Sierra (not her real name) leaned back in her chair.
“She was a moron,” she said with some venom. “I can’t believe she was so stupid. Totally unprepared.”
“I agree,” said Terri, sitting next to her. “How could anyone be so dumb?”
We were discussing the book Wild, which tells the story of a young woman’s trek up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Cheryl Strayed, the author, recounts her rookie experiences, her mistakes, and what she learned along the way while hiking one of American’s toughest through-routes. I was sitting across the table, watching the members of the book club excoriate Strayed’s inept preparation for her enormous undertaking. The dumb stuff she bought. Her incredibly overstuffed backpack. Mistake after dumb rookie mistake.
The women around the table were members of the Outdoor Women’s Alliance, a growing online community of women who love the outdoors and represent a lot of talent in a broad range of outdoor activities. Experienced backpackers, climbers, outdoorswomen. All of whom, like Strayed, were also once total rookies, and likely very inept. Kinda like we all are just starting out.
Strayed’s book (as well as the subsequent movie from December 2014 starring Reese Witherspoon) has inspired thousands more people to attempt the PCT, many without any more preparation (or less) that Strayed had invested, and many with much the same results or far less success. At least she made it the whole way. Many don’t. As lots of women discover, hiking solo on through routes can get you a great deal of derision, abuse, sexual assaults or worse. However these women weren’t even willing to acknowledge Strayed’s guts in taking on the journey. They were tearing the young woman apart for not knowing better.
Was Strayed so stupid?
Oh, I can give you stupid. I can give you unprepared. As a 68-year-old adventure traveler, I heard these women’s remarks in the context of someone who had done much the same or worse than Strayed. As I was reading her book, the parts that made me hoot the hardest were those that reminded me of the same kinds of mistakes I’d made in 1983 when I had decided to walk the entire coast of Australia by myself. Of such hubris, stupidity and monumental lack of reality checks, great adventures are made.
Or, you die.
In 1983, I was laid off from what was then Martin Marietta Aerospace. Armed with a handful of cash for my trouble, and with a free promotional trip via United Mileage Plus to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, I told all my lobbyist buddies that I was going to throw a backpack on my back and hike around the entire country. Um, YAH. Like many, many others I had no clue how big the “entire country” of Australia actually was. Such claims are greeted with deep amusement by Aussies who work in the consulate, and who receive inquiries like mine. I was full of myself, with the total confidence of the clueless in what I was about to do.
Of course we didn’t have the Internet back then. Research was a completely different experience, and it took harder work. Consumed by the idea of this epic journey I set to with all the enthusiasm of the woefully ignorant and uninformed.
REI was my store of choice, and like Strayed I bought one of everything. Not only that, I bought one of anything and everything that caught my eye. One prime example was a tiny device the size of a quarter which lit up from behind with the push of a button. It displayed maps. I thought this was a terrific idea, so I bought one. The only problem was that the only maps it displayed were for Yellowstone National Park, which isn’t precisely handy when trekking the South Island of New Zealand.
You get my drift. When experienced hikers cut the handle off their toothbrushes to reduce weight, you can see where this was going. If I could have packed the kitchen sink, I’d have found a way. I did, in fact, have a folding portable one which made it four years and untold miles without ever seeing a single drop of water.
Chances are I had about 35 pounds of “this might come in handy at some point.” Most of it never did.
By the time I finished loading my enormous Gregory backpack, it weighed nearly eighty pounds. Not only was I unprepared for that kind of weight, I had no idea what would happen when I attempted to get it on my back and then start walking. Especially uphill. Especially in the Rockies, where I was bound and determined to do a pre-trip practice run.
In September of 1983, I planned a weekend in the high country to test out all my fancy new gear, including a tiny telescoping fishing rod, candle lanterns to keep my tent lit at night and a whole host of other expensive camping items that were guaranteed to make me feel right at home. I drove up to the base of St. Mary’s Glacier, not far west of Denver, parked. It took me fifteen minutes of struggling to get that pack on my back. My knees sagged and my back shrieked.
My whole body shouted WTF? Excellent question.
So loaded I began my slow march straight uphill.
I simply wasn’t prepared for how hard that would be. Each step was an agony of effort, especially at altitude. So when I reached a green spot by the side of the road and noticed wild raspberries growing in abundance, I figured this was perfect excuse to rest, while picking a few for my evening’s dessert.
I had been walking for all of fifteen minutes.
Because it had taken so much effort to get my pack on in the first place, I decided not to remove it. But I had to have those juicy, ripe berries.
