Saturday, December 29, 2012

Trail Names & Percentile Rankings

Two things are on my mind today, and neither have much to do with planning for a thru-hike.  The first is a purely fun and trivial concept on the A.T. called your trail name.  Many, if not most, backpackers on the A.T. have a Trail Name - something other than what is on their birth certificate.  People can pick their own names - like "Mom", "Ramkitten", "Windtalker", "PB&J" etc.  Sometimes, fate picks your name for you - usually a very unfortunate event that then follows you through the rest of your hike - for instance, "Mr. Poopy Pants".  You get the idea.

Part of me wants my fellow hikers to name me.  Of course, then I'll more than likely end up with some snarky name associated with bodily fluids or noises (we are not an overly mature bunch on the trail!).  Therefore, I think I'd like to find a name before I head out there.

I would love to have suggestions.  And perhaps even why you are making that suggestion.  If it's too personal, please respect my paranoia of putting all this up on the web, and send me a private note/phone call.  But, really, I'd like to hear what sort of names you would think of for me.  

Secondly, I'm thinking of what percentile I rank among thru-hikers.  Statistics say that only 12% of the people that plan a thru-hike actually achieve hiking the entire 2,174 miles.  So... what percentile am I?  Do I possibly think that I could really be in the top 88th percentile?  That does, after all, seem a bit conceited.  But, I'm an over-achiever and I've never really accepted anything below a 90% on anything - phys ed scores, school tests, gpa's, blood pressure and cholesterol reads...

There are lots of reasons people get taken off the trail.  Injury is probably one of the fewest causes.  Mostly, it's loneliness, boredom, fear, disappointment, or discomfort.  All of those are emotional or mental states.  People have continued hikes with an arm in a cast or a broken rib (don't let that freak you out, mom!).  So, it seems to me that the perseverance level would be what determines whether someone is in the top 88th.  

My family is very practical, and they have all individually said to me something to the extent of: "There's a difference between bravery and stupidity.  Don't be stupid."  I suppose, that what one person calls perseverance, another calls dumb stubbornness.  What one calls brave, another calls stupid.  And only the results will determine for history's sake which it really was.  It was brave if there person succeeded, and stupid if the person failed.  Or... it was brave if the person chose caution and wanting to be home with family over taking a risk, trying something outside of their comfort zone.  Or, or, or.  

I don't know if I'm in the top 88th.  That will be determined on the Trail.  For now, I can only envision the worst and see how I can work through it AND stay on the Trail.  Then, when those things actually happen, we'll find my true test of character, and let everyone decide which character trait it is actually displaying - perseverance and courage, or pride and stupidity.  

Maybe my trail name should be "89th" - I'll be just good enough to finish :-)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Not a place for perfectionists

Hi.  My name is Sarah, and I’m… a perfectionist (Hi Sarah!).  A recovering perfectionist, I like to think.  But, I’m not sure I’ll ever be “cured” entirely of my perfectionism.  It’s a chronic condition, I fear.  I’ve heard, however, that the A.T. is a good rehab center for just such an addiction.

You see, there is serious humble pie that needs to be eaten when planning for something like this when I haven’t planned something like this in the past.  I have this serious expectation of myself to be perfectly skilled and able to easily do ANY new thing I try.  Apparently, I do not learn from life experience very well (as I rarely do anything well the first time around). 

So, when I hear things like “But I thought you already had a sleeping bag?”  when I start talking about a new sleeping bag I found that’s lighter, takes up less room – even though I DID all the research before I bought the other one… FAIL!

Or, when I hang my food up in the tree to keep it from bears, and in the middle of the night I hear “THUD!”  Don’t worry, it’s not a bear, I just can’t tie a knot to save my life.  FAIL!

Or, when my first batch of dehydrating fruit goes moldy.  Or, when my first batch of homemade pemmican is too salty for the deer to lick.  I admit - I am not skilled in the kitchen.  And now I think I’m going to cook cheesy beef stroganoff over 1 ounce of burning alcohol.  FAIL! FAIL!

Or, when I have to return so many things to REI because I just needed the chance to try them out in the privacy of my own room (or somewhere out of eyesight of people who actually know what they are doing). But this is why I love REI – they know people need to try (and fail) and return said product. 

So many “failures”… and I’m not even on the trail yet.  Just wait for the stories I'll have to share then!  Hopefully, my failures will be short of a bear attack, a giardiasis outbreak in my intestines, or snapping an appendage from tripping over a tree root.

Of course, one could argue that’s not really failing.  It’s “trying”.  That’s what OTHER people tell me, but this is a hard concept for a perfectionist to grasp.  I start to think, “Who do you think you are anyway?  You can’t do this!” 

I realize that a moldy batch of apples does not mean that I am completely incapable of putting one foot in front of the other for 2200 miles.  Yet, my perfectionism makes that correlation for me. 

But, what IS the truth?  The truth is, on the A.T. there is very little that I can control.  Even “expert hikers” sometimes get pooled water and soaked sleeping bags under their minimalist tarp in heavy rains.  Even the “pros” can’t always get their stoves to light on the first match in cold weather.   So, if THEY can have that happen to them, then surely so can I.  The Trail has a way of showing a person just how fail, um, I mean frail, they are.  There just isn’t room for perfectionism.  If I don’t embrace my mistakes, it could well be the perfectionism that takes me off the trail, rather than an actual failure.  I don’t want that to happen.  So, that’s a good reason for me to keep working on my recovery. 

