My Outdoor Resumé, Part One

Everybody starts somewhere.

One assumption I made in planning this hike and newsletter is that I’ll be able to write comfortably enough in virtually any conditions using just my phone, a little folding keyboard, and a plastic phone stand I found on Amazon. I made a rule for myself that I will only work on this newsletter using those tools, so that when I hit the trail there won’t be any unpleasant technical surprises. So far it’s gone ok, sitting at my desk at home. So today I’m pushing things a little closer to reality: I packed up my little yellow backpack with about two thirds of my trail gear and took a walk out into the woods near my house. I found a flat spot near a little stream and set up the tent I’m bringing, to see how it goes writing out in the woods. 

Just after I arrived it started drizzling, so I’m writing this to the sound of a light wind, the steady tick of raindrops on nylon, and the occasional seagull or crow calling from the trees overhead. It’s not bad.

The first mountain I remember climbing was Mt. Monadnock, in southern New Hampshire. I was young, maybe ten? Probably younger. I remember hiking behind my Dad and thinking his pack seemed impossibly huge. Too big for any human being to carry, surely. I might be conflating a couple different hikes here, because why would my Dad be carrying his 1960s-vintage external frame pack on a day hike up Mt. Monadnock? But that’s how I remember it, and sitting here with the rain pattering on my tent, memory matters more than facts. 

The other thing I remember from that climb was the feeling in my legs on the way down. I practically ran down the trail from the top, getting too far ahead and being told to wait, over and over. I still hate descending slowly. I’ll take my turn at sweep on the way up, but let me be in the lead going down. I want to flow downhill like water, looking two steps ahead and letting my body close the loop between eyes and feet without any thoughts intruding. I’m too old to do it now but I used to run downhill, whenever I could.

But descending is tricky because my legs get more and more tired but I don’t really feel it, because I’m not out of breath. Long ago on Mt. Monadnock I remember how, when I finally stopped to wait for my family to catch up, my legs felt like jelly. It was probably the first time I was physically fatigued past the point of easy recovery. I was suddenly aware that my body wasn’t a simple machine, but more of an ongoing negotiation between will and strength. My legs don’t get wobbly like that anymore but I have to pay attention to the slips and stumbles, the subtler signs that I need a rest even though I’m not gasping for breath.

My parents weren’t backcountry adventurers, but we did a lot of car camping. We had a pop-up tent trailer that we’d drive out to campgrounds here and there, mostly in the northeast. The lid of the trailer cranked straight up to form a roof in the middle, and on each side a bunk platform slid out, with a canvas cover that fastened all the way around underneath each side with heavy bungee cords. My sister and I shared one side, and my parents slept in the other. The covers were tight enough that you couldn’t even push a hand out, from the inside. 

Despite that, one night when I was sleeping on the far edge of the kids’ platform, something jarred me awake in my sleeping bag. I blinked at the ground in front of me. Hard-packed campground dirt. Pine needles. Little pine cones. Pine needles? Wait, the ground?? I crawled out of my sleeping bag and discovered I was outside the trailer now, on the ground beneath the sleeping platform. The tent cover was still fastened as tightly as ever. It was very dark, and very quiet. I walked around to the trailer door, but it was locked. I had a brief moment of panic, as the certainty that one does not knock at the door in the middle of the night warred with the need to be back inside with my family. I finally knocked, as quietly as I could. I heard my Dad stir inside and he called out with obvious confusion and a touch of what sounded to me like fear: “Who’s there?” 

“It’s me,” I said. “I fell out.”

That’s the punchline, when this story gets told, and it gets told a lot. I tell it all the time. Everybody laughs, then repeats “I fell out!” and laughs some more. It’s a good story, it’s very funny. But at the same time, it’s one of my most vivid childhood memories, and standing there on the step of the trailer, holding my sleeping bag and trying to come up with a reason I was outside, I was scared. I said “I feIl out,” because I couldn’t think of any other explanation. I’m still a little scared every time I remember it. My Dad checked the cover around our sleeping platform, and every one of the bungee cords was hooked tightly. There’s no possible way me and my whole sleeping bag slipped out. We’ve never come up with an explanation for it. It’s just a thing that can’t have happened, but did. 

I thought I should start this project with my outdoors resumé, such as it is, so you know where I’m coming from. People come to the Appalachian Trail with a wide range of outdoor experience. Some people hit the trail without ever having backpacked before, which is bonkers to me but I truly respect it. In the first 200 miles they’ll learn lessons that took me twenty years. 

I’m more on the other end of the spectrum—I’ve been pretty steadily getting out into the wilderness ever since I felt my legs wobble on Mt. Monadnock and liked it. I’m forty seven now, so let’s call it forty years? I’ve hiked and backpacked in all seasons. I’ve rock climbed at a beginner level repeatedly since high school. I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in Maine and New Hampshire, including several of the White Mountains four thousand footers in the winter, and Mt. Katahdin in February. I’ve done a lot of sea kayaking, more of it alone than anyone is supposed to do. I can ski a bit, downhill or cross-country. I can snowboard a bit. The winter before last I pulled a pulk sled into the middle of the Pemi wilderness and poked around the Owl and Mt. Garfield for a few days. I’ve ice climbed a little, I’d like to do more of that. I’ve tried a lot of things at least once. 

But to the extent I’m an expert in anything outdoors, it’s backpacking. Through-hiking is its own thing, in some ways, but the core of it is backpacking the same way the core of ultra-running is just running. Backpacking is the one thing I always come back to, and the discipline I’ve devoted the most time and energy to. So for part two, I’ll get more into my backpacking experience specifically. Until then, I’ll leave you with the sound of rain.  

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