Monday, April 21, 2014

118. Evening Entertainment - Games

"But we don't have any scorecards, how will we know what we're doing?"

"Don't worry about that," Grim said nonchalantly, pulling the shelter log over to himself and flipping it open to the blank back page. He took a pencil from his pocket and lazily rattled off, "We've got the numbers, 1 through 6, then you've got your 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, Full House, Small Straight, Large Straight, Yahtzee and Chance... Then we've just got to add the bonuses here, 35 for the top section if you get at least 63 points... checks for each Yahtzee bonus... and then totals for the top and bottom sections. Easy."

Grim put his pencil down and looked up at us. We were staring at him like he had just performed a series of complicated gymnastics. He shrugged and said, "So what? I play a lot of Yahtzee," and poured out the tiny cardboard sleeve of 5 plastic dice onto the old weathered picnic table in front of the shelter. We were somewhere in the Shenandoah National Park, and Grim had either been holding out on us or had recently acquired a set of 5 playing dice. We never questioned the origin of the dice, because we were just too plum excited about having a fun evening activity.

The vast majority of Americans will turn on the TV at the end of their work day. Or, if you're among the younger generation like me, you'll stream the exact same television shows directly to your computer or tablet, all while feeling smugly superior that you aren't technically watching TV. Listen up, Clever Girl, just because you watch TV on a tiny, barely visible pocket square, doesn't make you any better than people who just watch the same content but on a larger screen actually meant for displaying said content. DID SOMEONE SAY SOMETHING? I HAVE MY HEADPHONES IN AND I'M VERY ENGROSSED IN CASTLE RIGHT NOW.

However, if your technical "work day" involves hiking for 15 miles and then having to set up your entire home for the evening, you don't really have time for TV. Not to mention that even if you happen to have some sort of media-playing device, you probably aren't in a place that has cell service. And even if you are in a place that has service, you don't want to waste precious battery on your device that you only get to charge once a week. And even if you have one of those fancy battery packs that allows you to charge your device over and over again, you probably don't want to spend 3 hours at night watching TV shows when you could be enjoying nature or absorbing yourself in the hiking community.

Or maybe you just hike with a 4 foot by 3 foot solar panel on your backpack and you spend every moment that you're not hiking binge watching M.A.S.H. If so, more power to you my friend. PUN. INTENDED. COMEDY. GENIUS. Well I might as well just quit writing now because it'll never get any better than that.

I have already written a post about how much fun it is to have a deck of cards with you, but other people also get creative in regard to having board games with them. Grim's poison was Yahtzee, which we would play for hours on end. Sometimes we'd play Triple Yahtzee, which is 3 Yahtzee games played simultaneously. I would love to tell you that this helped me keep my mind sharp because I had to do a lot of math, but Grim could do the math so quickly that we all had learned helplessness. If we ever played while he was using the privy or taking a nap, we'd all roll the dice and then just sit there staring at each other because we didn't know what to do next. Usually we'd just end up stacking the dice and trying to balance things on top of them, because we're adults!

At the beginning of the trail we met someone who was carrying a small pillowcase with a checkerboard embroidered on it, and inside the pillowcase were plastic chess pieces. Later on, there was one shelter that had a chess board and, miraculously all the pieces were there. Of course there is also the infamous two-seated privy that has a chess board on the wooden bench between the two outhouse holes. When we came across this particular privy, the pieces were long gone, and I can only imagine that wherever they fell, it was not to a better place.

At the end of the day, hikers find ways to entertain each other. Even if no one has the energy to build a campfire, the connection is still there. There is no television, so we are each other's television, and suffice it to say, smellovision has officially been invented.

Chess - I like Whistle perching to the left.

Clever Girl

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Rolling Rider

I wrote this a while ago, and frankly, I have no way to tie it into the 200 Things List without bending the relation beyond the point of believability (i.e., I can't tie this into the 200 Things List without being completely full of it). The initial post was written before I hiked the AT, and was titled "Reasons I Shouldn't Hike the AT." Given the level of bodily harm that came to me and my hiking group, I probably should have heeded my own advice. I have no excuse for choosing this as a post, other than the fact that I was thinking about this recently, and I wanted to share it with you.

