Beginnings

I recently had a text-chat with an old friend. We haven’t spoken in a while, and he totally called me out. He said “missing your blog…write a post so that I know what’s up with you!”

Yeah…about that. Sorry guys. I tend to neglect the blog/writing thing when life is going really well or really badly. Actually, I write more when it’s shit, because it’s a natural way for me to process through the muck and mire. But when things are going well, I want to just roll around in it, revel in that feeling, and a little selfishly, keep it all for myself.

So, if you haven’t already guessed, things are going *really* well.

Sure, sometimes things are still shitty or stressful or hard. I’m still living paycheck to paycheck, but I have a little bit more coming in each pay period because of substitute teaching. My car still needs new tires, but it’s running and dependable, and for that I’m grateful. My foot and ankle have healed, somewhat, and I can make it through most days without much pain. Even though I do still have pain, I am thankful that it’s not worse, that I’m not where I was three months ago–in tears at the end of every shift, tired and just worn out from being in constant pain. I’m actually registered to run as part of a 4 person marathon relay team in March, so I’m slowly working towards getting my butt into shape!

So, in general, everything is going pretty well, and the icing in the cake is a fantastic relationship with a fantastic man.

I came late to the dating game–I always seemed to have more important things to do. But I’ve reached a place where I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve seen some cool places, and I have had some outrageous experiences. The one experience I’m still missing is a lasting, meaningful relationship. Maybe marriage? Maybe kids? Permanence doesn’t seem so scary anymore…it sounds comforting. Like home.

I have found a man who makes me want all of that and walking into his arms makes me feel like I’m home. We laugh loudly and often. We compare our nerdiness–Doctor Who and Harry Potter, Star Wars and literature. Our dogs have met and become fast friends, and he has met and passed the best friend test. He is big on the little gestures that say “I care.” And I try to remember to tell him, frequently, that he is a good man.

It is early, in the grand scheme of relationships…this is still new. But we’re making plans for a future that has an “us” in it, rather than just a “you” or “me.” I have been able to be more honest, more open, more vulnerable in this relationship than I ever have before. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and I’m loving every bit of it.

So, I am happy. Life is chugging merrily along, and I’ve found somebody to take along on the ride…”you watch us run!”

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Progression of an Injury

Daring to Live an Uninsured Life

I would call myself a fairly active. Others may call me very active, or insane. I have run a full marathon, two half marathons, and half a dozen triathlons of varying distances. I took a whitewater raft guide course because I wanted to play on whitewater for a week. Last year, I walked almost 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail. The point: I like to move. Stasis, in my life or in my body, is not a state of being that I enjoy. I revel in the half terror/half joy of trying something completely new. I thrive in conditions that make most people cry at worst or mildly uncomfortable at best. I am at my best when I am forced to go deep within myself and push farther, do more, be better than I ever have before.

Clearly, I have a pretty good working relationship with my body. I can easily distinguish between the pain of “damn, that was a hard hill run” and the pain of “I should probably see a doctor.” Sometimes, as an athlete, I tend to push that boundary a little, always hoping that my body has just a little more reserve, just a little more to give, but on the whole, I am a pretty good listener when my body starts talking.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not at the height of fitness right now. I hiked the AT last year, and since then, I have done some running and hiking, but I have also done a whole lot of nothing. In a burst of inspiration several weeks ago, I decided that I would like to set my long-term sights on another full marathon. 26.2, baby. Next spring will be the 10 year (HOLY SHIT, I’M OLD) anniversary of my first 26.2, and it felt like as good of a time as any to attempt another one. Knowing that I’m not anywhere near 5K shape, much less marathon shape, I decided I would start immediately. I would begin with walking. Every day. Renewing my commitment to my dog and myself, I set out on a walk around my block. There was nothing special about this walk. Nothing monumental or life changing happened on this walk, but sometimes you put something in motion, and it just keeps going, unbeknownst to you.

The day after my re-commitment walk, my left ankle was slightly sore and stiff. There’s a back story here— In 2012, I ran a half marathon. Around mile 7, I had what I thought was a severe foot cramp. I consumed a salt packet, Gatorade, and some ibuprofen and continued to run. I ended up limping the last two miles, and could hardly walk by the time I crossed the finished line. As my doctor later said, “Sometimes pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s the tendons in your ankle shredding.” So, left ankle: thoroughly trashed. It’s pretty amazing that I managed to walk 2,200 miles on a dirt/rocky/rooty/boggy foot path and have no problems. It is weird, but not exactly unexpected that a jaunt around the block should send my ankle into a tizzy.

Slightly sore and stiff turned into very swollen, discolored, and extremely painful by the end of my next eight hour shift. I work in retail, where sitting down is not a thing. For these first few days, I pondered aloud, to myself, to anyone that would listen, “What the hell did I do?!” I also iced my ankle when I had the chance, propped it up whenever I was sitting, and tried to maintain a steady dosing schedule of ibuprofen to keep the pain and swelling at bay.

