Crooked Trails

I picked my brother up from the airport in Las Vegas where we spent a weird night at a strange AirBnB in a creepy cookie-cutter neighborhood before hitting the road, due east.

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Snagged a couple elusive permits to Coyote Buttes

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Due to a mysterious swelling and pain in my right foot and ankle that I refused to acknowledge in any real way, Brett drove to us Springdale, Utah while I propped the offending limb on the dashboard. The drive was long and unbearably hot through the rocky emptiness of eastern Nevada, the wheezing air conditioner undecided about it’s working order.

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Getting a taste for the dirtbag life–camping on a BLM dirt road somewhere in Utah

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Went to sleep to this view.

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After squaring away our logistics for the following days on the trail, we wove back through the tourist-dense streets, back down the two lane highway winding parallel to the crumbling red cliffs, and pulled off onto a poorly marked BLM road, kicking up dirt and gravel and driving until we couldn’t drive anymore.

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Creepin’

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Descending into Zion Canyon

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Quick afternoon trip up to Bryce Canyon

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Morning break in Zion

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Though our primary hike for Brett’s trip out was pulling off the Zion Traverse in two days, we filled the unplanned days that followed on whim and wind—chance permit lotteries, recommendations from fellow travelers met on remote and unkempt dirt roads, following paths with no markings at all, following the land when the trails ran out—we nearly forgot we’d been to Zion at all. We forgot what time it was, what day it was, we teetered between Utah and Arizona so often that we forgot which state we were in.

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Trekking the Paria Canyon

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Watch out for the not-super-quick-more-like-moderately-paced sand!

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Sinewy boulders

After dropping Brett off so he could head back to the Midwest, I continued back south and west. Sunburnt and sticky with sweat, I was hot and irritated as I crossed back into California. On impulse, I headed back to a place I’d been before.

The last time I’d been on Mt. San Jacinto, I was thru-hiking the PCT. It was startling how well I remembered the switchbacks—how similar they looked as it snowed on that early May morning, how the familiar weight of my pack begged me back down the mountain, back to the coffee shop, on to another city. I hadn’t bagged the peak in 2015 (mostly due to the AZDPCTKO hangover with which I’d hitch-hiked back with Idyllwild), but I was there to reclaim a memory. To make a place mine that I’d inadvertently given to someone else a while back. It didn’t work, and mostly I was cold and sore and hungry.

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purple buff life

After meeting a friend in Culver City, I dropped in at the infamous Anderson’s Casa de Luna to volunteer for a couple days. Heating up taco salad mix and tossing pancakes and hearing the top line trail gossip from this year’s hikers had me missing the lifestyle and the people something fierce, and as I dropped off the last group at the trail head, a visceral desire to abandon my car and my newfound job and head off to trod that same path behind them was almost overwhelming.

Fiddling with the finicky A.C., I drove north to Three Rivers. There was a flat hat and a summer in the wilderness waiting for me just beyond the sign: Welcome to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks!

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Deserts & Rocks & Bears, Oh My!

I love the way the desert smells.

I love the scent of various pines, sweetened by the breeze, and the crack of dry earth beneath my shoes.

Olfactory memories, unbidden, seeped in with the dry forest air–summers spent in central Colorado with cousins, chewing on rock candy and scrambling across alpine ridges; the several months I lived in southeast Utah, the Moab Rim rising like a massive saffron bowl, enclosing the town in slick red rock.

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View of the Mogollon Rim while we took a lunch break.

I’d never been to Arizona before this week, but had always associated it with endless dull desert and Jan Brewer groupies. Though the state proudly boasts both of my stereotypes and more, I found the landscape far more rich than for what I’d given it credit.

After arriving in Phoenix from the dank Seattle skies heavy with rain, Jess and I made our way north to the Tonto National Forest. The land was open and clear, but teeming with flora and fauna alien to me–forests of Saguaro rose eerily on hillsides, massive and ancient and silent. Acacia extended its fingers along the roads, quail and rattlesnakes and iguana alike taking respite in its meager shade.