The red rolling rider was the miracle of toys, and it was the direct cause of some of* my adolescent facial scarring. I searched for an image of it, but couldn’t find it, so I’ve done my best to draw it for you with MS Paint, the most brilliant of image programs.

*The rest of the scars on my face are mostly from an alarming case of chicken pox I had, as well as accidentally running full tilt into a wooden shelf.

It was just a little baby’s wheeled scooter… and it was the most hardcore piece of equipment our family has ever owned. It had six wheels and could be directed via the little steering wheel on the top. It was probably about 2.5 feet long and 18 inches high. I think it was built for the gentle use of pudgy babies trying to learn how to walk. As we outgrew the toy in size, my sister and I (and also my father) would ride the Rolling Rider down every single hill we could find, smashing it into things and using it for jousting. It was unbelievably sturdy, had been bought when we were infants and survived for 15 years. The length of its life is truly remarkable, since the toy was never really used as intended.

They just don’t make things like that anymore.

On the military base I lived on in California when I was 10 years old, there was a gigantic hill that led away from our front door. This hill went down to an intersection the main road, and then continued down into a parking lot. One day I decided to ride down this hill as fast as I could on the rolling rider. We had done this before, but typically, we were able to stop ourselves before hitting the cross street.

It was a summer day, and I was bored. No one else was around, so I thought I would try and do something crazy. It’s still remarkable to me that I made it this far in life with all of my body parts relatively intact. I took off about a block away from the top of the hill, stomping my feet on the ground as fast as my little stick legs would go, my knees sticking up awkwardly by my ears because of how low to the ground the rolling rider sat. I must have looked like a bizarre grasshopper, face fixed and teeth grinding in an expression of dead determination.

As I crested the top of the hill, gravity reached up its greedy hands and pulled me violently into its cold embrace. I went rocketing down the decline, my skin peeling back from my face and my lips flapping in the wind. Tears were ripped mercilessly from the eyes I couldn’t keep open. My legs were sticking straight out from my sides like the oars of a rowboat, my shoelaces whipping around. I shot across the main road, completely out of control. I was on the verge of congratulating myself for successfully making it across the road without being squashed, when the front wheels of the rider smashed at full speed into a tiny bump in the pavement at the entrance to the parking lot.

The entrance to said parking lot was also a downhill, which meant that when I was launched bodily into the air, I had a long way to fall. I did a glorious, full flip, time and space moving in slow motion, my mind submerged into blissful vertigo. Nothing existed except for me and the air. I like to imagine that the closing verse of Don McLean's "American Pie" played softly in my head, as the world moved around me in three hundred and sixty degrees of slowed space time.

They caught the last train for the coast... The day... The music...

The flight ceased abruptly with me landing with all my weight on the top of my shoulders. I don’t know how many times I bounced, but I know that not a single part of my body was left unharmed, except, miraculously, my head. I somersaulted down the hill, letting out a series of none-too-flattering squeaks and grunts.

I landed flat on my back with a loud whump, all the air whooshing out of my lungs and leaving me breathless and gasping like a fish. When I was finally able to get a bearing on my physical location, I was laying spread eagle, staring up at the beautifully blue California sky. I lay there, motionless, my eyes trailing a cloud as it drifted lazily overhead. A lot of my stories tend to end this way.

There was a soft squeaking sound as the rolling rider descended calmly down the hill and bumped gently into my side like a guilty puppy.

Slowly, I sat up. My arms legs, and really everything, was red with road rash. I reached up and touched my face, and there was a swath of road burn along my cheek and chin. The rolling rider was completely unscathed. I sat there for a full minute, just staring at my red hands in shock. I’m not sure how long I remained like that, but I was startled out of my reverie by the merry tinkling of a little bell.

I looked up, and a few feet away there was a 5-year-old sitting on a tricycle up on the sidewalk. He’d taken his feet off the pedals and was stationary, his little chubby hands still gripping the handlebars. He was wearing a helmet, arm pads and knee pads. He looked me over, taking in my absolutely shameful devastation, and then we made eye contact.

We just stared at each other.

As I quietly bled all over the place, he sat astride his be-ribboned blue tricycle and observed me in silence. I thought at first maybe he was just confused, or perhaps shocked. Then he narrowed his eyes, and I understood. He wasn’t struggling to decide how to help me; he was judging me with every fiber of his tiny being. 

