As I walked in a staggered single-file line on a mountaintop that parted clouds, in 40 mph sustained winds, 6200 feet in the air, I had to remind myself … I chose this. I wanted this. Sure, I hadn’t predicted the slicing windburn or grueling physicality of it all, but I made a thousand tiny decisions that put me right here on this trail, on this mountain, on this walk. And truthfully, coming out on the other side of it, it was worth every, single, step.
I’ve had a legit hiking excursion on my bucket list since about halfway through the pages of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild“. When I read it, I was a fairly new mom, in my late 20s, and the whole idea – from the balls it took to the peace it promised – just lit me up inside. For many, including the majority of my friends, the thought of spending any amount of time isolated in nature with nothing but a bag of dehydrated noodles and your thoughts is more of a nightmare than a vacation (“Where will you poop?” “But, can you have cocktails?” “What do you mean, mice?”), but for whatever reason, it whispered to me relentlessly over the years. Somehow, likely by drowning him in my insistence, I convinced my husband to spend a handful of our precious, too-few vacation days on the Appalachian Trail chasing down our inner, zenful mountain personas.
While I might have talked him into going, I had no idea how to coordinate the logistics of such a thing. Sure, I’d been bitten by the wanderlust bug and could speak in the most romantic way about how the hills were calling and what would happen to our souls once we completely unplugged, but honestly, I’m worth shit when it comes to navigation. So, around Christmas, I began researching group adventure packages through various outdoor retailers. When I asked my brother’s friend, a backpacking enthusiast, for his opinion, he offered to organize a trip in the spring. We would leave on a Saturday, hike for 4 days, and be home by Thursday afternoon. It would be the perfect experience for two people looking to dip their big toes into the intimidating backpacking stream.
I want to tell you all about our adventure. Every character. Every victory. Every failure. Every elevation. How I came to be called Biscuits. But it’s going to take time and a little thought collecting. I’ll kick things off with a bit about the preparation.
A bit about packing
When I was a junior in high school, my best friend Jenn invited me to join her family for Spring Break in Naples, Florida. The trip would mark only the second time I’d ever been on an airplane, an endeavor I found to be synonymous with rolling luggage. Because of this, I begged my mom to let me borrow her large canvas suitcase. Completely naive to the fact that we were actually headed for the retirement capital of the world and would not see a single person even close to our age for five consecutive days, I spent weeks curating the perfect Old Navy wardrobe for the trip. I would be prepared, with figure-flattering ensembles for oceanside bonfires and straw strappy wedges. By departure day, I had filled that generously sized suitcase till the zippers were bulging. I threw it in my Z24 and sped off to Jenn’s house. When I arrived, her dad, Freddie, a true blowhard from Boston with the kind of accent that naturally insinuates annoyance and impatience in all instances (except when he spoke to his golden retriever), was in the driveway loading up the car. “Cauwtney … ya bag in ya ca?” I nodded proudly and started toward the house. I heard an exasperated grunt and two plastic wheels hit pavement behind me. “Jeeezus!” Freddie strained. “Cauwtney, ya gotta body in here or what?” His grievances were confirmed and my humiliation rapidly swelled when my suitcase earned a caution-orange sticker with the word “Heavy” repeating over and over at the checkin counter. I’ll never forget the sight of my shameful bag with the obnoxious tape coming down the carousel and the snickering reception it received from Jenn’s family. To this day, her dad still gives me shit about that damn suitcase. I can only say this: I’ve always been a worrier. And I’ve always been an over-packer. Perhaps the explanation is in there somewhere.
So, four months ago, when Hank and I decided to go on this backpacking trip, I immediately began researching how the pros get it done.
The amount of information available to one hoping to pursue a hobby like hiking is plentiful and often contradictory. A quick Pinterest search or Google spray and pray gives hundreds of posts (much like the one I am writing right now) and reviews and suggestions. With something like backpacking, you’re talking about countless variables for each person. You have to consider the elements, the individual, the landscape … So, when I’m comparing sleeping bags or raincoats or water filtration systems, it can be tough to find an insightful voice among all the noise. I was lucky to have some experienced acquaintances and a bulging blog roll in my Feedly.
