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The Road Less Traveled is Overrated

1 03 2012

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Originally published March 8, 2010.

Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines.  As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.

Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision.  For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont.  You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant.  Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass.  (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)

When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for.  You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?

As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary.  Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind.  It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail.  If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it.  Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.

Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails?  Not necessarily.  As always, kids, the key here is balance.  That brings us to Rule No. 9:

Choose the Right Trail.

As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier.  That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers.

While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors.  I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day.  After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was.  Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone.  On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me.  Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for.  Here are a few indicators:

  • How many cars are at the trailhead?  If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers.  If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there.  And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
  • Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks?  The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized.
  • Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers?  Hear them?  If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.

So pick the trail that’s right for you.  If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away.  And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike.  Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

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I’m As Free As a Bird Now…

29 02 2012

Originally published February 8, 2010.

“Look, I won’t go far, okay?  If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”

— Buffy, BtVS, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

Last summer, I spent a week at a dude ranch in Montana, riding horses, shooting rifles, panning for gold, hiking, incredible wildlife viewing, and generally hanging out.  Montana is a great place to hang out.  That’s because, out on the ranches, even those that are “close to town” by their standards are far away by the standards of us city dwellers.  The ranch where I stayed had a driveway that was over a mile long between the main road and the first ranch buildings (the corral), and that’s considered short.

I mention all of this because, while I was on the ranch for a week, I had no access to email or my cell.  None.  There was simply no signal out there.  You could get a sort of sketchy signal on the main road, so if I was truly desperate, technically I could have walked out there.  Believe me, I considered it.

I’m hyper-connected.  I am checking email constantly, texting, making phone calls, on Facebook, etc.  I’m also one of those people who gets a LOT of incoming communication.  I go a day without checking messages, and I have hundreds to weed through (both work and personal), and that’s mighty overwhelming.

Last week, we talked a little bit about bringing your cell along when you solo hike.  I mentioned the big caveat, which is that it won’t always work out there in the wild (or on a Montana ranch), but I urged you to bring it along anyhow.  I’ve noticed, however, that there is a common reaction to this suggestion: But I’m going out into the wilderness!  Isn’t bringing a cell phone defeating the purpose?

No.  Not at all.  And here’s why:

Your phone has an off button.

Simple, I know, but oh-so-important.  The phone is a safety precaution.  (And, if you’re like me, a way to snap a photo and upload it for everyone’s viewing pleasure, whether at the moment or at a later time.)  I don’t check my email on hikes.  I don’t make calls.  I tend to silence my phone or turn it off entirely.  I have it just in case, but I take the opportunity to completely ignore it, and my hyper-connected life.

It’s good to disconnect every so often.  You can do it at home, too — try going 24 hours without answering the phone, checking your email, or turning on the television.  I call it “going hermit.”  It’s unbelievably serene (if you can find the 24 hours to do it).  All those voices and nagging wonders about what’s going on slowly quiet down, so that even when you get back to the bustle you feel more in control and less rushed.

Hiking and camping is the perfect opportunity to disconnect.  Bring the phone.  Make sure it’s charged.  And then turn it off until you need it.  You won’t be sorry.





Can You Hear Me Now?

29 02 2012

Originally published February 1, 2010.

Ah, cell phones.  Twenty years ago they were only for the very wealthy — and the very strong…did you see the size of those things?  Now, however, they are tiny, multi-functional lifelines that most of us couldn’t imagine living without.  They are also the solo female traveler’s best friend.

Back when I took my road trip, I had a cell phone.  It was a cute little silver flip phone from Motorola, not the top of the line, but certainly sleek enough for the day.  That phone came in very handy while I was out on my own.  One day, when I was headed back east on Rte 40 in New Mexico, I blew out a rear tire.  I avoided the speeding 18-wheelers, pulled over to the side of the road, and pulled out my phone, praying I would have a bar or two.  I did!  I called AAA, they showed up and changed my tire, and I was on my way once again.  I was never so thankful to have the phone, because it was a nearly 10 mile walk to the next exit.

This brings us to Rule Number 8 (8!  Can you believe it?)

Don’t Forget Your Cell Phone.

