Feel the Fear

Reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild propelled me in a whole new direction in terms of physical challenges. I’m captivated by the idea of the relationship between physical endurance and mental/emotional strength. I joined a local hiking group and went on two fairly rigorous hikes before I signed up for a weekend backpacking trip in northern Michigan.

I was a virgin backpacker.

Sheer excitement carried me through three weeks of planning. I bought a lightweight tent – costing $250 – a hefty investment for a new hobby. Boots I’d already acquired, along with a Camelbak hydration system. My Boy Scout son agreed to let me borrow his winter sleeping bag and I snagged his backpack as well, the heavy-duty kind with a frame.

Two days before the big adventure, I searched the internet for ideas for backpacking meals. I found my breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes at Wild Backpacker, intending to cook oatmeal with dried cherries, slivered almonds, a dash of brown sugar and a couple tablespoons of dried milk each morning – adding boiling water to the mixture in a Ziploc freezer bag. My Saturday dinner would be another freezer bag and boiling water added to angel hair pasta and mixed with two pouches of tuna with olive oil. I added ¼ cup parmesan cheese, and 1 teaspoon each basil and oregano. Lunch would be a whole wheat tortilla spread with cream cheese and a pouch of salmon.

Clothing was simple. I planned on wearing the same shirt the entire weekend, adding a long sleeve layer along with my son’s outgrown zip-off Boy Scout shorts. Toiletries were even simpler: a travel pack of facial cleansing cloths, a sample tube of moisturizer, toothbrush and toothpaste. And deodorant.

With a full three liters of water, my food, clothing, tent, sleeping bag, and the book I insisted on bringing, my pack was at 30 pounds. Thirty pounds is on the verge of getting heavy – there are many backpackers who are closer to 20 pounds, and that’s when every ounce is weighed for necessity. I still didn’t have a water filter or camp stove as I was planning to depend on the group instead of making the financial investment.

My son insisted that I set up the tent on my own at home.

Friday night we headed north to the High Country Pathway. I didn’t admit to being nervous. I just wanted to blend in and not look like an amateur. Hiking in the dark? Sure! I stretched my headlamp around my head, tightened my pack and followed the leader. I quickly realized I have much less depth perception in the dark, even with my light. Our narrow trail had tree roots, rocks and even a fallen log to climb over. I repeated my personal mantra, created from three years of marathon training and refusing the fall. I remain upright. I remain upright. Chatting on the trail, I found I wasn’t the only person who hadn’t previously hiked in the dark. Now we were all officially night-hikers. After a mile and a half we found the perfect spot for all nine of us to camp for the night. My tent went up without a hitch.

Alone with just the flicker of my headlamp, I changed into my fleece PJs and wool socks, wriggling down into my sleeping bag, thankful for my camping pillow and sleeping pad. Sure enough, after a couple hours I awoke and wondered if I could last the night or if I should get up for a squat in the dark woods. After an hour of trying to sleep, I knew the answer. Unzipping the bag and pulling on my cold hiking boots was the worst part. Once outside and facing away from the rest of the tents, I flicked on my headlamp and headed to the nearest tree, hoping the underfoot crunch of leaves and branches wasn’t too loud. Returning to my sleeping bag, I curled up and slept like a log, not waking again until I heard the hiss of my neighbor’s camp stove.

Ready for my first Ziploc bag breakfast, I pulled out my food, found the oatmeal mixture, grabbed my plastic cup and a teabag. Looking around as I ate, I realized there would be no lingering. Tents were already coming down and getting folded, campsites disappearing once again inside the pack. Yikes! The last thing I wanted was to be struggling with my gear while everyone watched. I chewed quickly then dove inside my tent to dress and get packed.

I silently thanked my son for making me take down the tent two days earlier.

Packed up once more, boots tied, hair braided, teeth brushed – I’d finished my first official backpacking overnight stay. Now all I had to do was hike.

What have you done for the first time? Were you nervous? How did you prepare?

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2 thoughts on “Feel the Fear

  1. Your blog focused on the mechanics of back-packing and the sort of mindset it takes to meet the challenge; I expected the second, but was surprised by the first. You relish the details of how to slim down the pack to 20 lbs making an inventory of what you brought– it reminds me of Thoreau in his book Walden making a little list he obviously was deeply satisfied with enumerating how few things he needed to subsist on. But he’s been called misanthropic. That’s false about him, but at least it shows he was a tad antisocial. You didn’t mention at all the names or personalities of other hikers!

    I’m not blaming you, I wouldn’t either, or I would focus on something petty about them such as if they happened to like me or not, but then, I am not the best novelist, who would take the most avid interest in what motivates these people, what makes them tick, what stories brought them here?

    But you did exhibit something I did expect: the continuing narrative of your struggle for self-mastery, discovering where your limits really lay, and not where you assumed they did. I see that all your exploits and attempts are exploring this one thing: finding the full heft of your personal power.

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