With a growing wish list, we asked for REI gift cards exclusively for the holidays and made a trip down to the closest location a few weeks before we left. There, I was fitted for my pack by a gentleman who looked much like a young Andrew Keegan (a la 10 Things I Hate About You) with hair grazing his shoulders. I made a few trips around the sales floor and decided the Dueter was it for me. We picked up some base layers and down jackets and the rest would be purchased by a click of the mouse. Amazon was our best friend, as every stranger’s blog post revealed an accessory we had to add to our arsenal.
It seemed the weeks were long but the months were short, and before we knew it we were standing over a room full of gear and grub making some serious decisions about what would come and what wouldn’t make the cut. With one modest backpack and an extensive packing list, contending thoughts of running out of TP on a brisk mountain morning and the ghost of the orange caution tape of ’99 wrestled in my frantic mind. To forget something life-saving, like my hot cocoa packets, would be devastating, but carrying too much would be humiliating. Our food alone took up an entire coffee table. I was beginning to doubt my inner Cheryl.
The night before we left, Hank and I were up until 2 a.m. eliminating items and condensing our piles. Once we identified what would be our essentials, we began the actual assigning of said items to pockets and pouches. Moving Martha Stewart’s entire house is less stressful than filling a backpack when you’ve never done it before. I had coffee cups strapped to sleeping bags adhered to a trucker’s cap. My pack was a steaming hot mess. There was no denying it. “Just bring it all and we’ll sort it out at the hostel” my brother’s friend said. “No judgement. I won’t laugh. Just bring it all.”
The next morning, me, my brother and Hank threw everything in the cab of Matt’s truck and made the smooth, beautiful ride eight hours south to the Mountain Harbour Hiker Hostel in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. The rest of our party had already arrived, so I hauled my mismanaged Dueter up the steps to the rustic sleeping quarters. I opened the door and saw 3 young guys I didn’t recognize sitting on a couch watching a VHS tape of The Fugitive. I made an awkward comment about being in the wrong place, turned and went back down the stairs. Turns out, I was in the right place. Lesson No. 1: On the trail, strangers are just roommates you haven’t met yet.
I entered the hostel a second time – this go-around I acted like a badass fresh off a 20-miler – and threw my weighty pack on the ground. Soon I was in the thick of a crash course in hiker packing. “Court, do you really need an entire tin of bag balm?” “You might have, like, 3 extra lunches.” And the nail in the coffin that solidified my amateur status, “So … creamer packets, huh? And exactly how many creamers do you put in your coffee each morning? And you want to carry them in the box, do ya?” [Laughter] I felt my cheeks turn cherry as my stack of items to leave behind piled up. Aside from my laughable luxuries, my organizational issues were resolved with a “keep it simple stupid” mindset. All I needed in the end was a stuff sack for food, a stuff sack for clothes and my sleeping bag in the front pocket. Sure I had new underwear for every day – a luxury to most on the trail – but fresh skivvies made me feel human. So, he let me keep them. Maybe I had mildly scented Burt’s Bees facial cleansing wipes, but once I purged a few creamers and stuffed my sacks, I had the room. So, he let me keep them. Here’s what went on with me in the end* …
*It’s important to note here that my husband and I were able to divide our load a bit. He took the water purifier, 2-person tent, pain meds and part of the food, as well as his own necessities. What can I say? Sharing is caring.
The system was simple: Rain gear and sleeping bag in the bottom zip compartment. Stuff sack with clothes in the bottom of the main compartment, with the stuff sack containing food on top of that. Head lamp, toiletries and any food I needed during the day on the trail were stored in the very top zipper compartment. Water bottles and down jacket (when removed) on the sides and my sleeping mat rolled and fastened to the front. Bing. Bang. Boom.
Oh, and p.s. As we all huddled around our mugs of Maxwell House the morning we headed out, guess what was the hot commodity … What all the fellas were begging for … That’s right … Mama’s creamers, baby.