Archive for February, 2010

February 28 The mental challenge of the trail

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Well, I’m at “One down and two to go!”  I just got back from California’s capital, Sacramento, where I spent two days with a team of junior high kids from our Awana Club–they were competing with teams from all over northern California and Nevada.  Next weekend it’s a more local competition (only northern San Francisco Bay Area) with the 3rd-6th graders, then the last weekend back to Sacramento again for the high school level competitions.

Our junior high kids were totally AWESOME!  They have worked so hard, and they left every other team “in the dust” in the Bible knowledge competition, then went on to a solid 3rd place in the Games.  It is a wonderful thing to see hundreds of junior high kids all gathered together and so focused and so determined.   They’ve learned through Awana training how to have a good attitude in all circumstances, be good sports and live to honor God in everything they do.  I love these kids, because I can still vividly remember being a junior higher myself, and the incredible challenges of being that age and making decisions that will literally impact the rest of your life. 

No kidding that attitude is important!   And one place where I think I can almost say “Attitude is everything” is thruhiking the PCT.  When Bill White Beard and I did the PCT in 2005, we were amazed at some of the attitudes we encountered in other hikers.   And by the end of the trail, I think it’s safe to say that our conclusion was, “If you need to be all jazzed/pumped up/motivated to do something, then you won’t finish the PCT;  if you are inclined to pityparties and want “time for ME”, you won’t finish the PCT; if you depend on other people being WITH you to keep you motivated, you probably won’t finish the PCT (unless you are lucky enough to find a buddy);  if you are easily demotivated by difficult circumstances, you won’t finish the PCT……well, you get my drift!

We were amazed at how many people who started at Campo vowing, “Canada, here I come!” had quit by Warner Springs (only 100 + miles into the trail) and a bunch more quit at Idylwild.  Others quit at Horseshoe Meadows or Tuolemne Meadows.   One lady I talked to (who ended up quitting at Idylwild) said to me, close to tears, “I thought I was ready for this trail.  I really trained.  But this is way tougher than I thought.”   We were sitting by the trail up on the Desert Divide at the time; it was horribly hot and we were very short on water (my husband Bill and her husband had gone down to Apache Spring to get water–we weren’t even having to make that steep, rough scramble down to the spring, then the steep, hot climb back up; we got to sit in the bit of shade of some bushes and commiserate, while our gallant husbands took on the REALLY tough stuff).  I tried to encourage her with “It’ll be OK–pretty soon the trail will level out, the sun will be lower and it will be cooler,” but she was too far gone in misery to be encouraged.

Two years ago, a hot, drought-stricken, forest fire year in California,  Bill and I were in Horseshoe Meadows acclimating for climbing Mt. Whitney.  It was Ray Day, June 15, and there were a lot of  PCT thruhikers taking a break from the trail by coming down from Trail Pass, then returning by way of  Cottonwood Pass.   I have to say,  it was a depressing experience.  Many of the hikers were in pityparty mode, and I heard that later, many quit.  they complained of the heat, the fires, the lack of water, of being dirty for days on end.  They were taking every opportunity to slackpack or even totally skip parts of the PCT if they got a chance.   When you get into that kind of mentality,  your days as a thruhiker are definitely numbered.

We noticed that the people who FINISH and make it to Canada are the ones who are steady, determined, generally cheerful, able to “pick themselves up” if they become discouraged, and are not overwhelmed by what Ray Jardine called “the avalanche of adversity”.  I myself had days when we did the PCT when I was desperately tired, horribly hot or cold, being driven nuts by hordes of mosquitoes, dealing with very sore shoulders, or being terrified by a river crossing or trail-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff.   There were times I had to ask Bill to wait a few minutes so I could sit down and cry.  Then I would pull myself together, hoist pack, and head on, still sniffling a bit, till I was OK again.   Bill had his own issues to deal with–awful blisters, plantar fasciitis, stomach troubles, etc.   But we kept going, knowing that eventually whatever the problem was, we would (with God’s help, many times) figure out a solution, and all would be OK.

