I hadn’t planned on taking a Zero so soon, but this is a beautiful day and a perfect place to relax and reflect a little on these first few days of my trip. A “Zero”, for all you kids hiking along at home, is a day in which you hike…wait for it… zero miles. Brilliant, huh? Hikers will take Zeros periodically during their hike for a variety of reasons, but most often to rest and recuperate after a long or difficult stretch of trail, or maybe because they have to wait out some bad weather. I’ve been on the trail for a whole two days and the weather has been glorious, so taking a Zero is probably a little silly and indulgent. But it’s my hike, as they say, so I get to indulge myself whenever I want.
It really has been a dizzying week of activity and emotions. All of the frantic last minute preparations at home; obnoxious eleventh hour visits by Doubt & Fear (who were not invited on this trip, yet all of a sudden started following me around like a shadow…); the long but incredibly scenic train ride out from the Midwest — through the New River Gorge, across the Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Blue Ridge Mountains — followed by the mostly sleep-deprived and definitely sensory-overloaded trip up through the nation’s uber-ugly and hyper megalopolis; then the complete mental whiplash when finally arriving in Maine, with it’s jaw-dropping beauty and simply astonishing friendliness. And of course the trauma challenge of Katahdin. So yeah, today is a good day for a Zero: to rest and recuperate my head as much as my legs.
My train out from Indianapolis wasn’t scheduled to leave until midnight, so it was a long day of waiting and over-thinking nearly everything. When my pack was finally filled with all the food I needed for the first part of my trip, it was suddenly and alarmingly heavy and bulky. If you’ve ever read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” (and if you haven’t, you should, because she’s a gifted writer) you probably remember the part where she struggles to put her pack on for the first time, and describes it as feeling as though she had a Volkswagen on her back.
Yeah, it was like that.
I had spent months preparing my pack — researching, trying, changing, exchanging, and/or excommunicating a million different items of gear — and I weighed everything. Now, to be clear: I’m not an ultra-light hiker by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I want to be (the idea of using nothing but a simple tarp as my shelter for six months, or cutting the handle off my toothbrush and dehydrating my toothpaste sounds absolutely ludicrous…but hey, hike your own hike and all of that), but I do know that ounces add up to pounds, and I wanted to carry as few of those as I could. Slowly the list of things that I initially wanted to take, or thought I should take, evolved into those things I only need to take…and still there is a LOT of room for improvement. Well, actually, there is not a lot of room: my pack is filled to the gills, and the extension collar is…well, extended.
Starting out in Maine means starting out with the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and while it is not in fact legally a true wilderness (a great deal of the land is actually privately owned, primarily by paper companies), it is in fact the most remote and rugged stretch of the entire trail. It is over 100 miles to the nearest resupply point, and while I’ve heard that there are some people who can grind that distance out in four days, I am most definitely not one of those people (Frankly, I seriously question whether those people are really…people. You know?) I’m planning on taking a full ten days to get through the Wilderness, and that means carrying ten days of food. I know myself well enough to know that the first few days outdoors my appetite is practically nil, but I also know that I have to eat enough to avoid bonking — because bonking is bad, especially in the middle of nowhere. It’s a challenging balancing act: don’t bring more food than you need, but be sure to bring all the food that you’ll need.
My food for the Hundred Mile Wilderness is pretty standard hiker fare — jerky and gorp and instant oatmeal and Clif bars and ramen. I dehydrated some apples and pineapple for snacks, and also dehydrated some chicken and vegetables to add to the ramen. To change things up a bit, and because one can only eat TOO much ramen, I dehydrated a couple of Campbell’s soups, and also dehydrated some spaghetti with my favorite sauce and dehydrated spinach thrown in (proud of me, aren’t you kid?) All in all, it’s pretty good food. It’s also pretty damn heavy: dehydrated or not, it was nearly 15 pounds! And the weight was just half the problem — the other half was fitting it all into my food bag, and then trying to jam the food bag into the pack! After a lot of stuffing and re-stuffing I finally got it loaded into my pack…and then only with the help of my roommate.
