am myself antsy and competitive.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

American Idiots

This article in the New York Times caught my eye this week. Thinking about equipment has led me to think about safety and preparedness in general. The article made me a) confident that I'm not a wimp or a dolt, b) un-eager about the possibility of running into such wimps and dolts at our overcrowded national parks, and c) secretly fearful that I'll become a wimp or a dolt, or, you know, get in real danger and require a really expensive ride home.

That article was quickly followed up by this one in Slate, which debunks the anecdotal and statistically unsupported thesis of the NYT piece, which is that GPS, cell phone, and other rescue technology is behind an increase in wimp/dolt rescues. I can see Slate's point; I actually wrote a book about weird and stupid goings-on at National Parks (it's sort of a running private joke of mine that I've written a book on about half the esoteric trivia subjects that come up in any conversation--writing for kids means having a very wide, very shallow range of knowledge). There's a geyser on the edge of Yellowstone Lake whose discoverers purportedly used it to poach ("cook," not "hunt illegally") fish right on the line. Catch it in the lake, flip it into the geyser. So many people ended up posing over the geyser in chef's costumes that they had to restrict access because of all the scalded feet and legs. Because people were standing over a boiling geyser. And this was way back in the early part of the 20th century. Everyone fed the bears until just a few decades ago. The lesson of the Slate article is that stupidity pre-dates technology. The lesson of the NYT article is that it outlasts it, too.

Statistical validity aside, I read the NYT article more as a Darwin Awards entertainment piece. That and a manual on what not to do.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Note on Experience

Probably most readers (and at this point, I think I might be my only reader) know me personally. But in case not, here's a primer on my actual wilderness experience.

I grew up in Vermont, in a small town, with patches of woods on all sides. The patches were large enough for you to go on a long walk--long enough to get tired or bored--without seeing a house or a road or a person. I spent many afternoons walking these patches of woods. Though the walks were very casual, it gave me an everyday comfort with navigating trails, climbing slopes, and generally being at home in the woods alone year-round.

My father took me (and sometimes my sister) on short camping trips when we were young. We hiked in our stuff and set up tents at campsites that were established and regulated, but not really developed. I was pretty small for most of these.

When I was in high school, I went on a couple of Epic Canoe Trips. This eccentric old man from my hometown would take about 20 kids and maybe 8 adults on week-long wilderness canoe trips in northern Quebec. (I remember that the drive was 10 hours, and we lived about 3 hours south of Montreal, though I can't pinpoint just where we went on any map: it's a hell of a lot of big blank green up there.) The first year, I went with the group, and the second year, my dad signed up as a chaperone. Though no one gave us any dire warnings at the time (which is why I find the dire warnings in the Useless guidebooks so exasperating), we were really roughing it. We carried everything on our backs or in canoes. We camped in tents and dug little holes to poo in. We ate horrid calorie-dense foods and drank untreated lake water. (No one got sick.) We portaged our stuff through thigh-high peat and mud. We saw bears. We saw zero people. The eccentric old dude probably could have written his own Idiosyncratic Guide, what with his put-up-or-shut-up attitude and penchant for mesh shirts, though it would have been an even older-school, Roughneck kind of book, as he was nearly 80. My gear at that time was also thoroughly Idiosyncratic: external-frame backpack with two giant pouches and basically no external pockets or straps, down mummy sleeping bag (both were my dad's and from the 70s--he's a bit Idiosyncratic himself), army-style tent, and my fucking Doc Martens, from which I was inseparable, all kept lake-proof with trash bags. It all worked fine.

Since then, I've done recreational camping here and there. When I lived in Tucson, I did a fair amount of hiking and some wilderness camping, usually only for a day or two, but it gave me experience with staying hydrated, un-sunburned (in the words of Pickles, "I'm, like, very Irish-American."), and un-impaled by desert flora, skills I'll need for the last legs of the trip. We've camped on the canoe-only Island in western Massachusetts for the past four years, but that's pretty easygoing.

