And the “disaster” was not a too-heavy or ill-fitting pack or some other classic rite of passage. Just wait…
(Gear lists and nerd talk coming soon!)
We got a late start due to a group hike I had to lead that morning. I came home and my partner, Brie, and I packed our bags from the organized piles I’d made the day before. Everything gone over twice, three times. There was no doubt in my mind I was ready. There was now just the Doing It. We carefully distributed everything and weighed our packs to make sure we were carrying equal weight. Our pack weight with full water and food came to just under 29 pounds each. According to the internet this was good, but damn, it felt heavy!
It was pouring rain and wasn’t supposed to let up until early morning. I know going backpacking for the first time in the rain is a bad idea. I know. I also know I scheduled this trip over a month prior because it was my only free weekend in sight. Brie was excited about the trip, but having a lot of second thoughts because of weather. Our compromise was that we’d only hike about two miles in and set up camp so we could wake up the next day already out and be able to have a bigger day.
We picked one of our favorite trails, the Salmon River Trail. It’s only an hour from home and from our many day hikes, we knew there were tons of beautiful camping spots and water sources all over. It was comforting, no need for scarcity.
As we approached the trailhead, we ran into a strange couple asking too many questions. I couldn’t tell if they were shaming us for only going in a couple of miles or if they wanted to know where we were going so they could murder us. In that two miles to our first spot, they passed us back and forth multiple times and always kind of looked at each other and laughed every time. What the hell was going on? Why were they going back and forth? It was creepy and weird.
At first, I was surprised at how easy it was. I knew it wasn’t time to congratulate myself on how doable it was and how great my pack felt, but I did feel good. My steps felt heavier, but there was no fear of not being able. This is big for me.
We got to our chosen spot, passing no other campers (another clue backpacking in the rain is dumb), and set up our stuff. Our clothes were drenched despite the thick forest canopy, but the contents of our bags were dry. We were doing it right! It was our first time using our new tent aside from practicing inside. We got a new one because the “two-person” backpacking tent a friend of mine generously handed down to me was perfect for just me, but not for us both. Fun fact: “two-person” ultralight tents are more like a one-person tent if you’re bigger than 200 pounds. Despite all of my research, when we got the new tent, I realized I’d made a mistake not paying attention to the square footage. Turns out, a three-person tent from REI actually does fit three people. Despite its chill five pounds, it was HUGE. I felt embarrassed, like ugh, folks are gonna read the hell out of me for having this big-ass tent. That is, until we set it up after hiking in the pouring rain. The extra space was a welcome respite and Brie and I both need a lot of personal space. I loved it! Everyone has their non-essential comforts for backpacking. A bigger tent is now one of mine.
We set up our stuff quickly and read and played games. In just one evening, I could already see small things I didn’t need that might cut down on pack weight. Everything you bring matters if you look at it all as ounces. Example, I brought the game Dutch Blitz which involves one 40-card deck per player and I brought the whole game containing four decks even though it was just us. I also brought some scarcity things like too much food and a whole roll of toilet paper, even though, um, I couldn’t go through a whole roll of toilet paper at home in two days, why would I here? It’s all learning.
I was excited to use my little ultralight stove in the vestibule (covered patio-ish part of the tent) for the first time. The little solid alcohol cubes are smokeless, but smell really bad. I think I’m going to figure out how to switch it over to denatured alcohol. We shared a Mountain House dehydrated meal (lasagna), which was adorably fun. The rain continued to loudly fall as we went to bed. I was a little afraid the clear skies forecasted for the next couple of days seemed too good to be true.
I woke up a few times throughout the night. I always find the first night on the ground to be the roughest, but also the inflatable pillow I bought kept deflating. Brie’s wasn’t, though. Not fair! My new sleeping bag was incredible and actually zipped up around my big beautiful bod.
We awoke to sunbeams filtering through ancient doug firs and dreamy moss. No rain.
