David and I have backpacked for twelve years. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to say whether or not we’d make it a continual thing. The first two expeditions, in fact, if not disastrous, were certainly less than satisfactory in most ways. Ticks and mosquitoes, chafed thighs and blistered feet were only just outweighed by psychological benefits. But it got better, chiefly because we’re tool-using monkeys who realized we had to make backpacking more comfortable in order to justify continuing to do it.
This, then, is a short chronicle of the implements two tool-using monkeys bought to tame the wilderness:
May (?) 1993 (?), the Shenandoah:
Hell. Surplus army backpacks; tarps instead of tents. Steel-toed workboots; I may have well just been wearing nails and broken beer bottles. The tarps, which seemed like such a good idea when I used them in a survival course in eastern Washington in the cold, instead took a small piece of my soul away in the nights, among the night creatures. We were treating water with chemicals before drinking it. After it was over, two days later, Carole discovered a tick behind my ear. I had wounds to lick. If not for the partial solar eclipse on the day we left (enjoyed from a Long John Silver’s parking lot), I fear this trip would have been the last. As it turned out, it was a long time before we did it again.
July 2001, the Hetch Hetchy:
We had the same backpacks, which were ungainly nightmares. Meals Ready to Eat, which was not an innovation but an eventually-recognized dead end. We had Scientific Marvel #Q, a water pump which made chemicals a thing of the past. It opened the door to comfort, just a little.
We might have given up after this one, though, except for one contraption David brought: a hammock. The comfort turned night into day and made angels weep with joy. And it turns out one can skinny-dip in a sun-warmed inlet above a waterfall and find Jesus.
A digital camera chronicled the events, except for the angels and Jesus.
May 2002, the Hetch Hetchy:
Damned if there weren’t bears. Bears. And I brought this tent/hammock thing out which lifted me above the cracked earth into the sky’s sweet embrace, which was cool. MREs made their final, lackluster appearance. Our backpacks were fingered as a cause of mopiness.
Labor Day weekend, 2002, from Tuolumne to the Valley:
We have real backpacks. A brief flirtation with designed and packaged backpacking meals contributes to ennui. But I have my backpacker’s stove, David has his monocular, and they are invaluable in creating hot-food-and-coffee and scenes of the spectacular far-away, respectively.
The major innovation of this trip was trekking poles. It isn’t immediately obvious that sticks are so valuable. After all, they weigh more than nothing, and one has to carry that more-than-nothing miles and miles. But what they lack in lightness, they more than make up for in support and balance. Once the math was run, the choice was obvious: sticks contained 37% more support, 55% less ennui, and yielded 240% more aggregate comfort than no sticks at all.
A junkfood epiphany. Could the slovenly calories consumed by eating tasty junk food and peanut butter and crackers possibly match the tightly-wound but uneaten calories engineered into packaged mountain food? Yes, it goes without saying. A Dorito in the mouth is worth two fortified Cajun Delite powdered meal-packets left in the backpack.
And finally, finally, after two shaky forays into the wilderness, the world had turned enough to envision backpacking as an ongoing thing, something we do periodically. The precarious nature of our wilderness urgings was made stable and sure, as sure as the sun rises and beer is delightful.
July 2003, Ostrander:
Bug repellant is critical, and head nets are fine. Sometimes it rains, though, and rain has to be dealt with, so we did.
July 2004, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne:
Nearly the whole package. Hammocks, adequate bug fender-offers, sweet, sweet junk food, coffee and tea, comfortable hiking boots, floppy camp shoes, and walking sticks. And the experiences: there is little better in life than to see a force of nature that is as blatantly not-about-us as is a bear. Beyond taking advantage of us if they can, bears just don’t care. To see something so totally unimpressed with people is a miracle.
The primary drawback was in planning. The route meanders generally pleasantly down for the first three quarters, but the last quarter is a three thousand foot climb out of the valley.
But it’s obvious that it had to be done, and I’m ecstatic that we did.
July-August, 2005, Tuolumne to the Valley:
It will be a different route, because there’s no reason to make spectacular scenery mundane. As for me, I’m not leaving any of my necessary and precious things home. And I will take, for the first time, an innovation that has the potential to revolutionize backpacking as I know it: a soft chair. Because it’s fiendishly hard to find a slab of granite cut to my ass’ exact proportions. It’s a sort-of canvas tripod stool-thing, and I have high hopes that it will rock my world.