I love backpacking in the Sierras, but there is one little problem: The First Day.
The normal procedure for packing the mountains is to drive up to some convenient starting point, maybe a high national forest parking lot. This makes a lot of sense, since you obviously would prefer not to spend a week or two walking up from the flatlands. Instead, you get a nice head start by arriving rested at, say, 8,000 feet.
Of course, when I say rested, I don’t mean you’ve had any sleep. To maximize your time in the mountains, you probably drove most of the night to reach your parking lot. So you are sleep deprived.
You are also oxygen deprived.
You’ve given your body absolutely no time to adjust to the altitude shift, so your corpuscles are working overtime trying to keep your body supplied with enough oxygen to keep you conscious and mobile.
You put on your boots, open your trunk, and heft your pack onto your back, which immediately starts to protest. It is one of the facts of a contrary world that you get to start with a pack that is at its very heaviest when you are least prepared to bear it. As the days go by you will eat your way to a lighter pack, but on the first day it’s chock-full of food and, freeze-dried or not, a couple of weeks worth of food weighs a lot.
But, with the slightly bent over posture of great age, you are ready to start.
Well, sort of ready. The truth is you’ve been sitting in an office chair for most of the last year (New Year’s resolutions to the contrary) and you are not in as good shape as you hoped you’d be. Still, how big a problem should that be?
Oh, wait. That contrary world has provided you with another catch: Everywhere you might like to go is uphill from where you are.
So you are sleep deprived, oxygen short, carrying a totally unreasonable weight (your shoulders will be discussing that with you shortly), and now you get to climb steeply uphill.
And you do this for fun?
Some years ago I went packing with my old camping buddy and his new wife. Trim and athletic (they’d kept their New Years resolutions) they were just bursting with energy and ready to hit the trail. They’d volunteered to do the food shopping, and they’d added another little catch to the mix which was going to haunt me for the next few hours.
Seems they had decided that the key to getting the best start on a good hike was to make sure that the first night’s meal was a good one. No freeze-dried baked beans for them, no sir. They’d packed genuine (heavy) steaks, genuine (heavy) potatoes, and the makings of a real (not too heavy) salad.
Now I’ve known back-packers to trim the margins off their maps so they didn’t have to lug those extra grams in their packs. I’m not quite that level of fanatic, but the rule is still that you carry nothing you don’t have to.
Steaks? Potatoes? Really?
But wait, there’s more.
My friends are genuine wine connoisseurs while my palate tends to the plebeian. I understand that serious drinkers prefer reds, but some unfortunate memories of college rotgut burgundies had permanently soured me on them. So you can imagine I was overjoyed when my friends announced that they had brought a good Cabernet Sauvignon to cap off our first night’s dinner.
There are few things heavier to carry in one’s pack than fluids and the idea of lugging that totally superfluous and unpalatable load up into the Sierras seemed to be taking lunacy to a masochistic level.
My friends carefully divided the extra weight of our first night’s meal between us. And – you guessed it – I got to carry the wine.
One of the rules when backpacking is to constantly listen to your body and pace yourself. That first day you should be walking at a pace roughly equal to that of an octogenarian. It’s much slower than your normal pace and darned hard to do. Let me tell you it’s a lot harder when you are hiking with people who are in lots better shape than you are. You don’t want to be a burden, you don’t want to be a laggard, and you are just competitive enough to try to match their pace.
Pretty soon the shoulder straps start to cut in, the pack starts to gain weight with every step, and your heart starts to pound in your temples.
Despite my best intentions to monitor my pace and hold back, I was soon aware I was pushing myself too hard to keep up. It wasn’t too long before my friends were having to stop along the way to allow me to catch up. They were very nice about it, but as I got more and more tired, my mood got blacker and blacker. I was becoming the very definition of an unhappy camper. And I kept thinking of that damned bottle of wine I was carrying.
Finally I just told them to stop waiting for me. They could just push on ahead and set up camp. I’d get there when I got there.
I pushed on, but my legs were getting rubbery, my breaks longer, and the sun began to set. It was about that time I hit the sand.
Hiking in sand is about as unpleasant a way to walk as has ever been invented and I was in no shape to tackle it. If my friends hadn’t been waiting somewhere ahead I think I’d have just lain down then and there. I yearned to throw that Cabernet away, but it was just too much effort.
But everything has an end. Finally I came around a bend and found our camp all set up. I walked about three steps into it and then just fell over backwards without even taking my pack off. I don’t remember ever having been so exhausted and miserable in my entire life.
Just to round it off my friend came over. Not to commiserate or to rescue me. Instead he started rustling around in my pack for that damned wine. It was the purest form of icing on any cake you can imagine. Then he disappeared over to where their tent was.
But in a couple of minutes he was back and handed me a stainless steel cup full of that miserable, goddamned Cabernet.
I’ve never tasted anything so wonderful in my entire life.