Even though we were having a soft start to this journey, it was already very apparent to me how hard thru-hiking must be. Our fly was covered in rain and we didn’t know what to do about it. Are you supposed to just shake things out and pray you’ll be able to dry it completely later? What do you do when you can’t properly dry your stuff for more than a day? That would get to my head really fast. When you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re doing it anyway: The Jenny Bruso story. Also, I’m amazed by folks who plan a thru-hike without any backpacking practice. Even just packing my bag, despite how many boring youtube videos I watched and articles I read, feels so hard to figure out, but I know it’s all stuff that will only fall into place the more I do it. There were already moments I was stoked I’ve read so many thru-hiking blogs and moments I wished I hadn’t read so many. Admittedly, every tiny misstep, if you can even call them that, made me think about what people online would say and that is a really weird mindset I wish I wasn’t in touch with. And truly, it’s not simply based on insecurity. Gear posts and outdoor stuff is so heavily scrutinized and criticized on social media. Outdoorspeople are bizarrely competitive about things that don’t matter.
Brie, eager to use the stove (it’s so weird and cute!), made us coffee as I packed and repacked my things and prepared for the day. I made us breakfast (oatmeal, peanut butter powder, dried cherries) and we moved our wet tent and tarp around in the moving patches of sunlight. The sky was bright blue, with few clouds, and everything in the forest was neon, chlorophyll drunk. I was having fun, but it was the first moment I really felt the magic of it all. I’m out here. I’m doing this. And it doesn’t suck and I’m not bad at it. And I know I have everything I need.
I’ve wanted to backpack since I started hiking and camping about six years ago. There’s been a lot keeping me from it, but the financial barrier is definitely at the top. This stuff is gallingly expensive. Dropping hundreds of dollars on a TENT is just not something I feel like I can do and that is not to shame someone who can and wants to! We all have different priorities and I’m at a place now where backpacking and having good gear are becoming priorities to me, but I live paycheck to paycheck and I can’t ever rationalize spending that kind of money on anything but necessities. There are many ways to get gear without dropping hundreds, thousands of dollars, but even access to that information is tough. I only found out about gear libraries in the last year! Same with renting gear from shops.
Second to the financial issue, is being plus-size. I generally can’t walk into an outdoor retailer and assume I’ll find the right things for me that fit, so there’s all of these other layers of anxiety on top of it all. Like, maybe I would’ve made getting gear more of a priority if I felt like it was something I had any sort of access to, you know? Straight up, if I hadn’t gotten gear donations from many people and brands who saw some of my posts about it on social media, I still wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m wildly grateful.
With our tent dryish, we packed up our last things and hit the trail again, both of us very in need of water, but we knew we were near our first water source. We got to the creek and set out to use our Sawyer Squeeze for the first time for real as opposed to in our kitchen sink. We also had some back-up Aqua Mira just in case we felt sketchy, but the water was so clear and fast-moving like we were in a bottled water commercial. The Sawyer Squeeze is ridiculously easy to use, it feels almost suspicious. We started filling our bottles and the water tasted AMAZING. Brie, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure and used the Aqua Mira in addition to filtering, which made her water taste like tap water. The taste was strangely comforting.
We decided our only goal of the day was to go further than two miles and further on the trail than we’d ever gone for a day hike. Small goals, we’d have to hike out however far we’d hiked in before returning home tomorrow and we weren’t sure how our bodies were going to feel. Best to keep things realistic. I tend to set really large, absurdly unreachable goals and hold myself to them in ways that ruin the fun. It’s a good thing we did, because the next two miles took us more than an hour each. Still, I felt amazed at how able and capable I felt.
When we reached that first viewpoint, which is my usual turnaround point on a day hike, I felt this ecstatic happiness and gratitude to experience a place I know so well in a totally different way. And we’d be continuing on, seeing things I haven’t seen before! It’s the joy of it. I often say, “I want to see something new.”
Oh hey, remember how I said there was a disaster element? We’re getting there.
We took a long break. Brie even snoozed a bit. Her pack wasn’t feeling as great as mine, so things were a little bit more of a struggle for her. The day had gotten hot and we were already on our second bottle of water. We also really needed to eat. We were about a mile and a half from our next water source and planned to try to find a place to camp near there, so we could drop off our stuff first. We soon found a spot near a gorgeous meadow. Too hungry to get water immediately, I started making us lunch while Brie set up the tent. We were talking about how happy we were, how well we were doing. Making jokes about being real backpackers now. It felt so good. I was already hooked.
