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

Are You Small Town or Big City?

NewYorkCityOn July 31st, at 2:00 AM, I sat in a 24-hour deli having breakfast in downtown Manhattan.

Some people would consider this unwise, but I was amazed at how safe I felt. In fact, after finishing my coffee and yogurt, I walked to Times Square with my mother’s voice repeating in my head, “Nice girls aren’t out after 10.”

I have always been a night person, but I rarely go outside that late because of the supposed dangers lurking in the shadows. I have also always considered myself a small-town girl, and I never thought I would feel comfortable in a city like Manhattan. I expected to be intimidated, self conscious, and hurried. Instead, I was energized, fearless, and confident.

As I sat in the deli, I realized that I could get used to the city life. I could imagine living there writing, walking at night, and loving the fast-paced lifestyle during the day. The other side of me–the side that loves the solitude of the wilderness, fishing, hiking, and just listening to the birds–wonders how long it would take before I would need to escape the city environment.

Despite the fact that I live in a small town, I’m not exactly a hick. I have lived in and visited urban neighborhoods before. In fact, I had been to New York before. I have also lived in Tucson, Arizona, a city of 520,000+, for over 6 years. I also lived in Lincoln, NE, not quite as big as Tucson, but still bigger than Sheridan, Wyoming. I’ve also visited Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Stockholm, London, and Paris. In Paris, my traveling companion refused to be outside after dark. Maybe that’s good practice, but I longed to see the Eiffel Tower lit up after dark. I wasn’t brave enough then to venture out on my own.

This trip to New York was my first experience in a large metropolis alone, so I was completely shocked with how comfortable I felt as I walked down 7th Avenue towards Times Square. Several people were around…men and women dressed in various styles. There were police officers, city workers, and even some homeless people out and about. I did get some strange looks…it was probably completely obvious that I was not a New Yorker…but for the most part, people left me alone, and I felt completely comfortable.

I didn’t have much time once I got to Times Square. I had to catch the airport shuttle at 3:30AM, and I still needed to check out, so I hustled back to the hotel completely energized and not really wanting to go home.

Today, back in Sheridan, I feel out of place. I tried walking at midnight in my neighborhood, but I was uncomfortable and frightened. Without really understanding why, I rushed back to the comfort of home. (It’s possible I realized internally what this study found.)

I don’t really know what to do with myself now. I suppose I’ll settle back into my “normal” life in Sheridan, and New York will be a distant memory. Until then, I have realized that no matter how much I think I know myself, I should remain open to new experiences and new places…because who knows, I may find that I’m a city girl after all.


Re-Think Pink

Sheridan's Recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month

Sheridan’s Recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month

This is the last week of October, and as most of you know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. This is represented by the color pink. Pink ribbons are everywhere in Sheridan, and pink seems an appropriate color for breast cancer awareness. It is, after all, a color that our society associates with the female gender. However, what many people forget is that breast cancer affects men, too.

According to U.S. Breast Cancer statistics, approximately 2,240 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2013. That does not sound like much, and in fact, it is less than the 232,340 new cases diagnosed in women. However, it is still a possibility.

Recently, the husband of a colleague and friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a breast cancer survivor, I can relate to the horror he feels and the uncertainty that comes with treatment. Luckily, they caught it early and his prognosis is good. But that doesn’t detract from the pain he has already endured and what is to come. Within days, he has undergone a mammogram and a double mastectomy. His future holds chemo and radiation and months of uncertainty.

Like my family, his family has a history of breast cancer. Like my family, breast cancer invaded not just the females in his family, but a male, too. Like me, he found the lump on his own by doing breast self-examinations. Like me, this may have saved his life.

In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published a report recommending “against teaching breast self-examination (BSE).” In fact, they argue that “there is moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit” and they recommend that physicians “discourage the use of this service.”