When it became difficult to put pressure on the ankle or walk at work, I decided that enough was enough. Maybe this was not just a run-of-the-mill sprain. Maybe I had done 2012 level damage again. At this point, ideally, I would waltz into an orthopedic specialist’s office, get a very thorough evaluation that would result in a specific diagnosis, and devise a comprehensive treatment plan with my doctor. Unfortunately, none of those things happened.

You see, I am uninsured.

I have a Master’s degree in teaching, and several years experience teaching in public schools, but when I returned from the trail, I decided not to return to teaching. Instead, I work part-time at a national outdoor retailer, where I won’t be eligible for insurance until next spring. I make roughly 12,000 a year and cannot afford private insurance, but my lovely little red state of Tennessee decided to opt out of the Medicaid expansion that would have made affordable healthcare a reality for thousands of Tennesseans like me.

So, where did I go? The only place I could: The ER. I understand that an ankle injury like mine is not an emergency. I also understand that patients like me who use the ER as their primary care provider are part of the problem in the world of over-priced hospital bills. But what choice did I have? My injury made walking near impossible, and I have to walk in order to work. I have to work in order to feed myself.

The emergency room of any large university hospital can be a soul-sucking place of teaching, learning, and dreams dying…at least, that has been my experience. Why is it every time I go to the ER, I am stuck on a bed in the hallway? Anyway, I waited five hours to talk to a nurse, an intern, the attending doctor, and a radiologist. The doctor ordered Xrays of the ankle, and when they came back clean (no breaks, just soft tissue damage), he sent the nurse over with an ACE bandage. She told me to wrap my ankle and take NSAIDs for the pain and swelling. Be sure to ice and elevate it, too. All things I had been doing. All things that did not seem to be improving my level of discomfort, in fact, my injury seemed to be getting worse, which was why I was in the emergency room to begin with…

Tired, frustrated, and billed to the max for the lame medical advice that I already knew, I limped to my car and went home. Seeing as to how I couldn’t walk, I needed to get creative with my treatment options. The last time I trashed this ankle, I was in a walking boot for six weeks. That was not a fun experience, and I wasn’t eager to repeat it, but I knew the boot would immobilize the injured tendons, giving them a chance to heal, and it would enable me to get around at work. So, though not directly ordered by the doctor, I strapped myself into the boot-of-shame once again.

As it turns out, walking boots not only heal injuries, they can cause them, too. It did not take long for the negative effects of the boot to rear their ugly heads. First of all, the boot was huge and heavy, and it made my back, hip, and knee hurt just from walking in it. Secondly, it was about two and a half inches taller than any shoe that I could wear on my right foot. The off balanced gait, combined with the additional pressure on my right foot, really began to take a toll. I began to experience severe pain in my right forefoot. After a long shift, I noticed swelling and discoloration around my toe and forefoot on my right foot. I began to throw in icing and elevating that foot as well.

It has been nearly a month since the initial ankle injury, and about three weeks of dealing with the foot pain. I have ditched the boot, because my ankle seems to be healing okay by now. It is still swollen and sore, and any lateral movement causes severe pain, but it will heal. It will just take time. My foot, however, is still a problem. I am still having a hard time walking, only it’s my foot not my ankle, now. After trying the standard RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) approach for weeks with no result, I decided that it was time to get well, no matter the cost. I need to heal.

I made an appointment at a walk-in clinic across the street from my employer. Straight after my shift, I raced over there, hoping to get a diagnosis and some relief, but also nervous that I would be turned away because of my lack of insurance. The first question I asked the intake nurse was about payment, and as I guessed, it’s due at the time of the appointment. She then explained that they would probably just send me for X-rays (which would cost $300) and then refer me to an orthopedic specialist, anyway, so I might as well just call one of them. She handed me a list and several business cards for their referring orthos. Barely concealing my tears of pain and frustration at this point, I asked her, “Do you honestly think any one of these doctors will accept an uninsured patient?” Her smile wavered ever so slightly as she almost asked, “you can always try calling…?”

I walked to my car and cried. I sobbed. I have been in constant, daily pain for WEEKS. I felt so small, so helpless. This is not an extreme injury or illness. This should be an easy diagnosis, an easy fix.

Fortunately, my friends are amazing, and one of them referred me to a network of clinics that operate on a sliding scale and will treat all patients, regardless of ability to pay. There just happens to be one not more than half a mile from my house. Again, I let myself hope for a diagnosis, treatment, and relief, but I was nervous about the financial particulars. Again, I told the intake nurse that I do not have insurance, and asked about their billing policy. She explained that they operate on a sliding scale based on income, and that their minimum payment is $25 due at the time of the appointment. This time, I could not contain them. Tears slid down my face as I explained that I have $10 to my name until next Friday, but I have a really painful injury that I. Just. Want. Fixed. She indulged my tears and so sweetly responded, “oh, honey, I won’t take your last ten dollars.”

Joy of joys. Hope of hopes. I was going to be seen by a doctor. I was going to get answers. I was the first walk-in patient, so as soon as the doctor arrived, I was whisked back to be seen. The doctor was in the room with me for, perhaps, five minutes. She asked about how the injury happened, then she poked and prodded my foot. She came to the conclusion that since I could push against her hand (while in extreme pain) and (sort of) wiggle my swollen toes, that the injury was not so bad. Any guesses as to what her advice was? Yep. Wrap it in an ACE bandage, and take some Naproxin twice a day. She also told me to stay off of my feet.

