Bootstrapping (A backpacking story)


Bootstrap, v. : To make use of existing resources or capabilities to raise (oneself) to a new situation or state; to modify or improve by making use of what is already present. 


The kid looked about 16.  He was shouldering a large backpack, the kind that’s probably 6 pounds when empty, the same kind I ditched a month into our trip when I realized that it sometimes pays to be a weight weenie.  He had a second pack as well, a school book bag strapped to his shoulders in the opposite direction.  It hung across his chest like an awkward pregnancy.

My boyfriend, Josh, and I passed him on the trail, hiking in the opposite direction.  We exchanged the usual greetings.  “Nice day!  Where are you going?”  To which he replied, “I’m going to climb Mount Whitney!”  His smile was all enthusiasm, and he moved up the trail away from us with the confidence of a person who doesn’t have a mirror and doesn’t need one.  Ahead of him lay 190 or so miles, nine passes ranging from 10,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation, and the 14,505-foot Whitney itself.  As the kid walked, his sleeping pad, a long tube tied loosely to the bottom of his larger pack, swung and bounced against the backs of his knees.  I’ll never know for sure, but I hope he managed to reach his planned destination.

It was June of 2009, and on the day of this encounter Josh and I were making our way north through Yosemite National Park.  We were through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and thus far we had covered about 900 miles.  The distance had shaped us, both mentally and physically.  We were strong and sleek, smug and young, dirty and always hungry – Hungry for more food, and hungry to see more of the West.  It was becoming easier to hike twenty-plus miles a day, and it felt natural to go to sleep in a tent every night.  Despite this, I was no different than the kid with the two backpacks, and if you had seen me six years ago, you probably would not have thought much of my chances, either.

For me it began with a soft-shell cooler, a poncho, a MacGuyver-like trust in the magical properties of duct tape, and an ad in the classifieds.  “Tent for sale,” the ad said.

When I first moved to Scotland in 2003 I had never been backpacking, but I had been camping, and I loved to walk.  It was a transition period in my life.  My job near Edinburgh was less important than the fact that it allowed me to live somewhere entirely new.  The work contract was for seven months, and I had allowed myself this length of time to make a decision about my education.  Should I take my art degree and move out into the working world?  Or should I return to school and pursue a different course of study?

None of these big life questions were weighing on my mind when I wandered into the town of Dunbar one sunny afternoon.  I was out for a weekend walk, and right then I wanted to buy a cheese roll.  As I roamed the shop fronts I was surprised to discover a museum dedicated to the memory of John Muir.  Having grown up in the American West, and in particular having spent six years of my childhood in California, I did know who Muir was: one of America’s most-loved naturalist-writers, the man who founded the Sierra Club, and who was a leading driver behind the creation of California’s Yosemite National Park.  Dunbar was his birthplace, and it was the place he spent the first eleven years of his life.  As I left the little town and its museum I felt as though I was not so far away from home after all.

Sometime after my Dunbar hike, I was surfing the internet and found a web-link to an organization called the John Muir Trust.  The JMT does conservation work on a number of properties throughout Scotland.  Poking around the site, I was excited to see a list of ‘Conservation Work Parties’ and a call for volunteers.  “What fun!” I thought.  I signed up for my first backpacking trip, a mountain ringlet butterfly monitoring expedition to Glen Nevis.  And I started searching the classified ads for outdoor gear.

In preparation for the actual trip, I decided to test out my new tent one weekend at a developed campground, setting up on a patch of manicured green lawn next to a building that sold candy bars and soft drinks.  The night was windy and my tent shook so loudly that it was a long time before I was able to fall asleep.  In the morning the tent was still standing and the wind had stopped.  I considered the trial a success.

The one thing lacking on my tent was a rainfly.  I had considered this already.  With me I had several lengths of string, a roll of duct tape, and some large, heavy duty plastic garbage sacks.  I taped several of the sacks together until I had a square of plastic big enough to drape over my tent, and attached one string to each corner of the plastic square.  The strings could be tied to the tent poles at each corner of my tent, creating a rainfly.  I felt very thrifty.

When the Volunteer Work Party Weekend finally came around, I discovered to my dismay that my food, clothing and other gear did not fit into my new pack like I had previously assumed it would.  The biggest problem was my sleeping bag.  Also a purchase from the classified ads, it was a fluffy cotton cylinder with a girth similar to my own and a height of about two feet.  It had been designed for the use of extra house-guests, not for backpackers.  I shoved the sleeping bag into my backpack anyway.  I was able to fit a few other things in the pack around it, but not my food.  Thinking quickly, I threw the food into a soft-shell cooler.  It was time to go. 