I found my lump in February, 2010: 5 months after a mammogram. My next mammogram was scheduled for September, 2010. I was diagnosed with Stage III Cancer in June 2010–it had spread to the lymph nodes already. If I had followed the advice of this Task Force, how far would the cancer have metastasized before it was found via mammogram?

My uncle had breast cancer, and he was not lucky. It metastasized and eventually killed him. He did not practice self-examination. Would that have saved him? I don’t know. If my friend had not done self examination, how long would it have been before a diagnosis? Granted a man’s risk is 1 in 1,000 in his lifetime. Those are low odds, but what if you were that 1? Wouldn’t you want to catch it early?

Everyone–not just women, but men, too–need to know how to recognize their risks of breast cancer and they need to know how to practice breast self-examination. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, do self-examinations. Have a mammogram. Know your body. Recognize changes, and demand care if you’re getting the run-around. You are responsible for your health, and sometimes that means going against expert advice.

For more on breast self-examination, visit the National Breast Cancer Organization Website.

~ K

Cabin Fever

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Longmire

The plaque next to the room number read “Cabin Fever.”  The beds were roughhewn logs and the queen size coverlets were red and brown, vaguely southwestern and new.  A stone fireplace and an antler chandelier flanked a view of the parking lot and the interstate.   The Best Western’s version of rustic was nice – faux wood and plastic antlers – but adequate and shiny.

I was up at five a.m., unable to sleep, trying to talk myself into a run.  I knew my mother was awake in the other bed, and if she heard me stirring she’d guilt me into a run.  We were nervous.  We’d driven several hours to Montana the day before to meet my brother’s new family.  My youngest brother surprised us all a few weeks ago with news that he’d eloped with his girlfriend and taken a new job in Austin, Texas.

My mother rolled over in the dark and asked me for my computer.  She wanted to watch TV.  It took me a minute to register –neither of us has cable and we don’t spend much time with the boob tube.  But we’d heard the buzz about a new series featuring our small Wyoming town and we wanted to see what Hollywood had done with our secret western paradise.

Craig Johnson’s hero, Walt Longmire, is 6-foot-5 former Marine turned Absaroka country sheriff.  He’s quiet and thoughtful, a sort of Wyoming Sherlock with a rifle and a Stetson.  Johnson is a fixture in Sheridan and his novel’s characters look and sound like a mash-up of every rancher and county commissioner I grew up around.  Johnson’s books are fun and he has captured the imagination of half the world with his western whodunits – “never underestimate the romanticism of the American West” he says.

I immediately noticed the details in A&E’s adaptation.  Though the show was filmed in New Mexico, Johnson worked closely with the producers as an “executive creative consultant” and managed to nail many of the most western particulars: the battered sheriff’s truck even has those ubiquitous heather-blue seat covers.  I’m not sure if I liked “Longmire” because I love this place or because it’s the rare TV show that I will make time to watch.

My brother’s new in-laws are enamored with his – our – cowboy childhood.   They are familiar with the Cowboy trope; they’re from Texas, but Sam’s ability to saddle a horse, move cattle, and fix fence seems to have lent him golden-boys status.  They want to see the grass lands we grew up on, to hear about our long days behind a cattle chute and in the dry pastures of Wyoming and Eastern Montana.  I recommended they watch Longmire.

The irony of the western motel room is that somehow they – and A&E’s producers – got something right.   A&E’s producers captured the complexity and starkness of western life:  we live both in the romanticized, cowboy version of the west and in the complicated, starkness of the mountains and high desert.  We live with and in the weather, beside our animals and our boom towns.  We are connected by technology to the sophistication of Paris and Beijing, but we cling to our western ideals and cowboy style.  I’m not sure why the Cowboy myth and American West have such universal appeal, though there is something great about the rugged idealism and isolation that a lone cowboy and a horse brings to mind.  But it’s not always what it seems – like the faux Best Western log bed and Walt Longmire’s New Mexican Wyoming – we create our own spaces, pluck ideas from myth and from reality.