His otherwise adorable 5-year-old eyes bored into me like daggers, filling me with utter degradation. Trembling, I lifted my hands to him in a meek display of begging for help. He looked at my hands, and then let his piercing glare travel back up to my face and sent me plunging into the deepest depths of paralyzing self-disgust and humiliation.

Then, slowly, with the look of a father who has decided with a frigid finality not to let his disgraceful daughter back into the house, he stiffly shook his head at me, once and then twice. His lips were set in a tiny, firm frown, and he said not a word...

Then he put his light-up velcro spiderman shoes back onto the pedals of his tricycle, and rode away from me, leaving behind him a wake of frigid disgrace that washed over me like so many cold showers. The little beads on the spokes of his tricycle jingled softly as he crested the horizon and was gone.

I still have scars from this accident on my knees, and for a long time I had a small scar on the underside of my chin. I told everyone that I had crashed while riding my bike, because it was too embarrassing to admit that I had been beaten bloody by an infant’s toy. It's possible that this accident actually happened on a bike, and I am squishing these two incidents together as one. I'm not really sure. Mostly, I didn’t want them to take away the rolling rider. Which they didn’t. We rode that thing for several more years, before it finally gave up on everything and disintegrated into a pile of plastic.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

119. Required Reading

WARNING: THERE ARE A FEW (SOMEWHAT) INAPPROPRIATE THINGS IN THIS POST. You have been warned. You may now swim at your own risk. Feel free to clutch your pearls and cross yourself as needed.

I think that for most of our lives we don't notice how inundated we are with the written language. It's around us all the time. It's in front of you right now. It's in your pocket, on your phone, waiting to be read. It's on the side of buses, on billboards, on food packaging, on signs in the waiting room at your dentist's office that you read over and over again because your phone doesn't get any reception in there. It's on the backs of shampoo and soap bottles that you read when you get stuck sitting on the toilet for too long and have no way to entertain yourself.

Thus, when you suddenly find yourself in a world where there is very little written language, with the exception of shelter logs and trail signs, the presence of the written word can be somewhat startling. Usually this only happens on ventures into towns, but sometimes it's along the trail itself. After a little while on our journey, Dumptruck started taking photos of signs that he found particularly interesting or funny. And without further ado, here they are for you, in no particular order... except that they start out tame and then get increasingly inappropriate.




I can only assume this was done by the same person... or two like-minded people.
I hope they found each other, and that they're in love.

Clever Girl

Monday, April 14, 2014

120. Finally Giving Proper Respect to Modern Plumbing

One day, you'll be at work, having a terrible day. Maybe your boss yelled at you, or you didn't collate that spreadsheet properly, or your pungi flute gets clogged and that cobra you're charming goes on a rampage. You will sigh dramatically, feeling like there's nothing good about your life. You will stare out the window and wonder if your ancestors are looking down at you from heaven at night when you stand over the stove, eating macaroni and cheese directly out of the pot. You will finish your cup of coffee and, staring at the dregs of coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup, decide to take a break and drag your feet to the employee restroom.

On the long, slow, foot-dragging walk between cubicles, your mind will wander back to your time on your last long-distance hike. You will be struck suddenly by how much you miss it, an infinite list (give or take 200) of things you loved about hiking will explode through your mind. Your heart will be struck by the same deep, unattainable yearning that adolescents at boys-only catholic schools feel when they realize they have a crush on the nun that teaches 5th period math.

You will wonder why in the world you ever returned to regular society. Your brain will start to make a list of checks and balances, pros and cons of just grabbing your bag and bugging out. At this point, you will have reached the bathroom. Suddenly you will be standing at a stall, looking down at the toilet, at the exact moment that you ask yourself "What in the world is keeping me here?"

In that moment, the flickering, horrible florescent light will reflect off the porcelain throne in front of you, and the commode will glow. And then you will know the answer. You know what will sustain you between now and when you can finally get back out there into the wilderness again. You will remember that modern plumbing is a gift from every god ever. You will finally give proper due respect to modern plumbing, because you will remember.

Oh yes.

You will remember what you endured.

