Someone is Wrong on the Internet! (PCT Days 151-155)

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I looked at the weather forecast and my mood plummeted: 3-5 days of rain were headed my way. The state of Washington has a reputation for rain, and it looked like it was going to try to live up to that reputation. The thought of being cold and wet for days on end was not even a little bit appealing. I’d been there, done that, and it wasn’t a lot of fun for me. Maybe I could figure out a way to take a vacation from my vacation. I was approaching Snoqualmie Pass, which is just a 40 minute drive from Seattle… Surely some of my friends from Seattle could come and rescue me from the rain. I furiously texted everyone I knew, but they already had plans.

Eventually, against my better judgment, I turned to the internet for help and posted to one of the Facebook groups, “Looks like nasty weather for this weekend… I’m trying to coordinate a place to stay with friends, but if that falls through does anyone know any trail angels near Snoqualmie?”

Almost immediately I got a response, “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered “nasty weather.” Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate, or maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year…”

Oh internet, why do you have to be like that? I’d chosen to post in a closed forum, one that was usually relatively troll free, and I’d dared to hope that I would get helpful responses. Instead, I got the response that I should have expected from the internet, a response that really irritated me, pissed me off even. What I wanted to do was yell at the internet. Someone on the internet was wrong. I should correct them, right? I grumpily composed my rebuttal to the three inflammatory clauses:

1) “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered ‘nasty weather.'” How, exactly do you define ‘nasty weather’? Do you think that maybe having a nice cozy house with four walls and a roof that you can retreat to anytime you want might modify your definition of ‘nasty weather’, or are you just thinking about the weather that you are going to get at home in Seattle (at 0-520 ft elev.)? Did you actually think about the weather on the trail itself, up in the mountains, and on top of the ridges (at 5000+ ft)? Up in those mountains is where I’m going to be, and the weather up near 5000 ft is the weather that I’m worried about.

Did you know that for every 1000ft of elevation you gain, the outside temperature drops between 3.3F and 5.5F depending on humidity? If the high in Seattle is going to be 61F, then 3000ft higher at Snoqualmie Pass the high will drop to 44F – 51F (a drop of 3*3.3F=9.9F in high humidity, or a drop of 3*5.5F=16.5F in low humidity). Up in the mountains at around 5000 ft the highs will drop to a balmy 33F – 44F (a drop of between 5*3.3F= 16.5F and 5*5.5F= 27.5F relative to Seattle)… Highs of 33-44F, that’s cold not cool, and we’re still talking about the high temperatures for the day, the peak afternoon temperatures, not the colder temperatures that will prevail for most of the day.

When they forecast a 90% chance of showers for the lowlands, take a peek at the radar maps and see what’s happening up in the mountains. Usually the clouds build up into a solid mass in the mountains so they can dump all of their excess rain there before getting to the much more arid eastern part of Washington. A lowland forecast of showers all day usually means a mountain forecast of rain all day… Just compare the annual rainfall for Seattle to the annual rainfall up in the mountains. Those mountains, they get very very wet. Not only is it colder and wetter in the mountains than it is at lower elevations, it also tends to be windier. So if you take the wind chill factor into consideration, the apparent temperatures up in the mountains are even colder.

According to the CDC, hypothermia can occur at temperatures above 40F if a person is wet (from sweat or rain), so I consider prolonged rainy weather with temperatures in the 40s to be hypothermia weather, and while on extended backpacking treks, I consider that to be ‘nasty weather.’ I know that the weather could always be worse (I’ve certain been through much worse) but is there any reason that I shouldn’t consider hypothermia weather to be nasty weather? Go ahead, enlighten me…

2) “Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate.” Really? Really? Somehow because my definition of ‘nasty weather’ and yours differ, you come to the conclusion that my gear is inadequate? Perhaps you should ask what I have for gear before making a judgment about whether or not it is adequate. Let me share with you a partial list of the gear I have for dealing with cold, wet weather:

Most PCT thru-hikers would consider many of the items I carry to be overkill, but I don’t like to be cold and I pack accordingly. I’ve also had a lot of experience backpacking in cold, wet conditions. I’ve been backpacking in New England, rain or shine, ever since I was a kid, and my 2013 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was one of the wettest on record (it rained 50/60 days, and kept raining until I was more than 1000 miles into the trail)… My gear is more than adequate, and I have a lot of experience using it… Even though I am prepared to deal with endless days of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I’d prefer not to.