The second I leaned over to start collecting, the massive weight of my pack shifted downhill and I promptly whipped over sideways. That was bad enough. But then I began sliding rapidly and uncontrollably down the same steep hill I’d just spent so much time climbing. I grasped crazily for anything to halt my slide, picking up speed, until I slammed to a molar-jarring stop against a big boulder. I was on my back, legs and arms waving in the air like an upended turtle. Red-faced and cursing, I struggled to right myself. I couldn’t.
Jeez, how embarrassing.
As I lay there in the bright September sunshine, the brilliant blue skies overhead, I looked around to see if anyone had seen. I was more worried about making an ass out of myself than anything else. Then I looked at what the boulder had done: it was situated right on a hairpin turn, and had prevented me from going sailing over the edge of the clay road out into space, with nothing to stop me for a long, long time.
Satisfied nobody was about, I released myself from the enormous pack, then set to the process of getting the damned thing loaded on my back again. It took nearly half an hour to haul the bag to a properly-sized rock, then wrestle it to the top, then get that leviathan on my aching spine.
I’d barely been gone two hours from the house and I was already filthy, exhausted, and ready to go home. But I didn’t.
Berries picked, the pack secured, now covered with clay dust and grass stains, I continued my hike upwards. I was undaunted.
By the time I made it to my campsite, which was situated next to a lively trout stream, it was damned near nighttime. I barely had time to set up the tent before nightfall. When you’re at treeline in the Rockies, especially once August has passed, it gets cold terrifyingly fast. In no time my one-man Marmot tent was set up, the candle lanterns lit, and I was eyeballing my Yellowstone National Park maps in my sleeping bag.
An hour later, I woke up with a full bladder. The candle lanterns had just burned out. My feet were freezing. I sat up suddenly, knocking the candle lanterns in all directions. Somehow I had broken the two-way zipper on my down bag. Not only did I have to find a way to repair it in the dark but I also had to get outside to pee. After all, I’d had five hot chocolates right after dinner. As I thrashed around in my tent trying to find my flashlight, I felt my head hit the candle lanterns repeatedly. Finally I located my torch, unzipped the tent and padded around in my stocking feet to find a suitable spot.
And stepped right in the freezing cold water of the stream.
Now I can’t speak for anyone else. I already suffer from cold hands and feet, but stepping into the snow-fed waters of a high altitude stream will startle the hell out of anyone, especially when you’re trying to find your way around in the dark. Now I had freezing feet, a broken zipper, and I had to find a repair kit in a hurry or I’d be in trouble.
It took me at least an hour to cobble together the zipper. I of course had a repair kit (I had absolutely EVERYTHING in that eighty-pound bag). However finding that kit in the dark of night with the candle lanterns out was another thing entirely.
When I finally finished my zipper repair job, I settled back into my sleeping bag after changing my socks, my feet freezing still, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up to birds and the sweet sussuration of winds in the high pines. I sat up and ran my hands through my long hair.
Or tried. All over my noggin I encountered solid masses of hardened wax, the result of having repeatedly collided with the still-warm candle lanterns. In fact, my hair was solidly matted with dense patches of cold, hard, impenetrable wax.
I won’t even tell you what my sleeping bag looked like, nor all the other gear that had gotten sprayed.
After I made myself a breakfast of oatmeal and eggs, I found a spot on a nearby rock. Three hours later I was still slowly removing wads of wax, woven into long strands of dark brown hair. It hurt.
Once I’d gotten most of the mass out of my mop I decided to give my expensive, brand new telescoping fish rod a try. I baited the hook and set it in the stream. Trout curved quietly in the eddies. One big bastard in particular, whose ragged fins marked him a survivor of many winters. He ignored my bait, as did the other trout. We all waited in silence, staring balefully at one another.
Suddenly inspired, I snuck up on the old trout, keeping my shadow out of his view. Acting on a whim, I slipped my left hand under his belly, and with a sudden motion tossed the terrified trout onto the grass.
Both of us were caught completely off guard. I was so excited that I fell into the stream, which is where the trout badly wanted to return. My nice, dry, thick, warm hiking boots were now soaking wet. The icy cold water sent me flying back ashore where the old trout was leaping and flopping in a mad attempt to get back to where I’d just exited. I barely caught him in time. He was dinner.
My shoes were toast. I dumped the water out and set them on a sunny rock to dry. Having no backup shoes, I was now barefoot for the rest of the afternoon.
The hell with the fishing rod, which had cost me hundreds of dollars. Trout tickling (I didn’t know there was such a thing until much later) was a lot easier, and besides, it made a much better tale. After I’d secured my still-swimming dinner I set about walking the area in the warmth of the early afternoon. I stumbled on Porcini mushrooms, which were in early fall abundance. These are edible (I didn’t necessarily know that at the time, but I assumed so, which was monumentally stupid on my part). I picked several armloads.
