Confession: I’m Fashion Obsessed

closet picI’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about how much I love clothes. My mother tells me that I come by the trait honestly – she even apologizes to my husband when I get excited about another new pair of boots. “I made her this way,” she says. Still, I feel like I should learn to back away from the new Anthropologie catalog with a bit more grace. So I’ve made some drastic efforts to break free from my sartorial obsessions.

I’ve purged the closet – three or four times over, once with professional help from a stylist friend. I started shopping in second hand stores. I’ve learned to be systematic about these outings – I can work the racks quickly and spot the junk straight away. My friends and I swap clothes. We’ve held quiet fundraisers that are really just private garage sales. We buy clothes from each other for bargain prices and then donate the pot of money to charity. Voila: new outfits, guilt free.

But my most austere experiment taught me the most.

Two summers ago I lived out of my backpack for 30 days. Fashion was the last thing I expected to learn about in the backcountry, but in retrospect living with one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, and one sports bra was empowering. The obvious is true: there are no clothing decisions to make when you only have one thing to wear. Clothing is about utility in the backcountry – what works and what gets in the way. At a certain point, I forgot what I was wearing – there were too many other things to worry about. Like where to dig cat holes.cody and sj backpack

But something else happened too. There were ten women on my trip – we outnumbered the guys by one. Alliances formed quickly, and though they weren’t always along gender lines, the women bonded in a predictable sort of way. We scrubbed our faces with minty, biodegradable soap. We shared hairbrushes and moisturizer (worth every ounce of their extra weight). We washed our hair in the creek and compared hairy armpits. One of the toughest women tried to shave her legs with a knife. Even our instructor – a woman who has logged more backcountry time than I can even contemplate – admitted to mailing herself nail polish just so she could “do something girly in the mountains.”mountaintop fashion

Not all women bond over fashion and beauty, and there are many men who love clothes and makeup and fashion week. But I learned that there is something distinct about the space we carve out to take care of our physical selves. It is not just about how we look. On day 18 of a month-long expedition, everyone looks gross. It’s not about exercise or strength. Anyone willing to carry a heavy pack that long is strong and fit. It’s about identity and self-knowledge, about shared and intimate space, that for me is distinctly feminine. I don’t dress or wear make-up for anyone but myself. I like to feel good so I run and lift weights and wear high heels. I put on make-up because it is fun and it makes me feel good. When it’s not fun, I skip it. My obsession with fashion isn’t about how many clothes I have in my closet; it’s about reminding myself of who I am.

I sometimes worry that I won’t be taken seriously if look like I care about my appearance. But I think I’ve learned that the opposite is true. I have never felt more comfortable in my skin than I did in the mountains two years ago. I didn’t have fashionable clothing or makeup with me. I didn’t even look in a mirror for thirty days. But I did make time for myself in the daily rituals of personal care, and I shared that space with strong, diverse women. Dressing for the day helps me know what I need to accomplish – whether it’s climbing a peak or teaching contemporary poetry.

I try not to feel guilty anymore. The fact is I love clothes and makeup and shoes. I love fashion magazines and nail polish. I also know that I can live without all of the trappings of the industry. Like most people, I am full of contradictions and every day I get up and try to do my best – with every part of myself. Getting dressed is just the first step.  ~ Sarahjules and sj dressed up

Backpacking First-Timer: Dos and Don’ts…

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Weighing 280+ pounds, several years ago, I took my first backpacking trip up into the Big Horn Mountains. I went with my husband, and I remember an unrelenting trail. I fell backwards once and needed help getting up like a bug who could not turn itself over. We never made it to our original destination, Big Stull Lake–a regret I had until this year.

This summer, 100+ pounds lighter, I took the same backpacking trip; this time solo but not without my trusty dog, Nikko. My destination was 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Big Stull Lake. Things didn’t quite go the way I had planned, so I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned on my first solo backpacking trip.

#1 Don’t overestimate the amount you can carry. Chances are when you’re hiking, you aren’t going to need a lot of clothing. One pair of shorts, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain gear, thermals, and a jacket for high elevations is probably enough. On my first backpacking trip, I ended up with too many clothes and as a result, I could barely lift my backpack. At one point, I tripped on a tiny stump in the middle of the trail and ended up face first in the dirt. With a smaller pack, I could have kept my balance.

#2 Do pack and repack. If I had followed this simple rule, I would have realized I didn’t need 6 pairs of underwear, three shirts, and two jackets for my two-night backpacking trip. Repacking and packing can help you stick to the minimum requirements as well as give you practice packing. Make sure to try on your backpack so you’re not stuck with a too-heavy bag when you get to the trailhead, and it’s always a good idea to consult an expert about what you should or should not bring.