3) “Maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year.” Spoiled?! Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, but if someone’s been spoiled by the weather this year, I’m guessing that it was you, not me. When you’ve been out backpacking for five months straight you get a real up close and personal feel for the weather, and though I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice, warm, dry days this summer, I’ve also had my fair share of cold, wet, miserable days. For instance, last week I got clobbered with torrential downpours and hail three days in a row (they’d predicted 10%, 20%, and 0% chance of rain on those days, respectively)… Is that the warm, dry weather that you think has spoiled me? In case you’re wondering just how often I’ve gotten wet on my PCT thru-hike so far, here’s the list of days that I’ve noted measurable precipitation:

  • April- 1, 2, 4, 5, 11, 13, 18, 25.
  • May- 7, 8, 9, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24.
  • June- 2, 6, 14, 17, 25, 26.
  • July- 8, 11, 21, 22, 23, 29.
  • August – 10, 11, 12, 13, 19, 20, 23, 30, 31
  • September – 1, 2, 3 so far…

Sometimes the cold, wet weather comes with an incredible beauty of its own… The sounds of the forest change, and it can feel like the only things that exists in the world are you, the rain, the trees, and the occasional salamander… It can be incredibly peaceful. That said, most of the storms lately have come with a side of thunder, lightening, hail, fire, and flooding… For many of us hiking this year, the weather has felt more apocalyptic than peaceful… Hiking through Oregon the storms would come and we’d get wet, we’d get hailed on, and then the fires would start… As we headed further north, we got more torrential rains, rains that caused flash-flooding and killed a hiker the day that we were at Mount Hood… If anything, I would say that the weather this summer has traumatized us, not spoiled us… The good weather has been amazing, but the bad weather, it’s often been downright scary.

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Now that I’d written my rebuttal I felt a little better. I decided not to post it to the forum because it would just add fuel to the fire of crazy, and I was still hoping that someone might respond to my original question with something helpful. Starting a flame war wouldn’t be helpful, even if it did let me vent.

Eventually there were a couple more replies to my query, most of which were helpful and supportive. The next known trail angels were the Dinsmore’s. Unfortunately, they were too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to them before the first set of storms hit. I looked at my maps and at Yogi’s guide and came up with a plan to deal with the upcoming storms. I decided that I would take a zero day (hike zero miles) and stay at the hotel in Snoqualmie Pass to wait out the first day of rain, and then the next day and I would hike out to Gold Myers Hot Springs in the rain… After that I hoped that the rain would let up, and I’d get at least one nice day before the rains set in again.

P.S. The weather ended up being cold and wet (as forecast), but the hot springs were absolutely amazing! I got there early in the day and had the entire hot spring to myself all afternoon… I relaxed in the hot water and enjoyed the company of the only other occupants of the cave, two bats. I watched them cuddling and grooming each other and decided that ‘bat TV’ was cute and highly entertaining… Eventually, when I got too hot, I’d dash through the cold rain and up to the little cool-off cabana (complete with a roof!! a very nice thing to have on a rainy day) where I’d eat a snack, drink some water, and watch the rain. ‘Rain TV’ wasn’t nearly as interesting as ‘bat TV,’ so when I got bored with the rain, or cooled off too much, I’d just head back into the hot springs in the cave… It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day (or two)!

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Root Beer Floats (PCT Days 142-144)

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“Wow,” I thought as the naked trail runner approached me, “not only is he naked, he doesn’t have any tan lines! He must do this a lot!”

He’d just crested the hill that I was doggedly climbing, and was beginning to descend towards me. I was glad it was a rather straight stretch of trail and I had a couple of seconds to get over my surprise at having a naked guy running down the trail towards me at 6:30 at night… Especially since I was in one of the deep, dark, forests of Washington…

Naked trail runner on the PCT… very tan… no tan lines… I smiled as I realized that I probably knew who he was… I stepped out of the trail as he approached and said “Coppertone?” I was pretty sure that was the trail name of the naked man approaching me…

“Yes,” he replied with surprise and slowed to a stop in front of me. He was wearing a hat, shoes, socks, and was carrying what looked to be a kindle in his right hand… That was it. “Have we met before?” He asked.

“No,” I replied, “I’m Patches.” He then asked if he was almost at the next road crossing. I assured him that he was, you could see the road from about five feet behind me… It was a steep descent to it, but it was close.

“Well, I’m going to continue my run down there and then head back to the road crossing up ahead. I’ll have a root beer float waiting for you when you get to that road,” he said as he continued his run.

