Monday, April 28, 2014

Into the Woods: Rural Ohio (Part 2)

“Why don’t you camp out with me?” I asked my friend, sending up a little prayer that she would say yes and reduce my fear that “IT” would get me in the night. I knew that she and her husband had a stockpile of tents and sleeping bags in the house.

The formerly sunny strip of mowed grass where we stood was now in shadow, a preview of the total darkness that would soon take both the scenery and my frontier spirit. The curved path from her weekend house ended in a wide swath between a mountain and a stream. It was perfect for pitching a tent, but I had not counted on it being out of sight of the house. I’d packed a whistle, but I realized the chances of anyone hearing it were slim to none.

“It will be like a slumber party,” I said, aiming for perkiness. When she agreed to pitch a tent next to mine, I was buoyant with relief.

“We can have a fire later,” she said, referring to the circle of rocks near the center of the clearing. Chairs had been set around it, extending a promise of warmth to the tent site that was now ours rather than just mine.

I had insisted on assembling my tent during the warm afternoon, primarily because I had not done it before. I’d laid it out flat in my den at home, but my furniture hadn’t left room for the movement required to put it together. Hiking experts advise us to erect a tent so many times that we can do it in the dark and take it down in rain without it getting soaked. I wasn’t there yet.

“Do you have instructions?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “but I watched a video on the Internet.” With a bit of guesswork, we managed to get the footprint in place, the tent up, the rain fly attached, and the sleeping bag and pad inside. Finally I could stop obsessing about the tent.

After dinner we walked the path with flashlights, mine a headlamp. My friend had talked her husband into camping out, and now there were three of us. “You’re blinding me!” he said of my new headlamp, the one with the eye-friendly red-light setting that I could not find no matter how many times I pushed the buttons. Know your gear.

He built a fire, but I missed most of its ambience because I was tired. I had been up a ridiculously long time and looked forward to sleeping through the scariest part of the evening—from about 9:00 p.m. until morning. Their voices receded once I zipped myself into my tent.

Hikers are advised to carry ear plugs for the times they need to share a shelter body-to-body with others. In my case I simply tucked my two hearing aids into the little pocket on my tent wall, and I was immediately alone. Oh.

I had put on my REI Revelcloud cold-weather jacket, my knit beanie, and my long underwear. I slid into my sleeping bag, thrilled to find it warm. I was now stretched out one inch from the ground, and my limbs had never felt so angular. Besides experiencing the discomfort of my own bones, it wasn’t ten minutes before I had to pee. No! I would not climb back out into that chilly night. I’d already felt my nose with my fingers, and it was as cold as the carrot on a snowman.

If I fell asleep at all, I didn’t know it. Mostly I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. Once in turning, I rolled against something solid outside the tent. Was this “IT”? What was I feeling: Was it a raccoon? A skunk? My friends’ pet dog? None of the above; it was my pack, stored in the vestibule of the tent.

If you think there is no comfort to be found in inanimate objects, I'm here to argue. From that moment on, I knew that my backpack would be my silent companion as I learned to love the outdoors. I would need to give it a name.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Into the Woods: Rural Ohio (Part 1)

It was a tryout experience. I wasn’t just trying out my new backpack, sleeping bag, and tent; I was testing my mettle as a camper and hiker. It was not unlike last year’s group backpacking trip in the mountains of northern Georgia, but this time I had my own gear and was exploring my own state.

In the long view, I saw myself thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail as early as 2015. I’d read 25 books about hiking the AT, and No. 26—a new account of 67-year-old Grandma Gatewood’s historic thru-hike in the 1950s—was on its way. I knew the history of the Trail and the names of towns and shelters all along it. Sometimes I felt like I’d already walked “the roller coaster,” “the green tunnel,” “the presidents,” and all the PUDs (pointless ups and downs) in the 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Through my reading I’d hiked alongside Bill Bryson, Earl Shaffer, Jeff Alt, and the Barefoot Sisters. I’d answered the call of the mountains with “Brownie,” “Badger,” “Skywalker,” ”Odyssa,” and others whose trail names I’d forgotten. They had walked the five million steps to support charities, forget wars, set records, channel grief, make life decisions, or simply appreciate nature.

When I took the short view of my hiking self, I saw a gear junkie fascinated with hiking equipment but inexperienced at using it. I’d lovingly researched every item I’d bought, but until Easter weekend 2014 I had not field-tested most of my purchases, especially the “big three.” A hiker’s comfort, and even her life, can depend on the performance of her tent, backpack, and sleeping bag. Those large investments have to be worth it.