One of the reasons I encourage people to have a disciplined training program (which I described back on January 1) is because you are not just toughening your feet and legs and shoulders for the trail–you are also toughening your ability to keep on hiking no matter what.   So far this year, since we started training,  it’s pretty much been in the rain and mud and cold every time we went out.  But that’s good!   It helps build our MENTAL strength for the trail.  Back in 2005,  we had no idea how to really train; I remember one day we spent in Sugarloaf State Park carrying our packs up and down every hill in the place.  By the end of the day we were totally worn out.   I remember sitting exhausted by the side of a trail in the late afternoon and saying to Bill, “The PCT could not possibly be as tough as this.”   Hah!   The PCT was WAY tougher!! 

But the PCT is also a trail where every single day brings a new adventure (some wonderful, some scary, some beautiful, some challenging) and that’s what often kept Bill and I going.   We’d get up in the dark early in the morning, when it was cold, and be saying to each other, “Well, I wonder what the adventure will be today?”   Once it was barely light enough to see the trail (and sometimes, in the desert, while it was still dark), we’d hoist packs, and hug each other and pray, “Lord, walk with us today,” and off we would go, genuinely looking forward to whatever the day might bring.

And it always brought something wonderful, because the PCT is one incredible trail!

February 18 Coding your guidebook

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

A couple of days ago, we had our FIRST day since DECEMBER when we weren’t hiking either IN the rain, or with a THREAT of rain!  Wow!  No need to carry raingear!  No need to carry thermoses of hot drinks!  And both Bill and I were feeling much better after fighting off whatever the latest “cough thing” that’s going around.  So off we went to another of our favorite places to hike–Jack London State Park, near Sonoma, CA.   The park is basically the property that used to be Jack London’s “Beauty Ranch” and it well deserves its name.  It has a mountain to climb, with superb views at the top (including all the way to San Franciso–Jack London rode up here on the morning of the great earthquake in April, 1906, and could see the smoke coming off all the terrible fires in “The City”)   and there are lakes,  magnificent oak trees and grassland WITH NO WILD PIGS to mess it up, plus the latest round of spring wildflowers putting in an appearance.    And if you have time, you can visit the ruins of the Wolf House, or poke around in The Cottage or in the House of Happy Walls.  It’s a great place!

I am still up to my eyeballs coaching kids at Awana club–the first big competition is the weekend of Feb. 26-27, then another on the following weekend, March 6, and finally the last one on the weekend after that, March 12-13.   At that point, I may collapse for a day??? and then leap into SERIOUSLY preparing for the PCT, starting with collecting boxes to mail ourselves resupply packages.

But every day I take 15 or 20 minutes to do what I call GUIDEBOOK CODING.  It saved us TONS of time and frustration on the trail when we were consulting maps and trying to figure out where we were.

We use the good ol’ Jeffrey Schaffer/Wilderness Press guidebooks, and carefully take them apart so that we only need to deal with a few pages at a time–just enough to get us to the next resupply point.   I know there are some new guides out there, but we have not had a chance to really LOOK at them and decide if they are OK.  So we are sticking with the tried and true.

The problem with the Schaffer books is that the TEXT which describes the trail is often not on the same page with the corresponding MAP.   And once you manage to coordinate the two, then you have the “fun” of trying to figure out exactly where you are.  When you are on the trail and it’s raining or it’s ghastly hot, or you are very tired, or the sun is about to go down, or whatever, trying to deal with this is a major pain.  So I came up with a simple coding system that makes it possible to instantly coordinate map and text and know where you are.

First off, at the top of EVERY column of text, I write the number of the map that goes with it.  For example, if you are in Section K, and the column of text corresponds to map K4,  I write “K4” at the top of that column.  If the map number changes partway down the column, I draw a very black line across the column at the point where the map changes, and put the new map number next to the line.