A privy in Virginia.
Clever Girl

P.S. Most privies are actually like oases in a desert, and they will have their own post, because they're actually really awesome. It's hard to know just how nice it is to sit down to relieve yourself until you spend a week squatting. But sometimes privies are worse than cat holes, my friends. Sometimes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

121. Eye Contact

am back in New York City for the weekend, the city that was my home for 5 years before I got all flippant and did something completely different. I visited one other time, back in October (2 weeks after finishing the trail), and the culture shock came very close to giving me a panic attack. I was so used to being completely open to absorbing the energy of everyone I passed, that when I was struck with attempting to absorb the energy of 1,000s of people at once, my heart felt like it was going to stop from the sheer intensity.

In spite of this, I went for a run in Prospect Park. I made the mistake of making eye contact with an amorous young gentleman who was so taken by my figure that he literally chased me for a block, begging me to stop and JUST LOVE HIM. But I have monstrous hulk legs, so I outdistanced him immediately. The only trouble was that I was laughing so hard that it was hard to breathe and run at the same time. As we have established, my reaction to "danger" is either to freeze or dissolve into inappropriate laughter. Don't worry, if I ever hike the Continental Divide Trail, I will laugh those grizzlies right back into their caves.

This time, I was better prepared for the city. Today I have been wandering around on my own, as my friends are working. Before I left the apartment this morning, I slipped into my invisible New Yorker cloak and mask. It's an attitude costume that I haven't had to wear in a long time, but I melted into it without any trouble. Nestled inside is my soft, loving, outgoing hiker, small-town self, humming quietly to itself. On the outside is a fast-walking, no-nonsense sidewalk stomper with impeachable reaction time, who wears sunglasses, impractical footwear and gives zero hoots.

There is something satisfying about being able to access my New Yorker self. The years I spent in the South Bronx give this attitude costume an added flair of badass, which just feels kinda cool. As I was getting off the bus last night, I could almost feel my brain re-organizing itself into a grid, preparing to subconsciously navigate me anywhere I want to go without having to even glance at the map on my phone. And as I fly down the sidewalk, blending in with the best of them, I can keep my eyes pointing straight forward, just above the eyes of everyone else.

But it's happened a few times already, where my mask slips just slightly, and I find myself accidentally seeking the eye contact of strangers. I want to see them, to acknowledge them, to have my human experience be one of connection rather than hovering indifference. But we can't do that here, in this city, because there are just too many eyes to see. The aloof attitude of New Yorkers is not born of rudeness or elitism, it is born of practicality. We cannot see everyone, and so we see no one. I let them blur together and slip by me because if I allowed myself to fall into the stream, I would drown.

I once lived in a world where I would see, at most, 20 new strangers in a day. At the end of that day, I would know the name, story, and yes, even the smell, of every person I saw. Unless it was a troop of boy scouts, in which case, I would just nod politely while hiking away as fast as I could. Don't get me wrong, boy scouts are awesome. But, trying to pass them could be an hour-long investment, simply due to their sheer numbers, variable hiking speeds, and impressively gigantic backpacks from the 70's that took up the entire width of the trail. 

I liked seeing only a few new people a day. Each person became part of a spiraling galaxy of experience and stories flinging out from the central point of the trail. Every pair of eyes was a new solar system, twin suns burning with heat and life. 

There is love in eye contact. Love of those closest to us, love of the adventure of meeting someone new, love of the way that our interactions with others change us constantly and imperceptibly. The trail gave me the ability to feel that. Being here in this city, I have to wear my sunglasses to blend in like Cyclops from X-Men, because otherwise my eyeball love laser beams would be causing all sorts of chaos and destruction up in this hizzy.

Clever Girl


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

122. Having People Over for Dinner in Your Tent

There are entire industries and businesses built on the idea of "entertaining." At least 1,000 forests have been leveled, pulped, and turned into paper specifically to print catalogues showing beautifully arranged photographs of artfully placed things on tables. I feel like every other commercial on TV is trying to sell me something to make my house look presentable enough to be worthy of decent human guests. Even though I tried not to buy into consumer culture, I would still find myself standing outside the window of the Container Store, gazing longingly in at those funky glass carafes that would make Welch's grape juice look so classy that it would just instantly transform into 100 year-old wine.

But shouldn't having guests over be about the guests themselves, not about how decoratively arranged your things are? Would a real friend really care about fine gold filigree along the edge of your fine dining china, or the order in which your utensils are laid out? I think that most, if not all, of my friends and family don't really care about things looking perfect when guests come over. But even so, we can't help but imagine the gorgeous, perfectly arranged layout in our minds when we're dropping $75 on a tiny throw pillow at Anthropologie. "But think of how cuuuuutteeee," we hiss in our minds, our eyeballs spiraling in opposite directions, "I neeeeeed iiiiiiitttttt."

