Wednesday, April 30, 2014

114. Super Feet

They say that over the course of the trail, hikers' feet grow a full size, like the Grinch's heart when he realized the error of his ways and decided to stop terrorizing the Whoville townsfolk. I guess it has something to do with the constant hiking impact that causes our feet to flatten out over time. I think it's because of carrying our heavy backpacks, and with the extra weight, our little feet get so overwhelmed that they just start getting all weird. Dumptruck thinks it's all a conspiracy theory formulated to make us feel like we have to buy more hiking boots. That last part isn't true. The only conspiracy theory Dumptruck believes is about El Chupacabra.

Not that you would ever want to get up close and personal with this part of a hiker's anatomy, but if you were feeling particularly self-punishing, you could take a close look at before and after photos of hiker's feet. I don't think any photos like that exist, but if they do, please feel free to print them out and mail them anonymously to whoever bullied you in 6th grade. They won't learn anything from this random visual assault, because they're probably fully functioning adults now, but you might feel like justice had finally been served. Then you can give the 6th grade you in your memory a time traveling high five.

It is true that when I ordered my second pair of hiking boots to wear after the rocks in Pennsylvania broke all my foot bones into a thousand tiny pieces* I ordered boots that were a half size bigger than my original pair. But to be honest, the sizing of the boots didn't matter quite as much as the arch support. On the trail, hikers spoke at length about all of the different solutions to the foot-flattening problem, and they range from the logical (getting boot inserts) to the insane (just hiking barefoot). Like snowflakes, no two feet are the same, unless they're a pair of feet, in which case, they're pretty closely identical, except mirrored, which, if you have feet or ever met anyone with feet, you probably should have figured out by now. The more you know.

A popular option was a particular type of hiking boot insert, called Super Feet. I got the "Berry" size of Super Feet (Super Feet sizes are done by color, in order to confuse any dogs that want to buy hiking boots (Dogs are colorblind (I'm so sorry, my 9th grade English teacher, I don't know why I butcher sentence structure like this, but it's probably not your fault))). Not to render moot everything I've ever said up until this point and everything I'll ever say from here after, but Super Feet were probably one of the best things that have ever happened to me. The arch support was so incredible. It's the equivalent of getting the right tires and the right suspension for your car. We were commuting, every day, all day long, using only our feet, and so it felt really good to find the right gear to keep the machinery (i.e., our bodies) moving smoothly. Super Feet are so great that I have them in all my shoes now, and I really appreciate them in my running shoes. I never would have learned about them if I hadn't heard about it from another thru-hiker.

My melted Super Feet :(
It was also really nice, at the end of the day, to be able to take out the Super Feet and let them dry out, outside of the wet confines of a hiking boot. This was especially helpful if we'd had some river crossings, or a rainy day. Some boots are made with mesh material to make them dry out easier, but I didn't have the mesh, so my boots would usually take at least 1 full day to dry. It was much nicer to be able to dry the Super Feet separately, so that at least the footbeds would be dry the next morning when I had to put the boots on to start hiking again. I will caution you against putting the Super Feet near a fire to dry them. They will melt and you will be sad. You will be so, so sad.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this post is not sponsored by Super Feet. But if you are a scout for Super Feet who has magically found my blog, and you have a bunch of Super Feet, just, like, a kiddie pool in your backyard full of new, unclaimed Super Feet, you could send them to me, and then we'll be best friends forever.

Clever Girl

*This is a gross overestimate. The doctors say it was only 746 pieces.

Monday, April 28, 2014

115. Clean Socks

"How many pairs of socks did you have with you?"

I am standing in the middle of a fancy house party, tastefully heeled boots on my feet, and a drink held in my subtly nail polished fingers. It is Saturday night, and it's a spring potluck at my friend's ceramic studio and home in a beautiful old New England house. I am feeling very aware of how adult everything is, from the organic potluck food to the conversations about securing mortgages, local politics and gender. I can usually hold my own in these situations because (whether or not the ninja turtle action figures in my glove box would argue differently) I am actually an adult.

