If you’ve exercised on any level, you know how great it feels after you’re done. You can endure the pain because there’s a mental reward at the end that validates your efforts. Some might say I’m crazy (no argument there), for “loving” the torment, and those who know me know that I’m an adventure junkie. I seem to love inflicting pain and agony on myself. Why? That’s easy! It’s the challenge to my mental and physical abilities – I get empowered when I succeed at overcoming.
One of the things I have never done is to backpack solo, let alone be solo for anything for any length of time. Knowing this, my good friend Tim Jones, EasternSlopes.com founder, and my (now) fiancé, David Shedd, EasternSlopes.com Publisher and Senior Editor both asked me if I’d be willing to go on a solo backpacking excursion and share the story with other women (and men!) who have never gone solo. Of course my answer was yes (momentary lapse in judgment).
Since I’m a seasoned veteran at exercising alone as one method of self renewal, I was excited to take this on. Backpacking alone, overnight (um, two nights), seemed a bit out of my comfort zone, though – who would I talk to, whine to, read to, or laugh with? This part seemed to be doable, just boring. Nevertheless, the time alone could do me some good, especially after raising three kids, getting a divorce, going to school as an adult learner and finally, after five years of fulltime/year ’round studying, graduating with both my undergraduate and masters degrees in social work. I hadn’t had any time, period, much less time to be alone.
To test my interest in being alone, I went out for one of my usual runs (bad idea, as it was really humid)…but, instead of trotting along with my iPod, I left it at home (okay, truth be told, my battery was dead and I couldn’t use it). Even so, I was alone inside myself (scary place to be), but it felt okay…I could do this solo trip.
Did I have any fears? Of course! But, the way I look at it, if I fear something, completely avoiding it (unless the risk is too high) is much worse than taking the fear head on and overcoming! One of the best things about being a woman is that we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Without a doubt, being women, we need to have a plan and we need to be cautious and observant – taking nothing for granted. But, with a plan, we can do so much more than most people could imagine!
My fears weren’t what you might imagine as typical (nothing about me is typical). For example, I was not afraid of being alone, hiking alone. If you are lucky enough to know someone that has an extensive history of backpacking like I do… and who has taken the time to teach you Step-By Step, trusting their knowledge can be a great learning experience.
I wasn’t even afraid of other hikers or animals, these were factors, but small ones… Instead, I wanted to be missed. Like many women, all my adult life I have been the one at home keeping the fires burning, taking care of the kids, and “holding down the fort” while my loved ones went away on their own adventures. Sounds silly, but this adventure was sure to take me out of my emotional comfort zone in that regard.
Still, it was time to start planning in earnest.
Bretton Woods, NH . This was an important decision. I was NOT going to strike out into unknown wilderness–not to start, anyway. David and I had already hiked exactly where I was headed for the first night, so it was familiar ground.
Date: This was up to me. I chose a mid-week getaway early in the hiking season so I’d be less likely to encounter other people. Solo means solo.
Gear: I used the EasternSlopes.com Backpacking Checklist which made me feel empowered – I had everything I needed (plus I had David double-check my list against my pack to make sure I missed NOTHING).
Then it came time for my departure. I hugged and kissed the boys and David, said “See you in a couple of days”…(OK, now I wanted to throw up). I don’t know about you, but it all sounds good to say you’re off on a big adventure, or even to have the house to yourself for a few sacred hours – but, saying goodbye? That’s where this sappy girl gets hung up.
Day One: Off I went into the blue yonder…
Okay, so it wasn’t so blue…the sky was rather gray with rain clouds in the distance (sigh), but, I was prepared for inclement weather (remember, I had a checklist)! Besides, I had a choice to either embrace the experience or whine to myself —there was no one else to hear me—so, embracing the experience, it was. The views on the drive were gorgeous – I paid particular attention to this because on a road trip, I am happily talking, listening, or singing (badly). I didn’t pull over to take pictures – believe it or not, I wanted this solo hike to begin (the sooner it began, the sooner it would be done!). Seriously, even though I was nervous, I was truly excited; I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this, and do it well. And, to start, I had to get there first–no stopping allowed!
I reached my destination and parked my car. As instructed by my mentor, I marked my parking location on my GPS so that IF I ran into trouble, I could find my way back to safety. I was excited! There were no cars around (weekday in early June). Backpack on, trekking poles in hand, car locked, everything doublechecked…it was time to hit the trail. The last time I was on this trail, David and I saw a few moose checking us out. It was my turn, I wanted to “check a moose out” but sadly, I only saw their tracks. I did, however, have an “encounter”with a female grouse who was thoroughly annoyed that I wandered into her territory. She made sure her message was clear by squawking and flapping her wings at me as if to say “GET OUT and STAY OUT!” Testy female! But, she was doing what mothers do, protecting her young. My first lonely pang, as this was a reminder that I wasn’t home to care for my children. But, David was…so all was good. I really COULD leave someone else to tend the home fires, and just be me for me, rather than being what everyone else needed at the moment!