I feel like I have some good experience under my belt. I also feel like my most intensive experience was long ago enough that I'm almost starting over. Luckily, though the equipment has changed, the woods have not, and I can't imagine I won't still feel at home.

Equipment Anxiety

Before getting into this post, I should say something: I know I'm over-thinking this. Luckily, that's kind of part of the fun. I am calling it "Logistical Wankery," after all.

I'm still kinda nervous about the whole prospect of buying equipment. I think the biggest fear is the near-guarantee that problems won't bother showing up until I've hiked 20 miles and tried to make camp in the rain, after which, obviously, I can't really take my stuff back to the store. So what happens if I pay hundreds of dollars for boots or a pack, only to find out far later that they quite literally rub me the wrong way? I guess that's the point of thorough research and getting my stuff early.

I did, thankfully, get some guidance from the General backpacking guides, most reassuringly from Karen Berger's Hiking and Backpacking: A Trailside Series Guide, which is unfortunately out of print (and as far as specific equipment, out of date--every human year is like 7 moisture-wicking-fabric years), but I managed to find a used copy on Amazon. This and Backpacker magazine's Making Camp were both comforting in their insistence that mistakes are universal. I tend to be very competitive and easily embarrassed; I hate feeling like a novice at anything, so permission to make mistakes is welcome.

After switching from the Idiosyncratic Guides and the Gear Guides to these General Guides, another comforting thought became apparent: I'm not doing this trip to prove anything. After reading the Gear Guides, with their emphasis on extreme ruggedness and failure-proof engineering, and the Idiosyncratic Guides, with their arrogance and insistence that they've found the Right Way to do Everything (not to mention the Useless national park guides that offered the other extreme--RV'ing, i.e. "camping in your house), my competitiveness kind of went nuts, and I figured my only strategy was to get the best, most badass, lowest-temperature-rated, highest-end gear that would probably keep an infant safe on Mt. Everest.

But after reading the more casual, introductory guidebooks, it dawned on me that for this trip, camping and backpacking are a means to an end. I want to see spectacular, untouched wilderness. To get there, I'm going to have to hike and carry my shelter with me. But I can't see spectacular wilderness in a blizzard. So if there's a blizzard, I'll probably just get a frikking hotel. I don't need to feel I'm covering a staggering number of miles at a nauseating altitude and at a hellacious pace so I can camp on a 60-degree slope in hurricane-force winds. My emphasis really should be on ease and comfort, keeping in mind that "comfort" also includes "warm and dry."

Unfortunately, this still leaves the original problem of what to get, not knowing how it'll actually perform. Hopefully I can now use the Gear Guides with a more refined eye. (Aside: Product reviews are one of those things I can't imagine living without before the Internet. It's as though you have dozens of friends who've tried out all this stuff and can tell you what they like and don't like about it. Thanks, future!) In that spirit, I've started a new chart to organize my equipment needs. Whee, charts!

I've decided I need to break from obsessing/over-thinking/wankery once in a while, so the guides and blogs are off-limits on weekends, which means I had to rip myself away from the Eastern Mountain Sports storefront, even though they were having a tax-free weekend here in Massachusetts. I still need (and have plenty of!) time before I actually open my wallet and commit myself to some expensive new toy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Wilderness of Weirdos

Now that I've got a very vague itinerary and a reservation to hang it on, my next big planning phase is to gear up. This is fraught with a truly stupid amount of anxiety. Backpacker magazine seems like the best all-around source of gear ratings. But just test this for me: imagine you know only what you've read about this trip, which is basically all I know (fall-winter-spring; western US; solo traveler). Click the link, find the gear guide, click on "sleeping bags," check off a few parameters, and search.