However, every once in a while, in the midst of actively listening with all of my aging adult female cells, I am seized by an irrational fear that I will wholly and completely forget how to act like a grownup. I'm not sure where these fears come from, except that maybe it's because I work with children, and a lot of my daily conversations are about explosions. I space out for a fraction of a second, imagining myself regressing spontaneously into an awkward 13-year-old, screaming "EXPECTO PATRONUM!" and then high-knee sprinting away with both of my arms above my head, wiggling my fingers and chittering like an angry squirrel.

I blink and make eye contact again with the earnest, kind woman with whom I have been chatting. I don't space out because I am bored with the conversation. Actually, the more absorbed I am in an adult conversation, the more anxious I feel that I might suddenly drop the ball to reveal that I've been lying all along, and I'm actually just an adolescent with some aberrant gray hairs. She has asked me how many pairs of socks I had. Right. Head in the game, Clever Girl.

"I had 3 pairs of socks, and I would switch socks halfway through the day."

"Wouldn't you then run out of socks in a day and a half?"

"Oh, heavens no," I continue, gesticulating animatedly along with my story, "I would hang the morning socks on the outside of my backpack to let the sweat evaporate off! Then they'd be ready to wear the next morning. After a few days they would be so stiff that they would just hold the shape of my foot without my foot even inside of them! You know, because of all the dried sweat... buildup..." I start to trail off, becoming aware that I have potentially diverged from standard adult discourse techniques. I start talking again, quickly.

"But, when possible, I would thoroughly rinse them in a creek or a lake, always downstream from a place where people would collect drinking water, of course. This would purge the wool fibers of the salt, and allow the material to return to its standard texture."

This last part is a complete lie. Not the part about rinsing the socks, no, we definitely did that. I am lying about the idea that rinsing the socks out in a creek would clean the socks at all. If anything, it just moved the salt around to create a more even coating of stiff itchiness. I can still remember the sensation of putting on a pair of socks for the eighth day in a row, and deciding that it felt a little like putting my feet into perfectly flat, foot-shaped leather gloves. But the sentence had sounded good in my head so I just went for it.

I do my best to reroute the conversation about the Appalachian Trail, bringing it back around to the serenity of nature and the beautiful community of hikers. I am successful, and I am able to wax much more eloquently about the philosophical trappings of a long distance hike.

But some of the greatest things about hiking just aren't pretty by any adult standard. Sitting in a laundromat, wearing nothing but rain pants and a rain jacket, watching your filthy socks tumble over and over in a washing machine, knowing that they will be soft and warm and clean after they come out of the dryer, even if it's only for a few minutes until you jam them back into your filthy hiking boot bricks, can be one of the most treasured sights in the world.

Used socks drying on hiking poles.

Clever Girl

Friday, April 25, 2014

116. Shifting Expectations - Northbound Introduction

This is the introduction that I wrote for Michael "Dumptruck" Wilson's book, Northbound. I realize that those of you that purchased the book will have already read this piece, but I wanted to share it with everyone. Some individual prints and other photographs by Michael are still available for Northbound at Michael's print shop, 


The Appalachian Trail is a backpacking footpath that starts at the peak of Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine. It passes through 14 states, and has a total elevation change approximately equivalent to ascending and descending Mount Everest 18 times. I would love to tell you how many miles long it is, but by the time you finish this sentence, it'll be at least another 2 miles longer than it was when you started reading.  Through the incredible, industrious hard work of local trail maintenance crews, the trail is being consistently rerouted for the health of the ecosystem - and for the health of the poor souls that have to drag their sorry hiker butts up and down all those mountains.

When Michael Wilson and I hiked the trail, it was 2,185 miles long. What I find fascinating is that, even though I now know better, I continue to qualify the trail mostly in regard to its physical specifications.  By using mileage and distance language to describe the trail, though, I am pigeonholing the act of hiking into an achievement, a goal to be accomplished. When we began the trail -- rubbing shoulders with the other strangers who also got it into their heads to be willing, wandering smelly hobos for 6 months -- we had the false understanding that the trail was about the act of completion. 

It's hard to pinpoint the moment I understood that hiking the trail was about experience, not achievement. The experience was qualified not so much by the mountains (though they were arduous and beautiful), the distance traveled (though it was hard-earned), or the injuries (though they were plentiful, painful, and often slapstick). The real experience came in regard to being able to look away from the distance, and instead see the horizon reflected in the eyes of hikers. People who you may have met only an hour before, but who you didn’t have to explain anything to, because they already knew.