I’d been hearing rumors about Coppertone for almost 2000 miles. The first time I’d heard about him I was a little bit north of Deep Creek Hot Springs in Southern California. “Did you see the naked guy with the shovel doing trail maintenance near deep creek hot springs?” Asked a fellow thru-hiker. No, I hadn’t. There were lots of naked people at the hot springs, but I definitely hadn’t seen anyone that was naked and doing trail maintenance. “We’ll, there’s this trail angel, Coppertone… He’s a nudist, and, well, he gets his name because he is tan all over… I mean *all* over!” They emphasized the ‘all’ with with both intonation and a widening of their eyes… There was no mistaking what they were getting at. “He meets people at road crossings with root beer floats,” they continued. “You must have just missed him at the last road crossing.”

The next time I heard about Coppertone was just North of Walker Pass. All the hikers zooming past me were talking about the root beer float serving nudist, “Sometimes he wears a short denim skirt, but only when he has to… When nudity would be inappropriate.” I wasn’t sure about the whole nudist thing, but a trail angel providing root beer floats at road crossings in the dessert? That sounded absolutely amazing. I love root beer floats! Even when I’m not hot, thirsty, and calorie deprived, root beer floats are one of my favorite extravagances.

Having a naked man in the middle of the woods in Washington offering me a root beer float definitely would have been a little disconcerting if I hadn’t been hearing about this guy for months… As it was, I still shook my head in amazement as he jogged passed me… The rumors were true… A nudist that trail magicked root beer floats… You never know why you’re going to run into on the PCT!

Even though I knew he’d be coming back, I was still startled a few minutes later when he hiked up behind me… I’d gotten used to having the woods to my self and was still making my way up that seemingly never ending steep hill.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said as I let him pass in front of me. “I hadn’t counted on this hill,” he explained, “it’s too steep for running.”

“How’d you know that is was me?” He asked as we continued hiking up the hill. The internal filters between my brain and mouth apparently still exist and I paused a second before answering. Truth? Yeah, truth. “The nudity. I haven’t seen anyone naked on the PCT since hike-naked day.”

“Oh,” he seemed surprised. “I’ve been hearing about you and your root beer floats ever since Deep Creek Hot Springs,” I continued. We then chatted about the different places along the trail that I’d missed him by a day or two, and about the other thru-hikers that he’d met along the way. Before I knew it we’d made it to the top of the hill and the terrain had flattened out. Since the hill had flattened out Coppertone set off at a jog again saying, “See you at the road,” as he disappeared down the trail.

It occurred to me then that he must have been cold… I was wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and I was definitely cold. So cold that after he jogged off I stopped to put on my jacket and a hat. I idly wondered whether or not he would be clothed when I arrived at the road… Since it was pretty chilly out, I was willing to bet that he would be.

It would be at least an hour before I got to the road, and close to the time I usually set up camp. I checked my map, it looked like there was a spot to camp just north of the road that would be perfect. I try not to camp near the roads when I’m alone, but in this case I knew that Coppertone would be camped at the road, so I felt better about it.

When I finally arrived at the road I met Coppertone again, this time fully clothed, and he had the promised root beer float waiting. I plunked down on one of the chairs he had out and joyfully took a sip of my root beer float. It was an amazing thing! I asked if Coppertone knew if there were any campsites tucked into the woods right across the road. He said he wasn’t sure, but as I ate a big spoonful of root beer soaked ice cream he jogged off to go check.

When he got back he said that he hadn’t see any, but I was welcome to cowboy camp under his truck if I wanted to. While I contemplated my options and finished off my root beer float he offered me some hot tea (it was getting colder and colder as the sunset) and cookies. “Absolutely!” I smiled. I was in the middle of a 150 stretch between resupplies, so all of the extra calories I could get would help… Also, relaxing in a real chair, in the woods, enjoying a cup of hot tea with a new friend… That’s a pretty awesome way to spend a summer’s evening!

I really enjoyed hanging out with Coppertone. I have to admit, when I first heard about the naked guy who gave out root beer floats it sounded a little bit… Odd. Though most of the trail angels are amazing people, some of the established trail angels have reputations for being creepers too… For making people, especially women, feel uncomfortable… Rumors and gossip run rampant on the trail (sort of like they do in any small community), but the rumors about Coppertone on the trail had all been positive… Sure, nudity is culturally uncomfortable, and the fact that he’s a nudist meant that he was frequently talked about on the trail, but everybody said that he was a great guy and not a creeper. I’m glad to report that that was my experience as well… He was a great guy, and even hanging out with him by myself, at a road, at nightfall, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.