That night I cooked my trout and the Porcini mushrooms in butter, and had the raspberries for dessert. I ate buttery mushrooms until my tummy was almost painfully full. I felt like a true woodsman, eating the results of my hard work. The wild raspberries were delicious. I was supremely proud of myself, waxed hair, wet boots and all. I can find my own food, I thought with pride.
That night, after falling into a blissful sleep, I awoke to severe stomach cramps. It’s one thing to test a new food. It’s quite another to gorm so much of an alien delicacy that your whole body revolts. I almost didn’t make it out of the tent in time.
The rest of the moonlit night was punctuated by rapid fire sprints into the shadow-patterned woods nearby. I ran out of toilet paper. Of course I did.
You really don’t want to run out of toilet paper when you have the runs.
The other side effect of having to make repeated trips into the woods was that I invited an army of mosquitoes into my tent, which took full advantage of every bit of exposed skin. When I finally crawled out of my bag exhausted the next morning my face and arms were covered with itchy, angry, bright red mounds.
The Great Woodswoman, indeed.
My shoes were still wet. My gut was on fire. I was out of toilet paper. My pack was relieved of only a few ounces of water and food, so the trip back down the mountain was just as hard. Only this time, I had to stop repeatedly to relieve myself of the previous night’s mushrooms and raspberries, which were just as eager to leave my body as I was to get to a proper bathroom facility.
Note to self: do not try to go potty with a 78-lb pack on. You will fall over.
Bitten, bruised, embarrassed and thoroughly humbled, I stumbled back to my car for the short drive home.
I know precisely how Cheryl Strayed felt.
Which is why I enjoyed her book so much. I’m with you, sister.
The trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, which began with a serious thigh injury which put all hopes of walking anywhere to bed for good, was a sheep dip in deep humility. This is a very good thing. When faced with insurmountable odds, you either learn to problem solve very effectively, and work with what you have, or you die. Or get injured. Of course people get hurt. Of course they expire. Nature has a way of getting rid of morons who climb massive mountains in their Keds and cotton shirts. Or who think that taking their iPhones guarantees a swift rescue. However, She also puts into our laps opportunities to discover who we can be, what we can do, and how well we can problem solve in the wild. Such is the learning arc. I’ve been on it. Still am. It never stops. However, if we survive that first outing, we are remarkably better prepared for the next.
Strayed’s story, which so deeply offended my outdoor women friends, was to me a sweet reminder of our innocence and hopes any time we begin a great endeavor. While I can understand the dripping disrespect these talented women had for her relative ignorance, the truth is that they themselves may wish to forget the mistakes they made on their first backpacking trip. The dumb mistakes on a first ascent or crack crawl. We all do it. We have to. For without those mistakes, we don’t understand or respect our vulnerability. That leads to arrogance, and arrogance leads to disregard of real dangers. Arrogance kills.
Strayed made it to the very end of those parts she committed to, all in one piece. I spent four years hitching around three countries, learning to fly ultralights, diving the Great Barrier Reef, and pushing my boundaries. I made massive, ridiculous, laughable mistakes. Mistakes I rarely make any more. Without them I would have no competence today, nor would I have a slew of screw-up stories.
Truth is I still screw up regularly. My feeling about those blunders today is a little different. I frankly don’t care if anyone sees me — that’s someone I can laugh with. Perhaps this is the benefit of age and perspective. However, life-threatening conditions on multiple occasions have taught me that humor is life’s best weapon against mind-numbing fear. I have been upside down in a kayak in ice cold water more than once. I’m flat-out terrified of drowning. But I recall distinctly thinking, with remarkable calm, “Well, this SUCKS. Hm. Cold water. Fast rapids. Rocks ahead. Huh. Well I better get the f*ck out of here, ya think?” In seconds I was bobbing on the surface, my kayaking buddies helping snag my boat. I was laughing.
The rigidity of our need to do it right the first time, every time in a culture that values perfection and performance and ridicules mistakes and failures is a recipe for disaster. Strayed’s book was a fine reminder to me that we all begin where we are. We will fall. We will fail. We will falter, which reminds me of my favorite Enya song, Book of Days. And in doing so, we grow.
Strayed wasn’t stupid. She was ignorant, as are we all when we start out. Nothing wrong with that at all. What is wrong is never trying, never starting out, and never giving ourselves permission to laugh at our mistakes.
I salute the Cheryl Strayeds of the world. At least they try, and that’s more than I can say for many of us. The more permission I give myself to fall, the easier the landing, and the faster I get up. At any age.