But in the long run, every little piece that we buy, hoping to assemble our living space into a whiz-bang knockout showroom of perfectly calculated excellence, just ends up collecting like loose puzzle pieces scattered around our house. We never completely put the whole shebang together. Who are we kidding anyway? We all know that we're just going to end up ordering pizza that we'll eat with our hands standing in a circle in the kitchen. Graduating college and becoming an adult isn't about becoming more dignified. It's becoming more comfortable with the idea that we will never be dignified, and no one cares.

I think that long-distance hiking cured me of the catalog and window-shopping hypnotism. Almost every night that it rained, I would have people "over for dinner." This meant that instead of us all sitting around in the dirt eating food out of our laps with our hands, we would all sit around inside of the tiny 2-person tent eating food out of our laps with our hands. The mere suggestion of such a dinner would probably set the Dowager Countess to properly vomiting into her fancy hat. And you know what? This close-quarter scene of complete societal flouting produced some of the most thought-provoking conversations of my life.

The 4 or 5 of us would all be damp, having dived into the tent out of the rainstorm one by one, climbing over each other and huddling down to make room. We'd sit cross-legged, our knees resting on each other's knees, reaching across the small circle to eat food out of other people's cooking pots without asking because the answer was always yes. The rain would drum on the roof of the tent, and our faces would be glowing under the circles of headlamps. And we would laugh, and listen, and absorb the presence of our dinner companions. There was nothing to distract us from each other. No fancy baubles, perfectly arranged houseplants and curated art. We had only our words for entertainment.

Eating dinner during a rainstorm... somewhere in Virginia
I really liked this type of dinner, where we could all just return to our roots and be satisfied simply with the pleasure of one another's company. I like to think that it's a little bit like being cavemen.... before Grog dragged some burnt wood across the wall of his cave to draw crude stick figure drawings, and Urgalie was all like "How cuuuuuuttteeeee. I neeeeeed iiiitttttt."

Clever Girl

Monday, April 7, 2014

123. Ultralight Backpacking

In the world of long distance hiking and backpacking, there are many different approaches when it comes to gear. Some people do it standard, with a big ol' backpack filled with all the necessities, no matter the weight. Some folks go ultralight, carrying the bare minimum and hoping that they just have good luck. Most hikers find a balance between those 2 extremes, aiming for backpacks that are approximately 30 - 45 pounds. 

Some other people, intent on doing things in the vintage fashion, will carry a hobo stick (the stick with the bandanna at the end, which Whistle taught me is technically called a "Bindle." THERE ARE WORDS FOR EVERYTHING). Just kidding, that was a whimsical lie, based on the fact that I wish there were people who carried hobo sticks, because then we'd all be just that little bit cooler.

I was not an Ultralight backpacker, but along the trail, I met a few folks that managed to survive this way. One such person was my dear friend Catch 22 (Lucas), whose pack was 10 pounds at base weight. I asked Catch to write a guest post about the wonders of Ultralight backpacking, because it really is a truly terrific facet of long-distance hiking. As though living out of a backpack wasn't minimalist enough, Ultralighters are hardcore devotees of finding a multitude of purposes for every single item, and thus carrying the fewest things possible.

Catch really was an incredibly swift hiker. He could basically trail run for 15 or 20 miles, lay down to take a short nap, then keep going. There are definitely benefits to going ultralight, and there are also downsides, which Catch has elaborated upon. 

The one thing he didn't say, which I think is important, is to note that Catch was (and is) one of the most easy going, calm, take-it-as-it-comes people I've ever met. I think this type of attitude is frankly the only way to be an ultralight hiker. He was never a mooch, and always took full responsibility for his choices in regard to what he chose to carry or not to carry.

Without further ado, take it away, Mr. Catch:


On the Virtues and Vices of Being Ultralight

In the quest of ultralight, I went to some reasonably idiotic extremes. However, it was part of the fun of the mighty quest.  Being ultralight is a game unto itself at times. There is a point where you can achieve a happy medium of comfort and lightness that is ideally efficient. Then there is the obsession with ultralight that is contracted like a rabid frothy head cold that strips the infected of all self preservation.

