*Photo taken in the woods somewhere in the US. Memory fails as to exact location. 🙂
Many years ago, before Michael and I were married, he talked me into taking my first backpacking trip on the Susquehannock Trail System in Pennsylvania. Prior to this trip, my only experience was with car camping, the kind of camping you do when you drive to a camp site at a campground and pitch your tent, then enjoy the comforts of hot water and flushing toilets in the bathrooms provided. Of course, there are campgrounds which do not provide these comforts, but I didn’t go to those campgrounds. Up to this point, my idea of what backpacking meant was not at all what I expected. I had this kooky notion that backpacking meant the same thing as bushwhacking…like going out into the wilderness with a compass and a machete and hoping you don’t get lost. Little did I know how organized a backpacking trip actually is, and how painful if one is unprepared. So, when Michael talked me into going, and explained at least enough to help me realize how ridiculous my ignorant notions were, I was willing to try it. Let me just say right here that he was very surprised I was ever willing to go again.
Okay, cue the cheesy harp music to indicate a trip backward in time…is it playing in your head? Michael has driven us into the wilderness of Pennsylvania in summer, smack in the middle of the state, where all things green grow with an overzealous intent to take over the world as rapidly as possible. He pulls into a grassy area where a pavilion stands near a small stone building—the single pit toilet for what I learn is a small campground. The only source of water is a pump located near the pavilion, the kind you have to ratchet by hand. So, on our first night camping, we’re already roughing it, as far as I’m concerned. Since I don’t really roll with surprises, I already wasn’t very excited about what was to come, but I went with it begrudgingly. Michael got us situated with the tent and camp mats, and then we cooked a meal and went to sleep. Well, Michael slept. I laid awake all night with rocks poking into my back. The next morning we got ourselves up and onto the trail, me wearing a new backpack we purchased at Golite (a great store that went out of business, but the founder started another one, thankfully), packed with what Michael thought I would need for an overnight in the backcountry. I really don’t remember now what kind of hiker I was for that trip, but I have a feeling I was cranky. Have I mentioned I hate surprises? I really do, and poor Michael did his best to get me prepped.
Off we went on the trail, just a short stint on a portion of the Susquehannock from Cherry Springs area, starting from Patterson campground. We tramped into the woods, Michael leading the way. Immediately I began to attract the munching bugs. In those first few hours, I tried several strategies to keep them away, from swatting at them to trying to ignore them (yes, I was wearing bug spray), until I finally wrapped my head and ears with my bandana. That worked better than anything else to keep bugs out of my ears, and I do it to this day. I think I have it on my head in the photo I took atop Mount Haystack, if you care to go check out that story. Once I got the bug situation under control, I began to have trouble with blisters. Holy cow, did those hurt. Michael cut some moleskin for me to put on them, but that didn’t stay put with all the sweating. My poor feet were oozing and miserable. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Next came the absolute death knell for that trip: unbearable pain in my hip. I suffer from sciatica, and at the time I wasn’t as strong as I am now. It was so awful I could barely walk. Michael tried to help me loosen the muscles, but nothing worked. Agony is the only word for how bad it hurt, and we were miles out into the woods by the time this happened.
I think Michael finally took pity on me and called it a day as soon as he found a spot to camp. That night we slept in a nice spot by a stream, where we had easy access to plenty of water for cooking, and I was actually amazed by the way backcountry cooking worked. Watching him get out the cook kit, light up his little soda can stove, and heat water from his drinking bladder opened my eyes to a whole new world of camping. Brushing my teeth using the water bladder was probably the most interesting part of the night, but I was also impressed with how he washed up the dishes, and then we even heated water for washing ourselves after dinner. He had never done such a thing in the wilderness before, since he was used to camping without washing himself other than maybe splashing his face with water. I turned my nose up at this practice. Why be gross, even in the backcountry, if you have clean water and a little soap? I brought along a tiny container of castile soap we used for all the washing, including ourselves, and because it has tea tree oil in it, the bugs hated the smell. A double win. Michael was delighted to wash with the warm water after the long day of hiking, so the evening was quite nice, until I tried to sleep.
