Previous Walk it Off entry: No thanks for the Memoirs.
If you ran into me and Tenaya on the trail, what you’d see is two very different people. Clothing wise, we’re pretty much the same. Gear wise, we’re different. I have old, used, worn in and in some cases nearly worn out gear. It’s not top end. There are hikers and people would be embarrassed to walk into an REI with the gear I have. My wife looks like she should model for the catalog or that REI has already geared her out with her new Osprey day pack and Camelback Mk 2 bladder. The rookie hikers will think she’s the more serious of the two of us as she’s obviously spent a good chunk of change on that gear and those clothes, and that I’m a casual weekend warrior.
Oh, those appearances, they are deceiving.
The veteran hikers will see that while my gear isn’t as expensive, it’s older, well traveled, and will deduce that the gear I’m carrying got to be that age because it’s well cared for. They’d be mostly right. My gear is old and fits me like a second skin. I’m as familiar with it as I am the trails where I grew up. It’s not chic, but it IS serviceable. It works.
There are also two different approaches to getting outdoors. My gear, at the drop of a hat, is rigged for back country. I can take my Klamath and throw food and water in it and be gone for a week or two without missing a beat. My wife would need a bit more gear to get to that point. I have no problem going not just off trail, but off grid entirely. My wife likes car camping. I grew up wild. My wife grew up in a book. I learned what I know from a few books like the Boy Scout Handbook and FM 7-8 (which is laughable in one story that I’ll tell later..) and from two decades of trial by error in the BSA and the 101st Airborne. She learned what she knows mostly from the Discovery Channel’s survival shows, and books like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”.
So, which of us is better outdoors?
Which approach is better?
Same answer, but for different reasons.
I recently got a rather enlightening email from the publishers at Mountaineering press about the entry “No Thanks for the Memoirs.” In it, Emily makes a rather sensible point; how do you compete with modern pop culture to get the message of hiking the PCT or just hiking in general out there? Hiking books by hardcore hikers are for hikers. But what about the people who think the woods aren’t for them? And that got me thinking.
That’s a double edged sword she’s got there. On one hand, sure, not everyone who hikes is a hardcore PCT or triple crown pro who yo-yo’s the AT for a morning workout. Not everyone is a heavy hiker, or a ultralighter, or a long distance back country ranger of the north. There are a lot of hobbits out there, to extend the metaphor. And while the wilds are not for everyone, nor are they Just for the rangers. Some hobbits have fun out there too, and go on grand adventures. Sometimes you just need to step out your door.
But what happens when these tenderfeet (hobbit clan?? Not really..) get out there and see the first person they meet carrying gear and looking lean and fit and start going off on what they’ve done on the trail? Young tenderfoot, I’m going to tell you something now that all of the books out there are trying to tell you: If You’re Out There, You’re Legit. It doesn’t matter if you do the PCT or the JMT or even the Tahoe Rim trail and stay at a bed and breakfast every night. What matters is that you’re out there and you love it.
Tagg’s Rule #1: Everybody’s different, but equally valid.
Do I have respect for the kid who’s done the triple crown of the PCT, AT, and CDT? Hell yes I do. Do I have respect for the rangers out there every day? Sometimes painfully and enviably so. But guess what? If you ruck up with a day pack and only do a few miles and take your camera for a couple of nice landscape shots? I still respect you. You’re still valid. You’ve still got a place out here. You don’t Have to rack up the mega miles. These woods and wilds are still for you. You can be a trail angel, part of a weekend maintenance crew, part of a clean up crew, and I will thank you like most people thank Veterans.
That said, if you Don’t love it, that’s okay. The wilds are not for everyone. They’re not for my oldest friend, they’re not for my mother in law, and they may not be for you. That’s fine. If you’re more comfortable with more creature comforts when you camp, I’m not going to put you up in front of tribunal. The ways I prefer to get out in the wilds are not the ways my wife prefers, though she’s willing to learn.
Don’t let anyone tell you where your place is. You get to decide. If you love it, great! If you’re a Yo Yo hiker, Wonderful! If you’re a casual weekend warrior, Awesome! If you’re a dog park only person, Woot! Do you love it? Good. And if you’re not sure about the rest, by all means, give it a try. It may be good for you, it may not be your thing, but try it anyway. I didn’t think I’d be a Bed and Breakfast person, but I do admit to liking a healthy 3k calorie breakfast sometimes.
