A Day in the Life, Part 3: Pushing On
As you sit on a rock, finishing your lunch, your mind wanders. Your muscles have cooled by this point, and the warm sun is inviting you to lean back and relax. This is a rough decision, because you know that you still have about 4 miles left to get to your planned camp area. Common sense prevails, and with the forecasted rain later, it is much smarter to pack up and move along.
You can relax in your hammock later, and it’s always more comfortable than a rock.
You pour the last teaspoon of broth down your throat and resolve to be moving again in less than 10 minutes. The dishes come first. In the creek, you rinse out the food bag and neatly roll it from top to bottom to seal it up, and into your trash bag it goes. Your spoon gets a final taste, and it too is rinsed in the clear water. Stowed, you move on to packing the stove away, followed by your main food provisions. Nothing ever seems to fit as neatly in your pack as it does when you pack it at home, but then again, you aren’t spending days doing it.
After topping off your water bottles on last time, filtered from the creek, you stow them in their holders on the outside of your pack. Just moving around doing all of this cleanup has warmed your legs a bit, and sure enough, a glance at your watch shows that it’s taken you 7 minutes. “I’m getting pretty good at this” you think to yourself.
Heaving the pack onto your shoulders, it feels 20 pounds heavier. This induces a slight cringe, then a reminder flashes across your mind that your shoulders just need to warm back up and become more limber again. Once it’s all strapped up, you take a quick, circular pace around your lunch spot to ensure you haven’t left anything behind or otherwise lost it in the grass.
Time to step off again. You descend the creek bank and use your hiking stick to test the rocks for stability before each step. It wasn’t a concern fifteen minutes ago, and in fact, just walking in the creek in bare feet felt nice, but now, with boots, you concern yourself with keeping your feet as dry as possible.
After a quick rock hop, you begin ascending the opposite bank. On this side, it’s an uphill climb for about three-quarters of a mile, through a rhododendron thicket. They’re not quite blooming yet, but the buds seem ready to burst. Slogging ahead, your breathing becomes deeper, and your pace is slow. This is the best way to begin your afternoon hike though, because it gets your blood flowing quickly.
It appears you have about 100 yards left to reach the top of your ascent, but as you near it, the terrain just barely changes to a lower gradient. You could have realized this had you glanced at your map, but the false summit actually only serves to make you push on. Every step that you take uphill means that the second half of the hike will be that much more downhill. You’re grateful just for the easier slope.
After 30 minutes or so, you reach the trail junction. This is a good spot to stop and rest, as the remaining miles will now be level or downhill. In this spot, a few scattered spruce trees dot the otherwise grassy heath you’re standing in. The wind is beginning to pick up, not only from the ridge that now descends before you, but also from the mid-afternoon sun warming the valley air and causing it to rise up the slopes.
As you drop your pack, you get a quick chill. Your back has been sweating profusely from the climb, and the new found exposure quickly cools and dries it. It’s now about 2:00 PM. You have 3 miles left, and you are targeting 4:00 to be at your site. Some quick mental math tells you that you can take about 10 minutes on your stop before moving on.
After a granola bar and half a bottle of water, you take a glance to the west. There’s a haze building, signaling that there will likely be rain in the next few hours. Cutting your break short, you pocket the granola wrapper, take one last swig of water, and don your pack.
This section of trail follows the ridge. In some places, it’s knife-like, descending steeply on both sides, periodically, the summit levels, and you’re embedded in the trees. Mostly, the views are astounding. Across the wide valley to your west, you spot a wind-farm and a few houses about 5 or 6 miles distant. This is the first sign of civilization you’ve seen today. On the two lane road winding through the valley, you can see a few cars, marching like ants, but you can’t hear them, which is odd-feeling.
At a large rock outcropping, you pause for a few moments to take pictures, sip water, and rest your feet. They have begun aching a bit, signalling that you were wise to make your afternoon hike a short one. A few hundred yards distant, you see the sign indicating the next trail…the one that will take you down towards your site. At this point, you amble slowly towards it, not quite ready to leave the views and breeze of the ridge, but knowing that stopping altogether will be at least a 30 minute affair with a sunny rock to lie on.
Angling east at the trail sign, you pass right by it without stopping. It’s all downhill from here. Just twenty feet down from the summit, the breeze all but stops. Now it feels hot out. Your pace quickens, because you know there is a cold creek beckoning for your feet just 1 mile ahead.
Winding around the boulders strewn about the trail, which is actually a century old logging railroad grade, you stumble a bit. You don’t hit the ground, but your legs are signaling that you need to slow down. Internally, there is a battle going on between your desire to finally be at camp, and the need to arrive safely. “Slow and steady”, you say to yourself, and your stride shortens automatically.
Around the last kink in the trail, the creek comes into view, and you know your day’s hiking is drawing to a close. As you descend the last 50 feet towards the shimmering ribbon of water in a sea of green, you enter a sphagnum bog. Since you’ll be shedding your boots for the evening in a few moments, you charge right into it, not even looking for a dry route around or selecting handy rocks to step on.
The creek itself is much the same. There’s no need to rock-hop here. It’s only about a foot deep, with a solid bottom, so you just stomp right in at the easiest spot to do so.
On the opposite bank, it becomes official…you’ve reached your site. Well, at least the area where your site will be located. You unclasp the chest strap of your pack, and with a pop and a sigh, you instantly feel calm. Dropping your pack, the first thing you do is take your boots and socks off and put your camp shoes on your feet. Looking at your toes, they’re wrinkled and soft, not unlike after a long bath. Being stuffed in a shell of leather and nylon all day, taking tens of thousands of burdened steps isn’t easy on them.
You leave your pack on the bank, and begin pacing in ever larger circles to find just the right site. You want to be near the creek, but not so close that you have to concern yourself with a flood if the rains are heavier than predicted. In a grove of Red Spruce, you locate the perfect spot. There’s an existing fire ring, constructed of sandstone from the creek, with coals and ash from countless campfires before being flush with the top of the rocks. Someone has graciously hauled a few larger logs in for you to sit on, and there’s even an old andiron hanging off of the stump of a branch nearby. Maybe twenty feet from this are two perfect trees to suspend your hammock from. Each about 10 inches in diameter, and spaced just right.
You wander back to your pack, and simply sling one strap over your shoulder. You pick your boots up, and carry them by hand. In your sandals, you trudge through the grass, wobbling a bit from the unbalanced weight, and shuffle into your night’s camp. Your pack gets leaned against one of the sitting logs, and your boots are placed in the sun on a rock. Tossing your socks over a convenient branch, you turn around and look at the brown, needle carpeted “room” that will be home.
It’s time to unpack.
This article is the third in a series titled “A Day in the Life”. The entire series puts the reader into the experiences and mindset of a weekend backpacker taking a short overnight trip into the backcountry. I hope that in basing this on my own travels, it encourages you, the reader, to have these experiences yourself.