Thousands. An impossible variety. So many variables that it wouldn't help me even to list them here (downsynthetictemperaturemummyrectanglehoodliningweightbulkprice!?!?!?). Looking through the gear guide is like stepping into a maze; I started for a few moments, and then realized that unless I wanted to devote the rest of my week, and possibly a hunk of my sanity, to reading reviews and considering variables, I was never going to get through it all. I need help narrowing this stuff down beyond just "Umm… I'm a girl?"

So I went to the library again. The library is an equally dangerous place. Not only do I risk hernia every time I check out, but any time I go more than a few decimal places in the dewey system, I uncover yet another sprawl of information that often seems to raise more questions than it answers.

This time, I wisely did a lot of my weeding at the library, rather than check out everything with the keyword "backpack." I tossed anything that was too old, noting that the library's selection as a whole was outdated (and sometimes forgetting that I am old, and that the 90s are no longer recent). I eliminated anything with the word "family."  But I still came home with a basket full of books. These backpacking and camping guides, like the national park guides, are stirring up a bunch of philosophical conundrums.

There are two basic types of backpacking guides. The first is the General kind. It's guidebook-y and well organized. It's aimed at an audience somewhere between "beginner" and "getting comfortable." (Luckily, it seems that "backpacking," unlike "camping," has but one definition, and that definition involves trekking and sweat.) It's often written by a team and published under a famous name (National Geographic, Sierra Club, etc.). The second kind, and the kind that I (possibly unfortunately) happened to crack first once I got home, is the Idiosyncratic kind. It is by one author. It usually takes the form of long prose rather than bullet points and chunks of texts. It is almost always accompanied by charmingly outdated pencil illustrations. In fact, the one I'm reading first I brought home solely for its charmingly outdated pencil illustrations. That, and the back-cover blurb advertising "good, no-jive information," as I am, rather emphatically, no jive turkey, sir.

Read that title. Now imagine the Google Image Search horror I went through to find this.
I think the Idiosyncratic books tend to be written by the same kind of person. It's a man, probably in his 40s, definitely with a beard, curmudgeonly, anti-establishment, possessing decades of experience, and totally whacked. One guide, which I read extensively but elected to leave at the library, was by a man who insisted on traveling so ultra-light that he made his own gear, as in stitched his own tent and built his own backpack that weighs mere ounces. The guide I'm reading now (pictured above) is obsessed with something called a Vapor Barrier, which, apologies to Dave Barry but I am totally not making this up, consists of a dry-cleaner's bag worn underneath your clothing. Barring that, he heartily endorses another somewhat whacked outfitter who sells a shirt version of the Vapor Barrier. Here it is:
I believe it's spelled "sexxxxxxxxxxxxxxy."

It's the opinion of both Idiosyncratic authors that only pussies get giardia, and that water filtration systems are just placebos. Sugar is poison. Underwear is for squares.

As is obvious from the sepia- and hemp-tinted tone of these books, they're products of the 70s. That was when backpacking really took off, but was still sort of a niche thing. Most of the people doing it were hippies. And the ones who were dedicated enough to write guidebooks were true freaks. Backpacking now is much broader. Not that it doesn't have a clique: outfitters brand themselves with either a macho XTREME!! feel or a lady-macho vibe that reminds me of my Cambridge yoga studio. But either way, modern backpacking is thoroughly commercialized. It doesn't assume that you go camping because you hate The Man and are offended that He'd try to sell you this crazy "shirt" bullshit when all you really need is a dry cleaner bag and some scissors.

This leaves me somewhat torn, because I consider myself anti-commercialism. I don't like paying for stuff I don't need, especially if I'm paying mostly for the image of toughness rather than true utility. I happily snob it over people who gear themselves all out with expensive specialty clothing and equipment when a similarly designed everyday alternative is much cheaper--and probably already in their closet. But when I'm looking for gear that's going to keep me alive for six months, I find myself uncharacteristically comforted by a big chain store with R&D and famous brands and salespeople and everything. I'm not wearing no damn plastic bag.

