Saturday, May 28, 2011

Long Trail is Looooooong.

This week, I took my gear north to my parents' house in Vermont and set out on my first real overnight trip, traversing section 6 of the Long Trail from Route 4 near Pico to Brandon Gap. I spent three days and two nights on the trail. I figured it wasn't a true test unless I had at least one full day that began and ended in camp.

I'm proud of my home state. The Long Trail was the first extended walking trail of its kind, and served as a model for the Appalachian Trail. The AT joins the LT for much of the southern part of the state. I started at the point where the AT splits off east toward Maine, while the LT drives straight north to Canada. Even though it was cut before backpacking was an established sport, the Long Trail is full of foresight and thoughtful detail. The trail itself is clear, well-tended, and frequently blazed. Intersections are marked with unambiguous signs. There are sturdy shelters with solid water sources and remarkably clean privies every 5 to 10 miles. They really made it easy--as easy as hauling 35 pounds over mountaintops could possibly be.

But you didn't hear it from me. After the first mile, which follows a popular day-hike route to Deer's Leap, I didn't see a single soul. The solitude was luxurious. I sprawled in the shelters and plopped down to rest in the middle of the trail. No one had to witness what was surely an entertaining trial-and-error experiment in bear-bagging. (There are bears in Vermont, but they're almost never problems for hikers; it was mostly for practice.) My company was moose sign, birds, and the evocative notes of previous visitors in the shelter logs. (One pair signed off, "May the forest be with you!")

I can't be sure whether it was the ease of the trail or my own awesomeness, but the first test of my preparation went off without a hitch. I didn't get any blisters. I never got lost (admittedly, it would have been very hard to given the nearly straight and amply marked trail). I didn't forget anything I needed. When a thunderstorm blew through overnight, my camp was snug and my tent was leak-proof.

Not that I didn't learn anything. Most of what I figured out had to do with refining how I load and organize my pack. I spent too much time digging and re-loading whenever I needed something. I also have a better sense of what I want with regards to the last bits of equipment to buy (smaller stuff sacks, a narrower sleeping pad, longer rope, the exact configuration of multi-tool). I did bring too much, and while some of what I never used was "just-in-case" stuff I've gotta bring regardless (first aid, rain gear, a warm layer), some of it was unnecessary, most notably my amount of food. I walked out of the woods with nearly half my supplies intact without once feeling hungry.

I also learned things that were less material. I made a somewhat last-minute decision to start on Wednesday afternoon rather than the next morning to take advantage of perfect weather and better pace the walks between shelters. My dad dropped me off at the top of Sherburne Pass, at the parking lot of the Long Trail Pub along busy Route 4. It was the warmest day of the year so far. I sweat. I was still wearing makeup from a day in town, and I'm glad I didn't have a mirror. The black flies were like negative snow. I crossed paths with packless day-hikers bouncing down Deer's Leap, and I felt as loaded down as the Junk Lady from Labyrinth.

God damn amateurs.
But then the Long Trail separated from Deer's Leap and the Appalachian. It left behind the foot traffic and road noise from Route 4. Undergrowth filled in around the trail, and the woods were studded with wildflowers. With no one else around, I slowed way down (I ended up covering far fewer miles per day than I predicted, even for a warm-up trek). I identified the flowers I knew--trillium, Dutchman's breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit--and mentally photographed the ones I didn't. I would look them up in my grandmother's wildflower book when I got home. I'd received the book, complete with pressed samples from my grandmother's long walks, when she passed away several years ago. She died about this time of year, just before Memorial Day, just after my birthday and not long before my sister's wedding. She spent almost her whole life in Vermont, and came to know its woods and fields through years of slow, watchful walks.  What I should learn from her, and from this trip, is to go slow, and to look close.

Monday, May 9, 2011

So yeah, two months since my last update. Some nerds will now tell you how I feel about that.

Not long after my last update, a decent-sized work project suddenly became an emergency-sized work project, and I've been tied to my desk seven days a week. This will give me a welcome dose of extra ATM-able cash, but it brought planning and preparations to a standstill. I submitted my materials for the very last deadline this morning, and I'm taking stock of where things are at for this trip.

Sometime when I was re-editing textbooks, the day of my departure slipped from "eventually" to "pretty soon." Luckily, all my overeagerness has kept me in good shape. In fact, other than looming excitement/anxiety, things are pretty much on track. I still have a few purchases to make, but most of them are on the order of warm-weather clothes and extra socks, things I just have to go out and get, rather than research and decide. What needs to happen now is a shift from buying/preparing to arranging/acting. Soon I'll have to ship stuff to my uncle in Washington, buy plane tickets, switch my utility responsibilities to my roommates, that sort of thing. And even though these things won't result in physical evidence, they somehow make the trip feel a lot more real than the growing pile of gear in my room. (crap, yeah, cleaning my room... that's another thing that went neglected while I worked...)

I suppose this post should have a point. Instead, here are some completely random things:

I've outlined potential itineraries for most of the parks of the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West, right up through the Grand Canyon trip, reading guidebooks and highlighting likely routes. Then, the Colorado Plateau and Southwest are big blanks. But by the time I get to Utah at the end of October, it seems better to make decisions as I go: weather will be more of a factor, there will be fewer crowds to avoid, and the lack of water will restrict my distance and time away from sources. My M.O. will be something like car-camping with day hikes, rather than longer wilderness backpacking.

My mess kit is adorable, but I can just feel in my heart that a spork isn't enough, so I splurged on a titanium silverware set.

I haven't had time to do nearly as much hiking as I'd hoped (other than one trip up Mt. Monadnock before the project kicked in--back when there was still snow on the ground), but I did get myself back on a solid jogging/workout schedule after a notably lazy winter.

I bought one of those 7-day pill organizers to use as a traveling spice rack. I AM SO CREATIVELY RESOURCEFUL.

I have still not made a decision about that stupid bear canister thing.

I think I will get myself one of these Steripen UV water purifiers, keeping my tablets on-hand as a backup. The Steripen gets constant rave reviews, and it is light and convenient. It still sounds (and costs) suspiciously magical.

And now, I'm off to figure out how to use up the 5-lb bag of whole-wheat flour I bought when I was cooking out of that frikking backpacking recipe book (which, BTW, I never found again).