Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

The AT Calls Me…Collect

Final preparations are under way for this year’s trip on the Appalachian Trail.  My excitement is building. The food is packed or mailed ahead.  My gear has been checked and double checked. I leave Monday afternoon for Erwin, TN and a possible 9 days on the trail.  I get tons of questions from friends about my trips, but again and again one question seems to reoccur and dominate…”Who’s going with you?”.  The response is still the same, ” Just me.”(Please insert the sound of mental tires screeching to a halt on a wet pavement at this point, thank you)

That is the moment. You know the one. That awkward, strained, pained look as they try to appear calm and normal. Instead, they actually have a deer in the headlights stare as they try to figure out what to say (and not look dumb).  It’s as if they cannot fathom that someone could even consider walking though the wilderness alone.  Have you gone mad?  Alone?

Then I get the second question…”Aren’t you afraid?”  “Of what?” The second unplanned pause barges into the room here as they try to pull themselves together. Afraid of what you ask?  Uh, hmmm, uh, you know…uh, scary stuff…in the scary woods…uh, in the dark…out there…stuff.

Looking into the wide eyes of my friends I see fear for my safety. I see concern for my well being. Mostly, I see incomprehension of such a “fool hearty” act that reasonable would never do.  They cannot see themselves doing this so why would anyone else want to?  In most cases they do not say these things but their eyes do.  I just smile politely.

Folks, the truth is that bears are just like big shaggy dogs, the dark is no darker there than here, and the boogie man is scared of backpackers. They smell bad.  No worries.  Backpackers do not fear adventure, they embrace it. Only then do they know how alive they are inside.

George Eliot was noted to say,

“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.”

When I am asked why I go out into the wilderness I have to respond, “To go within.”. 

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Trail Food! What do you like?

With warmer weather upon us, hikers are getting the itch to go out and get their shoes dirty.  But what do you eat out there?  I have seen some pretty amazing things come out of a backpack on long hikes, including a full size frying pan!!!  I kid you not.  So what does good trail food look like?

Breakfast- simple but good

You could go buy the expensive, pre-packaged foods at a camping store.  While convenient, it’s not for me.  The cost is prohibitive ($7-$10 per meal) for a long hike and the flavors leave something to be desired.

My favorite trail foods are those that I package up myself, like Shepherds Pie and Red Beans and Rice.  These kinds of meals can be light weight, nutritional, and good tasting.  I dehydrate most of the ingredients so the cost is usually low.

Meals like this can get complex and quite tasty.  My friend Chef Glenn has an entire web site devoted to trail food preparation he calls Backpacking Food For The Soul.  The site is at http://www.backpackingchef.com/.  He is wonderful cook and is well known for his creative trail food, hence his trail name “Chef Glenn”.

Re-packaging dry foods into smaller portions works great.  I zip top bag or vacuum pack soups, mashed potatoes, and stew mixes like this into individual meal portions.  This works great if you split food preparation up with friends.

I also like to take advantage of convenient dry packaged foods like individual packs of grits, oatmeal, and good ol’ Hamburger Helper Cheesy Macaroni (microwave- works just as good with boiling water).

Of course, there are the tried and true tuna fish, raman noodles, and individual pack peanut butter that are all easy, good for you meals.

So what do you do for food?  I’d like to hear what your favorite trail meals look like.  Give it a post…

The Weight Wars?

How light is light? Ultra-light?  My answer is that it is purely subjective.  The pundits of the trail argue for hours on end over a pound here and an ounce there.  Let’s face it, shelter life would be boring some nights without a good debate on canister gas vs. alcohol stoves.  The world stands still as the gram weenies and traditionalist fight it out!  So what does it mean to you and to me?  That is the real question.  The probable answer is not much.

Please understand, I hate to see people suffer because of carrying too much gear.  Lots of trips are marred by blisters and sore shoulders that never had to be.  Many people I see on the trail pack based on what they “are told” they should have.  They did little research and figured the stuff on the shelf looked good enough.  In other words, advertisers and stores display cool gear and make it seem indispensable.  The message is “You need this or your trip will not be comfortable, fun, and memorable.  Buy it now.”  Do not get me wrong.  There are some of those things that you do need, just not always what they tell you.

I once took a beautiful elk hunting trip in the high mountains above Silverton, CO. Translation: backpacking with an eight pound weight in your hands.  Unfortunately, one of the most memorable things about the trip for me was the three mile mountainous hike into the area we planned to camp in.  We were badly out of shape.  One of my trail mates was a young man from Mississippi with an enormous pack.  I was not exactly lightly loaded with full winter wear, a heavy 0 degree bag, etc.  My pack weighed in at about 40 lbs.  Looking back now it was pretty heavy with cold weather clothing since the temps were falling into single digits some nights.  Carrying that pack was grueling in the thin mountain air.