Clearly, she was not listening when I told her that I have been icing and elevating this foot (and my left ankle) for weeks now. Or when I told her that I have tried wrapping it and taping it. Or when I told her that I work in retail and cannot stay off my feet. She advised me to try all these things THAT I HAVE ALREADY TRIED before sending me for an X-ray. She told me to see how it feels in a few days.

Like shit. It will feel like shit in a few days, because it’s felt like shit for a few weeks now.

As soon as the doctor left the room, I cried again (I know, there have been a lot of tears lately. You try being flat broke and in constant, 24/7 pain). I could not believe that I would now have a second medical bill (sure, this one will probably be a lot less than the ER bill, but it’s still a bill) to pay just to have a doctor tell me to do what I have been doing even though it has produced no positive effect on the injury, and the injury has, in fact, gotten worse over the last few weeks. At least she did write an order for an X-ray to be done at a walk-in radiology clinic…oh, but wait, those will cost me. Not the $300 that the urgent care would have charged me, but $30-45 that I don’t have. And when those X-rays get taken, they will be sent right back to that clinic, and I will have to see one of their doctors to consult and devise a treatment plan. Thankfully, Doctor Incompetent said she does not normally work at that location, so maybe it won’t be her.

When I got home, I cried again. I cried when I hobbled up the front steps to my house. I cried when I walked my dog. I cried when I called my mom. I cried so much today that my eyeballs are burning, and I’ll probably look like a stunt double from The Walking Dead tomorrow. I have never felt so written off, dismissed. I work. I support myself and provide a service. Even though I probably qualify for every program out there, I do not live off of public assistance or try to milk the government for money. But I pay my taxes, and I vote. My elected leaders chose to acknowledge that healthcare IS a basic human right and passed the Affordable Care Act. My tax dollars are funding this Medicaid expansion and subsidy program, but my Governor and state officials have failed. They have failed to act on behalf of Tennesseans. They have failed to lead.

I am dangerously close to turning this into a purely political rant. There is no way for this to be a non-political piece; I am not pretending that it’s not. I want to be careful to stay off my soapbox, though. My goal was to paint a picture. Just tell a story. One story. One story like so many others, I’m sure, about the disparities in our healthcare system, the lack of decent treatment options for low income earners, and the irresponsible actions of the Tennessee government.

It is appalling that it is this difficult to get adequate, affordable healthcare in a country that wants to be the best at everything. People are always saying that America is the best country on earth. We have the most freedoms, the best military, the best democracy, etc. We are not the best at this. At this, at healthcare, we fail. Miserably.

Why Robin Williams Matters (also, Depression Is a Bitch)

robinwilliams

For many of my friends, Robin Williams’ suicide has prompted them to share their struggles with depression, forced them to acknowledge that while they may have beaten it for the time being, it is a struggle that stays with them for life. It is a darkness that is always just beyond the periphery of their “normal” lives.

I should stop saying “they,” because I have a depression story, too.

The *one* shred of a good thing to come out of this is the conversations that this death is starting. Unfortunately, for every mournful story of acceptance and understanding, I’ve read one of “he was just an actor, so what?” I have read comments that disparage those of us who have felt shaken by this news, because Williams wasn’t a “real” hero; he didn’t run into burning buildings, chase down bad guys, or tote a gun for his country. So, naturally, why the long faces, kids?

First of all, the notion that somebody has to be a certain thing or do a certain job in order for his life to be deemed significant enough to be mourned is horrendous. Besides, who are you to judge? Secondly, Robin Williams was a father and a husband. He was somebody’s son. He was a friend to many who now have to stitch up the hole his absence has left inside them. So, yes, it is appropriate to mourn his death. He mattered. He mattered profoundly to many, and his work made him matter to millions.

Robin Williams reminded us that depression never goes away. It simply fades. It recedes to the edges of our consciousness, but it never really leaves. On days that don’t go so well, or months that seem like an endless string of bad luck, after break-ups or job changes, in the month of February, we feel the edges of its dark waters start to lap at our lives, threatening to pull us under. For those of us who have also wrestled with the sister-illness of substance abuse, it’s these times that we disappear into our vices, dull the world and the pain with vodka or codeine. It makes it even harder to clearly see a reason to keep fighting, a pathway out of the storm, a friend who can help.

So, if a man as big as Robin Williams, with all the resources he had, can fall so deep into the darkest depths of depression, what’s stopping me? What about my friends and family who have battled depression far more severe than my own? What is their future? Where does my battle with depression end?

Aside from that, Robin Williams was a great actor. He was an actor whose work spanned my lifetime, and many of my generation can relate to this feeling of having grown up with Williams. I remember staying up late, watching reruns of what was probably age-inappropriate Mork and Mindy when I was little. Williams gave life to childhood fantasies and made fictional characters real in Aladdin, Fern Gully, Hook, and Jumanji.