Then I add what I call “guide posts.”   I study the map and text carefully and on the map I CIRCLE trail junctions, landscape features, etc. and assign each a number, which I write next to them on the map.   Then I study the text to locate exactly where in the text that trail junction or landmark is mentioned.  I underline it and write its corresponding “guidepost number” next to it.

Yes, that’s a fair amount of work, but on the trail, oh man, did it save us time and grief!   I would hate to think of the frustration of not having a pre-coded guidebook.   And what’s fun about doing it is that it’s kind of like “virtual hiking”.   I enjoy thinking about the things along that part of the trail.   OK, this is easy for me, since I have ALREADY HIKED the trail, so I have a mental picture to draw on, but even the first time,  it was still fun to do.   I highly recommend coding your guidebook, whichever one you use!

February 9 Cooking & eating

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Bill “White Beard” and I spent today hiking around Lake Sonoma, which is a huge reservoir where our city of Petaluma gets a lot of its water.  For the past several winters, we’ve been a bit short on rain, so the lake never really got full, but wow, it is now!  The steelhead are running in the river that comes out of the dam, but we didn’t stop to watch–we wanted to get on the trail!  Both of us are fighting off some sort of cold (snuffly noses, scratchy throats) but we loaded up our packs and went anyway–the only difference is we didn’t walk as fast, and we took a whole hour to eat lunch.

It was a muddy trail, as we expected, and there was one tricky creek crossing where (sigh) I had to cross on a couple of logs.  Bill zips across logs–I am a “chicken maximus”.  Once I got across the creek, I had to climb well up on a steep hillside to avoid using a very narrow slippery trail on the edge of a cliff, which would have taken me back to the “main trail” very quickly, but I was too chicken to follow it.  But my scrambling up the hill had a couple of dividends–I found a two-point antler AND a wild pig jawbone.  

And the wild pigs certainly are to be found in abundance around Lake Sonoma!  The trail is sometimes hard to follow because they have plowed it up so much, and sometimes they make a wallow right in the middle of the trail.   The pigs are really elusive, though–rarely do you SEE any.  We certainly saw none today, though we came upon what was obviously VERY freshly plowed up ground.  Because of the pigs, instead of green meadowy ground under lovely big oak trees, what you get is rough ‘n tumble, muddy dirt, all worked over by the pigs.   The backpack and boat-in campsites all have tall poles for hanging your food so the pigs don’t get it.

Personally, I’m cheering for the hunters!   Every now and then, the rangers let them have a go at pig hunting.  Wish they’d do it more often; I hate to see whole hillsides all brown and muddy instead of green and full of wildflowers.

Well, to switch to the subject of cooking on the PCT…..   Some thruhikers cook.   Some don’t.   We are in the “cook-once-a-day” category.  We find that having a hot meal really makes a difference. It feels homey and comfortable.   But since we don’t want any bears and critters visiting us in the night, we cook in the MIDDLE of the day, around noon, unless it is really ghastly hot, in which case we wait till things cool down a bit, say around 5:30 pm, cook then, and make as many miles after that as we can before we camp.

Our system is that somewhere around noon (preferably near a water source, if possible) we stop to eat.   First order of business is to find a place to set up the stove, where there is ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE of starting a grass or forest fire.  We look for flat rocks, bare dirt, whatever we can find.  Sometimes we will even CARRY a nice “cooking rock” over to where we want to cook and eat.   Once that’s done, I set up the “kitchen” while Bill airs sleeping bags.    I cook, we eat, then Bill “washes” the dishes (which we have pretty much licked clean, so there isn’t much to do!).   Then we pack up and hit the trail again.  The whole process takes 40-60 minutes, depending on how much of a hurry we’re in.

Our “kitchen” is an alcohol stove made from the bottom of a beer can.  We have a small pot rack for the pot to sit on above the stove, and we have a small titanium pot with folding handles.    We each have a plastic cup and spoon.   Some thruhikers just eat straight from the pot, but with two of us, it’s easier to divvy things up if we have the cups. 