Amazingly, my young friend’s pack was closer to 70lbs!!!  No amount of debate or cajoling could convince him to lighten his pack.  He resolutely declared that he needed each and every thing he had in that pack and could not leave anything behind.  He believed that every ounce was absolutely necessary.

During the trip I tried to watch him to see what he actually used and what weighed so much that he had to have.  I found that he vastly over packed food for the 3-4 day trip. He had a backup pack stove and fuel for over a week.  His tent alone weighed over 5 pounds. Needless to say, he was exhausted at the end of the short hike in and not much better on the hike out.

I learned some valuable lessons on that trip.  We did not bag any elk, but I was inspired to begin finding ways to be lighter on the trail.  I immediately began to lighten my load.

Now days my personal philosophy of light weight backpacking is this:  “If my pack is lighter, I work less.  If I work less, I get less tired.  If I am less tired, I feel better.  If I feel better, I spend more time enjoying everything around me: friends, views, wildlife, peace and solitude.  I go hiking to enjoy myself, so I want my pack lighter.”  That’s my philosophy.  What’s yours?  Have you thought about it?

You do not have to be me.  Where I can, I prefer a tarp instead of tenting.  I use a very light weight alcohol stove.  I prefer down bags.  I like to dehydrate my foods myself.  My favorite backpack is a frameless Gossamer Gear G4.  This weekend I am going on a two day/three night hike in the Ouachita Mountains.  My pack will be about 17 lbs with food and water. I like it that way.  But that is me.

I encourage people to adopt my philosophy as much or as little as they like because there are no absolute numbers.  Pack the pack you feel good carrying.  Make it light enough to enjoy your trip, but be as comfortable as you feel you need.  It is not about what I say or anyone else who might claim to be a guru.  Do what I did.  Experiment with everything, listen to others opinions, and observe what works for you.  Then fill your pack with what you like!!!   And above all else…

Hike Your Own Hike!

It’s Poetry Time!!!

Yes, my trail name is Poet.  I suppose that if you have wasted enough of your life to read this far you should be rewarded with some answers.  I write poetry in my head as I hike.  Some people sing, some chit chat, and some even rave, but I do poetry.  It’s a mental challenge for me to go along with the physical challenges of covering the miles.

What do I write about?  I love mountain hiking in general and I love the Appalachian Trail specifically.  There is a freedom knowing that you are miles from anything resembling civilization.  I try to reflect this in rhyme and phrase.  Often, there is a humorous leaning to my poems and sometimes there is a story behind them.  Like this one…

While at Trail Days in Damascus, VA last year I met a young woman making her second attempt at a thru hike of the AT.  Her trail name was Four Eyes due to her inability to see clearly without the aid of her glasses.  As so often is the case with trail names, her name really came out of an incident.  She lost her only pair of glasses while hiking North into the GSMNP.  She hike the entire park and then some without the aid of her glasses, a feat unto itself.  You don’t hike the big trails by letting struggles get in the way.  Four Eyes didn’t quit for a day.  The experience became a badge of honor for her.  By the time I met her she had acquired a replacement set and all was well.   She proved to be an insightful person with a dry sense of humor, in other words we hit it off almost immediately and became friends.

I had to promise her that I would write a poem about her adventures.  Unfortunately, inspiration doesn’t appear on demand and over 6 months later the poem finally came together.  So here it is…a humorous tribute to a brave hiker: Four Eyes.

The Ballad of Four Eyes

Hear now the tale of Four-eyes,
A legend like of old,
Back in the spring of ’11,
Her story did unfold.
Er’ strange does the telling go,
For blindly walked the passes,
A small figure wandering to and fro
Cuz four-eyes lost her glasses!

Yes, Four-eyes lost her glasses!
From a trip or just a stumble,
It doesn’t matter now how,
The result was a rolling tumble,
Bringing on her possible despair,
Defining her great plight,
For alas, without a backup pair,
She was abjectly poor of sight!

Yes, Four-eyes lost her glasses!
Miles and miles from anywhere,
But bravery was not in short supply,
So our hero  hadn’t a care,
Continuing up the winding treks,
Moving from tree to rock to log,
She could have used some replacement specs,
Or perhaps a good guide dog!

Yes, Four-eyes lost her glasses!
But a new set was on the way!
Her loving mom had sent them,
Overnight without delay.
So four eyes got post office directions,
And from dawn to noon she sat,
Only to find her ocular imperfects,
Had her outside the laundry mat.