He embodied our hopes and fears as children and parents in Mrs. Doubtfire. He taught us how to grow up without letting the world tear us down in Dead Poets Society, which was, literally, required viewing in my high school. The hauntingly beautiful and telling role that keeps coming back to me is his portrayal of a bereaved husband who ventured through purgatory to retrieve the soul of his wife who had committed suicide in What Dreams May Come. Unfortunately, none of us can walk through heaven, hell, purgatory, the great ether, the endless unknown to bring him back.

What we can do is stay connected. We can build safety nets for those of us who are aware of the caverns of despair and not let friends fall from that terrifying cliff. We can hold hands and refuse to let go. If one of us does slip into the hole, the others of us need to be waiting with ropes and flashlights, pointing the way out. We need to stop pretending that this illness is just something to “get over” and dedicate time, money, brain power, and all the resources possible to treating those who are suffering.

We need to not let this death go with a shrug and a casual, “another brilliant mind lost to depression.” Too many brilliant minds have been lost. Too many lives irrevocably shattered.

Learn more–National Institute of Mental Health

Get Help–Suicide Prevention Lifeline (or call 1-800-273-8255)

Give Back–Hike For Mental Health (there are dozens of great organizations that raise awareness for and facilitate the treatment of mental health disorders. This just happens to be one of my favorites, because I personally know the founders, and because HIKING)

A Life of Its Own

Yesterday, I lurked online and watched, awestruck and a little bit proud as the review that I wrote of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, garnered more attention than anything I’ve ever written. It was shared on blogs and twitter, on Facebook pages, and on hiking forums. It attracted dozens of comments from people who agreed and those who disagreed with my opinion (and that’s good!). It started conversations, and hopefully helped more than a few people understand what this book is really about, or at the very least, persuaded some people to withhold judgment until they have read the book themselves.

But what really shocked me was waking up to an email from Zach Davis, creator of Appalachian Trials where I spend the rest of my blogging hours, that simply said, “thought you might like to see this” and included a link.

strayedtwitter

It was a link to Cheryl Strayed’s twitter feed, where she thanked me for my review. made her day?! Lady, you just made my week! 

I was talking to my mom about this, and I told her how strange it is to watch as something you have created take on a life of its own. We also talked about how much more intense and different that feeling must be when you spend the days, weeks, months, and sometimes years, to write a book and set it loose into the world.

To make my day even better, my sister and niece showed up to surprise me at work…there I was, folding shirts, when I see a little person sneaking around the rack of shirts beside me. Out jumps Laney, who I engulf in a huge hug. It was fun to introduce them to my coworkers. Unfortunately, I had to continue working, as they went off to frolic at the zoo. Boo.

When I got home, I saw that Strayed had commented on my post on her Facebook timeline. This was reaching whole new levels of surreal. A New York Times #1 Bestselling author, an author of a book voted Best Book of The Year by NPR, Vogue, The Boston Globe, and Entertainment Weekly, an author touted by the one and only Oprah’s Book Club 2.0–in short, an amazing author–was messaging me on Facebook. I…um…I just…there are no words.

This weekend has reminded me that I am a good writer, despite my overwhelmingly loud inner critic. I do have stories to tell and meaningful things to write. And, apparently, there are plenty of people out there willing to read them. Like Cheryl Strayed. 

Hot damn. 

 

Seriously, go read Wild. If you enjoy memoirs, personal journeys, and feeling like you’re not the only one with a broken and fucked up life, read Wild. I dare ya. 

A Side-By-Side Gear Review

I have been meaning to do a gear review of all the bits and baubles that I carried on my AT hike last year, but everything else just seemed so much more important. You guys can make your own gear choices, right? You’re capable of internetting and finding what works for you, no?

Well…I’m finally doing it. Like I said in the post about my Savage Gulf trip, I took some new gear along, and I’d like to review that, too. So, I’m going to do both. I’m going to tell you what I hiked with on the AT and what I hiked with at Savage Gulf, compare the two and pick a winner. This should be pretty interesting. On the AT, I started off around 34 lbs fully loaded, but was able to drop down to 27 for the majority of the trip. My pack weight for the Savage Gulf trip: 19.2lbs! What the what?! So, this comparison should be really fun and hopefully helpful and informative.

Also, I’m not loaded. I don’t have a bagillion dollhairs to spend on the newest newfangled thingymabob. I am a thrifty individual and I often look for markdowns, shop clearance sales, and sometimes just by the cheap, crappy stuff.

Let’s start with the big three:

gear

PACK
AT 2013: Gregory Deva 60 (Springer Mountain to Marion, VA), Gregory Jade 40 (Marion, VA to Katahdin)
Savage Gulf Overnight: REI Flash 45

All three of them in their stock-photo glory:

packsIn order of appearance: The beastly Deva, the smaller, still comfy Jade, and the minimal Flash

Okay, let me just say, I love all of my packs! I love the Deva. It is heavy, heavy, heavy, but it is like the Cadillac of backpacks. It is so padded. So many pockets! And it has the ONE feature that I think ALL packs should have–a front slanting water bottle pocket, so you can easily reach your bottle while hiking. Sadly, neither of my other packs have this, and I’ve only seen it on the Deva.