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On Sunday morning, Jess’ folks dropped us at the Highline 31 Trail Head in Pine, AZ with well wishes and promises to pick us up on the other end. With fifty-four miles of trail before us, we started our climb. The terrain was unforgiving, inhospitable, and intensely beautiful. The Mogollon Rim rose above us, cinnamon cliffs jutting into the sky.

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The first day, large pines towered towered over the trail. The woods were sparse here, and high grasses grew tall against the exaggerated tree bark. As the trip continued, however, we entered a burn area affected by the Dude Fire of 1990. The largest fire in the state up until that point, it encompassed forty-four square miles, claimed the lives of six people, and destroyed over sixty structures. The landscape bears a stark scar, and the trail wandered through miles of low brush, loose red rock, and the charred bodies of Pinon Pines. The sun beat ruthlessly on our necks and shade was scarce in the hot midday.

Burnt forest land.

Burnt forest land.

The Highline Trail runs along with the Arizona Trail (AZT, a long distance trail, 800 miles from Mexico to Utah) for nearly twenty miles before breaking off to continue along the Rim. Trail conditions markedly deteriorated after departing the more popular AZT, and we lost the trail several times in wide meadows, burnt scrubland, and grazing properties.

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The new countryside brought with it novel plants and animals–we regularly scared up small lizards and horny toads from the rocks surrounding the trail; coyotes howled and barked several canyons away as we crawled into our tent, now fully clothed in wool and down to combat the night chill. Two evenings of the four we encountered bears in our camp. The first night Jess sighted one up the hill from our camp. And being the good choristers that we are, immediately began singing yodel tunes, ballads, and opera (we weren’t in a place to be musically discerning). Though it was likely long gone, we continued to speak in exaggerated tones for the rest of the night and took cautiously to our sleeping bags.

The second incident occurred on the third evening, in the wee hours of the morning. The bear sniffed and snorted around our camp, passing right by our tent before mounting a ridge and climbing away. Our palms were sweaty, heart rates jacked. We didn’t fall back asleep that night. Only upon returning to civilization did we learn that the Tonto National Forest is one of the most bear-populous areas in the country, averaging one bear per square mile. Figures.

The last two days found us back among the trees, and crossing streams with more regularity, though many flowed through grazing lands and required extensive filtering and/or chemical purification.

Our final morning was an easy three mile hike out to the trailhead, where Jess’ parents met us with hard cider, cold beer, and a ride to the closest burrito purveyor (after a shower, of course).

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The rest of the week was spent cleaning and parsing through gear in the small town of Quatrzsite in southwestern Arizona where Jess’ folks graciously hosted us in their low desert home. The area was foreign to me. Filled with sparse low brush, the flat earth extends for miles before rising out of nothing into harsh brown mountains, turned blue and purple in the sunset. The population is largely made up of snowbirds from the northern states, and perennial vagabonds moving from one spot to another. RV parks and mobile homes sprawl out from the main stretch of town which consists of a few gas stations, a small grocery store, and myriad stalls and shops of sundry items run out of the back of trailers.

I was hoping for this hike to act as a pack shakedown, but I didn’t end up ditching many items. I’ve discarded any and all luxury items (pencils, sketchbook) and repeats (merino wool undergarments, some first aid items, a larger cook pot), but have discovered that it’s really two of my big three items that contribute the most weight: sleeping bag and tent. I’m not in a place financially to replace either of them, and they’re both in excellent condition, but perhaps the ultralight tarp shelter is a possible future investment.

As I’ve been quite focused on this trip, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the PCT this week, beyond being grateful for a little desert hiking before I embark on the 700 mile desert section in Southern California. This hike taught me that I need less water in the desert than I thought (though the temperature here is substantially cooler than some PCT sections), that hiking up steep hills of loose rock will always suck, but I can do it, and that strawberry Starburst are definitely superior to all other flavors.

Today I leave Arizona for a week in the Bay Area to visit a couple friends, complete a couple final gear switches/replacements, and wander around the city before embarking down to San Diego, and ultimately to Campo, CA and the PCT’s southern terminus

A friend from Seattle began his PCT thru-hike on April 1st, and I’ve been following his blog and social media, hungry for pictures and information and opinions. My nerves have spiked up again, sitting here at my gate in the Phoenix airport. I’m not feeling anxious about anything in particular, but rather just a constant hum of unease wrought by excitement and apprehension.