Eventually I finished my tea and cookies, and with 15 minutes before full dark I reluctantly said goodbye and disappeared into the woods. The offer to sleep under his truck was tempting, but I didn’t think I’d sleep well on the gravel out in the open like that… Not when I had the option of sleeping in the woods!

Crater Lake Cool (PCT Days 120-125)

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Some days are just perfect, and when you get one of those days, you have to savor every minute of it.

I had been to Crater Lake once, years before, to go on a snowshoe backpacking trip… The snow was absolutely beautiful, but the blizzard that moved in (and stayed for the duration of the trip), meant that I never got a clear view of the legendary water of the lake, or of Wizard’s Island. I was determined that this time, not only was I going to see Wizard’s Island, I was going to climb to the top of it!

Unfortunately, it can be really hard to get tickets for the boat trips to Wizard’s Island… You either need to reserve tickets way in advance of your trip (they sell out fast), or you need to get one of the limited first-come-first-served day of tickets, which you actually have to get 24 hours in advance of your trip. That meant that I was going to have to get to the ticket reservation desk by 9:30 in the morning the day before my trip to Wizard’s Island, and then wait until the next day for my boat ride and hike… Even if it meant two or three days without any trail miles (zeroes), and having to hike an extra seven miles each way to get to Cleetwood Cove, it would be worth it! I was going to go to Wizard’s Island this time!

A week before I got to Crater Lake I met Lobo’s mom (the mom of a section hiker I’d met back in the high Sierra) on her first backpacking trip in decades! It was exciting to see how much her comfort zone in the woods was expanding. I spent the night on trail with her and her husband and talked about my plan’s for Crater Lake.

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“You should definitely do it,” Lobo’s mom told me. “Lots of the thru-hikers say that they’re going to at least go down to the water for a swim, but they never do!” She lamented. I certainly understood why that happens… A 7 mile road walk each way can be rather daunting, especially in a 28 mile waterless stretch. “It was so wonderful when we did it last year that we would go back, wouldn’t we hon?” Her husband nodded and said he would.

“You guys should totally come out to the Island with me! It would be lots of fun!” I exclaimed. Lobo’s dad smirked and said, “I figured you guys already had that in the works!”

If it hadn’t been in the works before, it definitely was now… Lobo’s mom decided that she was going to go stand in line and get tickets the day before I got to Crater Lake, and then she and her husband would come pick me up and be my adopted parents for a day trip to Wizard’s Island. I couldn’t believe that my dream of visiting Wizard’s Island was going to come true and that I was going to be sharing it with these amazing trail angels!

As Lobo’s parents drove me around Crater Lake to Cleetwood Cove a week later I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening, I was headed to Wizard’s Island! From the car I marveled at the blueness of the water and the reflections of the clouds on the lake, it was truly an amazing sight!

As we pulled into the parking lot Lobo’s mom explained that she had made chicken pesto sandwiches for everybody, and that her mom had baked a strawberry rhubarb pie just for me. A whole pie, just for me?! I love strawberry rhubarb pie! I impulsively decided that I was going to carry the entire pie up to the summit of Wizard’s Island and eat it there!

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The climb down to the boat dock was steep, but the views of the lake along the way were absolutely stunning! Before we knew it we were on the boat and cruising around the lake on our way to the island. It felt strange being a regular tourist for the day and not a thru-hiker… I was just there to do what everyone else was there to do… To explore Wizard’s Island!

Once we reached the shore of Wizard’s Island Lobo’s mom and I headed for the summit of the cinder cone, while Lobo’s dad headed to one of the secret coves to spend the afternoon fishing. It was eerily beautiful climbing up the cone with smoke wafting through the air. We were lucky that the smoke from the forest fires was thin, and didn’t obscure our view of the lake, but smelling fire while climbing in a volcano (even a dormant one) was a little disconcerting.

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After exploring the crater, I picked the perfect spot to sit down and eat my strawberry rhubarb pie. It was like opening a Christmas present as I peeled back the layers of tinfoil that it was wrapped in to display the pie in all of its glory. It even had a perfectly in tact lattice top. I pulled out a fork and dug in! Savoring every bite of the pie, just as I savored the view and the company. The pie was delicious :) After eating 3/4 of the pie I decided to take a pause in pie eating. I wanted to save some of it for after my swim!