I switched to a pack that was nearly 20L smaller in Marion, VA, because, let’s face it: If you have 65L of pack to fill, fill it you will. All those pockets became places to hoard crap and incrementally, unwittingly add to overall pack weight as each day passes. No thank you. Also, this thing weighs in at a whopping almost 6 pounds!

Enter the Jade. Now THIS is a pack! It’s small, compact, but still luxurious compared to many of the popular more minimal packs out there. This pack fit me so well, and had some really great features like huge hip belt pockets, and adjustable hip belt (even thought the pack was a Women’s Medium, the hip belt could be adjusted to fit XS, S, M). By downsizing, I dropped some of the nice organizational features of the Deva, but I really didn’t feel like I lost any comfort. With this pack swap and paring down to just the essentials, I was able to drop from 34 lbs fully loaded to 27, and never look back.

On to the Flash. I have only used this pack for my Savage Gulf trip, so I can only give first impressions, not a comprehensive review.

Things I love about this pack

  • Its weight–a scant 2 lb 2 oz (size M)
  • The giant stretchy mesh pocket on the front
  • The inside zipper pocket under the top lid
  • Big hip belt pockets
  • Price–brand new, it’s less than $200, but I scored mine for less than $20 at the REI Garage Sale last month!

Things I do not love about this pack:

  • It’s not a women’s specific pack, so I felt like the harness/shoulder straps were just too wide for me (even though in comparison to most women, I’m built like a linebacker). It was either that, or I was just uncomfortable trying to get used to the much less padded straps on this minimalist pack…
  • The lack of lumbar support (oh, how the Gregory packs do this SO well!). The missing lumbar bump meant that a lot of the load was left riding on the hip belt that pushed down uncomfortably on the back and sides of my hips.
  • The slippery straps. Every time I took it off, the buckles on the hip belt slid all the way out and had to be completely readjusted (minor annoyance).

Now, I’m not ready to write this pack off. The transition from Deva to Flash has saved me no less than 4 pounds, so it’s worth careful consideration. I think the discomfort was a combination of A) trying to get a good fit in a new pack and B) not carrying a pack in a really long time. I will have to give this one some more trail-time before I can decide if it’s going to be comfortable enough to become my go-to pack.

So…of these three, can you guess which one is still my go-to? If you guessed the pack that I carried for nearly 2,300 miles, you’re correct. The Jade was comfortable and middle of the road as far as weight goes. It was also seriously durable. By the end of the hike, many people with ultra-lite packs were experiencing busted straps and blown out pockets, and just generally wearing their packs down. My Jade didn’t get a single hole in it until the 100 Mile Wilderness, and that was only because I left cracker wrappers in the side pocket and a mouse came looking for a midnight snack!

TENT

AT 2013: Eureka Spitfire
Savage Gulf Overnight: Same

The one and only that I have ever used backpacking is my Eureka Spitfire. It’s not the lightest on the market, but it’s sure as hell is close to the cheapest. I think I paid a grand total of $109 (including shipping) for this little guy, and it’s seen me through my thru hike and two section hikes, and it’s still going strong. Of course, I dream of upgrading to an ultra lite 2 person tent (to have more room for me and the dog!).

My palace on the banks of the French Broad in Hot Springs, NC

My palace on the banks of the French Broad in Hot Springs, NC

The good:

  • Price.
  • Durability–I’ve washed it in NicWax tech wash to re-waterproof it twice since being on the trail, and it’s holding up just fine.
  • Side entry–I love a good side-entry tent with a nice vestibule for all my stuff!

The not-so-good (but not bad, really):

  • Not free-standing–this guy does require at least 2 stakes to stake out the tent body, and two more for the rain fly. It’s construction also makes it hard to pitch in the rain without getting the inside of the tent wet–hard, but not impossible. If you get creative and work fast, it can be done.
  • Weight–it weighs in around 3 lbs, which isn’t horrible (especially for the price!) but seeing as to how you can get a 2lb 2 person tent these days…

I would definitely recommend the Eureka Spitfire to the budget-conscious hiker. If you can afford to go bigger or lighter, sure, why not? But this tent has been (and still is) a fabulous addition to my gear closet.

SLEEP SYSTEM

Sleeping Pad
AT 2013: Klymit Static V Insulated Sleeping Pad
Savage Gulf Overnight: REI Flash Insulated Air Pad

I loved the Klymit sleeping pad. I used it almost every single night of my AT journey, and it always kept me comfortable and warm. It is a bit hefty at around a pound and a half, but to me, it was so worth it. I was willing to carry the extra weight to be a little warmer and sleep a little better. It retails for about $90, but I grabbed mine for the rockin’ price of less than $60. It has an awesome R Value at 4.4, perfect for those chilly southern nights in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I would probably still be rocking this pad if it had not, after a full calendar year’s use, developed a very slow, persistent leak. All good things must come to an end, I suppose…

So, I guess it’s just really lucky that I happened to find the REI Flash Insulated Air Pad at the Garage Sale for $20, then, huh?

sleepingpads

 

Both of these pads are great. I have only spent one full night on the REI Flash, but it was every bit as comfortable as the Klymit, and for a half a pound weight savings, I’ll gladly make the switch. The Flash does have an R Value of 3.2, though, so maybe take a few extra layers for those super cold nights.