I think the secret to the whole thing is this: When you're backpacking, you're basically a snail. That's your whole house you're carrying. Most people have a pretty set way of running their house, a way that just "feels" right, and no two people will do it the same. Taking someone else's advice on how to gear up for a camping trip is like taking someone else's advice on how to organize your kitchen. Sure, there are some general principles that will be useful for everyone. But your final decision will be based entirely on the way you prefer to do things. Do the glasses go near the sink, or above the plates? Knives near the counter, or the stove? Milk in the door of the fridge... who does that? The Idiosyncratic guides don't seem to leave much room for anyone else's personal preferences besides their authors', and moreover, they have the attitude that others' preferences, and the products that cater to them, are foolish and wrong. The gear guides and catalogs and web sites offer nothing but choices, with no clue as to what might be useful. Though I've only skimmed them so far, I hope the General guidebooks will give me some basic principles, and then let me figure out for myself what I want.

On a more practical note: the sun is behind clouds, and there's a chill in the air that is unmistakably autumnal. I want to have my gear well ahead of time, because I want to take it test-camping this winter. I'm terrified of discovering problems with expensive items while I'm already in the wilderness. I think testing will also help me get a sense of how I'll operate, what quirky homemade tricks will work for me. The best test of your kitchen set-up is to cook a few meals. Look at that metaphor go!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Break for Real Life, Then Headlong Again

Look! I totally didn't update this blog every day last week! And on some of those non-update days, I didn't even do any research! I'm so disciplined with my obsession. But now a recent work project and a few social occasions have wrapped up, and I can't help myself.

It occurred to me at some point that I might have better luck with books if, instead of reading specific guides on national parks and hoping to find information on backpacking and camping, I should read specific guides on backpacking and camping. And the library is chock full. (p.s. Thank you, Boston/Eastern Mass's Minuteman Library Network for providing free, unlimited loans throughout your entire network and delivering them promptly to the teeny library branch at the end of my street.) I imagine that some of these will still end up in the Useless pile for one reason or another, but I'm really looking forward to titles on winter camping, camp cooking, and wilderness survival, if only to fantasize about badassness I may never achieve.

I also received (and filled out and sent back) the reservation packet for the Grand Canyon trip. I think as far as reservations go, this will be the only thing I'll need to take care of before, like, next spring. I popped on the web sites for some of the posh lodges, and not only do they only accept reservations a single year out, but they still have openings for this year during winter, which is when I hope to be in Yosemite.

Can I just say that I love watching a vague, general idea slowly acquire structure and shape and detail, until it finally becomes something concrete and specific? It's an intellectual, but also an almost artistic, sort of enjoyment.

In that spirit, here is a very general timeline. I wish I knew how to build a calendar, so I could display it all colorful-like the way I have it on a big yearly planner on my desk, but I'm only good at looking at the Internet, not making it. Consider this schedule subject to a shitlot of change:

Late July, 2011: Arrive in Seattle/Olympia. Spend a week or two buying a vehicle, completing outfitting, and visiting with friends and family. I'd love it if my dad could join me.

End of July/August: Visit Olympic National Park, with Dad, if possible.
Mid-August: North Cascades
Late August: Mt. Rainier (probably a day trip), a few days in Portland, Crater Lake (also only 1-2 days)

Early September: Glacier
Mid September: Yellowstone
Late September: Grand Teton

Arrive in Flagstaff, AZ on Oct. 5, 2011, to begin Grand Canyon trip. GC journey goes until Oct. 21st.
Late October/Early November: Arches, Canyonlands
Early-Mid November: Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalante
Mid-Late November: Bryce Canyon, Zion
Late November/Early December: Skiing in Utah? Las Vegas?

December: Possibly San Francisco. I'd love to be there around the holidays (provided I don't decide to fly back home for a week or so).
Early January, 2012: Yosemite
Mid January: Sequoia/King's Canyon
Late January/Early February: Death Valley
Mid February: Joshua Tree
Late February, 2012: Arrive in Tucson, where I'll visit friends, sell the vehicle, and finish off the trip.