When out on your own, having a (working, charged) phone with you decreases the risks you face.  It’s a lifeline to the rest of the world.  This is true even while hiking and camping.  Remember my friends A and B?  One of them let his phone lose the charge and the other didn’t bother bringing hers, and so they found themselves out in the woods in the dark, sort of lost, with no mode of communication available.  (Sorry to keep referring to that story, guys, but it’s such a great real life example!)

Now, this rule comes with one big caveat: Just because you bring your phone doesn’t mean you should neglect your other precautions.

Unfortunately, this is a common way of dealing with technology — we become so dependent on it that we lose the ability to function without it.  I rely heavily on my car’s GPS and so it takes me longer to learn how to get places without it.  I rely on my phone to find people now…we’ll pick a time to meet and a general place and then call each other to triangulate once there, which means that, if the phone dies or you leave it behind, you might be out of luck.  It’s always a good idea to have a back-up (often luddite) solution if your techno-tastic precautions fail.

The truth is, there isn’t always great cell reception in the wilderness.  You’re less likely to have reception the farther out you go, and this means the phone could end up being useless as a rescue device.  Does that mean you shouldn’t bother bringing it?  No, because that’s not always the case, and if you’re hiking closer to city limits on day hikes, you’re more likely to be able to get some service — and, if you do need help, you can more easily describe your problem than by just sending up a flare.

Besides, if you have a phone that’s the size of the one Zack is using in the photo above, you’ll get an extra workout as well.

Don’t forget to enter Her Side’s First Contest!  Deadline Friday!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





Planning is Half the Fun

28 02 2012

Originally published January 20, 2010.

If you read last week’s post about Rule #7 (Tell someone where you’ll be), you may be grumbling a little.  I know, I know.  You’re spontaneous.  You can’t be held to a plan.  You need adventure, and that means heading out into the great wide open with little more than a desire to explore.

You, being spontaneous.

This is fine, as an attitude.  I actually encourage it, and embrace it myself.  But a desire to be spontaneous, to let the east wind carry you to the door of your next unknown adventure, doesn’t mean that you can’t engage in at least some planning and preparation.  Remember, when we set out on this journey together I said that solo hiking and camping can be safe — with a little preparation and precautions.  With the preparation, you can stop worrying about danger and get on with the enjoyment…which is kind of the point, right?

Besides, planning is fun.  When I was a kid, I would watch, fascinated, as my dad spent the better part of the year planning our annual vacation.  He would pore over travel guides from AAA, send away for brochures and amusement park maps (this was pre-Internet), make lists and add up prices and plot courses and analyze maps.  He had so much fun doing it, I sometimes wondered if he had more fun planning the vacation than actually being on it.

I inherited this planning fascination from him.  When I took my long road trip, I spent a couple of months planning — researching equipment I would need, places I wanted to go, people with whom I could stay, sites to see, etc.  I looked at driving times between parks, mapped out routes, looked at websites on American roadside kitsch.  (Of course, I didn’t have this blog to help me…)  It was scary — because I wasn’t certain I could do it — but it was also exciting.

Look how much fun they're having!

Here are some good things about planning and not leaving everything to spontaneity:

  • Anticipation: Planning lets you have fun with your trip before you go, because you can imagine yourself on the trip and get excited for it.
  • Eliminating Potential Problems: No, you can’t foresee everything.  (Unless you can, in which case you know what I’m going to say next.)  You can anticipate potential issues that might arise and make provisions for them ahead of time.  If you know you’re going to be in a place where the weather is cold, for example, you can pack warm clothing and avoid a) frostbite or b) maxing out a credit card buying new clothes.  If you eliminate these issues before they happen, you don’t have to worry about them while you’re supposed to be having fun.
  • Find stuff you never would have seen otherwise.  Okay, this goes both ways.  If you don’t plan at all, you might miss something unbelievable because you didn’t know to look for it.  On the other hand, if you stick too hard and fast to your plan, you run the risk of missing something unbelievable because you didn’t take the time to notice it.  Balance, my child, is the key.  But the point here is that by planning, you might run across something truly interesting that you wouldn’t have otherwise stumbled across on your own.
  • Know what you’re getting into.  This is probably the most important benefit of planning, at least from a safety perspective — and is also connected to eliminating potential problems noted above.  If you know that the hike you’re planning is 5 miles, and moderately strenuous, you can guage how much time you need.  If you have the right map, you can figure out if you’re on the right trail or get yourself un-lost if you make a wrong turn.  All of this makes for safer, and therefore more fun, solo hiking.