Stull Lake Campsite#3 Do know where you’re going, and have a contingency plan. Experts say not to hike alone, but I knew the trail, I let people know where I was going, and I had a contingency plan. I planned my trip based on the previous hike my husband and I had taken years ago. We had not planned well, so we found ourselves stuck searching for a camping spot in the dark during a thunder storm. It turned into a pleasant camping trip, but without good luck, it could have been a disaster. On this solo trip, I planned ahead and had a contingency plan. I wanted to make it 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Stull Lake, 1.6 miles from the trailhead. I ended up staying at Stull Lake and hiking on to Coney Lake the next day without my pack. I would not have made it through the steep, rocky switchbacks with my super heavy pack. Instead, I had an easy hike and more “me time” next to quiet Stull Lake.

#4 Don’t forget the mole skin. No matter how much you think you’ve broken in your new hiking boots, there is always a chance of chafing. I put several miles on my hiking boots before this trip, but the rocky terrain and up- and down-hill hiking took its toll on my feet. Thankfully, I had mole skin in my first-aid kit, and I managed to cover the hot spots before they developed into giant blisters.

#5 Do pack water shoes or sandals. I was grateful to have my water shoes. They had nice traction for walking in the lake and on the lakeside trail, and they are nice to have if you have to ford any deep creeks. Luckily, my hike was in late summer, so the creeks were dry enough to expose rocks for crossing. Look for shoes that can be easily attached with a carabineer to the outside of your pack, and pick shoes that are light…again, refer to Rule #1.

#6 Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t think you’re going fast or far enough. Yes, there are hard-core hikers out there who count their miles, and you may or may not cover as much ground. Who cares! It’s about your ability and about taking time out for you. Take time to relax and enjoy the scenery. Focusing too much on your speed or the miles you’ve covered can leave you forgetting why you wanted to backpack in the first place. Remember that it’s not a race. If you plan your time accordingly, you won’t have to rush to the campsite and you can take time for breaks, pictures, and bird watching.

Most of all, be proud of what you accomplished. So what if someone else went farther or faster. The point is that you got outside, you had fun, and you experienced something new.

Happy Hiking!

~ K

Stull Lake


oecw tents 2

Two weeks ago I came out of the mountains.  My husband and son drove across Wyoming to fetch me and my backpack full of filthy laundry.  I said goodbye to my new friends and climbed into our car for the first time in thirty days. I’d walked nearly a hundred miles with my pack.  I saw a Grizzly bear and Bighorn sheep.  I bushwhacked through dead-fall and climbed a pass into Yellowstone.  I baked cinnamon rolls and pizza at altitude. I pitched tents in the rain and hid from lightening under stands of thick, green trees.  I wore the same t-shirt for a month and bathed in icy creeks.  I slept on rocks and was eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. But it was sitting in the car that was tough.

oecw walksI kept a log of my twenty-seven days in the backcountry.  I needed to have the facts straight – my writing was not reflective or nuanced, but rough and fragmented.  My brain was working at warp speed absorbing new information and adjusting to seventeen new personalities.  Feedback was constant: the natural consequences inherent to living in the mountains are hard to ignore.  If your sleeping bag gets wet, you’re cold.  If you drink dirty water, you’re sick.  If the camp stove breaks, you’re hungry.  We learned to take care of our gear, to be methodical, to go slow to go fast.  I kept track of the facts in my water-warped notebook, but it wasn’t until I sat in the car with my family that I began to piece together the rush of days spent living in a tent. And as is usual for me, I have more questions than answers.

brooks lakeI adjusted easily to the physical living of an extended pack trip.  My labored frontcounty workout routine paid off – I hiked well and despite my relative old age, I kept up with the teenagers on my trip.  I learned medical terminology and the advanced first aid curriculum without too much effort.  I cooked on our little stove and managed to keep from hurting myself or anyone else with our ubiquitous bear spray. It is the headier stuff that I continue to wrestle with.  I wonder about the strength and validity of the relationships I built in the snow and muck of hiking.  I think about what I learned from teaching in the mountains with a two foot white board and camp utensils.  I have new questions about my students and their morphing learning styles.  I think about technology and my extended break from anything electric outside of my headlamp and a fire pit.  I wonder about my stilted writing as I work to transcribe my scribbled log.

oecw classroomStill, I found a quiet certainty on the mountain.  Despite a nearly unbearable ache for my family, I was happy and content.  There is something liberating and strong about being able to carry everything you need on your back, to move with ease and assurance by map and compass, to cook and eat just what you need.  In time my writing will become reflective and nuanced.  I will weave an understanding of my off-grid time with words and explanation, but for now, I am content to record the experience.  I draw great hope from the simple reality of those thirty days and for a while I just want to sink into the pictures and the memories.  I always have more to learn.

– S2013-06-23 07.25.59

Tell Me What to Read. Please.

natops and packIt’s a little scary to find out that history does repeat itself – it’s even scarier to see one’s own mind run like a CD player on repeat.  A year ago I was writing about my mushy brain and the end of the semester.  I was making lists and planning my summer.  And here I am again.  At this point it might be appropriate to give the end of May slump some sort of catchy name – at least then I’d be expecting it.

Like last spring, my brain is working on lists.  I am trying to reset, to find creative space to write and think about something new, but for now there is great comfort in short bits of words.