One week and counting.

a few beans & some thoughts.

As my departure date looms ever nearer on the calendar, I’m continually surprised by the level of skepticism, snide remarks, and the barrage of unsolicited advice from non-backpackers about my hike. Everyone from extended family members, friends, coworkers and managers, the barista at my favorite coffee shop, and the checkout lady at Safeway (who inquired after the many bags of dried beans, pasta, and rice I was purchasing for resupplies), can’t wait to give me their two cents, tell me how miserable I’ll be, and ask me what type of gun I’ll be carrying (see FAQ post). While I try to remind myself that many of their thoughts are well-intentioned, answering the demand for justification with each person is wearisome. Though I want to spread the love of the outdoors with others, I find myself getting irritated with some of the more unsupportive interrogations and passing jibes.

Maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I’m not going into this blind. I’ve done my research. I’ve been out in the mountains. I have a water filter. I know my own body.

Concealed within these remarks, I suppose, lies a reflection of each commenter’s or inquirer’s or cross-examiner’s values. Perhaps even his or her own fears.

When I was in high school, I was deathly afraid of falling into the trap that is the American Dream. I hoped I wouldn’t meet a handsome, charming, and ambitious man in college and fall in love. I prayed not to begin my adulthood with the requisite 2.5 children, golden retriever, and SUV with a house in the suburbs, as so many of my contemporaries pined for, and what appeared to be a common thread in my community. I didn’t know what I wanted (still don’t), but it wasn’t that.

Of course, as I discovered, I didn’t have to. I’d caged myself in with what I believed my family & friends expected of me, when in reality they thought nothing of the sort.

Sometimes I still look at family and friends who have followed the more traditional course, and I envy their security. They have 401ks and stable jobs and reliable cars, and they stay around long enough to see their autumn tulip bulbs sprout in April.

And perhaps they fear leaving this lifestyle of certainty behind, or feel pinned to decisions and commitments they made many years ago, or ones that were made for them.

I am young, I’ll be the first to admit that. I often feel naive and humbled by the experiences of those around me. And I’m not prone to voicing grand pronouncements (but face it, we’re all more than a little supercilious about our chosen lifestyles), but I suppose I like to think I live intentionally–I fear frittering away my small allotment of existence at a menial job, tolerating a static or mercurial relationship, playing video games, or trolling the internet for entertainment. I sometimes get caught up checking up on old classmates I don’t even know anymore on Facebook, or standing in an impossibly long line at the store, waiting to purchase an item I don’t really even need, and I get a little flustered. Is this really what I want to be doing? 

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I don’t feel my decision to thru-hike the PCT was in any way crazy or brave–it just feels like the next thing to do, for me, in this moment.

Anyhow.

This weekend I’ve been dehydrating like a fiend!

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I purchased a million dollars worth of dried beans, soaked them all, cooked them, and then dehydrated them, so I’m back with a bunch of bags of dried beans again. I also picked up a few boxes of mac and cheese, a bunch of peppers and onions, and some ground beef to cook, dehydrate, and mix into chilis, pastas, rice mixes, etc.

My entire apartment smells like black beans, and the dehydrator (thanks LeeAnne & Nolan!) is working overtime and steaming up all of my windows.

I even found some little packets of silica beads to throw in each meal package to help keep it dry for as long as possible.

Things are coming together!

Trail Jargon

Trail language is brimming with monikers & all around strange turns of phrase, and hikers love their acronyms. It took me a full month to catch on to all the shorthand, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve fallen into the habit of using trail-speak with Regular People. You know. Those folks who don’t take half their year to walk across the country. That’s you, probably, typical blog-reader.

I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a small dictionary. Some of them are less intuitive than others. Some are stupid.

Cairn: (n) A stack of rocks ranging from two or three small stones to massive altar-like structures which mark the trail where it may be difficult to follow (over rock or open forest floor).

NOBO/SOBO: (adj) Northbound/Southbound–the direction you’re headed on you PCT hike

Yo-yo: (adj) Hiking the entire trail, and then simply turning around and doing the whole thing over again. (I know).