The virtues of being ultralight are comfort and safety while in motion.  Imagine waking up every morning knowing that a 60 pound pack must be thrust upward and onto your back for the next 6 hours. Sounds unpleasant, right?  How about a 15 pound pack. Es muy bueno.  It is less gross stress on your joints and muscle tissue.  This allows greater distances to be covered with the same aggregate workload.  Another factor to be considered is that your probability of  falling is lower because your core will be more stable and the chance of recovery mid fall is higher as well.  On a bit of a side note the less things you have to carry the more room you have for a 10 liter of bag of Franzia. Just saying.  

The vices of being ultralight are the potentially unpleasant and dangerous moments you could encounter while not hiking.  Being stationary, your body isn't generating heat so you are going to get cold.  And say you are jumping around in a river and you fall in wearing your only set of clothes.  Guess what.  You are now wet and will remain so until some AWESOME people build a fire.  For a short while I was hiking with two twin bed sheets and it was sub 30 degrees a few of those nights. More cold. Less comfort.  

A lot of Ultralight backpacking is just a game of trade-offs.

Some suggestions and tips for the ultralight inspired folk who are looking to save some money:

1. If you are cold while sleeping, wear your backpack on your feet. 
2. Socks = Hobogloves. 
3. Hiker boxes* have free clothing.  Enough free clothing = layers.
4. Blue Tarp, Poly Cord, and Tent stakes. Total cost $15 - $25. Also makes hammock.
5. Gatorade bottles are cheap. Smart water bottles can be converted into bladder systems.
6. Novelty toilet paper.  Read a novel while feeling ripe. Rip. Wipe. Walk.
7. Do not carry toilet paper.  Learn to identify poison ivy/oak/sumac.  Go Green ;)
8. Rain jackets make bad rain jackets but make good pack covers.
9. Make friends.  Friends carry important things you may not carry. True story.
10. Do not carry a first aid kit (I know this is horrible advice, but this is how I did it). My thinking goes that if a small first aid kit is all you need, then bleeding is fine.  If you have a situation that requires more help than a small first aid kit provides then you should get medical attention.
11. Learn to evaluate water sources.  Bleach is cheap and weighs less than any other treatment.
12. Trail runners over boots.
13. Blue tarp = Rain poncho
14. Grab a spoon.  Body heat can make up for lack of insulation.
15. Take many naps.  This is all.  


*Hiker boxes are a delightful part of trail life that will have its own entry at some point. Basically they are big plastic tubs at hostels, full of a mish-mash of random items. Hikers can leave unwanted items in the box, and other hikers can grab things as they need/desire.

Catch, on the left, demonstrating tarp as raingear

Catch's tarp hammock?


Friday, April 4, 2014

124. The First Bloom of Spring

Though I have always been an outdoor creature, my majority of my life has been spent indoors. That's a funny thought, right? Living in my privileged middle class existence, I have been able to spend most of my existence in a climate controlled box. People who fall into a similar Socio-Economic Status to me will still complain about the weather. But, surprise, dudes! We only have to endure the weather for maybe 10 minutes a day! We just have to get from our homes, into our chosen method of transportation, and then out of that vehicle and into the building of our destination.

Granted, some jobs might lead to you spending more time outside than others. If you are a farmer, you might be sorely tempted to reach through your computer screen and give my ear a firm, deserved tweaking right now. I recognize that a lot of people work outside, and all of you are way more prepared for the apocalypse than all of us soft-bellied office jockeys. All I ask is that when you find me zombie-fied, that you give me a good, swift death.

If you're like me, though, you might have spent a lot of your life letting the seasons change around you without really noticing the first signs. Yes, it's getting somewhat warmer now. It's 36 degrees outside! IT'S SUNDRESS WEATHER. But as the Earth slowly tilts on its axis, bringing us in the Northern Hemisphere to an angle more amenable to direct sunlight, we don't notice until we're surrounded by greenery and all the snow is gone. We look around one day and suddenly notice that our face doesn't feel like would shatter into a thousand ice pieces with one good sneeze.