The national parks aren't the only thing I hope to see during each time listed; there are state parks, cities and towns, and odd sights to fit in here and there. There are also a couple of parks (Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Lassen Volcanic, for example) that don't fit neatly into a color, and I don't know if I'll get to. And I'd like to get a sense of which parks will be only a couple of days' visit (the small Arches and Crater Lake, for instance) and which I might stay in for weeks. But still. Now there's a shape, a frame, where once there was an amoeba. It's satisfying.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

An Anchor in the Colorado

I am nothing if not efficient. Okay... I am one thing. I am obsessive. Every book I read is a guidebook. Every car I pass I evaluate for off-road ability. Last night, I dreamed of planning the trip. Not of the trip. Planning. I dreamed about taking notes.

This is good, right? This means I'll have all the necessary stuff squared away well ahead of time, and I can have the months before I leave to relax, bulk up my hikin' calves, and figure out what to do with my cats (the only aspect of this trip I dread thinking about).

But ta-daa! Today I called the extremely friendly people at Canyon Explorations, Colorado-River rafting guides and outfitters, to book my run down the Grand Canyon, which will take 16 days, starting October 6, 2011. They were recommended by my Lonely Planet guide, and so far, I really like the way they do things (or at least the way they tell me they do things). I like that the trip I booked is a "Hiker's Special," which allows hours per day to explore side canyons. I like that they encourage participation in the paddling, and even offer short lessons in a single-person inflatable kayak for shooting the rapids solo, if I get that comfortable. I really like that they work for sustainability, both because it's a good thing all around, and because the organic, free-range, and local food sounds delicious. It's also quite nice that they both pick you up and drop you off in Flagstaff, Arizona, which not only seemed like a cool town the one time I visited, but is also convenient for me to head back up into Utah

Canyon Explorations is one of the few Colorado River guide companies that offers tours as late as October. My rough itinerary, which had me starting the Colorado Plateau in Utah in about October and working my way down, put me in the Grand Canyon in more like November or even December. It isn't that big of a problem for me to do the Grand Canyon as the first step in the CP rather than the last, especially if the drop-off point is Flagstaff instead of Vegas. I also kind of like heading up into Utah during full-on winter, given how glowingly the guides describe cross-country skiing around Bryce. Nonetheless, I wanted the Grand Canyon trip to be as late as possible, to give me enough time to explore the PN and MW through late summer and fall.

My next step is to stop ignoring my present life and go get a haircut and a gift for a friend's wedding shower. I don't want this obsession to get troublesome, because it's so fun! 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burning After Reading

Yesterday, I collected more guidebooks than could fit in the collapsible basket on the back of my bike. Seriously; I had to double-check whether the library had limits on the number of items you could check out, and it was totally out of character that I managed to lug it all home without either dropping an armload of books or knocking over my bike. I also made some very carefully considered purchases at the Globe Corner bookstore, where I was surrounded by slightly disdainful Belgian teenagers (or perhaps French just sounds disdainful to English-speaking ears?) who only seemed interested in guides to Disneyland. I was overly generous with library check-outs, and probably overly timid with actual purchases. Even though one goal of this trip is to spend money, I still have the thrifty mind of someone with an erratic income, and it's my general habit to avoid buying stuff if I don't have to. Nonetheless, I managed to get within $20 of the store's buy-this-much-and-get-your-next-purchase-free thing.