We descended the cone, and I headed for my second destination of the day, the dock. I had heard of the legendary waters of Crater Lake, and now I’d seen them, but I was looking forward to the fully immersive experience… It was time for a swim!

“Watch out, the water is really cold,” warned one of my fellow tourists… How cold is cold? I was about to find out. I’d learned that the trick to dealing with cold water was not to think about it too much, and to submerge myself quickly… If I tried to ease my way in, it just wouldn’t work. The dock would be the perfect aid for me for for this venture though, I could just take a running leap off of the end of the dock and into the frigid blue water below…

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“Oh my gosh, what am I doing?!” I shouted as a ran down the dock and… Splash!!! Into the water. It was so cold it took my breath away for a moment, but I was used to swimming in cold water… I cut my teeth swimming at Sand Beach in Acadia, Maine when I was a kid (water temps may hit 50 degrees there, if you’re lucky), I could handle this water (somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees for the top 3 or 4 feet).

It was definitely refreshing! After swimming for a while I got out of the water, lounged in the sun, and finished off the rest of the strawberry rhubarb pie… What a perfect day!!

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Just before the boat arrived to finish our tour of the lake Lobo’s dad returned from his fishing trip… He’d managed to catch a 22 inch rainbow trout (no fishing license required at Crater Lake)! We were certainly all very happy as we headed back to the rim!

Our timing was also impeccable, we climbed back up to the rim and got to the car right before the skies opened up and the pending thunderstorms manifested with tons of rain. It’s always nice to be in an insulated metal box when the thunderstorms hit.

As the rain poured down and lightening ricocheted all around us, I decided that I didn’t want to pitch my tent and sleep outside that night. Luckily some section hikers that I’d met the day before had offered to let me join them in their room at the lodge at Crater Lake that night… I didn’t want to impose on them if the weather was good, but with the news of dozens of new lightening strike fires in and around Crater Lake I was extremely grateful to run into the section hikers in the lobby of the lodge and to take them up on their offer. The kindness of all of these complete strangers was overwhelming!

Since they wouldn’t let me help pay for the room, I decided to splurge and join them for a fancy dinner in the main dining room of the lodge. Per usual, I ordered desert first, a wild berry creme brûlée. Mmmm… I love creme brûlée. I then followed it up with a dinner of fresh oregon lamb chops. The food was absolutely amazing! I had a full belly, a warm, safe place to stay for the night, and the sun was finally setting on my perfect day when the server delivered the check and said, “you guys are missing out on a phenomenal double rainbow!”

What?! We were watching the cloudy sunset to the west and were completely missing out on the phenomenal rainbows to the east. I dashed outside into the rain for one of the most phenomenal views I’ve ever seen. The low angle light from the sunset had given the crater lake landscape a golden glow, turning it into an unearthly place, and creating some of the most brilliant rainbows I’ve seen.

I could have stood in the rain soaking it all in for hours… Crater Lake to my left, lightening storms to my right, and the most amazing rainbows I’d ever seen dead ahead. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day!

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P.S. Thank you to all of the people that helped make my day at Crater Lake so amazing!!

Things that have been weighing on me…

Bullying and trying to shame people into reducing their pack weight is relatively new to the backpacking community (Does pack weight come from fear?), but it has been commonplace in American culture as a way to try to motivate people to lose weight for decades. Though I’m sure (or at least hope) that the people who coined the term “pack weight comes from fear” were not intentionally tapping into the very sensitive issues surrounding size/weight-based prejudice, they stumbled into it anyway. Issues of bullying and weight shaming have bled over from mainstream America into my idyllic community in the woods and I don’t like it!

Americans obsess about food and weight.

I was shocked when I returned home from the trail and was immediately inundated with commentary about food, eating, and beauty. The culture I’d been immersed in on the trail viewed food and eating very differently from mainstream society, and I had forgotten the pervasiveness of our cultural programming about food and body image. On the trail, I lost count of the number of complete strangers that walked up to me and offered me Snickers bars or other kinds of food. On the trail, the Snickers bars and other unexpected treats were referred to as “trail magic,” and the strangers providing them were called “trail angels.” Meeting a trail angel and getting unexpected trail magic was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I still smile thinking back on those Snickers bars! On the trail I’d stopped being ashamed of my hunger. I’d stopped being ashamed of eating. I’d stopped being ashamed of taking food from strangers. If I went into a restaurant and ordered 2 appetizers, 2 meals, and then every dessert off of the menu my friends and acquaintances would look at me with approving surprise and say, “You go girl!” while the wait-staff would laugh wholeheartedly and say, “You must be a thru-hiker.” On the trail, the pervasive attitudes about food and eating were all very positive. No one ever said, do you really need that candy bar?” or “You’d really look great if you just lost another X (fill in a number) pounds.”