Finally, planning doesn’t have to mean you give up spontaneity entirely.  Planning can provide merely a framework…and then you can decide to stick to the plan or not, depending on your whim.  And if you do decide to switch it up at the last minute, you can text/facebook/call/leave a note like we talked about last time…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





I’ll Be Over the River and Through the Woods

28 02 2012

Originally published January 11, 2010.

You’re out on the trail.  You’re moving along at a good pace.  You’ve taken all your precautions.  Unfortunately, something goes wrong.  You trip, injure your ankle, and you can’t make it back out.  Bad luck, you also picked today to hike a trail where you haven’t seen any other hikers, your cell phone isn’t getting any signal, and you never got around to getting one of those “come get me” survival beacons.  Is all hope lost?

Nope.  You’ll be fine.  Because you followed Rule No. 7:

Tell someone where you’re going to be.

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t always.  It’s also (unlike the first aid kit rule) negotiable.  There are many times that I break this rule because I just don’t think about it.  When I was on my road trip, I was hiking practically every day, and was alone for most of the trip, so there wasn’t anyone to tell (and this was pre-facebook and twitter, and in the early days of accessing the internet via cell phone…I was still hunting up internet cafes to check my email).  When I go to the places near me for “quick hikes” on trails I am very familiar with, it often doesn’t occur to me to mention my intended destination.  And sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be until you go, because there are multiple trails and you want to check them out before deciding which to commit to.

This is all right.  Like most of what I talk about here, this Rule is a matter of balance.  Going for a walk around Walden Pond, or on a highly populated trail, simply doesn’t pose the same risks as going somewhere difficult and secluded.  It is a good idea to make your intended hike known, however, and to get into the habit of doing so.  That way, if you don’t come back, someone knows where to start looking.

Remember when I told the story of my friends A and B who got lost in the dark?  One thing they did absolutely right was telling us where they intended to be.  We knew what trail they were taking, and we knew when they were expected back, so when they didn’t show up, we knew exactly where to go and look for them.  (Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.)

Now, in 2010, it is very easy to tell people where you’re going.  Here’s how:

  1. Call someone.  “Hey, Mom, how are you?  How is Dad?  Listen, I can’t talk, because I’m on my way to the Canyon Loop Trail in the Betasso Preserve.  It should take me a couple of hours — I’ll call you on my way home.”  See?  Easy.  And you make Mom happy by calling.
  2. Text someone.  Don’t feel like talking?  “hkng Laurel Falls tday b bk by 3.”
  3. Email someone, or a couple someones.  “Hey girls, I’ll be hiking to Crow Creek Falls in the Helena National Forest tomorrow, starting around ten.  Let me know if you want to join!”
  4. Facebook/Twitter it.  This lets you reach lots of people, and also is sort of second nature to many of us now.  “Jane Smith is going to hike the North Pawtuckaway Mountain Trail today.  See y’all in 3-4 hours!  Should I post photos?”
  5. Leave a note in your car at the trailhead.  I wouldn’t put it on the dash and be obvious about it, but leaving it in the driver’s seat, where someone could find it easily if they were looking, is not a bad idea, particularly if you didn’t decide where you were going until the last second and don’t have any cell reception.

And that’s it.  So simple.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





You’ve Got Class: Self Defense, First Aid, and Meeting New People

27 02 2012

(Originally published December 9, 2009.)

Buffy: I’m Buffy.  I’m new.

Xander: Xander.  Is – is me.  Hi.

Buffy: Um, thanks.

Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around… maybe at school… since we… both… go there.

Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [walks away]

Xander: We both go to school. Very suave. Very not pathetic.

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”

Yes, it’s true, I was one of those kids who liked school.  For the most part.  I mean, I didn’t relish test-taking or being picked on or gym class but in general school was an okay thing.  Sure, there were days I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but since I was all right with the whole learning premise, it was pretty much a place to hang around with my friends for eight (or more, during theater season) hours per day.  College was even better for these purposes — you get to live with your friends, and go to class when you feel like it.