"When did winter end?" you quietly ask yourself, wondering if maybe you blacked out for a couple of weeks and everyone's just too polite to tell you that you're still wandering around in your hospital gown, the hospital gown that you're utterly convinced is your remarkably breezy sundress. But then you shrug and start categorizing all the complaints that you'll have at hand once it starts getting really hot, completely forgetting that winter was ever a thing that happened.

Last winter, I was very aware of the brown and white landscape, one endless swath of hibernating earth. There were a few clumps of resolutely green rhododendron bushes, and maybe an evergreen tree or two, but for the most part it was all a sepia-toned monochrome. My eyes adjusted to the 70's-themed color scheme of browns, occasional burgundies, mustard yellows and avocado greens. It was as though someone turned the saturation down. And now I have officially run out of photography-related hogwash-jargon.

But then, quite simply, spring arrived. Quietly, unassuming, gently working its way northward from under the Earth. And for once, I was aware of the change. The first blooms, the first smells of spring, it was all-encompassing. And I was so glad to be part of the change.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

125. Strangely Fabulous Skin

Who knew that being completely filthy and unwashed would finally cure me of my residual adolescent acne?

I know that I'm not alone in the fact that, as a teenager, I had the shiny, bright oily skin of youth. You aren't alone either. Girl, I feel you. Or should I say: gender-non-specific humanoid cohort, I feel you. I find it funny when advertisements aimed at older women talk about products designed to promote "youthful" skin. I don't know whose youthful skin they're talking about, but I'm pretty sure they don't mean actual youthful skin, that is to say: a crater-filled moonscape.

To me, I began to understand what "growing up" meant when the sparkling dots began to migrate across all the fun landscapes of my body. No longer were the bright red polka dots confined by the boundaries of my forehead and chin. No, no! Avast, ye pimples, we will sail the skin of the back, shoulders and chest! And if we're feeling full of gumption, we'll crop up all over the vast rolling hills of the Grecian rump! Our colonization knows no borders, nations or conflicts! We have only one creed: TO CONQUER!

There were endless staring matches between me and my reflection, which inevitably ended in me feverishly finding and destroying all of the offensive colonies. This, of course, would just make everything worse, because then my face and body looked like I was having some sort of rash from a complex allergic reaction. I did not learn from this. Instead, I simply learned that "harvesting time" would only happen at night, just before I went to bed, so no one would be able to see the havoc that I had wrought.

I went through every type of topical acne medication that was on the market (proactiv, neutrogena, pleading with the almighty), but nothing seemed to help. I simply settled into an understanding of myself as a person, a person with skin that would eternally produce the rich olive oil of my ancestors.

For me, I never gave in to the temptation of makeup. This is not because I am strong willed. It is because I have strong pockets, pockets that will squeeze the daylights out of every single penny to my name. Makeup was (and is) expensive, and I had decided that my money was far better spent on ridiculously cool Doc Martens and Magic The Gathering cards. I was a young woman with priorities, and makeup was not one of those priorities. I also had figured out the math, in that if I didn't have any sort of proper morning routine involving makeup, I could sleep up until 10 minutes before I had to hit the ground running.

After college, when I actually entered adulthood, my skin got slightly better. You might think that this was because I had grown out of the hormonal roller coaster of young adulthood. To that I say: RIDICULOUS! No, I still produced just as much oil. Instead, my skin enjoyed the nurturing effects of the smog-filled chemical-dry air of New York City. This acid air would routinely suck all of the moisture out of my skin and hair, leaving me with oil-free skin and hair like a bird's nest made of old hay. My evidence for this is that anytime I would travel away from NYC to visit other places, I would break out like there was a party on my face and all the zits of the world were invited.

Before I started the Appalachian Trail, I asked Dumptruck if he would still find me attractive when (not if) all the zits on my unwashed hiker face merged together to turn into one giant pustule of horror. He said he probably wouldn't even notice. This inevitability was something that I was fully prepared to accept. I was going to be away from my nutritionally-poisonous New York City air. I would only be able to shower at most once a week. I would never be able to wash my face, except maybe occasionally with my water bottle that still had residual Gatorade floating around inside.

But then, as you can probably guess from the title of this post, something amazing happened: my skin never broke out. In fact, it was practically flawless, aside from all the dirt. By the time I got one tiny zit, somewhere in Massachusetts, it was so unexpected that I assumed it was an infected bug bite.