Of course, don’t think I’ll give up perfectionism perfectly.  There will likely be a few relapses.  But that's not failure.  I think that may be part of the recovery process.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Big Three

They call 'em the "Big Three" - your tent, your pack, and your sleeping bag.  They are the largest individual items you carry, and typically the heaviest.  When you are weighing things out to the ounce of what you carry on your back, these three are where there can be real gains by going lightweight.

Deuter Backpack
There's also an saying: "The more you travel, the less you need to pack."  Here's the problem, I want to travel the Trail lightweight, but I haven't done a whole heck of a lot of backpacking.  So, that means that I 'should' be taking a 2 person tent (so I'm not claustrophobic, and have room for my gear), with a bath-tub floor (to keep out heavy rain) which is completely enclosed with mesh to keep out the bugs, and a great rainfly.  That should cover every situation.  I currently own a really nice tent - an REI QuarterDome (2 person).  It actually is considered a lightweight tent - at just over 4 pounds with everything included.  But, it's way to big for what I need or really want to carry on my back.

I realize it's less than 100 days til we leave, and I should probably have my shelter figured out.  But I don't.  Here's what I'm leaning towards... (A) a ground cloth - big enough to put my sleeping pad on, plus (B) a bug bivy - a bivy is a "bag" that goes around your sleeping bag - this will keep the insects at bay (it's just mesh), plus (C) a rainfly.  I'm going to use my trekking poles to pitch my rainfly, and my rainfly will also be my rainponcho that I can wear hiking (and over my pack).  All together, I will cut down about half the fabric I would need to stuff in my pack, and I'll save about 2 pounds.

Check out my rainfly - I think it's cool:  Six Moons Gatewood Cape 

Of course, in a heavy rain or driving wind, my shelter may not be enough due to my lack of experience.  I may end up with rivulets running over my ground cloth and soaking my bag.  Or my bug bivy may blow away from under my rainfly (it doesn't reach the ground - for ventilation purposes - cuts down on condensation, which is smart) since it won't be staked down.  I don't know.  It'll be a learning curve.

Now, before you think I'm absolutely crazy for not taking a proper tent with me.  I'm not one of those crazy ultralight hikers who drill holes in their toothbrushes or forgoes a warmer sleeping bag just to save a few ounces.

My pack is a "light" pack, but certainly not ultralight.  My sleeping bag is probably considered "midweight" because I wasn't going to spend the money on goose-down to save the weight (that, and synthetic holds up better if it does get damp - which it will on the Trail.  My hiking buds have really cool sleeping bags that have waterproof down.  I decided not to spend the money on that, but they will probably sleep better than me at times!).  So don't worry, I am not just all willy nilly getting rid of things out of my pack.  But when all of your earthly possessions (plus 7 pounds of water and 5 days of food) need to total under 30 pounds, one really does start thinking about drilling holes.  Ok, ok, I admit, I did actually cut my toothbrush in half.  Maybe I am crazy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Between

No one belongs in an airport. Everyone is there simply to pass time, waiting to go somewhere else. I experience this strange sense of loneliness and disconnection when I am in an airport. Maybe it’s because I still have a stupid phone and I don’t carry a computer. Being able to stay connected electronically to the office, home, or friends seems to be the way most people deal with the limbo-land of an airport. It’s a really good way to avoid that feeling. Of course, it doesn’t help me because I have even fewer strangers that I can impose upon for a conversation to pass the time.

I got to thinking about my time on the trail. I’ll start in Springer Mountain, and end on Mount Katahdin. Every step in between will be… well, in between. Between destinations, between jobs, between who I was when I started and who I’ll be when I finish – like the in between of an airport. I will not belong anywhere for half a year. That’s a very lonely prospect, in a sense. It’s all fine and well to sit in an airport and watch people for a few hours, imagining their conversations and their high scores for Angry Birds. It’s another to intentionally choose to dwell in that place for several months.

On the other hand, there is an anticipation and freedom that comes from not belonging. The world is a white canvas just waiting to be painted. I can choose to go in any direction, using any medium I wish to begin the artwork. This past week, I got to intersect with several other people – people I would not have met had I chosen to avoid my loneliness by staying connected to friends several states away while I was waiting for my connecting flight. I learned about Barbados and sailing and bartending from a guy named Neil. I learned a little about weather in Maine from an older woman who lives near Mt. Katahdin. I never thought I’d meet a person who judges dog shows, and yet, there she was flying home. I’ll probably never see these folks again in my life, but they were in front of me for a moment, and I am a better person for meeting them. And maybe they are better for meeting me too – I can hope so.

I think that is how I will combat loneliness on the trail. I won’t avoid it, but I’ll look around me to see who and/or what I can connect with in that moment. I’m looking forward to all the conversations I’ll hear and faces I’ll see. I can be grateful for all the alone time that I can spend talking to God, perhaps praying for the very folks that I met in the shelter the night before and shared some under-cooked beans with (I HAVE to get better at camp cooking!). When I stand in the place of anticipation for the present moment, rather than wishing for a different place or time, loneliness really doesn’t seem that big or bad a thing to deal with.