Once you’re in the real world, with a job, you start to realize how good you had it when you were in school…why do you think so many people go through the torture of grad school?  They get slapped in the face by the real world and run back to class, where it’s safe and fun and your success or failure depends pretty much on your own efforts.

Even those of us who stick it out in the real world, work our jobs, and get focused on our careers end up craving the classroom again eventually.  Think about it.  I bet you (or people you know) have taken various classes post-college.  Did you take a writing seminar?  A class on sauces at the local culinary school?  A beginner’s photography class you found on craigslist?  Salsa lessons at that bar down the street?

What makes you decide to take a class?  For me — and I’m betting for most people — part of it is an actual desire to learn something, maybe part of it is a desire to learn something specific, but part of it is the social aspect.    It’s like the first day at a new school all over again: a little scary, incredibly exciting, and now you’ve grown into your skin and have confidence you didn’t have at the acne-dangerous age of fifteen.  Who else will be taking the class?  What will they be like?  Will you have a chance to be popular, again or finally?

This is the Good Stuff side to the rule we discussed last week, you know, the one about never ever ever leaving your first aid kit behind.  While thinking about the injuries you might sustain on a solo hike or camping trip, or the other dangers out there can be intimidating, don’t forget that the key is to be prepared.  And how can you get prepared, in a fun, exciting way that conveniently ties into this little musing about school?

You can take a class!

Last week I linked to the American Red Cross for first aid classes, but there are other organizations that offer them as well.  Female self-defense classes became a rage a handful of years ago, and they are still offered all over, in varying levels of commitment, intensity, and difficulty.  Classes don’t have to be limited to just safety, however; many local adult ed centers, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other outdoors clubs offer hiking “classes” that usually involve a group hike.  Just because you want to be able to solo hike and camp, or prefer to solo hike and camp, doesn’t mean that you can’t also get involved with the community, learn something,  and get prepared.

You can even be like Xander and meet some new people at class, since you both…go there.

What classes have you voluntarily taken since leaving formal “school?”  Why?  What was good and bad about them?





Stuck on Band-Aid

27 02 2012

Originally published November 30, 2009.

Poor Kenny.  For those who have never seen South Park, or who have been living in a cave on Mars with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears for the last twelve years, Kenny McCormick is the unfortunate member of the South Park gang who, in nearly every episode in the first five seasons, dies a terrible death.  So, as I was saying, poor Kenny.

Kenny is a really unlucky little kid.  Kenny dies in just about every way imaginable.  He is electrocuted, crushed by a tree, torn apart by an angry mob, gored by a bull, eaten by fish…and so on and so on.  If there is a chance, however small, that someone could be injured while participating in any activity, Kenny will beat the odds and become the fatal statistic.

I’m glad I’m not as unlucky as Kenny, and I hope that you’re not either.   If you are, there’s not much that can be done about it.  But if you’re a little more average, it pays to take some precautions while engaged in activities that have a higher risk of injury than sitting around on your sofa watching South Park.

That brings us to Rule No. 6:

First Aid Kits Are Non-Negotiable.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again.  Bring a first aid kit when you hike and camp.  Bring it when you’re solo, bring it when you’re in a group, just bring it.  Bring it even when you think that the hike should be a piece of cake, especially if you’ve never done it before and don’t know from personal experience how easy it will be.  After all, we know what can happen when you set out on what you think is a “simple” hike in unknown territory.

I don’t want to hear any excuses out of you.  A while ago, I discussed what should go into a first-aid kit in some detail.  You don’t have to put much work into getting one together, however, because ready-made kits are available for your (inexpensive) purchase.  First aid kits come in all sizes (mine weighs half a pound) and so the minor extra weight is worth the vast benefits of carrying one.

You should also learn how to use your first aid kit.  Having one won’t help in an emergency if you’re sitting there trying to figure out what a lancet is or how to operate your snake-bite suction device.  Read the instructions in advance.  Buy a first aid manual and study it (they make compact ones that you can bring with you, and some ready-made kits actually come with them).  You can even take a first aid course.

At the end of the day, a first aid kit, and knowledge of how to use it, can help you avoid the fate that always, always, seemed to befall poor Kenny.  Those bastards.