Sleeping Bag

Let’s just start this section with me saying “do as I say, not as I do.” Get yourself a nice bag. You won’t regret it, really. That being said…

AT 2013: $80 down mummy bag from Walmart
Savage Gulf Overnight: $40 synthetic mummy bag from Walmart

Yeah, so, I’m embracing the frugal hiking bit. I’m not even really going to bother with a review of either of these bags, except to say that they got the job done. By the time I reached Maine, however, my down bag had lost about half its loft and was thin as a sheet. Thank God we were blessed with unseasonably warm weather.

Although I don’t have any great advice here, I will say this is just another example of how you don’t have to spend a million dollars and have top-notch gear to get outdoors.

So, that’s the big three. This has already been an exceedingly long post about gear, but I want to make two other quick notes about gear swaps and the reasons behind them.

STOVE

AT 2013: Alcohol Stove
Savage Gulf Overnight: JetBoil Flash

I am, finally, one of the cool kids with a JetBoil. My trusty alcohol stove wasn’t terrible, and there was something fun about eating out of a grimy metal pot that I’d singed and blackened over fire pits and my little can stove, but…JetBoils are AWESOME. I mean, they are SO fast. They are so reliable. They are just so nice. I scored mine at the beginning of the year when REI dividends rolled out, so I combined that with my 20% off coupon and got myself one for around $20. See? It CAN be done on the cheap!

Go with the JetBoil. Trust me. Then you won’t stare longingly at your hiking partner’s already prepared, delicious looking dinner while you’re still waiting for your water to boil.

WATER FILTER

AT 2013: SteriPen (Springer to Hiawassee, GA); Aquamira (Hiawassee to Katahdin)
Savage Gulf Overnight: Sawyer Squeeze Mini

Some people swear by their SteriPen, but mine started acting up and turning itself off on me on my third day on the trail. I wasn’t willing to risk giardia, so I ditched it and grabbed some aquamira. That stuff is gross. It tastes gross, and it surely can’t be good for your body. In fact, prolonged use can knock out all the good flora in your body, which probably explains why I got super sick when I got home from the trail and stopped using it.

I have switched to the Sawyer Squeeze Mini, and I would recommend this little guy to anyone and everyone! Does it take a few minutes to filter water, sure. But no longer than waiting for Aquamira drops to mix properly. Also, it’s only $24, and my thrifty little heart just loves that.

 

Well, that does it. There’s a side-by-side comparison of what was in my pack last year, and what I am using now. I hope it helps!

Now go get outside!

 

This Other Blog Thing I Do

Every other Friday, I pretend that I’m a real writer, and get to post about all-things-trail-related on the Appalachian Trials website.

You should head on over there and check out today’s post, where I review the book Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

I’m plugging this here, because I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity to share my words, my voice, and my stories on a wider platform. Zach Davis (author of Appalachian Trials) is awesome and supports me, and my neurotic tendencies when it comes to writing.

Just check out this email exchange:

Me: I have chosen to review the book “Wild.” And, because I’m me, and chronically fearful that whatever I’ve written isn’t right, or enough, or has already been done, I’m sending you the link to my personal blog where I did a review of a short overnight backpacking trip here in Middle Tennessee. If that works better as far as content or whatever, I do not mind cross-posting.

Zach: Hahaha I love the neuroticism, mostly because I’m the exact same way.  Just know that whatever you want to write about that’s even remotely backpacking related is fine by me!  You’re a good writer and whatever subject you take on, I know you’ll do a good job with.  Don’t worry about making it fit a certain mold, that’s unnecessary.

Seriously, that’s something awesome.

Read my review and latest post here.

Savage Gulf Overnight

I was fortunate enough to get three consecutive days off work this week, the woods were calling my name. As I’ve mentioned, repeatedly, I am working part-time retail as of June, so I’m on a budget–I need to get to the woods–nearby and on the cheap!

Where to go? Where to go?

I’ll admit, when I think “backpacking” I don’t immediately think “Middle Tennessee.” Don’t get me wrong, I love this neck of the woods, and I think we have some mighty fine wild places to get lost in for a day or a few hours at a time…but I wanted more. More time. More options. More miles.

Naturally, I put out a call on Facebook. Where to go?

I received several suggestions, but the one that jumped out at me was Savage Gulf in South Cumberland State Park.

I talked to several coworkers who were familiar with the area, messaged a few hiking buddies about my options, and read several blogs and forums about the trails and the area.

Done. I had a place and a plan.

