A mile never feels so long to me as when I’m hiking. Walking a mile, running a mile, biking a mile, driving a mile… Those take anywhere from 1-20 minutes. But hiking? I probably average about an hour per.
I admire those people who go backpacking, who string together as many days off to escape to the trails. There’s a certain attraction for me about carrying your shelter and sustenance with you, something about self-sufficiency and independence. And so, when I got my 60L pack a little more than a year ago, I set a goal to become one of those people. While in Africa, I would get my practice climbing the rocky and mountainous terrain that is Lesotho, toting weeks worth of food and books back to site. I figured what with the combination of high altitude and four-hour round trips per week over the course of two years, I would be pretty well-trained for what I wanted to be my first trip: Mount Kilimanjaro.
Well I didn’t make it to the end of my two years with Peace Corps to see Tanzania, but I did finally go on my first backpacking trip this Labor Day weekend; took Friday to Monday off for it, and let me just say, it was disastrous.
We left Friday morning and got to the Three Sisters trailhead by mid-afternoon. For the first time ever, I had managed to adjust my pack so that I was carrying the weight in my hips (like I was supposed to all along) instead of on my shoulders. It was a nice adjustment for the first two hours but pretty painful the rest of the time since I wasn’t used to it. It was a Plain Jane trail, with downed trees and shrubs everywhere, and after an invigorating first hour, the going got real tough, especially since we were trying to find a creek to mark our stopping point that didn’t exist.
“I think we’re getting really close,” Charlie would say every 20 minutes. It took the one-two punch of my pouting and the sun setting to convince him to stop after what turned out to be about five miles.
And then the mosquitoes came out. If there’s anything I hate, it’s mosquitoes. I’ve never been stung by a bee, but I’m not too scared of them, minus a story by T.C. Boyle where an activist’s wife dies while they’re out backpacking because she was stung for the first time by a bee and had a fatal allergic reaction. But my point is most people seem to be quite averse to bees, and I can’t blame them. My aversion is to mosquitoes. It’s a love-hate relationship: I hate them, they think I’m tender and tasty.
The mosquitoes swarmed all over us. I was almost entirely bundled up via boots, gloves, hiking pants and rain jacket. Only a part of my face was exposed, and yet I ended up with ten huge welts on my face. Somehow, they got under my clothes and wherever they landed, red island chains erupted from my skin. I was an oddly shaped planet of swollen land masses.
Some of the mosquitoes, though, ought to be thanking their lucky stars. For as much as I hate them, I was raised by a Buddhist mother, so my first reaction when a mosquito lands on me is to blow rather than to whack at it. But you’ll be happy to know that by the end of the trip, I did become a mostly merciless killing machine.
So when we found out that first night that a part of Charlie’s camping stove never made it out to Portland from Minneapolis, I was secretly relieved. After those first several hours, my legs were lead. I was starting to wonder if I couldn’t hack it. Backpacking was tough, and I was forming a theory that there are two types of backpackers: Those who battle against the weight of their pack the entire time and those who battle against the trail. I was the former, as the trail wasn’t exactly tricky. And it was painful to admit, too. I like to think I could be the active, outdoorsy type: I love climbing and bouldering, I enjoy day hikes. But at that point, it was more painful to imagine continuing on for another 30 miles over three days than just saying, hell I’m delicate. Let’s go home.
Since we were without fire, we planned to leave the next day after a short hike out to Buck Meadows. This is where I make the claim that I can definitely hike long distances and over rough terrain, but not necessarily when I have a pack on. Which is probably why I’m a wuss. The landscape finally changed into more fields and ponds. Buck Meadows was gorgeous and we managed to find a lunch spot free of mosquitoes.
The hike back to the camp site and from the camp site back to the car was pretty quick, too. Wearing a pack the second day was a lot easier and less painful than the first. We made good time hightailing it out of the woods, which made me rethink whether I really couldn’t become a backpacker. But when Charlie suggested we just go car camping for the rest of the weekend to rectify his unsatisfying bite of nature, I balked. Sure, I enjoy hiking. Yes, we’d get food in town before setting up for the night, but at that point the thought of more red welts, of West Nile and the freight train buzz defeated me. No more mosquitoes.
Next time, I’m packing a bat.