But I think borrowing many and buying few was the right decision. I've been weeding the library books into three categories: Useful, Useless, and Landscape Porn. The process has already been enlightening. For starters, the Useless pile is much, much larger than the other piles. The main issue seems to be this: I want to go to the national parks for solitude and wilderness. Most guides presume I want to go to the national parks for easy sightseeing, restaurants, and shopping. I guess that's only fair. As the few Useful guides love to gloat, the vast majority of people who visit national parks do so almost solely from their cars. They crowd the scenic overlooks and choke up the big touring roads and look for accommodations with flush toilets and places to buy T-shirts and sweet snacks. Day-visitors and vehicle tourists are by far the largest market for guide books. Relatedly, they're also the largest market for the national parks themselves. People who spend one day driving through Yellowstone in a car will pay the same admission fee as someone who spends a week at a back-country camp site--or even more, since the back-country person might (like I will) have a National Parks Pass, which can pay for itself (or, if you're the NPS, "lose money") after visiting as few as three parks. Car tourists also pay for lodging, food, and entertainment, which the back-country camper will probably find on his or her own. I'm in a niche market, and not a profitable one. At the bookstore, I was thrilled to find a camping guide with info on bear poles, cat holes, and leave-no-trace practices. But now that I've got it home and read it through, it turns out that most of the listed "campsites" are really "campgrounds," which means car camping or RV-ing.

I'm going to risk sounding like a snob, but here it is: to me, the idea of heading to a national park to go car camping sounds about as pleasant as going to a three-star restaurant only to be seated at table in the parking lot next to a dumpster. I grew up in Vermont with a dad who liked the outdoors and abhorred cars; though our camping trips didn't venture all that far from civilization, they certainly went at least a half-day's walk away from internal combustion engines. Just as I was typing this, a few of my friends returned from our annual Buffumville Lake camping trip (I'd joined them last weekend), where the campsite is on an island that's accessible only by boat. Believe me when I say that this is not a strenuous trip; it involved more bacon and pilsner than I normally consume in a year. What the guidebooks and national parks call "back country" or "wilderness" camping, I call simply "camping." 

I don't mean to dismiss the parks, or the visitors, who prefer a cushy trip--I do plan on grabbing a room or shower-equipped campground here and there as a respite from being in the woods. I'm especially excited to splurge on a fancy room in one of the magnificent historical lodges, the kind with giant riverstone fireplaces and mounted bison heads (I'm eyeing the Ahwahnee or the Wawona in Yosemite, both of which will hopefully have off-season vacancies). It just seems odd that my respite from wilderness is most people's respite from civilization.

 My fear is that this perception (thinking of a "campground" as a "campsite") is going to continue to confront me throughout my planning, and even once the journey is underway. When I was living in Tucson, a friend and I drove out to Carlsbad Caverns. We planned to camp for one night and go on a cave tour in the morning. He and I had the same definition of "camping," but when we went to the visitors' center to grab the back-country permit, it appeared that the ranger didn't share it. She seemed surprised we would even consider sleeping out in the desert canyon, and direly warned that there was a scant chance of rain. That evening, we watched a herd of desert bighorns skitter over the cliffs above our campsite, and awoke near midnight to the most star-filled sky I've ever seen. Thinking of that ranger now, I fear that after explaining for the umpteenth time that by "camping," I don't mean "sitting in a foldable chair listening to my car stereo," my half-assed, apologetic snobbery will have hardened into true condescension. I mean, I love being better than everyone else, but I think it might ruin my wilderness zen.

Okay I've been going on for like two pages whining about tourists and my philosophy of camping, and I haven't even talked about the good news I got out of my Useful guidebooks. (The most Useful so far has been Frommer's National Parks of the American West, which I borrowed from the library, though I'll soon purchase the most recent edition. It has a knowledgeable, familiar style and an oft-stated goal of getting the reader away from crowds.) It appears I over-estimated the harshness of the southern-Utah winter, especially if I invest in some cross-country skis. On the other hand, Grand Teton pretty much does shut down once winter sets in, so it looks like my initial and more convenient itinerary (Pacific Northwest to Mountain West to Colorado Plateau to Southwest. Color coding is teh awsum) is the way to go. That is good for all the reasons I stated in the last update, plus it allows the URL of this blog to continue to make sense.

Q: Why is it called "Down Continent," anyway?

A: Because "In Continent," has two meanings.