Each of us brings an area of knowledge to the table that the other learns from. Tenaya teaches me about gear in a time where I’m transitioning from military surplus and things I found on clearance. She teaches me about synthetic fabrics and socks and new packs. I teach her how to wear ’em, and how to work ’em. She teaches me about the history of the places we walk, and I show her the present. She teaches me about the local fauna, and I show her how to identify it by the tracks. She teaches me photography, and I show her dead reckoning orienteering and land navigation. She shows me the neatest places to camp, and I show her how to camp there. We work best as a team. I listen to my wife even though I have roughly a decade and a half to two decades more experience living out in the woods. Why? Because while I know a lot, I don’t know everything.
Let me put this another way. One of the other major rules of hiking is this; Never Hike Alone. There is a lot of safety in numbers and in sharing the load and in differences in training. If you’re like me and you’re NOT the people person to go looking for a group, you’re going to have to make up for a lot of other training and skills that some people bring to the table with a group. You’re going to have to be your own medic, so your first aid better be able to handle most contingencies. You’d better be a great gear junkie and buy a Personal Locator Beacon so if you Do run into trouble that you can’t get out of, you can pop that puppy and have the Air Force rescue you. If you don’t have a long battery life for your GPS, you’d better know your pace count and how to read a map and compass. And knowing what a pace count is will help you loads. If you’re not a survivalist who knows which plants to look for to feed you or which plants have medicinal properties (did you know you can find Aspirin in the wild?? You can.) you’d better at least know which plants to avoid because they’ll injure or kill you.
It’s a lot to learn. And while there’s a lot that I’ve learned over the years, I don’t know everything by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is this:
Never bullshit about what you know. Be honest with yourself too or you WILL get into trouble. Listen to people who know the things you don’t. Never Stop Learning.
When out on a hike, or an adventure, I will often defer to the people who have more experience in an area than I do. I don’t boat well. I’m not SCUBA certified. I’m not mountain certified. I’ve never even taken a mountaineering course (though I really really should). And you know what? I’m not afraid to learn something new by shutting the hell up and letting someone with more skill take point. Would I go out with someone qualified for mountaineering? Sure. For everything you know, there’s a few centuries worth of things you Don’t know.
A great example of this is that when I was in the army, I had an LT who swore up and down on the Ranger Handbook, the FM 7-8. In it, according to him, you could find anything you needed to know about how to survive any situation. He mocked me because in a dry bag, I carried a Boy Scout Handbook. He called me an amateur idiot who was still wet behind the ears and needed to go back to my troop. Of course he said this while setting his gear and himself down in a large patch of poison ivy. I knew what it was, as the Boy Scout Handbook has color illustrations of what poison ivy looks like and why you should avoid it and how to treat it. It’s not, apparently, in the 7-8, much to the LT’s chagrin. I may not be Rambo, but I didn’t require four quarts of calamine lotion either. Remember what I said about listening to people who know the things you don’t? Too bad pride goes before the itching. Lots. And LOTS. Of Itching.
By the same token, going out with my wife is fun because while I know most of the back country stuff, she knows a lot of the book stuff and it makes my trip much more interesting when I know what happened in a spot before I got there, or what the rock is made of, or how old some of the trees really are (I’ve seen redwoods older than Christianity). She enriches my adventure with what she knows. She gets through her adventure safely because of what I know. We both work well together, and we know each other’s limits. I listen to her lore. I also quiz her on things I’ve taught her so that if she needed to, she could get herself out of trouble. I teach her how to wear boots. She teaches me what socks to buy (Cotton Socks Mulch Your Feet And Chafe When Wet?? Who Knew?!?). And also, while I quiz her on things she needs to know, she reminds me of things I’m supposed to be doing as well.
The reason I say that last is because of the hike I was on with her a couple of months back. I was focused on the trail and on the view of the canyon and the smoke from the remains of the fire that was burning merrily about the area. What I Wasn’t doing was looking through the areas uphill for mountain lions.
This is important for two reasons. One, there had been a mountain lion sighted there a few months back. The trail had been closed because of it. Tenaya had found out why the trail was closed back then, but I’d put that from my mind until we were resting from an uphill trek and she heard something in the distance moving away from us. THAT’S when my tactical sense kicked in and I looked around and realized that we’d walked into a good hunting area. The vegetation was sparse and the cover uphill was good for a predator to hide in. I became much more aware of my surroundings, something I should have been doing from the get go. Tenaya, on the other hand, had been looking around the entire time. The second reason is that the fire may have driven predators into the area for lack of food. Once I knew THAT I should be looking, I started looking for spoor (none), scat (also none), and other signs. I knew what to look for (so does Tenaya now, and she can tell the difference between the tracks of a large dog and a mountain lion) and became more aware of it thanks to her.
Next Walk it Off entry: Your Mileage Will Vary