An elderly couple gave me a lift to the Glen Nevis Trailhead.  When we arrived it was pouring rain.  Not drizzling, but pouring.  I pulled my poncho out of my pack, and we started up the trail.  In retrospect I know how strange a sight I must have been:  the large backpack, the cooler slung over my shoulder that bumped my thigh as I walked, my poncho flapping around in the wind and making me look like a giant green bat.  At the time I could only pull my poncho tighter, gasp for breath, and attempt to keep up with my white-haired hosts.   I was not in shape for this.

In part due to my slow pace, we arrived at the group campsite around the side of the mountain just in time to pitch our tents before dark.  Though it was a relief to be done with the hill climb for the evening, I was beginning to doubt the soundness of my gear and planning.  I set up my tent as rapidly as possible, trying to keep my things dry.  The attempt was not very successful.  In addition, my newly erected tent was listing at an odd angle, looking as though it was about to cave in.  I crawled in and sat on my soggy cotton sleeping bag.  Eating potato chips by the glow of a handheld flashlight, I listened to the increasingly violent flapping sounds of my rainfly coming apart at its duct-tape seams.

I will always think well of the name Sandy Maxwell after that weekend.  Sandy, our trip leader, was making his way around the tents to check on the new arrivals just as my own shelter was beginning to disintegrate.  I don’t remember what I said when he reached me, but I suppose my situation didn’t need much explanation.  Sandy told me that there was another empty tent, left by a couple who had arrived earlier in the day.  They had discovered a rip in their rainfly soon enough to retreat back down the mountain, and were currently staying at a hostel.  Both to my relief and extreme embarrassment, Sandy offered me the use of his tent and sleeping bag.  He himself slept in the ripped tent, and by all accounts had a very frigid night.

In the morning the sky was a steely shade of grey, but it was no longer raining.  Around our camp circle the mountain was really visible for the first time.  Ephemeral waterfalls were streaming down the rock faces opposite us, looking like silver threads.  I found Sandy Maxwell sitting on the ground, cooking breakfast meat on a camp stove.  “Do you want to stay for the rest of the weekend?” he asked me.

I looked over at the tent I had packed up the mountain.  It was sitting lopsided on the turf, plastic garbage sacks dangling here and there from the tent poles.  “I’m obviously not prepared for this trip,” I said.

“That’s not what I asked.  Do you want to stay?”

I swallowed my embarrassment, and the words came out.  “Yes,” I said, “I do.”

“So,” replied Sandy.  “We’ll make it work.”

It turned out to be a wonderful weekend.  The weather remained cold and grey that first day, and there weren’t any butterflies out, so our group just went on a hike.  Everybody seemed to know something about the landscape around us.  One man talked about the geology of the mountain.  A retired biology teacher pointed out the various plants.  I felt as though, having walked into an empty room, I had suddenly discovered it to be full of people and activity.  On Sunday it was warm, and the sky was the color of a bluebird’s back.  It was perfect for butterfly monitoring, and we saw hundreds of mountain ringlets that day. 

My trip to Glen Nevis did not, on its own, change the course of my entire future, but something in the attitude of the volunteers I met that weekend stayed with me.  These were people who chose to spend their free time wandering around mountain-sides in the freezing rain.  They were able to look at a landscape and see not just pretty pictures, but stories.

It takes time, mileage, and effort to improve a person’s backpacking skills.  Even though I was bailed out of a bad situation on my first trip, I still had to learn how to backpack and figure out my gear.  This is something I did over the course of several years, and I would be the object of curious stares on the trail more than once.

Hiking into John Muir’s Yosemite in 2009, I could look around and recognize the faces of familiar plants, could say something about why this one grew over here but not over there.  As I walked, I also looked at the people we met on the trail.  It was the backpackers I liked to watch best – That determined variety of human for whom no pleasure is greater than that of walking out into the quiet corners of the world with the elements of civilization strapped to their backs.  The families made me smile.  The little kids were dressed in their REI best, and looked like small versions of their parents.  They were learning the rules early.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was the teenager with the ridiculous backpacks, aiming for Mount Whitney.  When Josh and I passed him on the trail, I could have said something to him about his gear, but I didn’t.  There’s another kind of education in life, the kind in which we step out alone into the big wide world with nothing more than a load of untested ideas and a desire for adventure.

“Good luck!”  Josh and I called to the kid as he moved away up the trail.  He would figure it out for himself.