Tuesday morning, I loaded up the car with my dog and my teensy tinesy little pack–I somehow managed to get under 20 pounds with a liter of water and three days of food! I would be testing out some new gear on this trip, which I was both excited and nervous about. I am always excited to buy and/or test out new gear. It’s fun and exciting to search out just the right piece or come across a really great deal, but…at the same time, all that “old” and “heavy” stuff…well, it’s what I know. It’s what I am familiar with, and what all my routines are based off of. It’s comforting. Taking new gear into the woods is always a gamble–will it work properly? Will I like it? Does it fit right? If not, the consequences can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright disastrous.

on our way

The clouds threatened rain the entire drive down, and just before pulling off the interstate, it rained as hard as any rain I’ve ever experienced. It was miserable to drive in, but at least I wasn’t out hiking, yet. Thankfully, the downpour was brief, and there was no accompanying lightening or thunder. The heavy rained seemed to just  be remnants of the previous day’s storm blowing itself out.

I arrived at the ranger station and quickly checked in, telling him my planned route, which would take me between 8-12 miles each of my three days (probably longer on day two in order to make the hike out on day 3 shorter. I had to be back in Nashville by 1 pm on Thursday, so I didn’t want to feel super rushed).

We hit the trail just before noon. I knew I was only going about 9 miles, so I wasn’t too worried about getting to camp late, but I didn’t expect to make as good time as I did. I set out from the Savage Falls Ranger Station along the North Rim Trail. It’s like I hit the trail and my body just…knew. I had to find my stride first, though. I adjusted the straps on my new pack and had to find a rhythm with my poles, but once I did…man, it felt good.

I wasn’t rushing, but I found myself pushing the limits of comfortable, pushing my legs and my heart just to the edge of sustainable. This trail was perfect for that. It was very rocky and rooty, but mostly flat, with gentle rises that could be charged up without change in pace or breath, and long, gradual descents that were soft on the knees and easy to trot down.

I took the time to stop at the overlooks and enjoy the views. In fact, the cloudy picture of the gulf is one of my favorite from the entire trip. It is beautiful. Moments later, those dark clouds burst, and Luna and I found ourselves hiking through a torrential rain.

photo (51)

 

The trail was full of the familiar twisted branches of rhododendron, trickling cascades (which I’ve been reassured will be bone dry in a matter of weeks…it’s a miracle that they are not already, apparently), and rocks–I’ll get to the rocks in a minute! It was blazed in white.

I found my stride, even through the rain and just let myself go. I can’t describe what happens when I hike like that, but it’s almost like meditation in motion. Sometimes I think, intentionally focusing my thoughts on one thing or in one direction, but often it’s kind of like mental white noise. I’m able to let the “thinking” side of my brain take a break and let the “moving” side take over for a while.

In the book Solo: On Her Own Adventure, Lucy Jane Bledsoe describes this feeling in her short story “Above Treeline,”

“I climbed and sweated and breathed hard, and allowed myself to just be body.”

I reached the cabin and campground early–before 4 pm, but I decided to stop anyway. Partly because that was what my itinerary and permit said, and partly because I could lay in the sun and read and write. I was still sitting in the same sunny spot (which was quickly becoming overrun with shadow as the sun sank beyond the edges of the cabin’s clearing) about an hour after stopping when three other hikers strolled in. It appeared to be a father and his two teenage daughters. He advised me not to sleep in the cabin, as the ranger had warned him about snakes.

I set up camp in the well marked, well maintained campsites near the cabin. I was just one space away from my new neighbors, but they were polite and well mannered, and I didn’t mind their presence. After eating the remaining bits of jerky that I’d brought with me (I foolishly assumed one small bag would last for three days. As soon as I started walking, I craved the salty, protein packed snack) and feeding Luna her dinner, I settled down to read and write and basically be lazy for the rest of the evening. I am really glad that I decided to take my new book Solo: On Her Own Adventure. I was having a hard time writing, bouncing from topic to topic, impatiently scratching at the paper of my notebook, as if I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. After a while I gave up and settled in to read a few more stories of solo female adventurers. I reminded myself that I am one of them. My story belongs among their ranks.

photo (52)

Just before calling it a night, I saw my neighbors (dad) pull out a bear line. Ahhh. Yes. One of those…ooops. Great. Now I was going to be that person who is sleeping with their food when everyone else is hanging. I hated that guy. I could almost feel dad’s righteous indignation as he set about his hanging business. Really?! She’s not hanging her food! It’s because of people like her that bears are attracted to campsites, anyway! It wasn’t until I saw the location and manner of his hang that it was my turn to feel a little righteously indignant. Really?! You might as well send a personalized invitation to the bear yourself! The bag was hung on a tree not 5 feet from their tent, on a branch no thicker than my wrist, and it sagged to a measly 7 or 8 feet of the ground. I was content with what Carrot Quinn (seriously, check out her brilliantly written and hilarious PCT blog) refers to as the “over my dead body” method of food storage.

Around 8, I pulled Luna in the tent and zipped up for the night. I continued to read until my eyes felt heavy, and I turned my headlamp off around 10. I hoped to swiftly fall to sleep, tucked into my bag and nuzzled up next to my dog…no such luck. I could not fall asleep. My brain wouldn’t turn off, and the day’s relatively short miles were not enough to soundly wear my body out and force sleep upon me.