In addition to carrying an absurd amount of food, I’ve also packed a few items of clothing for colder weather, which don’t weigh all that much but they take up extra space. WHY, you ask, are you bringing clothes for cold weather?? Didn’t you just tell us it was 80 degrees? Yes…but Maine has just had an epic winter, and it’s been a long, cool, wet spring. The trail up Katahdin didn’t even open until the last day of May due to snow and ice, and even then we still had to detour around a big chunk of trail because of ice that just doesn’t want to leave. Long underwear and fleece may sound silly now, but I wasn’t going to start my trip without them.
Well, fully loaded with 12 days of food, two full liters of water, and my cold weather clothing, my pack weighed in at 50 pounds. FIFTY. It didn’t feel so much like a Volkswagen as it felt like a mini-van. And it looks like one, too. Everything has to be situated in the pack so that the center of gravity isn’t pulling me backward or throwing me forward, and trying to arrange everything correctly in the pack means pulling the extension collar up as far as it will go. I look like an idiot. But at least I’m not staggering around like a drunken idiot.
Soldiers and Marines may carry bigger packs that are a lot heavier, but I’m not them. Not even close.
I just keep reminding myself that it will get lighter and smaller every day, and that once I’m through the Wilderness I won’t have to carry this much food weight again. Ever. (Hell, I’m not even going to push this much food around in a grocery cart.) I also don’t have to carry two full liters of water — which is like 5 pounds by itself — because up here, there is beautiful, cold clear water everywhere. There will be places further down the trail where water won’t be as plentiful and I’ll have to carry more water with me, but not here. It’s glorious.
Anyway…where was I? Oh yeah. Looking like an idiot.
Actually, I didn’t worry too much about looking like an idiot while waiting for my train at the station in Indianapolis, because I spent my time worrying that the building was going to collapse. The train station in Indianapolis is just about the most dilapidated and dreary place you can imagine, which is pretty sad for this otherwise great city known as the “Crossroads of America.”
We had dinner with my daughter and son-in-law, but because my train was leaving so late and they had to get up in the morning and actually work for a living, they couldn’t see me off at the station. We said our goodbyes and I have to say that Jessica was very brave — because she’s still convinced I’m going to be eaten by a bear or murdered in the woods by one of those mass murderers who like to hang out with the bugs in the woods, waiting for some random smelly hiker to happen by…. Okay, I shouldn’t joke about that; there’s nothing funny about smelly hikers.
My roommate Chelle took me to the station and endured delay after delay after delay with me. After a long day of waiting, the train finally rolled in like thunder at about 1:15am, and then suddenly it was a frantic rush to hoist that behemoth pack and get up the stairs to the train platform. (I’m not sure if Chelle stayed out of kindness or for the amusement of watching me climb those stairs….)
Well, I’m happy to say that I made it to the top of the stairs without falling, and not even out of breath! So that’s a good start.
The train platform was crowded and loud with people, which felt weird because it was the middle of the night. As I walked along the platform looking for my car, the conductor was hollering, “Coach up front; sleeper car here!” Great, I thought; I don’t have to walk all that far (and yes, I did indeed treat myself to the first class accommodations of a sleeper [well, a “roomette”], because when am I going to take a trip like this again?) As I stood in the line of passengers getting ready to board the sleeper car, the conductor looked at me and my pack and then loudly repeated, with emphasis, “Coach up FRONT; sleeper car here!” I just presented him my ticket and let him figure it out for himself: yes, perhaps I do look like hiker trash, but I’m traveling to the trailhead in comfort and style!
I waddled through the narrow corridor and found my assigned “room” (which is actually a space only slightly larger than my recliner at home, but with enough space to put my pack comfortably away and stretch out to sleep. It wasn’t a suite, but it was heaven.) Tom, the car attendant, came by to tell me some train stuff — like when breakfast would be served, and did I want cream when he brought my coffee in the morning? — and then I closed off the world, turned down the lights, stretched out, and watched as we rolled through Indianapolis into the dark.