According to Weight Watchers, a healthy weight for my height (5’10) ranges from 139-174 pounds, which is consistent with my internal metrics (I know that if I drop below 140 pounds, I become amenorrheic, which is a sign that I’m underweight). The CDC on the other hand suggests a normal range of 129-174 lbs. In the five months that I was on the trail I had gone from being over-weight (185 lbs and a size 16) to underweight (135 lbs and a size 3). When I returned to civilization I felt like a completely different person on the inside, and had forgotten that my outward appearance had changed too. My weight was often the first thing people noticed and wanted to relate to me about, not my experiences or my personal growth. I was surprised by how complicated my feelings about that were, both personally and culturally. Suddenly I had ‘thin privilege’… All of the women on TV looked like me, all of the food advertisements seemed to be saying that women should look like me, and people kept telling me that I was beautiful.

None of it quite felt right though. I definitely was not at a reasonable long-term stable weight for me. At first it seemed laughable to think that people would look at me and think that I was. It was ridiculous! But then I realized that I was the weight that the media was telling me I should be: I was the weight where everyone on TV looked like me. Suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was horrified. This was compounded by the fact that I knew I was underweight and people were already starting to shake their heads and make comments like, “You better start watching what you eat or you’ll gain it all back!” It was incredibly unnerving. Though I enjoyed the privilege and praise that came with being thin, the message that I needed to be careful if I wanted to keep my new found privilege was coming through loud and clear. Being a size 3 meant thin privilege, but would I get to keep that privilege at a healthier, more stable weight? I wasn’t sure.

What I do know is that whether I am underweight or overweight, what I was eat, how much, and how often is a topic of conversation whether I want it to be or not. Typically when I am heavier, the comments are more critical and less positive than when I am lighter.

Being heavy, overweight, obese or fat in America, “is associated with being ‘lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power.’ As a result, ‘fat’ isn’t a description like tall or redhead – it’s an indication of moral character: fat is bad.” According to the CDC, 35.7% of American adults are obese (having a BMI or body mass index greater than 30) and many more are considered to be overweight (BMI greater than 25 but less than 30). Given the stigma associated with weight and the large number of people that are considered to be overweight or ‘fat’, it’s not surprising that many people in our culture are sensitive about weight issues. Is it reasonable to be concerned about the health risks associated with being overweight or obese? Yes. Does weight discrimination help people evaluate and improve their health? No. Weight discrimination can make it even harder to navigate the health care system since doctors respect their patients less as their weight (BMI) goes up. Is weight shaming an effective way to motivate people to lose weight and to combat America’s obesity epidemic? No. “Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity,” (according to findings published in 2013 on PLOS ) and discussed in the Huffington Post.

Hikers obsess about pack weight.

Just like Americans seem to have a pathological obsession with body weight, backpackers are obsessed with pack weight (See my previous post: “Does pack weight come from fear?”). Is it reasonable to be concerned about the weight of your pack? Yes. Should we adopt pervasive American attitudes about body weight and apply them to pack weight? No. Like body weight, there is no single number that you point to and say that it is an ideal weight that all people should strive towards in all conditions. However, we can use science to help define a reasonable range of pack weights that people can then tailor to their individual needs.

The upper limit of pack weight that you should carry is defined by human structural load carrying capacity. The US Army Science Board in a study suggests that 50 pounds is the maximum load that should be carried by a soldier for any length of time based on physiological constraints and musculoskeletal concerns. In addition to a cap of 50 lbs, the optimal backpack load for soldiers in combat has been determined to be 30% of their body weight. Research in recreational contexts suggests a similar threshold for pack weight of of not more than 30% of body weight. Based on these studies, the maximum pack weight you should carry is 30% of your body weight unless you weigh 167 pounds or more, at which point you shouldn’t carry more than 50 pounds (note that the % body weight calculations are based on an individual’s ‘fit’ weight or ‘ideal’ weight).

