My wife and I were walking down from the top of Colonel Denning State Park on our journey back from seeing the vista at Flat Rock just recently. Not far from Newville, Colonel Denning State Park offers a nice camping / fishing / hiking retreat for those people who live near Harrisburg. It also boasts a very traffic-ed vista in Flat Rock, which finds its way to many of the guidebooks.
I’ve been there a handful of times, and this was the first time that I didn’t see the horizon behind the haze or raindrops, and let me just say, “It was good.”
As we sat behind hikers gawking and meditating, it seemed like we could see forever. I know some people say all the way to Reading and the Shenandoah Mountains, and I too felt that there seemed to be at least one purple mountain majesty far behind some of the others, and it was pretty far away, but not necessarily Virginia far away.
While heading back, our discussion turned to hiking gear and things that we have purchased over the years to make our journeys easier. This conversation came out of my feeling that having a Lifestraw or other water filter with would have opened up the clear mountain stream on top of the first ascent to our drinking pleasure. Nothing like the trail to make us feel like shopping at REI, Cabelas, or EMS.
In the midst of this conversation, I quickly remarked on how I love my Keen boots, especially since they fit well and don’t give me blisters, and I also spoke lovingly about how I appreciate my Cabelas ECWS winter base layers since I like being warm in cold weather without having to wimp out when the breeze bites too hard. Of course, there are other nice touches as well, but while coming down through the rocks, I concluded that my number one favorite piece of gear that I have is my trekking poles. While they’re not as expensive as some poles, I find that Black Diamond makes a nice pair of hiking poles, and they really do help me get up the trail (as thru-hiker Lakeland once said) “in 4WD” despite looking weird when you watch me walk with them (or when I watch other people walk with theirs). In addition, they also keep my hands from swelling up while stabilizing my backpack-clad body in journeys both up and down the hills. Finally, they brace me going downhill as well. That’s a nice touch since I prefer not to fall face-first into jutting out rocks. Sure, they feel like something extra to carry on the flat lands, but for what they do on those hills, the push and brake and oomph, I wouldn’t hike without them anymore.
Finding ourselves on the flat section again, my wife nodded in agreement with my thesis statement of how 2 poles were more stabilizing than just using her walking stick. In addition, those 2 Black Diamond poles were much nicer than our cheap knock-around pair, which I use when she absolutely needs to use the nice pair. Here, the cheaper pair will sometimes break loose and collapse into themselves. Let it be said that’s not fun., and if it's going to happen to someone, then let it be me. Nevertheless, the only time we really need them occurs at times like when we went to Ricketts Glen this winter or other times when trekking poles are absolutely essential for every person on the trail at once (such as when we are on snow / ice / walking over streams / have relatives in town).
Nevertheless, as I spoke my love of these 2 metal contraptions, I realized that I wasn’t telling the whole truth and thinking through what my real favorite piece of gear was since I wasn’t thinking completely about what gear could be. This opened things up to a whole new piece of gear that I "theoretically" use every time out. That piece of “gear” is identified by the English teacher in the book at Hatchet (by Gary Paulsen) in the following statement:
“You are your most valuable asset. Don’t forget it. You are the best thing you have.”
Now, I know that I’m an English teacher by day, and that means that I’m in solidarity with other teachers, but it wasn’t the profession that made these words stand out. It was the basic and fundamental sense of what they were. I’ve heard variations to them in many other ways. “Be here now.” Pretty much every single page out of Bear Grylls’ A Survival Guide for Life book and Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival and Surviving Survival. Kevin Costner telling Tim Robbins, “Don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club” in the movie Bull Durham.
However, this quote was in the midst of a middle school book. This book, which now seems to serve as a replacement for Jack London’s Call of the Wild, is pretty hardcore when it comes to the concepts of what it takes to make it in the outback (the kind that doesn't have Alice Springs Chicken or Bloomin' Onions). This isn’t a term that I just throw out there. Paulsen is for real with the outdoors as anyone looking at his canon can attest to.