Once again, I laid awake all night, unable to sleep well on the camp mats he brought, and without any cushion for my head. After all that hard work, I needed a good night’s sleep, but couldn’t get it. When morning came, I could barely function. I think that’s when we decided it was best to turn around and go back, but I can’t remember. It’s fuzzy now, because I think we originally expected to spend two nights in the woods, but my hip pain, lack of sleep, and blisters were just too much. I wasn’t prepared for the rigors of the trail while carrying so much weight. What’s worse is that Michael had packed my bag for me because I had no idea what I needed, and for some reason packed too many clothes. I had other stuff in there I didn’t need, either, and my pack probably weighed close to 40 pounds. Way too heavy, especially for a first trip. Back to the car we hiked, stopping constantly to rest because of all the pain I was dealing with, on top of being hungry. So hungry! Michael packed what he thought would be plenty of food, but I was starving. Eventually we got back to the car, sweaty, stinky, and struggling, but we made it out in one piece. Fortunately we didn’t see any timber rattlers on the trail, a lucky thing, nor did we have any trouble with other animals on that trip. Very lucky, or I might not have wanted to try it ever again. With all the difficulty I had, I’m surprised I wanted to go back. To this day, though, the actual worst part of all of it for me wasn’t the pain or the hunger or the lack of sleep, it was the lack of reward in the woods. For the whole hike, we never saw a view, a waterfall, an interesting rock feature, nothing exciting to enjoy other than trees and ferns. It was that lack of seeing anything interesting that made me feel motivated to go elsewhere to hike so I could get the reward of beauty.
After the trip, Michael fully expected me to say I would never want to hike again. How fortunate that I don’t run from a challenge. Instead, I told him I wanted to try again, but this time on my terms: 1) We will have coffee in the morning, 2) Better comfort for sleeping was a must, 3) I needed to carry less weight. I also told him I wanted to know where we were going and how far so I could plan how much food to bring. No more going hungry. It took me a long time to tweak my backpacking rituals and gear to finally get things the way I like on a trip, but it was all worth the hardship. Nothing feels as good as getting out into the wilderness, where the air is fresh and full of oxygen, the world curls around you while you walk the miles listening to wind or water or birds, and the accomplished wonder of surviving on what you can carry on your back. In a modern world full of so much ease, it’s a good feeling to pare back all those amenities and see how easy it is to live with so little. In the wilderness, there is no news, no phone ringing, no business meeting, or traffic blaring. There’s just you and your feet plodding along, and the enchantment of what is to come ahead. What might be over that ridge? Will the stars be bright tonight? If I get to the top of the mountain, what will I be able to see? When I get to the waterfall, will there be a rainbow? Will I get to see any animals today? It’s just you and the trail.
As a quick aside, the Susquehannock has some very fun features of the trail if you ever get the chance to try it. The whole trail system runs in a loop of about 85 miles, and I don’t know if it’s the conservators or just hikers with a lot of energy, but there are often fun rock tables and chairs created for campsites near the trail. It’s amazing to come upon these creations, as they are often made of fairly heavy stones which must have been found in the woods and hauled to the sites. Sometimes you get a lovely and surprisingly comfortable chair, often a table or two for cooking or eating, and there’s typically plenty of water nearby the camp. If you haven’t been to Pennsylvania to hike, I recommend it. The wilderness is gorgeous, and the night skies are lit up with plentiful stars. Cherry Springs is known for its dark skies, in case you want to try to plan a backpacking trip in tandem with a night of stargazing. There are often astronomy events in the summer, but you have to book them in advance if you want a spot. Look up Cherry Springs State Park if you are interested—it’s a very popular program if you like celestial events. After you hike, you can drive into Coudersport, PA for food at Olga’s café downtown.
To plan a backpacking trip on the trail, the Susquehannock has a website with a map and hiking info, which you can find at www.stc-hike.org. Get out there for a trip to enjoy the backcountry this summer. If you can’t get to Pennsylvania, find a trail system near you. And for those beginner hikers who need help with backpacking prep, I have a course you can take if you’re interested. Right now it’s available for a donation, but the price will be increasing soon when I upgrade to video content and offer takeaway sheets to plan a trip. You can wait for that if you’re more interested in video, or take me up on the donation-only course you have to read and do your own homework sheets. Either way, the info is there if you’re interested. Here is the link to the course as is. Later I’ll come back to this post and put up a link to the new course for those who want it. Happy hiking, readers. Get out there and see something beautiful!