I'm not sure what it was. Maybe it was all the water I was drinking. Maybe it was all the exercise and healthy eating (HAHAHA, JUST KIDDING, HIKERS EAT LIKE CRAP). Maybe it was the truly fresh air. I'd love to say that it was because I'd finally grown out of that aforementioned hormonal roller coaster, but since returning to regular life, I get somewhat regular break-outs. Not as bad as when I was a teenager, but right now I have a monstrous "under-grounder" (one that cannot be popped), directly in the middle of my right eyebrow.

Something about long-distance hiking gave me strangely fabulous skin. It's a mystery, to be sure, but it was also quite wonderful. I'm not sure if this happens to all hikers, but I can't be the only one.

Clever Girl

Monday, March 31, 2014

126. Learning that the Hardest Way Can Be the Easiest Way

I can see the back parking lot of the Burger King, clearly visible, about 150 feet away. I am standing at the edge of a grocery store parking lot somewhere in New Jersey, my pack  slung heavily over one shoulder, several plastic bags of recently purchased groceries hanging from my hands. I have 2 choices for my adventure:

1. Directly in front of me is a tangled mass of brambles. Behind the brambles is a steep 6 foot slope to a river, 10 feet in diameter. There are a few large rocks in the river, and on the other side of the burbling water, the slope is also very steep. There is no clear path, because this is not a place that people are meant to walk.

2. To my left, the parking lot stretches for about 300 feet before it comes to a short paved car bridge over the river. All of my hiking partners have already started walking across the parking lot, headed for the logical river crossing.

But my brain, so used to following one cardinal direction, cannot possibly go so far out of my way when my goal is directly in front of me. The Burger King gleams in the hot summer sun, light glinting off the several overflowing dumpsters in its neglected back lot. The only thing between me and a $1 ice cream cone is my own sense of dignity and some wet trash. Distantly, I hear someone call my name, confused as to why I was not following the group. 

It's far too late for that. I have tied the plastic bags of free-swinging groceries to the straps of my backpack, and I am already pushing aside brambles. I step over the low concrete threshold and immediately slide forward down the steep rocky slope. Why in the world would I walk all the way over there, when I could cross this potentially dangerous suburban cesspool and get to Burger King in half the time?!

I have entered into the strange, otherwordly dimension of "nature in the middle of suburbia." This creek has probably been here for centuries, and the rocks under the water have shifted only slightly as the world around it was paved. Small birds and discarded fast food cups live in begrudging harmony. Here, a little brown lizard scurries away from my clumsy monster foot steps, and hides inside a styrofoam container with the moldering remains of what could only be chinese food. There, a sparrow pulls threads out of the lining of a discarded shoe. 

This is the unsettling, strange marriage of my two worlds. On one hand, I have been living in the woods, traveling through pristine landscape, kept trash-free and beautiful by all the hikers that have come before me. People who will carry a small wrapper for 100 miles rather than drop it on the ground. And on the other hand, there are the towns I hitch-hike into for supply runs, places where there trash cans abound yet no one can seem to actually throw anything away properly. And here, in this little creek, is a little bit of both. Earth going on, striving to be Earthly, and humans going on, trying to crap all over it. And little ol' me, being ostensibly lazy while also taking the hardest route possible. This is the human condition.

Meanwhile, I am indelicately making my way to the creek's edge, and then hopping across several large rocks. Though the water laps around the rocks, the exposed surfaces are bone dry because of the stifling summer heat. The plastic bags of groceries swing wildly around, throwing my balance off and making me look like the drunkest tight rope walker in the world. I hop-scotch my way across the creek, and then scramble up the far side, grabbing onto the posts of the hot guard rail to hoist myself up. I throw a leg over the railing and then drop down into the back parking lot of the Burger King. I drop my backpack outside the door, and wait for everyone else to show up. 

They do, a few minutes later, confused as to how I got there before them.

I guess I could have also put this entry into the "Loss of Standards" category, because I am completely certain that if any non-hiker saw my Oregon-Trail-Eqsue ill-advised river forge, they would assume that I was insane. Or, at the very least, a bit of a moron. 

Anyway, my $1 ice cream was delicious. And for posterity, here is a photo of Whistle from that very same day, trying and failing to properly eat a hamburger:

Clever Girl

It's possible that Whistle also crossed the river with me (??) I honestly can't remember. IT WAS TOO HOT.