The rest of my hike to Mountain Cabin (a very-rustic outpost on the outermost reaches of the Bretton Woods Nordic trail system and my first night’s accommodations), was (except for the grouse encounter) uneventful. Rain appeared from out of those clouds I mentioned earlier, I was drenched with sweat and rain drops, but I was enjoying the scenery…bunchberries, lady slippers, and moose tracks and droppings…ah…life was good.
There is a definite luxury when hiking with friends (companionship, safety, and entertainment) – but, the beauty of hiking solo is the tranquility, the opportunity to be inside yourself where you can allow your mind to wander – to think. And, equally important to HEAR nothing except the birds singing, the sound the water makes as it trickles down the brook, the crunching (actually slushing) sound each step makes as you step through puddles and mud. Although, I was talking to myself about each discovery out loud as if I were talking to someone (shocking, I know) – made the trip more enjoyable…man, was I funny!
Arrived at the cabin…now what?
Once you get yourself unpacked and organized, guess what?! It is a perfect time to NAP (now that’s a concept); what else are you going to do on a rainy afternoon by yourself? I had lunch, I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and caught a few z’s. When I woke up, it was late afternoon”ish”, around 4:30pm. Note: the time of day (literally) can have an effect on mood and mental well-being when you’re alone in the woods. To be specific, “sundown” can be a rough time of day (especially when you’re alone). If you’ve ever worked with Alzheimer’s patients, you know that when the sun goes down, fears and anxieties build and panic erupts. I knew what this was like after walking through my father’s emotional struggle with Alzheimer’s – sundowning is traumatic. I wasn’t expecting to have any troubles that would be that bad, but I wanted to be aware of the possibility. Armed with this knowledge, I had my book, a pad of paper and pen, and food (of course) at the ready for comfort. As long as you are prepared to be active during this time of day, the effects can be minimized. I was definitely finding that being prepared meant more than just having the right “stuff” with me; having the proper state of mind was at least as important.
I had a lovely dinner: I sautéed mushrooms in garlic butter (no one there to smell my bad breath), chicken sausage with asiago cheese and roasted red bell peppers (delicious), mixed with couscous for just the right combination of carbs and protein, and a tossed salad as a side dish! I even had wine to complement the dinner for one. The cook and waiter were very kind and served me promptly (I tipped them well). For dessert, I “settled” for 90% Lindt chocolate – a few nibbles and I was in heaven. Everything was easily transported in, and I had Egg Beaters to use with the leftovers for breakfast – what could be better than scrambled eggs with sausage and a steaming cup of coffee in the morning?
I was eager to go to bed and read, but while I sat reflecting on the successes of the day, I noticed a very large mosquito that landed on a post in front of me. Have you ever stared at a mosquito, wondering what is going through her mind? Just what I thought, me neither. Nevertheless, I found myself taking a picture of this tiny, loathsome creature and watching her every move (Bored? Yes!). Being alone certainly affords you the opportunity to do strange things, and no one will know…well, of course as long as you don’t share this odd behavior(Oops). I think she liked the attention and “admiration” because she never buzzed my way to bite me… or, more likely, she didn’t bother me because I had an LL Bean Insect Shield shirt and socks on! Nevertheless, it was entertaining for me at that very moment. After this stellar performance viewed from the front row, it was time to retire…I had a busy day scheduled for day two.
Day Two: I’m acclimated to my surroundings now; I’m in it for the duration (translation: one more day and I will be able to say that I completed this adventure successfully). Remember I said that it rained on day one? Well, that meant that I needed to dry my clothes. Luckily for me, the sun was shining bright, so I draped my hiking clothes on tree branches, drank my coffee, and read my book. Could it get any better? I was definitely enjoying the fact that I had time to just “be”.
One of the things I learned (after the fact, of course)…is to listen to yourself. Instead, I found myself gearing up for a day hike when I’d rather sit and read peacefully in the sun. But, nevertheless, I have to admit that the “day hike” sounded adventurous and I’m all about an adventure! Note to self: Self, bring spare hiking clothes. I say this because I spent most of my morning waiting for my clothes to dry in the sun, which resulted in a later start to my hike, which turned out to be not such a good idea (starting later in the day for a hike in uncharted, bushwhacking territory). Feeling a little uneasy about going on a long day hike, knowing that I would need to set up my tent along the trail somewhere for the second night’s accommodations, I had to make some decisions. Because I was a little nervous about how long my “adventure” would take, I did not want to leave my full pack behind…I had absolutely no interest in trudging through the woods, staying out longer than planned and not having my gear with me. For the record, BAD idea.