HYOH: (v) Hike Your Own Hike. I love this one, and it’s often thrown around during all sorts of conversations. Do your hike on your own terms–go at your own pace, eat what and when you like, filter your water or not, take this gear or that, take this alternate route or don’t. Don’t hike on someone else’s agenda.

Zero Day: (n) Taking a day off and hiking zero miles.

AZDPCTKO: (N) Annual Zero Day Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off, sponsored by Trail Angels, the PCTA (I think), and a bunch of fancy big name outdoor gear companies. Located at Lake Morena Campground in California at PCT mile 20. Gear companies sell cool stuff at sweet prices (but you probably don’t need anything by then, as you’ve already begun your hike), locals give water & snow reports for Southern California and the Sierra as well as trail closures, and you get to meet a bunch of fellow thru-hikers! This year, there are two kick-offs to accommodate the trail’s growing popularity, both at the end of April. I’ll have passed the area by then, but am considering hitching a ride back just to see what all the fuss is about.

Marathoner: (n) A day in which you hike 26 miles.

LNT: (N/v) Leave No Trace, the most important of backcountry ethics. Clean up after yourself, and don’t be a dick. Pack out all of your trash including food scraps, make sure to dig your cat hole at least six inches, respect wildlife, minimize camp and hiking impact, and consider others around you.

BPW: (n) Base Pack Weight–i.e., how much your pack weighs minus consumables (water, fuel, food). Ultralight packers boast a BPW under 10lb, lightweight is under 20lb, and anything over is considered traditional backpacking.

Cache: (n) An unnatural occurrence of water in the wilderness, where someone has left behind jugs of the sweetest of chemical compounds just when you thought you were going to die of thirst. Questionable alignment with LNT.

Bounce Box: (n) A form of resupply wherein a hiker will mail a box or a five-gallon bucket ahead to herself with items she doesn’t need every day, and doesn’t want to carry. Upon reaching town, she’ll pick it up at the post office, enjoy and refresh its contents, and mail it out again to herself further on up the trail.

Cowboy Camping: (v) Sleeping under the stars.

Hiker Trash: (n) Affectionate self-titled name for thru-hikers.

PCTA: (N) Pacific Crest Trail Association. They maintain the trail, and are a wealth of information on anything from water sources ad bear sightings to gathering the necessary backcountry permits and caring for your blisters. They’re pretty great, and they take donations.

Flip Flop: (v) Thru-hiking the PCT, just not all in order… usually a result of wildfire closures or snow pack. For example: hiking north to the Sierras, then flipping up to BC and hiking south to that same point.

Posthole: (n/v) The energy-sapping, annoying, but unavoidable result of walking through deep snow–when your leg collapses the snow and sinks in up to your thigh, requiring a strong lift, and often resulting in another post-hole.

Post-holing. Canada

Vitamin I: (n) Ibuprofen. ‘Nuff said.

Triple Crowner: (n) A Thru-hiker who has completed the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Yogi: (v) To convince, persuade, or inveigle locals/day-hikers into giving you food/water/a ride without actually asking for it. This can be a true art, and one at which I imagine I will not excel, as I don’t think I’m particularly charming or graceful. Here’s to hoping, though.

Trail Angel: (n) Basically anyone who gives you a hand on the trail, be it a ride to/from the trail, letting you camp out in their backyard/garage/house, giving you food/water, etc. Some trail angels are just passing day hikers, and some take on the duties full time. The Dinsmores near Stehekin, WA for example, put up PCT thru-hikers in a special-built dormitory, hold packages, have showers and laundry and all the modern conveniences you’ve forgotten about. They do it for free, but a little donation doesn’t go amiss.

Trail Magic: (n) Anything done by a Trail Angel, essentially. Sometimes its small (a beer or soda cache & some snacks near a trail head), and sometimes it’s a full-fledged mobile restaurant. I heard this excellent story on NPR in December about a pop-up cafe set up on a picnic table at Sonora Pass for thru-hikers, complete with a pancake breakfast and free wifi.

Quartermaster

Meet LeeAnne:

A fellow Michigander, LeeAnne and I have been friends since middle school.