My most impressive list is nearly six pages long.  I’ve had help with this one – it’s a packing list for a long backcountry trip.  I downloaded the checklist, and made my own notes in the empty margins.  Then I passed it on to a friend who covered it in sticky notes and amended priorities.  The list is nearly complete.  I have gear stashed all over the house and in a week or so my post-it-note wielding girlfriend will double check my loot. But one crucial item has me stumped.

I only get to take one book.

Thirty days – one book.  Electronic devices can’t be charged, so borrowing my son’s Kindle is out.  My mother has suggested poetry.  In her mind a good collection of poetry never gets old.  I worry that poems won’t give me the narrative arch I need to escape from sleeping on the ground for a month.  One of my writing friends suggested David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest.  I’ve been avoiding it for years and the three hundred endnotes alone could keep me busy.  Another friend told me to take something familiar, a beloved book to keep me company.  I could reread All the Pretty Horses or Stegner’s Where the Bluebird Sings from the Lemonade Springs.  But I might get bored.

I made my first longish backpacking trip when I was 12.  I spent five days in the Beartooth Mountains with my ten-year old brother, my father, and one Nancy Drew mystery.  The Beartooths are rugged and impressive.  We didn’t see another person until we hiked down out of our camp on day six.  We hiked and fished and played in the mountains for nearly a week, but the most memorable part of the trip was the four straight days of rain.  I spent more time in my little green pup tent than I care to remember.  I read the Nancy Drew book slowly. Twice.

Some of the current stacks

Some of the current stacks

The one book dilemma has been with me for a while.  My friends ask if I’ve figured it out yet.  I look to anyone and everyone for suggestions.  I consult every ‘best of list’ I can find.  I decide and set something in the gear pile and then I get nervous and snatch it back.  It feels like a big commitment.

Not long ago, my mother found the warped copy of Nancy Drew in the bottom of her old pack – the one I carried into the mountains twenty-five years ago.  It’s a good reminder.  Nearly a week in a wet tent could have been a disaster, but instead it was the beginning of a long love affair with the mountains.  I’m sure this trip will be the beginning of something too.  I just have to find the right book.

– Sarah


There was swimming in September…

There are two schools of thought when it comes to food on a short backpacking trip:

1)      Pack light: hike hard enough and long enough, to beautiful enough places and you will be too tired to care about food.  Even freeze dried mac and cheese will taste good at altitude.

Or alternately:

2)      Make room for it: you’re already sleeping on the ground, in the cold and the dark so eating well is essential to the joy quotient; good food is worth every ounce of room and weight it takes up in your pack.

I know these rules, yet I can’t seem to get behind either theory.  I never nail quality – I’m not a gourmet cook at home, so my pint sized stove and nesting camp pots don’t do me any favors.  And I’m too paranoid to pack just granola and water.  So I go for quantity and it makes my pack heavy.  I cannot function without coffee. Or GORP. Or cheese. Or Aidells chicken sausage in my penne.  I also need emergency food: inedible instant oatmeal and MRE castoffs in case snow holds me tent bound and rabid.

A few weeks ago I carried my heavy pack into the mountains one last time before winter.  I hiked with good friends – all strong women with big laughs and candid opinions.  We moved quickly when we weren’t talking too much.  We did stop often: to finish a story, to drink water, to rest.  Each time we set our packs down we passed around trail mix and shared water bottles.

We shared our lunches too.  We sat near a high mountain lake with our day packs in our laps comparing food stuffs.  My friend Julie stood thigh deep in the lake icing her sore knees while she snapped carrots and downed summer sausage.  I swapped my mayo for extra tuna and crackers.  There was chocolate for dessert and mints for my tuna breath.

By supper time we’d hiked double digit miles and we were tired.  We sliced cheese for hors devours and passed around plastic bottles of wine.  We boiled pasta and sliced sausage.  We tinkered with the stoves and pumped gallons of lake water through our filters.  Campfires are prohibited inside the Cloud Peak Wilderness, so we huddled around the camp kitchen instead.   We made a feast.

Camp cooks

It’s a problem that only accompanies prosperity – this talk of backpacks heavy with too much food. I am lucky to have such minor things to worry about.  But I notice that food is at the center of so many conversations.  We worry about what we eat and how we eat it. Is it full of fat or gluten or vitamins?  We talk about diets and restrictions and cooking on Facebook, at parties and on TV, even on the mountain.  But as another writer friend pointed out to me recently, food may be complicated, but meals are about community.  It is a chance to gather and commune with our most basic needs: people and nourishment.  If we are lucky enough to have something to eat, the occasional opportunity to share it makes us more human.

My backpacking trips offer solace and escape – I crave time outside away from the busyness that we all know.  But I especially enjoy time in the backcountry when I see it with people I cherish.  And meals around a campfire – or a tiny stove – inevitably deepen those connections.  I load my pack with marginal food out of habit and paranoia, but the food I carry helps make those trips something more.  Food is essential to the joy quotient.