Up to now, I had made all the right choices, followed all the rules, and was organized and feeling confident. I looked at my map and found my goal (the top of Mt. Tom, located it on the Delorme PN-40 GPS map and set my compass bearing, which led me straight off the trail into the back country, immediately bushwhacking. Being the “logical” person that I am, and feeling like I’d rather make the trip as easy as I could, I decided that if I hiked on the trail for a short distance, this would alleviate some of the hard work (sounds good, doesn’t it?).
In theory yes; in reality, a big fat NO! When you make a decision based on inexperience, you quickly learn how important pre-planning is. My “smart/logical”choices positioned me for a climb in difficult/steep terrain , rather than taking a line up a much gentler slope as we’d originally planned.
Have you ever witnessed the results of a tornado, where trees are down everywhere, stumps larger than a garage, and absolutely NO visibility? Welcome to my “day hike”. When trees topple over due to strong winds, they unfortunately take the roots and earth along for the ride WITH them…leaving virtually no place to maneuver – in any direction! My one mile jaunt (which “should” have only taken me an hour or so) – turned into a 5 hour-hit-every-branch-with–your-backpack, while stumbling- crawling-cursing over/under/around/through any opening you can find “adventure”. As I write this, I laugh…in fact, I laughed for the first, oh say, 3 hours at the time, but after that…I started to get discouraged. However, being the stubborn adventurer, I left all my intellectual abilities behind and forged on. And, mistake number two…because I was so “determined” to make this a success, I “forgot” to eat and drink (I can assure you that this never happens any other time); out in the woods you can get so hyperfocused on a goal that you forget all sense of logic (this could turn out to be highly dangerous). What I should have done, and didn’t, was to turn around and head back when the going got, let’s say, “rough”.
About 5 pm, things were looking shaky (not the woods, my hands). I was dehydrated, hadn’t eaten, and I was tired (and frustrated and discouraged) after hiking for 5 hours straight). Although I was having a hard time, the one thing I did do was trust my compass. But, with that said…the problem wasn’t with trusting the compass, it was plotting the route back to the trail, reading the map/GPS (novel idea), knowing which direction to take.
One important note about this trip…I was in the woods, on a mountain, but I was still very close to civilization (I could hear the trucks passing by on the highway); that gave me the security that if all else failed, I would just follow the sounds of traffic and I would eventually make it to my car. Plus, I had the added bonus of having my life line (David) near his phone. I called him, and he knew right away that the tone of my voice didn’t sound like I was having a successful hike, so he quickly worked out the details of my location (I gave him my coordinates from my GPS), and he was able to reassure me that I was not far from the trail, and gave me the necessary encouragement and a compass bearing that would guide me (whew). Being a beginner “solo packer”, this was incredibly helpful and necessary, because of course I was dehydrated, hungry and tired, which was definitely making it hard to make good decisions. When you’re out in the woods, and especially if you are alone, it is incredibly important to hydrate, eat, and know WHEN to turn around and say “enough is enough”. I was proving nothing by being stubborn; if anything, I was setting myself up for failure. But, I have to say…despite my mistakes, I was learning, I wasn’t afraid of being alone, and I had the makings of a great story to tell my family and friends!
I finally made it back to the trail (thank God), and not a moment too soon! It was now 6 pm and I was hungry, tired, and just wanted to drop. I set my tent up literally 20 feet from the trail; there was NO fear of animals, of other hikers, or bugs (Okay, I take part of that back…the bugs in my hair really grossed me out). Another example of how good planning can make a big difference; David had specifically chosen the EMS Velocity 1 tent for me because it’s so easy to set up, then had made me set it up and take it down several times at home. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I could set it up on autopilot. But, this was my second and last night, and my “home” was now set up! I came close to falling apart emotionally, but was too tired to give in to negative energy. I prepared my meal, had a glass of wine, a nibble of chocolate, read a paragraph of my book, and LIGHTS OUT (it was 6:45 pm!).
Day Three: As you descend from a mountain at the end of an excursion, there is a sense of accomplishment, gratitude, and joy…whether you leave early because something unplanned got in the way, or at the end of the journey as planned. The latter for me, this time; I was able to complete the task I had assigned myself. At 6 am, I was ready to go home (to shower)! The hike out was fast and easy, but I still paid full attention to my surroundings, hoping that a moose would surface for me to admire – nope, next time. I arrived at the car a little tired, feeling eager to get back to my “regular” life and, maybe, plan the next challenge!
Whether you’re a seasoned backpacking veteran or a newbie like me, being alone in the woods as a female can be challenging, exhilarating, peaceful (no, that is not a typo, it really was peaceful at times), but most importantly, empowering – it is a good thing to get out solo, especially when there might be a little fear attached; overcoming that fear opens doors to a world of new opportunities!
Editor note: for another take on a woman backpacking solo, go here.