Here is some slightly embarrassing photographic evidence:

She is a hiker, cyclist, trail-builder, snowshoer, backpacker, and bestest friend extraordinaire. She is super smart and has much more wilderness experience than I do and probably secretly thinks I’m a little insane.

Which is why, with full Congressional approval, she has been appointed Quartermaster for the duration of “Helen’s PCT Adventure.” As such, her duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Mailing me resupply packages as I reach particular towns. These will generally include food (some trail towns don’t have very good food stores), the next batch of Halfmile’s PCT Maps & Yogi’s Handbook (both providing great information on nearby towns, upcoming water sources/caches, & good camping spots), and any new/replacement gear I may need (socks & underwear, a bear canister required in Northern California, etc).
    • Packages can take between 2-3 weeks to reach a post office via general delivery, as some towns are quite remote.
    • Other packages may be sent via UPS or FedEx to a local business or individuals’ home willing to hold boxes for thru-hikers.
  • Listening to me cry over the phone when my feet are covered in blisters and I want to come home.
    • Sending me a new pair of shoes to alleviate said blister pain.
    • Convincing me not to quit.
  • Accepting packages that I send back of unused and discarded gear that I may either no longer need or decide to go without, as it’s too heavy.
  • Coming to hang out/hike with me as I reach Washington and draw nearer the Canadian border. I’ll probably need some serious moral support. And some hot food. Blueberry muffins and a few tacos wouldn’t go amiss.

She’s a badass, and I couldn’t ask for a better Q.

Frequently Asked Questions

Without really intending to do so, I’ve developed a trail spiel. A why-I-am-doing-this soliloquy.

I recently returned to the Pacific Northwest from a week visiting family in West Michigan. Over the countless cups of coffee, lunches, beers, and evening holiday parties with old friends and extended family members absent from my daily life back in Seattle, I honed my answers to the same Trail Questions they posed, each thinking his query unique and untested “But have you thought about–?!” Yes, I have. I’ve spent the last six months thoroughly researching the trail’s sections, trying out gear, and testing myself in the woods. I’m not a complete idiot.

Here are the FAQ from friends/family/strangers/coworkers:

THE LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS:

Pacific_crest_trail_route_overviewWhere does the trail start/end and how long is it? The trail’s southern terminus is in Campo, CA on the border with Mexico, and northern terminus in a provincial park in British Columbia called Manning Park. The trail is 2,660 miles long, but the distance actually hiked fluctuates depending on where you might hike into a town, trail detours due to flooding or fires, getting lost, or skipping sections. Check out this map for a better idea.

What are you going to eat? Food. And a lot of it. Thru-hiking the PCT is actually an exercise in self-starvation, as it is incredibly difficult to keep up intake with expended calories. I’ll mail myself (or rather have my lovely friends LeeAnne & Nolan mail me) pre-packed boxes of trail mixes, peanut butter, dehydrated soups and stirfries, and plenty of Oreos. No, I won’t be hunting (or fishing) for any of my sustenance. I won’t walk away from a ripened raspberry bush, but I’m not actively foraging for my meals. Otherwise, I’ll purchase food as I go… hitchhiking to nearby cities, or patronizing ones in the towns along the trail.

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showing my uncanny solo-pioneer-explorer pose, ala lewis & clark.

How long is it going to take you/how far are you going to hike each day? Short answer, about five months. Long answer, the PCT is different from the Appalachian Trail in that there is a specific hiking season. Section-hiking the trail or traveling southbound (SOBO) bring up different issues, but as a northbound (NOBO) hiker, I must leave in April to beat the high temperatures in the Mojave, should enter the High Sierras no earlier than June 15 to give the snow enough time to melt a bit, and should reach the Northern Cascades in Washington in late August/early September to beat the autumn snowfall. As for distance–in order to hit these approximate dates, I’ll be hiking anywhere between 20-30 miles/day. Sometimes I’ll do ten. Sometimes I’ll take a zero (a day off). Sometimes I’ll go 35. Sometimes I’ll go eight miles through the snow and it’ll feel like 28. It’s hard to say from my living room couch.

Who are you going with? No one! Going solo.