Here’s our basic food plan:

First thing in the morning  (usually 5:30 am) as we hit the trail:  I eat a Larabar, while Bill snacks on jerky or some other bar.

Around 7:30ish, it’s  breakfast:  Granola with freezedried fruit, nuts & seeds, powdered milk.  We vary the type of granola, fruit & nuts.

Around 10:30,  we stop for 10-15 min. for a Snickers each.

Around noon, we cook.   I have a “base” of either instant mashed potatoes or stovetop stuffing mix or instant rice or freezedries, to which I add freezedried veges and meats, or a package of tuna if we are getting close to a resupply.   Once you open a tuna packet, it gets REALLY SMELLY really fast, even if you try to rinse it out, so I saved the tuna till almost the end of each section.  We usually also eat a cookie of some sort, and we each also drink a cupful of Emergen-C, and take some vitamins.

Around 3:30, we stop for 10 minutes and have another Snickers.

Around 5:30 or 6:00, we stop for supper–crackers and cheese or peanut butter; dried fruit; nuts.   We might have plain water or might add some Crystallite.  Sometimes I toss in something from town, if we have just come out of a resupply.   Some of the nicest suppers we had on the PCT were when trail angels gave us fresh veges or fruit.  At Ebbett’s Pass (oops, make that CARSON Pass–thankyou to a helpful comment from one of our blog readers!) the visitor center people LOVE thruhikers.   They keep fresh fruit in the refrigerator for us.   When we came through, they gave us a HUGE canteloupe, which was a great addition to peanut butter and crackers!   Another time, we were almost to Burney Falls when we went past a PG & E place, and the guys there gave us fresh tomatoes and cucumbers!   Wow!   Peanut butter and crackers with tomatoes and cukes! 

The last comment I have about food is–when you are in town, eat LOTS of high calorie food!   When we did the trail in 2005, we were trying to be all virtuous and only eat healthy food, especially NO candy!   The result was that after two months of hiking, we were both starving hungry all the time.  Bill lost a lot of weight and began to lose strength, too.  Finally, at a resupply, I was talking to fellow thruhiker Pika and told him of our troubles.   He said, “You need Snickers.”   He explained that we seriously needed to start getting caught up on our calorie deficit.  We took his advice, and boy, did it make a difference!   We started eating Snickers,  and in town we ate as much as we could.   I started bringing cookies on the trail, and more cheese, etc.   It really helped. 

So beware of calorie deficit!   Mangia, mangia!  as my Italian neighbors used to say whenever we were at their house.  Eat!   Eat!

February 6 Drinking water

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Whew!  It’s been a hectic over-a-week here at our house, which is why I haven’t posted anything for awhile.  We were organizing and running what’s called an “Awana Grand Prix”–it’s like the Boy Scouts’ Pinewood Derby–little 7 ” wooden cars running down a LOOOOOONG track to see who’s made the fastest car.   We had all ages from 2 years old through adults competing, and the venue was in a local teen hangout called The Phoenix Theater.  It’s a very cool place, with every surface covered by colorful paintings,  plus there is an indoor skateboard park.   Local garage bands (and some bigger names, too) go there to perform.   Best of all, it was free, because the guy who owns the place was in Awana when he was a kid, and was very happy to help us out!  

Bill was sure his car (black with silver trim; very sleek) was going to win the adult races, but he came in second.   Oh well.

Besides the Grand Prix, the training/coaching sessions for other Awana competitions have really ramped up, and I am gone from home for hours, working with kids ages all the way from 5 to 17!

Add in training for the PCT, and that’s why I haven’t posted for awhile!   I now carry 14 pounds on every hike or walk, and Bill is at 19 pounds.   We increase by a pound a week.  It has pretty much been raining every day, or if not raining, it’s cloudy and cold and all the trails are very muddy.   We are beginning to be a bit concerned about snow levels in the Sierras and the implications for our hike this year.  We’ll see…..