With no sleep in sight, and a rumbling in my stomach, I fished a midnight snack out of my food bag (couldn’t have done that if it was hung in a tree!) and opened my book. There was something comforting about reading of other women’s tales of adventure, feats of bravery and endurance, while I was on my own little sojourn. The snack and reading helped, and around 12 or 12:30, I was finally able to sleep. I woke up again around 3, just glad that some actual time had passed since the last time I checked my watch. I slept on and off from 3 to 4, and needed no alarm when 5 am finally came, and I deemed it a totally suitable hour to get up. The birdsongs were the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. I don’t remember hearing morning birds quite that loud, clear, or beautiful anywhere on the trail…of course, I was rarely awake at 5 am last year!

I lazily packed up, ate breakfast, sipped coffee, and read a few more pages, before heading out of camp by 6:30. It was cool, and the oppressive humidity of the day before had vanished along with the remnants of the storm and clouds. What sky I could see through the tops of the tall, slender pines and willowy young oaks was a brilliant, cloudless blue. My plan was to hike down the Connector Trail to the Stone Door, a natural stairway of sorts from the top of the gorge down into the gorge itself, and then double back and hike to one of the campsites on the South Rim Trail. I knew that I would have plenty of time to do the longer mileage, given my early start and the easy, fast miles of the day before.

Well, no. About one tenth of a mile from the cabin, the trail turned into a rock scramble. I had immediate, horrible flashbacks to hiking in Pennsylvania, through ankle-breaking boulder fields exactly like the one before me. I groaned. I poked my way across the relatively short rock-maze, playing the torturous game of connect the dots that is hiking through rocks like this: step, step, locate blaze, reorient direction, step step, locate blaze, change direction, step step…

The greatest complication in all of this was Luna. She’s a great hiking dog, and she’s getting better at staying behind or beside me (as opposed to our last hiking trip, where she pulled me over 40 miles of trail), but I still don’t entirely trust her off-leash. She’s still just a little too skittish and headstrong. Also, I got the sense that, even though I was out mid-week, this is a fairly busy state park, and having her off-leash would be a big no-no.

Well, the dog tethered to me in this rock field–NOT FUN. She would either shoot ahead of me, much more stable in her footing, what with four feet and all, and begin pulling me, willy nilly, over the rocks with her, or she would hang back timidly, as I drug her along my path. It wasn’t fun. But it was a relatively short section, and I hoped we could just forge onward. That’s when I came to a section of the trail that disappeared. It simply dropped off into a pile of rocks. This was the descent into the gorge that I had seen on the topo maps. I had, foolishly, hoped for switchbacks.

I stood at the top of that drop and deliberated. Maybe this was like the rock field, intense, but short. In the end, I figured that if I attempted that section with my dog strapped to me, one of us would end up with a broken leg, and it’s just not worth it. So we headed back through the rock field, the way we came. At the junction to the cabin, there is another path that breaks off from the North Rim Trail and leads back to the ranger station, so I figured if I’m going back the way I came, why not take a different path?

Immediately, I set about scanning and analyzing this trail. It was much less traveled, that was apparent by the layers of leaf and plant debris that made the trail nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. It was also littered with debris and blow-downs, so it was less maintained. I was able to quickly talk myself out of this trail, noting that it was probably perfectly safe, but just in case it wasn’t, I should go back. At least the rangers knew that at some point in my trip that I planned to hike on the North Rim Trail. If anything bad happened to me, I would eventually be found there. I wasn’t willing to go completely off the reservation on a trail that felt more…remote?…without anyone knowing where I was going. Safe call. Good choice.

That meant that Luna and I had turned around twice and had gained negative mileage for the day by 7:15.

savage gulf 2

The trek back was just as beautiful and meditative as it was the day before. I lounged in the sun on rocks overlooking the gorge that was shrouded in clouds when we passed through the day before. I sat in the shade to let Luna cool off, to read, and to just be in the woods. Other than the three I shared a campsite with, I had seen no one else in my two days in the park, and not another soul that day…and I was fine with that. I was enjoying the solitude. As I was enjoying one of these breaks, an older couple walked up on me and Luna. They hike here often they told me.

I would see them again as I approached the ranger station, and something in me was upset by that. I wanted to be alone. I wanted the last mile of my trip to end just as the first had begun–me alone with my dog.

In the last few miles of fast, flat hiking, I let my body take over and let my thoughts drift over everything I had contemplated in the last two days. Two daysTwo days is all it takes to feel whole again, I marveled. No, not even two days. 24 hours. 24 hours, and I am renewed. Maybe life doesn’t have to be lived in such extremes as I’ve previously thought. The options are not Thru Hike v. World. If 24 hours is all I need, a new world has just opened up to me. 

My trip was shorter and less scenic that planned, but I got so much out of it. I explored a new place (that I completely fell in love with!) and spent some much needed time for reflection, reading, and writing. I now have an excuse to return to Savage Gulf to hike the Connector Trail, the South Rim trail and explore Stone Door and the many waterfalls in the gorge.