The lower limit of pack weight or “base pack” weight (defined as pack weight excluding consumables eg food, water, and fuel) is currently established by experienced ultralight backpacking enthusiasts like Ray Jardine (who pioneered the ultralight movement in 1992) who are able to get their base pack weights below 10 lbs. Food and water then get added to the base pack weight depending on availability and local resources. For most people, a reasonable pack weight is somewhere between 12 and 50 lbs, but will vary with personal experience, financial constraints, and the science of survival.

Knowing a “healthy” range of pack weights provides a rudimentary (at best) guideline about pack weight, but doesn’t actually help when it comes to figuring out what you should put in your pack when venturing off into the wilderness. When I pack my pack, I use scientific guidelines to determine the minimum that I need to carry for survival:

  1. Food (for glycoregulation).
  2. Water (for osmoregulation).
  3. Shelter/Heat (for thermoregulation).

In the next three posts I’m going to discuss how the science and privilege around these requirements influence the way I pack my pack and hike my hike.

The Shoes off his Feet (Days 141 & 142)

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Fall has finally replaced winter with gorgeous days (sunny with temps in the 60s/70s), chilly nights (temps in the 40s), and gorgeous foliage. It is a bit strange to see the world exploding with yellows, oranges, and reds after so many months of just seeing green.

Despite all of the fallen leaves cluttering the trail, it has still been easy to find and follow the blazed path through the woods. The only downside is that sometimes the fine details of the trail (the rocks and roots) are obscured by the leaves. This is really just my way of blaming the leaves for a little stumble I took. It may or may not have actually been their fault, but there was a broken off root in the trail and I stumbled over it.

After walking 2100 miles my balance has gotten pretty good, so I didn’t fall even though I was hiking at about a three mile an hour pace when that root reached out and grabbed my foot. My leg and the root grappled for a minute as they tried to gain ownership of my foot, but eventually my leg won and I ripped my foot away from the root. I kept walking, but I started to notice that my right foot was feeling a lot cooler than my left. I looked down at my feet as I tried to figure out the cause.

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There was a huge gash in my shoe that extended from my big toe all the way across to my little toe. My first thought was to thank my lucky stars that I was wearing boots and that the gash was on my boot and not on my poor foot. My second thought was, “Doh!”. That boot would get me to the next town (Monson), but it wouldn’t get me through the 100 mile wilderness or up Mt Katahdin. I was going to have to find myself a new pair of boots.

I have had a lot of trouble with footwear and boots on this trip but my fifth (and I’d hoped last) pair of boots had been keeping me happy. I liked my Merrill Men’s Moab Ventillator’s (size 9 1/2), and if I had to get new boots I wanted to get a new pair just like them. I’d gone through 4 pair of uncomfortable boots before settling on these, and I really didn’t want to change things up now.

When I got to Monson I called around to all of the Outfitters nearby to see if they sold hiking boots, and more specifically if they sold Merrills. Unfortunately none of them did. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I figured that it was a good time to take a break to clear my head.

I met up with Eli, Rachel, Hotshot, and her dad for lunch. As we ate I told them about my shoe dilemma. Eli offered to give me his Merrill’s if they were the right size since he hikes in his Choco Sandals. Unfortunately our feet were no where near the same size.

While we were talking Hotshot’s dad had quietly taken the shoes off of his feet and as soon as it was clear that Eli’s shoes wouldn’t work, he passed me his shoes to me saying, “Here, try these.”

They were a pair of boots that looked just like the ones I was wearing, except that they were a lot cleaner, and were still completely intact. I tried then on and they fit! They were a little bit bigger than my ripped up boots (size 10 instead of 9 1/2), but they would definitely work.

It felt a little strange to literally take the boots off of his feet, but he assured me multiple times that he really wanted me to have them, and it made him really happy to have the chance to help me out, especially since he knew that my parents had been there to support his daughter earlier in the trip.

My shoe dilemma was resolved in a wonderful and amazing way that I never would have predicted! In some ways all of the thru-hikers on the trail are like family, and whenever a parent shows up on the trail they immediately become a parent to whoever needs a parent that day.

With better weather, trail magicked new boots, care packages from home (thanks mom, dad, Melissa & Mike, and Mike), and a group of old and new friends (Hotshot, Twigs, Green Blaze, Shady, Wyoming, and BoJangles) I felt ready to head into the 100 mile wilderness.

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Welcome to Wonderland (Days 117-120)

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As I was leaving Hanover, I was faced with what I’ve been calling the Goldilocks Conundrum: the first shelter was too close, but the second shelter was too far. What I really needed to find was the place that was just right, about halfway between the two. I double checked my map, hoping to find a place suitable for camping, or at least somewhere with water, but there was nothing. I repositioned my pack and used that as an excuse to let out a big sigh. I’d figure out where I was going to sleep later, for now I just needed to hit the trail and start hiking.