Since all the hills and valleys around here are supersaturated, all the rain pretty much just runs off now instead of soaking in, so I thought that might be a good reason for me to lay out the conclusions Bill and I have come to about drinking water along the PCT.

Years ago, when we first started backpacking, we never bothered to treat our drinking water.   We were careful about where we collected the water, and never had a problem.  When we started taking our then 3 year old daughter along on our backpacking adventures (she had to walk on her own two feet and carry a tiny pack!!) we became concerned.  A little person like her would not be able to handle something nasty in the water.  So we started to bring a water treatment along which is no longer available.  It had two steps–first to SUPER-chlorinate the water and let it sit a bit, then add some other stuff that neutralized the chlorine.  The final product was safe, tasty water.

Eventually, our daughter grew up and was no longer interested in backpacking with us, so we went back to not treating our water.  But as we began to plan for the PCT,  we read people’s journals and how they were getting really sick along the trail from something in the water they drank.   So after much debate over what to do, we got a water filter–the kind that you pump and pump and pump.  It weighed about 14 oz.   We dragged it along all through Southern California and dutifully filtered much of the water we came to.   But oh man, it was TEDIOUS!   And we remembered that the folks who got sick along the PCT had been filtering their water–guess it didn’t do them much good.  So finally we said phooey, and sent the water filter home.   We did all of the Sierras, northern California, Oregon and Washington with no water filter and no problems.

The water filter now sits in our garage collecting dust, and we are back to just being careful where and how we collect water AND also taking careful little steps to acclimate ourselves to handle drinking “surface water.”  I think that Ray Jardine is right–the reason people were getting sick was not the water, it was probably because they were not properly cleaning their HANDS after “answering the call of nature” behind a bush along the trail.   Ray said that before any longdistance hiking adventure, he and Jenny would drink very small amounts of creek water, etc. to help their bodies get used to coping with the resident bacteria, etc.

Our plan for the PCT in 2010 is to just hit the trail with no filter.   We might carry a bit of iodine just in case, but even doing that is debatable.  The only places where the water is often messed up are in southern California and parts of northern California where we were sharing the PCT with the cows.

We carry our water in Platypuses and use a drinking tube to suck water whenever we want it.  If I had had to stop and get out a water bottle every time I wanted a drink, that would really have been a drag.  I like being able to drink whenever I feel like it.   The “Platys” travelled inside our packs in a “hydration sleeve”, where the water stayed cool in hot weather and did not get horribly cold in cold weather.  The ONLY problem we had on the whole PCT was that the drinking tubes got a bit cruddy after about 3 months.  If we’d had a proper brush to clean them, we could have done that, but we ended up just buying new ones when we got to a big enough town.  

 We each carried TWO of the 2 and a half liter bags, plus each of us had a 1 liter plastic bottle.   We rarely carried a full load of water–we tried to calculate carefully and carry just enough to get to the next water, and if it was possible, to stop and cook at a water source so we didn’t have to carry cooking water.    Now, I have to say this–reading some people’s journals about how much water they drank every day was sort of amazing to me.   People were obsessing over drinking like a quart an hour, and were carrying backbreaking loads as a result.   We tended to drink lots at water sources (I could blow down  two quarts or more) and be less “guzzly” inbetween.   There was only one day where “White Beard” and I went through a whole 6 liters each in less than a day, and that was when we were between Tehachapi and Walker Pass and it was horribly hot.

I have to say this also:   most of the water in southern California tastes awful.   Yuck!   The rest of the trail is fine, and the water up in Oregon and Washington is awesomely good!   We took to carrying several little tubes of Crystalite powder to use when the water tasted really horrible.   Toss a tube of Crystalite lemonade powder in your southern California water, and it becomes OK instead of gagworthy.

But I have to say, I am SO looking forward to that awesome Washington and Oregon water!