With the benefit of a great year of hiking and camping in my rearview mirror, I am getting ready for a new one full of whatever adventures come my way in 2020 and the people I meet along the path and around the campfire. As such, I’ve been doing a little winter reading through the Holidays and the first week of January. This post is about a few of these volumes.
Pete Fromm’s book “The Names of the Stars” which struck a particularly deep chord with me. While he chose to continue down the path I started in my late teens and early 20’s by studying forestry and spending a ton of time doing outdoor pursuits, I ended up coming out and following an entirely different track. Pete, however, details a full life of what it’s like to be married, have kids, go through the divorce, all while maintaining a strictly outdoor lifestyle. Hunting for US Forestry department jobs or things like monitoring salmon re-population egg collections in mountain streams through the winter by himself. He paints a long term day to day picture of things that I, now, only visit for days or weeks at a time. Knowing where the bears are, watching the wildlife outside of his base camp, taking care of fish from eggs to hatching in a wild stream. Showering outdoors in the rain, because he was totally by himself, and, well, why the Hell not get that close to nature anyway after all? He closes the book with many personal reflections, emotional information about how his sons drove him, even while apart, on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, making him feel both alone and not alone. I think I related to him most, however, when he recounts his heart attack. That and the fact that he was speaking with his Dr and said something like none of his mountain climbing, swimming or healthy living amounted to much if this happened to him. His Dr counters and says that he would probably be dead without the author’s mountains. For a book I was not expecting much out of, this one is going to be with me like an old friend for a very long time.
Another book is a copy of “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips,” by Mike Clelland, which I have had on my shelf for a few months now, and I decided to pick it up for some light reading. While I have no illusions of going the UL route, I definitely picked up some outdoors wisdom from this guy on ways to rethink how I pack my backpack for hiking. My base weight comes in somewhere between 17 to 20 pounds on most of my trips, and I’ve done things like adopting trail runners versus heavier boots, picked up a trekking pole tent, thanks to a friend of mine in 2019, which has dramatically reduced my shelter weight and pack size.
Clelland illustrates the book himself with comical drawings that are actually quite good while breaking things down into numbered topics. The ones I loved best as follows. 31) “What does ‘in camp’ really mean?” The idea here is that the UL folks view the trail as the destination as opposed to the traditional backpacker or car camper seeing a decked out campsite with various kinds of amenities as camp. 32) “Be present on the trail.” Yeah, this spoke to a couple of my other book choices which I will cover shortly. 41) “Have a go box ready.” I read something in Esquire Magazine a few years back that every man should have a tent and a sleeping bag ready to go at all times. Same idea here. 70) “Eat dinner on the trail.” This is pretty sound advice and lends itself well to what an AT through hiker taught me this year about not needing a stove of hot meals while backpacking. Just bring food in bags that you can eat cold or on the go. The idea being it reduces your pack weight, complexity and potentially enhances your experience by being just a little more straightforward. 95) “It’s OK to sleep under the stars.” Totally my wheelhouse as two of my three tents have mesh tops which are great when you are not using the rain fly. That said, one of my goals this year is to get more comfortable with cowboy camping. Meaning, no tent or shelter at all. Well, maybe a tarp if it’s raining. But yeah, if you are going to be outdoors. Be outdoors.
Back to Clelland’s point 32) “Be present on the trail.” There was a skinny book that an AHA Support Network member recommended to me called “How to Walk,” Thich Nhat Hanh. And while very short and very simple, reminded me of “Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind,” Sakyong Mipham which I read a couple of years back. Next, I started, and am still reading “The Mind Illuminated,” John Yates, Matthew Immergut. This one was a gift I got from one of my co-workers who is actively building his own meditation practice. I skimmed through this rather robust volume and was intrigued by the section on walking meditation so I started there first. Most meditation, at least in the beginner levels where I live, focuses on the breath. Bringing the practitioner back and forth between the chaos of the mind and the automatic function of breathing as the anchor. In walking meditation, the anchor becomes your footsteps. Or the various movement functions of the body. I could have used this idea while struggling harder than I ever have before in climbing up to Spence Field, Rocky Top, and Thunderhead peaks in the Smoky Mountains last year for sure.
Lastly, my time spent hiking with some friends in Kentucky last year, including the Red River Gorge and Big South Fork to Yahoo Falls, gave me a deep appreciation for our neighboring state. So I bought a copy of “50 Hikes in Kentucky,” Hiram Rogers. As I plan to do as much hiking and backpacking as I can using any available off time I have, including weekends, trips under four hours are definitely a plus. Being within a 3 & ½ hour period away from home, areas in Kentucky fit perfectly here and offer a broader range of geological and forested options to immerse oneself. This is a hiking region recommendation wrapped inside a book recommendation. See what I did there?
Once upon a time, my hobby was tech. Programming. Data and visual representation of it. These days, it’s all about being outdoors and, probably more to the heart of the matter, being present. That last thing requires practice and dedication of focus. Hiking has helped me greatly with that and with working through my anxiety and depression issues post-heart-attack.
To close, I hope this strikes a chord with someone and helps them to get outdoors. Even if it’s just to a metro park to sit on a bench surrounded by trees for 20 minutes. That’s enough. You don’t need to climb up a damn mountain or shower naked in a summer rainstorm. Just immerse yourself among some trees and listen to your breathing while treating yourself to a moment of clarity.