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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Backpacking: A Cure for Multiple-Choice Syndrome

My friend Doug rolls his eyes when he hears parents offering their children choices for meals. "Timmy, would you like pancakes or cereal for breakfast this morning? How about waffles? Yogurt or fruit? Candy?...." He likes to tell a story from his younger days when he whined that he had to eat oatmeal for breakfast. Again. His father told him "You want choices? I'll give you a choice: you can have oatmeal, or you can have oatmeal and a spanking."

It struck me, as I stood in line at Starbucks this morning, that there are far too many choices in everyday life. I thought I had heard it all before the following order was given to the poor girl at the register:
"I want a Venti iced latte with three shots of espresso, two caf', one no caf', soy milk about halfway up the, let me show you to where...fill it the rest of the way with coffee, Blonde roast, and I want it really cold, so put the ice in there to chill it, but I don't want too much ice. Just a few pieces, but make sure it gets cold before you take the ice out. And today I think I'll have three squirts of the pumpkin spice flavoring. Don't shake it, I like the layers, but be sure to mix it in though, I don't want all the syrup to go up the straw on my first sip..."

It went on from there but I lost track as my eyes glazed over and my brain refused to believe what it was hearing. The girl at the register had to grab another cup because she had run out of room on the side to write it all down. The register didn't have the proper keys for all this information either, so she ended up calling the unfortunate barista over and having the customer dictate it to her as it was made. When this masterpiece of half-caffeinated cold-but-not-too-icy nirvana was finally finished, the guy took one sip, looked at the barista and said "It's ok. Not exactly like I wanted it though."

Mark the Mighty Explorer points the way.

One of the things I really like about backpacking is the lack of choices. Sure, there are a few decisions to be made before you leave, but once you're out there, you're stuck with them. If you packed nothing but freeze dried green beans and beef stroganoff you will be eating green beans and stroganoff for every meal. And in the morning, hate to break it to you Mr. Pumpkin Latte, even Starbucks doesn't have a branch on the top of Bishop Pass (although there was probably one proposed at some point...)

Backpacking really boils everything down to what you're willing to carry to be comfortable. You carefully choose only items that are necessary for survival, and throw in a few luxury items you just can't live without. Then once it's all loaded up, you try the pack on for fit and realize there's no way in hell you're carrying that much weight so you rip it apart, throwing things aside while deciding you really don't need to be that comfortable.

I've only been backpacking a few times, but that little taste has led to a goal to do the Pacific Crest Trail. To be realistic, unless we wait until we're retired (or win the lottery) we're going to have to do it in chunks (as opposed to a thru-hike.) Getting that kind of time off work would be pretty much impossible at this point, not to mention being able to make the house payments, etc. But it's fun to dream.

What I look forward to is the simplicity of it all. You put on the impossibly heavy pack, walk all day, rest when you're tired, eat when you're hungry, make dinner before it gets dark then go to bed when it does get dark because you're so tired. When the sun comes up, you eat what you have, pack up and do it again. You don't have to decide much; if you've done your planning correctly it's all predetermined. If we only have enough food for 4 days, I guess we better get back to the truck in 4 days.

On the way to Wades Lake, Plumas National Forest
Having just come off a month of non-stop home repair that took up every after-work and weekend hour, I'm done with choices. I don't want to see another paint chip for a long time--did you know there are approximately 2.3 million shades of green?--and I definitely could live the rest of my (now shortened) life without breathing lacquer-based primer fumes ever again.

I guess I'm yearning for the simpler life that backpacking offers. It's challenging, and exhausting, and really kicks your butt at times, but your mind is free to wander. All those worries that seemed so important back home just slide off, mostly because you just can't carry them and all the crap in your pack too. That pack which, coincidentally, always has packets of instant oatmeal tucked inside.

So I guess to answer that question: Yes thank you, I'll take the oatmeal.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Bigger Picture

Yesterday I read a news story that made me sad. It certainly wasn't the first time a story in the news was horrible and I'm sure it won't be the last, but it really got me to thinking about the whole idea of presence. As in, are we ever present in the moment, or have our electronic gadgets taken over our lives?

The news story was of a man who pulled out a gun and shot a student in the back as he was exiting a Muni train in San Francisco. Sadly, it's not the fact that someone was killed that got my attention: the man that pulled the gun had been brandishing it in plain view for several minutes before picking his victim and shooting. This was all caught on security cameras; even though the train was crowded, no one saw the gun until the sound of the gunshot broke their attention away from the cell phones they were using. (Here's a link to that depressing story.)

This was close on the heels of a discussion I had with a fellow photography enthusiast. We were sharing the frustration of getting a good shot of nature--if the light isn't in the right place do you stay until the sun moves into a better position? Do you take the picture and try to alter it with software? How can you get the camera to see what you are seeing? Are we spending so much time trying to get a good photo that it's keeping us from enjoying the trip?

Our devices can be incredibly attractive, and really, what's the problem with playing around while you're on the bus or trying to get the best possible photo? Nothing's wrong with that--I completely understand wanting to avoid strangers in close quarters and certainly want to have good photos of my trips--so why my vague unease with the whole situation?