As I approached the first shelter I met a SoBo (southbound) thru-hiker. We did the usual exchange of information about trail conditions ahead and I asked him if he’d seen any good stealth (unofficial) campsites between the two shelters. He thought about it for a few minutes before saying that he hadn’t seen anything. We started to go our separate ways when he remembered something, a bunch of NoBos (northbounders) had mentioned that they’d spent the previous night on the Ice Cream Man’s porch.

The Ice Cream Man’s place sounded intriguing. I asked the next couple of people that I saw about the Ice Cream Man. They confirmed that it was in the perfect location and that he lets thru-hikers tent in his yard or sleep on his porch. They also said that he got his name because he has free ice cream for thru-hikers and that he loves to play croquet. Ice cream, croquet, and a place to stay! That’s definitely where I was going to head for the night.

The Ice Cream Man had a sign up on the trail that read, “His ice cream brings all the hikers to the yard/ His water tastes better than yours/ Damn right, his croquet game is better than yours/ It’s all free yeah there’s no charge.”

I ambled over to the Ice Cream Man’s house, dropped my pack, and looked around. There was a big sign on the front porch welcoming hikers, a hiker book for us to sign, a bunch of chairs for us to relax in, and a freezer full of ice cream on the back porch. I signed the book and then helped myself to some ice cream. The Ice Cream Man wasn’t home, so I relaxed on the front porch looking forward to his arrival.

Out in the yard the croquet wickets were set, and there were mallets and balls enough for 6-12 people. I felt like I’d stumbled through the rabbit hole (down the trail) and was waiting for the queen of hearts (the Ice Cream Man) to get back so that we could resume a surreal game of croquet.

Eventually the Ice Cream Man returned home (he didn’t seem anything at all like the Queen of Hearts) and invited us to a game of croquet. He was very affable as he showed us the ropes while taking us to the cleaners.

Later that evening we decided to play another game of croquet before curling up and sleeping on his porch. Since dusk was approaching, he pulled his car up onto the lawn and used its headlights to illuminate the croquet field. The Ice Cream Man, the Fool, the Voice, Indy, Jungle Gym, and I proceeded to play croquet as the sun went down. Even without a Mad Hatter or the Red Queen, the spectacle of all of the thru-hikers playing croquet seemed worthy of a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

Snow White (Days 66-69)

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Sometimes my life on the trail feels a little surreal. Most mornings I start my hike with my head in the clouds… Or at least a dense fog. The fog hangs in the trees and gives the forest a certain fairy tale quality.

I stepped out of the typical morning cloud, crossed Skyline Drive, and paused on the other side to read the trail sign. I was definitely off in my own world when I heard a car honk. I looked up, and a car had stopped in the middle of the road about 20 feet from me. The women in the passenger side rolled her window down and asked, “Would you like a piece of fruit?”

Fresh fruit is akin to thru-hiker gold. It’s hard to come by on the trail since it’s heavy and bruises easily, so offers of fresh fruit are hard for us to turn down. It was a slightly strange scenario, but I thought about it and I did want a piece of fruit, so I said, “yes”, as I turned and walked back towards the car.

The woman in the car rustled through the paper bag beside her, pulled out an apple, and presented it too me with a flourish. “Here, have this apple” she said with a smile.

My stride faltered just a smidge and I said, “This feels very Snow White to me.” The women smiled again and assured me that they were hikers, and at the last overlook one of the thru-hikers had told them that fruit was better than candy out here on the trail.

I took the apple, thanked the couple for it and headed back towards the trail. As I re-entered the woods I kept thinking about Snow White. I had been offered (and gratefully accepted) peaches, bananas, oranges and even watermelon from strangers on the trail, but in those cases it just seemed like the weird and awesome trail magic that it was. Being offered an apple somehow came with more cultural baggage than I’d expected. Not just of Snow White, but of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Those stories both seem to suggest that you shouldn’t take and eat apples offered to you by strangers! Or should you?

I looked at my apple again. It was just an apple. I was thinking about this way too much. I took a bite and kept walking. Though it still felt like I was walking through a magically enchanted forest I didn’t fall into a deep, long slumber until after I’d hiked 20 more miles, and I think that slumber was related to exhaustion and not to the very tasty apple.