Yes, Four-eyes lost her glasses,
Still the story didn’t end that day.
Four-eyes got new glasses,
And finished the Appalachian way.
Yet, if you take a mountain stroll,
And a pair of glasses your eye spies,
Remember this little story droll,
And send them back to Four-eyes.

Hiking Time Is Almost Here!

March is about to turn into April and that means hit the trail time.  Every year about now I begin cleaning my gear and checking for things that need repair.  I have to get ready!  Let me explain…

Every Spring my good friend Jimmy and I head out with a pack of boys in tow for an “Annual End of the School Year Backpacking Trip”. Boys, and often their dads, go with us on a three day adventure away from civilization.

It’s a big deal to them and to us.  This is when we get to take some would be backpackers out for a few days of sore feet and big smiles.  Our goal? Indoctrinate them into the ultra-light backpacking cult!  Teach them self reliance!  Learn to have fun that doesn’t involve pushing buttons and other “outlandish, archaic things”.  Fresh air is SO overrated, right?

The best smile in the world is the tired one we get at the end of our longest day when that first time backpacker proudly recognizes that he made the grade.  Talk about a self esteem boost.  Last year we had rain that kept the temperatures down, so we slogged out a record 16 mile day on day two.  To most long distance hikers that is just another long day, but to a tired seventh grader that is a feat not unlike climbing Mt. Everest on a bad day.  Exhaustion is no match for pride!

To make sure that everyone has a safe and a fun time, Jimmy and I have to prepare well in advance for everything we can think of.  Jimmy is the traditionalist.  I am the Ultra-Lighter.  We both love the kids.  It is a very rewarding experience to take a kid out of the city and show him what the real outdoors looks, feels, and smells like.

Back to the point…I have to get ready because this year we are taking the boys to new heights…literally.  We are taking them outside of Louisiana and up to Arkansas.  The Ouachita Trail awaits them. For most this will be their first experience hiking in the mountains.   To make sure all is well, we plan to make a trip up there to check out the trail with a few friends in less than two weeks.  I cannot wait!

Just a note…the younger girls from my church got upset last year that the boys got a “camping trip” each year.  So…I did one for them too.  A little less strenuous, but very rewarding.  All the girls were first timers on camping and backpacking.  We learned how to build fires properly, set up tents in the dark, and choose camp sites.  We did about 9 miles in total and everyone seemed to have a great time with the challenge. Dads and moms, want to see your girls be strong and confident?  Take her backpacking a few times.  It works!

Take a kid hiking!  You will be glad you did.

…and thus it begins.

Hey packers,

My name is Ray McCon, but on trail I am known as “Poet”.  This blog is going to be centered on backpacking from my point of view.  I hope to write a few gear reviews for you, detail some of my trips, post some poetry I write, and talk about the fun of hitting the trail to enjoy the great outdoors.

We are so blessed to have a nation that spreads out and gives us some empty spaces in between the people so that we can enjoy the solitude and peace that cannot be found in our hectic daily lives in the city.   Backpacking for me is one of the doorways that let me out of my box to enjoy freedom.  If you have not yet tried this recreational past time, I highly recommend it.

 

Yes, yes, I know that many people don’t like to “get dirty” and there are bugs out there. Eww! And what if you get lost?!? For some a little bit of exertion for the sake of fun is more than they can imagine. They either can’t or (in most cases) won’t brave the clean air to find some fulfillment.   Frankly, I pity those people.

For myself, I live to get out and find some adventure!  Everyone needs some adventure in life.  Some say that safe, secure, and predictable is the way to go, but I call it dull, boring, and frightened.  We read books and watch movies like no other generation of the past just to dabble in adventure.  Really?!?  Why not have your own?

I work with kids day in and day out as part of my job.  I purposefully try to expose kids to the world outside of video games and television.  To this end I take several backpacking trips a year with kids and parents to introduce them to the world of camping and backpacking.

Teaching kids about the outdoors has taught me a couple of important lessons.  Most people do not go camping or hiking because (1)they think that they will be uncomfortable or totally inconvenienced by the trade offs they will have to make.  (2) Their lack of knowledge about how to encounter the outdoors appropriately creates fear of the unknown.  And (3) they feel that their past experiences have shown them that they are ill equipped with the wrong gear to make the journey into the great outdoors.  All of these things are easily remedied with a little education and a willingness to learn.  The correct questions to answer are : What do I need to meet my needs on a trip?  How do I interact with the world once I am in the middle of nowhere? And what is the correct gear that will help me to do these things?  In my experience having the right gear removes much of the fear and frustrations letting people do what they should be doing…enjoying the world we live in.  I get real fulfillment from helping kids and their parents come to that place.

How about you?  Ready for some adventure?  GET OUT THERE!!!