Do you have all of your gear? I sure hope so! There are a couple big things I need yet (lightweight thermarest, sun umbrella for the desert [I’m not so good with the overheating], pack rain cover, and sundry apparel). In actuality, I likely have more gear than I’ll need. I’d like to keep my base weight (pack weight minus consumables) under 20lb, and will probably ditch the items I realize I don’t really need in the first couple weeks.

What’s next? I have no idea… and that’s probably my biggest anxiety–yes, more than the bears and the cougars and the rattlesnakes. I’ll be broke and homeless and unemployed. Can I camp in your backyard?

THE STUPID QUESTIONS: (and yes, there are stupid questions).

You shouldn’t go alone. Is this a question?

Are you going to carry a gun? Wait, what? I couldn’t tell you the difference between a revolver and rifle, much less fire one accurately. Also, have you ever shot–or even just picked up–a gun?! Those things weigh at least… well, a lot. Ain’t no way I’m carrying that.

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bear! spotted in the Enchantments last summer.

But what about safety? Probably a more apt question for you, oh city dweller. You’re in more danger from motor vehicles and teenage girls on their smartphones running into you on the sidewalk. I like to think I have a good head on my shoulders. I use, you know, reason and logic, and I generally trust my intuition about people. What about maceWhat about mace? It’s not worth the weight, and I’d probably just end up stuffing it in my pack where it’d be useless against whatever/whomever you’re imagining attacking me. And bears?! Yes! Bears! They eat berries and fish, and sometimes humans. What’s the question?

Have you head of… Wild? Yes. Please see my post about this. A Walk in the Woods? Yes. Different trail.

My cousin biked from New York to LA once. You should talk to her! Right. Ok. Thanks.

Experience Level: 0.5

I didn’t grow up hiking and I was ten the first time I went camping.

The entire fifth grade at my small parochial school clambered onto the school bus, our backpacks stuffed with fleece jackets and granola bars, and with the necessary parent-signed permission slips, cheap pocket knives clipped to our belt loops.

The nights we didn’t curl up in warm cabins, we lived on the brink–constructing lean-tos from dead tree limbs and massive fern fronds, wondering if we’d make it through the night to tomorrow morning’s strawberry pop-tarts.

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Olivia H. in the attractive bucket hat, my partner in crime in most elementary school shenanigans, surviving like a champ.

A year at an alternative public school for sixth graders pushed me out into the woods again–camping, tapping maple trees next to the freeway, and traipsing around marshes on private property, all culminating in the feared “survival night” on our spring camping trip. (Spoiler: We survived. Mostly on Ramen Noodles and wild leeks).

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Me & Olivia posing before our big 6th grade “survival” camping trip. Also undeniable proof that adolescence is awkward.

Over the next ten years, I didn’t venture much beyond that. The closest I ever came to wilderness backpacking was on a trip to Lake Michigan’s North Manitou Island with my father. Despite the 80ºF humid afternoons, we were decked out in jeans and sweatshirts to avoid the persistent mosquitos and black flies, trying to orienteer with a tourist map and a chipped compass we found in the glove box of my dad’s work truck before hopping on the ferry.

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Miner’s Rock at Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

My real interest in hiking and backpacking came in college in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula where I met people whose idea of a good time was to wander along Lake Superior or through the hundreds of square miles of uninhabited land for long afternoons that stretched into evenings and eventually weekends.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

But if I’m being honest (and if you can’t be honest on a blog, where can you be?) I didn’t really get the bug until I moved to Washington state almost exactly a year ago. The mountains were so near and inviting and I couldn’t help myself. In June, after deciding to attempt the PCT next year with next to no experience or backpacking knowledge, I set about to learning. Now at the end of the summer, I can hike 20 miles a day without fatigue, and I’ve seen some of the more amazing things the Cascade Range has to offer.

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800'; July 2014

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800′; July 2014

I’ve read a some books, a few articles, a trail anecdote here & there, and I’ve tried to get out into the wilderness as much as possible. Am I ready? Probably not to those ultralight backpacking purists. My pack still weighs over 20lb. My orienteering skills are for shit. My understanding of weather and pressure systems is non-existent. My experience hiking long distances in snow and desert is dismal. My tracking ability is laughable.

But I can light my stove and unstuff my sleeping bag and set up my tent and read a map.

And I can walk.

And in the end, that’s all it really is.