The next phase of planning involves contacting the parks and getting more specific information on back-country camping opportunities. It also looks like I should schedule any Colorado River exploration sooner rather than later, since permits often have a long waiting list, and it would be one of the few parts of my itinerary that will be fixed on the calendar. The Grand Canyon will have to be the fulcrum on which the whole trip balances.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What the Internet Has Been Missing: Another Blog

Why This Blog Exists

In about a year from now, I'm going to pack up a bunch of gear, buy a one-way ticket to Seattle, find myself a nice 4WD vehicle, and spend several months seeing the spectacular wildernesses of the American West. When, exactly? I don't know. For how long? Not sure. Where will I go? That's to be decided.

At this point, the purpose of this blog is a place for me to talk myself through all these decisions. I'm incredibly excited about this trip, and because I'm a huge geek, I'm also incredibly exited about the opportunity to make lists, pour over maps, read guide books, compare camping gear, and generally over-analyze the shit out of everything. Eventually, this blog will be a place where I can ask for advice, make contacts with people I hope to visit while I'm traveling, and keep in touch with the people I'll be leaving behind in New England. But for now, it's logistical wankery.

I don't want to get too far into every detail of the planning I've done so far, because there are already multiple charts (totally separate from the lists!), and I haven't even bought an atlas yet. But here's the general outline:

The Itinerary

The trip falls into roughly four groups: The Pacific Northwest, the Mountain West, the Colorado Plateau, and the Southwest. My original idea was to start in the Pacific Northwest in mid- to late summer, where I might visit my uncle and numerous other friends, take some time to finish gearing up, and generally bum around before starting in earnest. (I'm also tempted to take at least one swing through Aberdeen, Washington; if you don't know why, you probably either won't care or will think I'm silly.) In the Pacific Northwest, I'd like to hit North Cascades, Olympic, Mt. Rainier, and Crater Lake national parks.

The Mountain West includes Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks. It's also conveniently close to Jackson Hole, WY, where I could do some sweet boarding (and hopefully be joined by New England friends).

The Colorado Plateau includes a huge group of parks, mostly in Utah; Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, and eventually the Grand Canyon, where I'd like to do a tour that runs the length of the entire thing, probably on the river. This lands me in Las Vegas, where I would enjoy the sweet, sweet fruits of civilization. And it segues nicely into...

The Southwest, which includes the California parks of Death Valley, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and a few parks near Tucson, AZ. I used to live in Tucson, and I'd love to end the trip there, visiting friends for a while and giving me a chance to sell the vehicle before flying back to New England. Ideally, the trip would end in springtime. Maybe I'd get to see the wildflower blooms that never seemed to happen when I was a resident there.

Unfortunately, there is already a major flaw in this itinerary, one that leaves me empathizing with Napoleon: winter. Specifically, most of the Utah parks of the Colorado Plateau have severely restricted accessibility in winter. It makes some sense to switch the two middle groups, to transition from the Pacific Northwest straight to the Colorado Plateau, and follow that up with the Mountain West, finishing in the Southwest. This puts me in Utah closer to fall; and while winter in Yellowstone is no joke, Yellowstone is so popular year-round that NPS creates far better opportunities for winter visits there than at the Utah parks. This change also improves the timing of the possible Jackson Hole ski trip.

While this switch helps with seasonal problems, it also messes up some very pretty lines I'd drawn on my imaginary map, specifically the one that leads from the Colorado Plateau/Grand Canyon to Las Vegas and the Southwest. It also makes for much, much more driving between groups and parks. The original itinerary had me hopping from one park to the next closest. This one has me doing some enormous zig-zags up and down the Rockies and the Continental Divide like bison chasing fickle pasture. And where does that leave Glacier National park, which is also less accessible in winter? Logistics, logistics, logistics; wank, wank, wank.

I'm headed to the library and to the fantastic Globe Corner bookstore in Harvard Square (worth a visit even if you never get farther than the 495 corridor) for maps and guidebooks.