My first “big three” purchase was a Marmot EOS 1 single-person tent I bought online. Seeing a tent before you buy is not a common experience; many brands and types exist, limiting retail floor displays. I caught a sale, and between the tent and its footprint (a separate ground cloth) I saved about $70. When the package came, it was the size of a large computer tower but the contents were light, as advertised.

I found my ideal sleeping bag, a Marmot Ouray, in a store but I’d chosen it long before on the basis of internet research. Being a cold sleeper, I’d placed the highest value on temperature rating. I would not be one of the poor souls I’d read about freezing in the Smoky Mountains! The bag was light, too. Its downfall was volume. I bought a compression sack to squish the bag small enough to fit in its compartment in my pack, but a 20-minute wrestling match with my dream bag convinced me to trade it in for a less voluminous REI Flash.

The backpack I bought was a popular model, the Osprey Ariel 65. It was so popular, in fact, that the color I wanted was unavailable. I hadn’t intended to buy a pack before my outdoor Ohio weekend, but I changed my mind when I discovered that REI had only one left in my size.

My plan was to drive to my friends’ country acreage four counties away, pitch my tent in a flat area away from their house, sleep there overnight while they slept inside, and hike the hills of their property wearing my new backpack. That was a good plan in daylight. However, when the sun began to sink and shadows fell across the valley floor, when the temperature dropped and the trees on the mountains blended into one big blob of darkness, that plan wasn't quite so appealing. I had to wonder what I'd been thinking.

(To be continued…)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Spring Shopping

It’s almost that time again.

What can a woman who has tried on—let’s guess: 300?—bathing suits in her lifetime possibly have to say about the process that’s new? That’s what I asked myself after coming home empty-handed from what most of us know to be a self-esteem-sucking, physically exhausting session wrestling bits of cloth in front of a department store dressing-room mirror in unflattering light.

Some aspects of swimsuit shopping haven’t changed a bit, but others have. The women’s swimwear department of my local Dillard’s is stuffed with colorful tops, bottoms, and cover-ups--everything from bikinis to board shorts for the discerning surfer girl and slimming, skirted one-piece numbers for the more modest or matronly shopper. I figured that if I couldn’t find a bathing suit in there, it didn’t exist.

I already had one suit. It was comfortable, and it covered me in all the right places; time and gravity had made that a necessity. But I was planning a vacation that involved daily swimming. To avoid the agony of stepping into a cold, clammy wad of spandex some morning, I needed a spare. My goal was to suit up as attractively as possible for my age and body type.

I’m a senior citizen, often described as “tall and thin.” As my brother says, being thin seems to equal an automatic pass for some folks. “You’re not getting any sympathy from me,” the clerk said after handing me yet another suit. Maybe not, but insecurities can plague us all when it comes to baring skin, especially as the years go by.

I wasn’t out to catch a wave, so the poster of the young girl in a pink bikini on the inside of the dressing room door didn’t help as I prepared to find the leg openings and wiggle into the latest creations and then peep at myself in the fun-house--I mean department-store—mirror. When I did open my eyes I saw in the reflection a soft body, one that could stand to tighten up around the middle. I saw a form as white as Casper the friendly ghost and slightly scarier. Let’s face it: we’re rarely so exposed as when we go to the pool or beach.

Two hours later my credit card was still in safe mode; nothing I had tried on was just right. It seemed a stretch to blame the hundreds of bathing suits in Dillard’s. After I got home I stripped down to my underwear and looked at myself in my own full-length mirror.

My thinking that day had been: The more of me that’s hidden, the better. And then, standing there, I remembered the time I decided to stop wearing shorts because I noticed spots and wrinkles on my legs. I was all set to buy Capri pants for the rest of my days when a wise friend took issue with that decision: Why should we give up shorts? That’s not the answer to living life. We all have to reach the point at which we accept ourselves.

I looked in the mirror again, and that time I didn’t see Casper. I saw a body that was healthy and whole. It was mine, imperfect but in fine working order. The only legitimate emotion for such a moment is gratitude.

I knew I would return to the store. People in their sixties are like everyone else. We like to swim. We like to sit in the sun or take a ride in a boat or occasionally climb into a hot tub. That’s why bathing suits were invented.