The first time I remember being struck by this was during the last Olympics. As each country's athletes marched out onto the track, almost to the person they were holding cell phones up, recording the huge crowd cheering for them. It felt disrespectful, like they only cared about showing their friends what they were "seeing." It seemed vaguely rude somehow, as if the crowds (who, incidentally, paid a steep price to be there cheering) were not important to them.

I think part of my discomfort with this new age of distraction is the way it disconnects people from the world. You'd think the "World Wide Web" would be bringing people together like never before, but the opposite seems to be happening. You can have 1,200 friends on Facebook, 3,200 people reading your tweets, and 6,000 reshares of your latest GIF, but have you actually talked to a real live person today? Or worse, did someone try to shoot you? No? How do you know?

I've found myself on a few trips getting so wrapped up in getting great photos that I'm not really enjoying the trip itself. It's as if the camera gets between me and the scenery. I'm viewing the scene through a tiny hole with a shutter and it's very confining. The world isn't constructed in 4x6 inch frames; even the mighty iPhone Panorama feature can't reconstruct nature.

Lately we've been on outings exclusively for photography--to work on technique and so forth--and that has actually helped free up my outdoor enjoyment time. Knowing how the camera works is very helpful; sometimes you can just look at a scene and know immediately there's not a good picture in it. But that doesn't mean it's not worth looking at. The human eye is an amazing thing, and nothing--not Google Glass, not even the most expensive digital camera in the world--will be able to match it. Because your eyes are connected directly to your brain, and your brain (if you're lucky) is connected directly to your heart.

So from my heart to yours: put down the devices for a while each day. You'll be amazed by what you might see.
Device-free crowd: These guys know how to live.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Oh the Places You'll Go!

This month marks the 23rd year of marriage for Mark and I, and the 25th year of camping and hiking together. By my estimates, we have spent approximately 450 days traveling, tramping around mountains and deserts, and sleeping under the stars. That translates to one year and 3 months on the road, over 500 miles of hiking trails, and 425 nights spent in the tent/camper (we have cheated a few times and found a hotel.) That sounds like a lot, but somehow it seems we never have enough time to spend outdoors; with the exception of one horrible cold and rainy trip, we've always been sad to head back home at the end of a vacation. We've got a lot of places on our bucket list and it's growing by the minute. Every trip should be reducing the list, but the opposite always happens; for every check mark three places are added as each trip reveals more places we'd like to see, more hikes we'd like to take and more roads we need to travel.

I'm starting to realize that, barring winning the lottery, we just might not have enough time or strength to get to all our goals, and that's a disheartening thing. I would really like to do the Pacific Crest Trail, but as deep as my Denial Vein runs, my body just might not be up to it anymore. Mentally I think I'm stronger than I've ever been, but my brain can only push my body so far; those mysterious aches and pains are getting more pronounced as the years go by. I'm a little afraid once we got a decent distance into the hike things would start to fall apart. I guess we'll never know until we try...

Border of Alaska and Canada, Alaskan Highway

Our friends and family think being married is easy for us because we both enjoy the same things. I'm here to tell you that yes, a shared fondness for dirt does make it easier--I love road trips and camping just as much as Mark does, and we tend to like the same types of places to visit--but you still have to make an effort to get along on vacation, just like at home.

Let's just say it's not always a walk in the woods.
Racetrack, Death Valley NP

One thing we've learned is it's important to divvy up the responsibilities. Mark's the hardware guy; his job is to prep the truck (oil, water, camper prep, camera equipment, tool packing). My job is typically the food, clothes, sundries and navigation. Once we've chosen our destination it's Mark's job to make sure we have everything we need to get there in one piece and it's my job to make sure we can find the way and eat once we get there.

We have a mental checklist for these things, and after a while it kind of falls together without thinking about it too hard. We try to remind each other too, just to make sure the other guy hasn't forgotten something crucial. If we miss something, usually it isn't earth shattering: I'd say the most typical thing I forget is coffee (because I don't drink it, I don't think about it) and Mark will forget to wash the inside of the windshield (you usually don't notice it's dirty until the sun is rising on a chilly morning as you try to squint through the steamy glare.) Both of these things are easily remedied with a quick stop at a market, no worries.

If conflict arises it's usually due to exhaustion. Trying to push through too many miles on one day, not stopping for a break; things might get a little testy for a minute or two. I think knowing when not to say something is the most important skill you can have in the arsenal for marital harmony. And snacks. Plenty of snacks.
Grand Teton National Park

We're trying our best to stay in good shape so we can continue to do what we love when (and if) we retire, at which point we can pursue our list vigorously. Life can't be about working 40+ hours a week any more than it can be consumed by chores and household to-do lists. As they say, no one on their death bed ever said "I wish I worked more." Well, I sort of wish I will never have a death bed. Yeah, I know I'll die someday, but wouldn't it be nice to reach a comfortably old age then go out with a smile, say, on the edge of the Grand Canyon or on the top of a mountain? Somewhere that the last thing I see is a beautiful view of nature in all it's glory, not the digital monitors and dripping IV bags in some hospital. I'd settle for a hammock swinging in the breeze and the smell of pine trees in the air--a death hammock if you will--but not until I get to the end of my list. Looking at the length of it, I figure we've got to last at least sixty more years. So I'm officially inviting you all to our 83rd wedding anniversary party.

October 27, 2073 5 o'clock sharp. See you there.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park