They call the Appalachian Trail "The People's Trail." It belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone. It belongs to every person who can make ridiculous faces to lift the spirits of a downtrodden companion, or reach out their hand and pull a stranger up a rock scramble. It belongs to stewards of nature. It belongs to you, and it belongs to me.  It belongs to us. 

In that spirit, I would ask you permit me to start over again, and introduce the real Appalachian Trail to you:

The Appalachian Trail is a backpacking footpath that starts where it starts and ends where it ends. It passes by countless beautiful, unique individuals, and has a total perspective change equivalent to ascending to the satellites to see the world as a tiny blue dot in a vast universe, and descending down to the size of an ant to stare up at the underside of blades of grass. I would love to tell you how many people there are that will change your life, but by the time you finish the trail, it will be more than you could possibly count. The end points haven't changed any time recently, but with the incredible, industrious hard work of every single person who sets a foot on that trail, the community is constantly changing. It breathes and shifts, every year creating a new and intricate web of connecting souls, for it, too, is part of that complex and beautiful ecosystem. And we're still just dragging our sorry hiker butts up and down all those mountains, laughing all the while, every breath bringing us closer to each other, and closer to ourselves.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

117. Hiker Horseshoes

My dad told me recently that one of the big secrets of being a good parent is developing the ability to make up a game, on the spot, with whatever materials you have available to you. This can be at a restaurant, sitting in the bleachers at a particularly slow baseball game, or in the waiting room at a doctor's office. The games can be stationary, involving only words or visuals, or they can involve small objects such as sugar packets at the restaurant, mustard packets at the game, or the weird plastic model of human organs sitting on the side table at the doctor's office.When I was a child, gameboys existed, but I never owned one (GEEK CRED: DIMINISHED), and so we just got good at inventing ways to keep ourselves occupied.

As I mentioned on Monday, this ability to entertain yourself is something that became critical for surviving the Appalachian Trail. But what do you do if you don't have any cards, or dice, or a chess set? How do you get through the late afternoon if you're done hiking but you're not tired yet? What if you've been hiking with the same group of people for weeks and you already know quite literally every single thing there is to know about them, including when they learned to talk and what the breath of their first kiss smelled like?

At this point, my friend, it's time for HIKER HORSESHOES!

Here is the instruction manual for Hiker Horseshoes.

Materials Needed:
- Small rocks
- An arbitrary target at which to chuck the small rocks
- An inherent ability to be easily entertained.

Got all your materials? Good! Now it's time to learn the rules of Hiker Horseshoes.

Rule #1. There are no rules for Hiker Horseshoes.

Got that? Excellent! It's a lot like Calvinball, in the sense that it's not actually a game at all, but just a name that you can use when people ask you why you've been sitting in one spot for 45 minutes, taking turns throwing rocks with your friend.

Here are some variations!

Bottle Hiker Horseshoes:

In this fast paced, family friendly game, you take an empty water bottle and balance it upside down on a log, approximately 20 feet away. You get 1 point if you hit the bottle and your rock bounces off. You get 2 points if you completely knock the bottle off the log. Your rocks can be no bigger than a postage stamp.

Tree Hole Hiker Horseshoes:

In this slow paced game that is guaranteed to ruin friendships and make you want to tear all of your hair of your head, you first need to find a tiny hole in a large tree. This hole should be no wider than 2 inches across, and perhaps is home to a small chipmunk which is about to get very angry at you. Then, from 20 feet away, you try to throw your tiny rocks into the hole. There is no point system for this, because you will never get it into the hole. You will spend over an hour doing this, and you will start to question everything about your own existence.

Pond Hiker Horseshoes:

In this game that will inevitable end with someone getting very wet, find yourself a pond with a small boulder or a log sticking above the surface of the water, some distance from the shore. Assign point values for different sections of the rock or log, and collect points for successfully hitting those spots with your tiny rocks. Argue about where a rock actually hit before ricochetting off into the water. Push your friend into the pond for 5,000 points.

Feel free to be creative, this is your Hiker Horseshoes! Just find your tiny rocks and get ready for some rip-roarin' back country fun. Almost as fun as brewing moonshine, and just a little bit more fun than accidentally blowing up your house from incorrectly brewing moonshine*.

Clever Girl

*You may have surmised that I have no experience with moonshine.

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