Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Return to the Backcountry

I feel fit as a fiddle and ready for love. 

Over the course of the past 10 months, I've shed 55 lbs, and my right ankle, which was surgerized in 2009, is both senses: it no longer flexes and is no longer a source of pain. 

I'm back on my sweet little road bike, bipping around town and exulting in how responsive it is and how light and strong I feel. 

And I'm thinking about doing a little backpacking. 

I started backpacking when I was teenager and loved it. I enjoyed the whole thing: poring over maps, planning routes, buying guidebooks and reading descriptions of places to backpack, assembling the gear, making menus, counting calories and ounces, buying food and re-packaging it for easy meals; and when the morning of the trip arrived, I awoke early and eager to go. 

The first day on the trail was always kind of a struggle. The second a bit better. By the fourth day I was settled in and in the groove of hiking and resting and making camp and sleeping and breaking camp and hiking more, always looking ahead to see what was around the next corner. I hiked around Yellowstone Lake by myself when I was 28 and there were times of uncertainty and exhaustion, and there were times of sublime beauty and comfort. 

My last trip was with my son and stepson about six or maybe eight years ago, in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, out of Bishop. It was a weeklong trip and the kids were still young. It was an in-and-out (as opposed to a loop) trip, over New Army Pass to Soldier Lake. Really, really beautiful. 

I kind of considered that my last trip.  My ankle, which was becoming increasingly painful after any extended standing or walking, was crippling me: even an evening of standing while preparing a fancy meal for friends resulted in excruciating pain the next morning. On the hike I kept it tightly wrapped and consumed a whole lot of Ibuprofen. 

My backpacking days were over, figured. And after moving to Bend I shed much of my gear. The good stuff went to my son (he still goes on backpacking trips with his friends [I think he caught the bug from me]) and I discarded the rest. 

I kind of regret that now, because the itch has returned. This is a gorgeous area to backpack in. There are mountains and streams and lakes and trails galore. From San Diego, access to this kind of country required a six hour drive, minimum -- and always through Los Angeles, nature's punishment for people too simple to realize that are lobsters in slowly heating water. 

And I'm-a gonna scratch that itch. The stars have aligned. My ankle is fixed, my weight down, my energy good. My son has allowed that he'd enjoy going on an overnighter with his old man. 

That last time, I outwalked him. This time, I suspect that he'll be politely waiting for me. 

I'll pull out what gear I have remaining and see what I need to acquire to put together the necessities. I know my hiking boots are gone, probably my hiking poles, too; stoves and sleeping pads are likely vanished, but I do have a pack and more than one down sleeping bag; and I have feelers out to the likes of the peripatetic Bob Woodward* and others for recommendations for an easy one-night trip out to some sweet lake or streamside destination where a fellow can unpack a mummy bag and build a little fire, light a fattie and enjoy the silence and beauty. 

It will be a test, a test to see whether the old man still has enough horsepower to climb up and down trails, and whether he can get a decent night's sleep on a Thermarest pad without heavy medication. 

But why not? I feel good now, not plagued by various ankle and knee ailments or  excessive weight. Right now I feel energetic and strong and inspired. And I'll be goddamned if I'll let this opportunity pass.  

Of course, I might end up being one of those stories on KTVZ-TV Channel 21 news:

"A 61 year-old Bend man strayed off the trail while hiking with his son in the Three Sisters Wilderness and has been missing for three days. Search and rescue teams are combing the area, hoping to find him before the grizzlies and snowstorms find him first. McKenzie Williams has the story. McKenzie?"

But it's unlikely. I'm an experienced backpacker, know how to read a map and a compass, I have a GPS, and I've only gotten lost in the backcountry maybe four or five times.** 

So in a few weeks, after the tourists and other assorted riff-raff have retreated back to their dismal urban ghettos, we're hitting the trail. 

I'm excited.  

* Actually his wife is the fount of knowledge about trails hereabout. 

** Yeah, I've gotten lost a few times. The first or second time you get lost you panic. By the time you've gotten lost the third or fourth time, you just look around, check the map again, and sigh. If it's late, you find a likely place to camp, preferably with water as dry camps are tedious, and hope to sort things out in the morning; if it's not too late in the day, you study the geography, try to match it to the map, and if nothing makes sense, backtrack until you find where you lost the trail. Simple, really -- it's plunging ahead that gets folk into trouble. 


  1. Relax, there haven't been any grizzlies in these parts for decades.

    We have black bears, though. And cougars. And wolves.

    Oh my.

  2. California still has grizzlies. On the state flag, that is.

    I've hiked in black bear and cougar country, both of which are quite dangerous but interactions are rare except in the Sierra where the bears are a constant threat to one's food supply. Had to use ranger-approved bear canisters on the last trip - they don't give you your wilderness permit until you show that you are so equipped.

    Wolves, now. That's a new large predator to me but I don't think that there are direwolves prowling the forest seeking human blood. I've read my Farley Mowat.

  3. The wolves are getting closer:

  4. It would be pretty cool to see one. Not very likely, though.

  5. Followup.

    I found that my pack was still packed with all the gear from the last hike! The only things I lack are hiking poles and footwear, a ground sheet, and a sleeping pad. Not bad! And maybe one or two of those items are at my son's house. I'll find out this weekend.


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