I called to Brie about lunch being ready. She came over and we started eating.
That’s when it happened.
A gust of wind.
Everything changed in a second.
Our tent blew over a cliff.
Yes, our tent blew over a cliff.
You read that correctly.
Brie got distracted by lunch and didn’t stake it or put anything inside. It was up for only minutes and then it was gone. We slept in it one time and it was gone.
I know it probably sounds funny at first, but please, imagine yourself in this situation. Hungry, tired, almost out of water, ridiculously happy about this new, amazing experience and how well it’s going. How many real successes we were having. Feeling like we get it! We understand backpacking! We’re backpackers!
And our tent just blew over a fucking cliff.
We could see it lodged between some trees, but it was a straight drop. In shock, we both tried thinking of ways to get it, but honestly it was crazy talk. There was no way.
An honest mistake, yes. Hell, I didn’t even make the mistake, but it didn’t matter. It felt like failure and my ego could not handle it. I was so sad, so angry, so fearful of how this would look. I am constantly fighting shame in my day-to-day life and I recognize that pattern isn’t my fault. It’s dominant culture, it’s my upbringing. So much guilt and shame about things that aren’t my fault and the things that have been my fault have nearly destroyed me. And when your brain thinks like this, it’s really easy to make almost anything your fault. I was thinking about how many people pay attention to what I say, about how they cheer me on. I was thinking about how the tent was a gift that meant so much to me and I’d have to reveal it blew over a fucking cliff on our second night. I was thinking about the irony of being a Groundskeeper for Granite Gear, picking up trash as I hike, and I just basically littered my tent. How the fuck am I going out like this on my first backpacking trip?!
And we’re more than five miles in from the trailhead, it’s about 5pm and some of our miles have taken more than an hour. Oh god.
It all felt like too much. Stunned disbelief, crying, repeat. Yes, I was mad at Brie, but I didn’t know what to feel. I could see what a simple, honest mistake it was. Possibly one I could make, too. I knew how horrified she was feeling and that in telling this story I’d have to say what she’d done. I didn’t want this to hurt her. In my still-racing mind, I definitely had some thoughts about not telling the truth. Not my style.
We packed up and got back on trail, not talking the first couple of miles. I was too beside myself to say anything that mattered. Still so mentally wounded by it all. At some point, Brie said it was her Cheryl Strayed boot moment and I still couldn’t laugh. We filtered only a liter of water knowing it would be all we’d need to get us back to our car. We hiked fast, almost as fast as if we had our daypacks, but also, we were a bit lighter now. The reality of it all sinking in with every footfall.
I knew I’d tell the truth, but I’d give myself time to process it all first. It was just a mistake, one that will never happen again. A: because we’ll never wait to stake a tent again and we’ll probably micromanage each other about it, and B: because well, we don’t have a tent anymore. Damn, this is about as Unlikely Hiker as it gets. Maybe I’m just being really loyal to the brand? Ugh, I still can’t even joke about it and yet I’m fully aware of how funny it is. I also knew it would be make a good story, which I find very annoying because obviously I’d rather succeed and not lose my beautiful, perfect tent, but here the hell I am and what can I do about it except be honest and possibly help even one person from this happening to them?
A mistake. A huge mistake, but also a lot of little successes. Brie pointed out how we’d actually done everything we came to do aside from sleeping a second night. We even covered all of our miles, albeit not how we planned, but how often do things really go as planned? No one was hurt. No one lost their life for a really stupid reason like trying to retrieve a tent from the side of a cliff.
There was another thought I kept having as I processed all of this and I knew this thought mattered most in the grand scheme of it all:
When can I do this again?
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I want to thank so many people and brands for contributing gear and other forms of help finally culminating in this trip and so many more upcoming: Gossamer Gear, Christine Bedenis, Granite Gear, REI, Merrell, Next Adventure, Mountain House and Swell Coffee. THANK YOU!
Gear lists and nerd talk coming soon!