The main character in the book Hatchet is Brian Robeson, a 13-year old boy on a flight from New York to go see his father in the north woods of Canada. Before he is able to get there, the pilot, who is the only other person on the flight, has a heart attack, and Brian is forced to take over the controls until the plane crashes into a lake. From that point on, Brian is forced to survive on his own. Fortunately, to do this, he has a hatchet that he was given by his mother.
I won’t ruin the story for you since it’s well worth reading. Besides, it only takes about 2-3 hours to read the whole thing and it presents many conflicts that would make Mr. London proud that people are reading a book that follows in his footsteps. Nevertheless, for the youthful target audience, it’s a modern classic and a Newberry Honor Book. For an adult, it says what it means to survive simply and to the point.
This would be true if it was in the city or the woods, which is why it’s a great book for all lovers of the outdoors to read. It's also a book that would benefit kids who need to learn to use their own basic resources instead of falling prey to "thinking" and not doing.
Such lines as, “He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that--it didn't work,” stand out to readers young and old, and they show why I was originally wrong in what my most important gear was since what is really best was what my knowledge and my mindset going in were. If I didn’t know how to use it, no GPS, axe, .357 magnum, water filter, tent, flint + steel, or iodine tablets were going to save me from permanent damage.
In short, I either had a plan going in or I didn’t. I either know what to do in case of trouble, or I don’t. I either remembered my stuff, or I didn’t. In short, what my mind does in case of an emergency is where I am or I’m not.
I remember one time I read a “who would survive” quiz, and they picked a lot of famous characters, but in the end, it was comicly goofy Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. This was based on how even keel he was as well as how resourceful he was. Sure, he might have been the anti-Homer Simpson, but in case of emergency, that’s not really a bad thing (even if people would rather have cold beverages with Homer).
For me, I think about instances like my first time seeing a bear in the wild. I had read a lot about what to do, but I was still scared when Ms. Bear roared to her cubs who were instantly descending the tree as if it were the Batpole. Fortunately, I just got a really good story and the three bears realized that the dorky, lumbering body walking through the woods was just a hiker who would have loved to take a picture of them as opposed to turn her into a rug on his wall. Thus, we all walked away unharmed and filled with knowledge of what the other side was all about.
By the way, I never did get that picture.
By the way, I never did get that picture.
For what I once had never heard, the sound of a growl, I was more comfortable the next time around when I walked with my dad, and we heard a growl across the valley. That’s learning. That’s healthy respect and distance opposed to fear. That’s being comfortable in the woods. That’s knowing my dad, a man who really knows about the woods, isn’t as fast as me – I hope (well, actually, I kid – my dad is one of the wisest outdoorsman I know even if he never heard a bear growl before that day).
As for other good mantras, taking the President’s advice and not doing stupid stuff is other good advice. Don’t go off the trail in the dark to take a shortcut (or at all). Don’t know better than the map. Carry extra stuff just in case. Listen to your wife when she says we should bring water – even on the short hikes!
And learn from others who have hiked before us.
In this, I just read a quote by Everest hiker Mick Burke (who later died on the journey, but let’s forget that bit of irony). It said, “At some stage you believe you’re too exhausted to carry on. Then you take another step up and you realize you’re not too exhausted. You can take another step, and another. It’s your mind that’s exhausted, not your body. You realize you’re alone, miles from anywhere and nobody is going to help you. Only you can get yourself up the mountain. It’s knowing this that makes you think you’re too tired to carry on.”
To this, much of what keeps us going is our brain. Much of what stops us is our brain.
Ed Viesturs stated one of my favorite maxims when he said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting to the bottom is mandatory.” That makes a lot of sense. After all, this was a man who turned around at the top of Everest because he knew he couldn’t make it back in time.
I’m glad my brain works well a fair bit of the time. I’m glad that I didn’t end up a popsicle or vulture food on “some damn fool adventure” or other that I took.
As a result, I share the wisdom of my follies and others’ successes to ensure that we don’t have more rescues like seemed to have happened a lot this winter.
Here’s hoping you have some great adventures this year.