Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nature Notes: Paw Paw

Fall is paw paw season!  So I thought I'd tell you the story of my favorite native fruit...

It was the tropical fruity smell that caught our attention first.  My Maryland hiking partner and I were hiking up past Weaverton Cliffs on the AT in MD one fall.   It took us a while to find the source of the wonderful fragrance.  When we finally found the smooth, oblong fruits with dappled yellow-green skin on the ground, we had no idea what they were.  I brought a few home, and they ripened on my dresser.  Cutting the fruits open revealed several dark, fava-bean shaped seeds.  The flesh was bright yellow, juicy, and tasted like a cross between a banana and a mango.

A bit of research showed they were pawpaw, one of the few native fruits in the eastern US.  They are delicious raw and in pudding, and make marvelous ice cream. 

Why aren't pawpaw lining the shelves in supermarkets, a staple in kid's lunches, and served for dessert in restaurants?  I mean, this fruit is WAY tastier than bananas and it's AMERICAN. 

It turns out that they don't have a long shelf-life and are hard to transport.  But I just think people just don't know about them.  I mean, I can't imagine that with some selective breeding or genetic engineering...  I also can't figure out why everyone doesn't grow them in their yards-- then there's no need for transport.  But until I get my own garden, I search the forests and river valleys on all my hikes for the pawpaw tree, and I eagerly anticipate paw paw season (Sept. and early October).

Since moving to Georgia, I've searched high and low for pawpaws.  I still haven't found fruits yet, but I finally found a grove of the small trees up in the Cohuttas on the trail to Jack's River falls.  I've read that they are also located at Warwoman Dell.  I can't seem to time my hikes right to find ripe fruits though.  But around September and October, I keep my eyes peeled and sniff the air expectantly, because you never know what might turn up.
Cross-section of a pawpaw fruit

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fears: Loneliness

In preparing for my long-distance hike, I've been reading about what makes for a successful thru hike.  In addition to physical training and gear, I've learned that mental aspects are very important.  I have begun examining my fears, in hopes that I can figure out ways to cope with them and prevent them from getting in the way of achieving my dreams.

There are lots of things to be afraid of on the trail, and I've felt scared at one time or another about pretty much all of them.  Sometimes, it seems like I'm working my way down through this list, as if I will eventually go through each one, checking them off as I go, and maybe after that I will have nothing left to fear.

There are bears habituated to humans (and their food), disease-causing ticks, giardia, and rodents that crawl across you in the night.  There are scary people.  Plus, lightening (this summer I ruined a hike because I saw thunder clouds in the distance and freaked out that I would be caught on the ridge in a storm and it interfered with my ability to marvel at the 2000 year old Bristlecone pine trees).  There is the possibility of falling down and breaking a bone, and getting hypothermia.  But the thing I fear most, the thing that I think puts me most at risk for failure is loneliness.

Feeling afraid, despite the beautiful bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks Nat'l Monument.

What if I don't make friends on the trail?  What if I don't fit in with the other hikers?  What if I loose my connections with my friends and family?  What if I hike alone day after day?  What if I pass by the few people I do happen across but without any meaningful conversations?  What if I become consumed with longing for connections and, without the strength and meaning I derive from interactions with others, I become depressed? 

The reason this scares me so much is that in my past I have experienced depression.  In my early twenties, I didn't have many friends-- it just wasn't my priority.  Then I went through a difficult time where I felt utterly alone and depressed following end of my 10-year relationship and all the changes that went along with that.  It was the most horrible thing that I've ever experienced.  I couldn't eat.  I couldn't work.  I cried every night.  Slowly, with much work, my life has changed.  In the past five years since then, my friendships have become one of the most important thing in my life.  I fear going back to that horrible time when I felt incredibly lonely, unconnected, and afraid.  I also know that I got through it, and that the experience changed my life for the better.

I've read that being alone is totally different from being lonely and I've found this to be an important distinction.  I've been thinking about other times in my life I've been alone, and how I've always enjoyed those.  In college, I did field work for several years where I worked for many hours outdoors by myself, both in the dunes of California studying lupine and in the forests of Maryland working on beech.  I was alone but was perfectly happy working outdoors and thrilled to be involved in fascinating research projects.  But in both cases, I'd return in the evenings to the research stations for lively dinnertime conversations.  Perhaps on the trail, I will camp and have great interactions with other hikers.  Perhaps too, I will be by myself, and enjoy that time, and learn from it, and have it change me again.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chattooga River Backpack

Over Labor Day, my hiking partner, Still Waters, and I backpacked for two nights on the Chattooga Trail sections 1 and 2, from the 76 bridge to the 28 bridge (19.2 miles total). This was a fairly gentle section, with just a few hills, and soft trail padded with pine needles ("every footfall is a pleasure").  Despite the holiday weekend, few other backpackers were out, and only the 0.5 miles around the road crossings were busy.

I noticed that I pushed myself hard on this trip. I'd fly down the trail, thinking about how I need to be strong for next spring. I also practiced pushing myself when I was tired: in the afternoon of the second day, after filling up my water containers at a nice spring, I struggled climbing the steepest uphill section of the trip. Normally, I bound up hills. But this time, the extra weight in my pack was a huge burden. So, I kept saying to myself-- pretend your pack is heavy with a resupply out on the AT-- find those extra energy reserves! And I could feel the energy flow and my pace quicken, the muscles responding, and the confidence surging within me-- that I CAN DO IT!

What's cookin'?
Cooler temperatures this trip provided plenty of practice staying warm. I have two sets of clothes-- one for hiking and one for sleeping, and I struggle with figuring out when to change. There is a tradeoff: my hiking clothes are wet with sweat, so I want to change right when I get into camp. But then I need to avoid getting them dirty too (especially with food smells that might attract critters), so sometimes I don't want to change until after I've eaten. This time, there was another consideration-- Still Waters built a fire, so we could dry out our wet clothes, so I decided to change. The steam rose out of our socks, bandannas, and bras as we hung them over the fire, and we joked about how we were roasting our clothes for dinner!

Sunrise over the Chattooga
I tested out two new pieces of gear:

First, I love my Blackbird hammock!  I fell asleep instantly, though I woke up more than usual when I had to turn over because I'm still learning how to find the "sweet spots".  It took me a while to learn to sleep soundly in my tent too. There was no shortage of suitable trees and it set up easily. The best part is all my stuff stays cleaner because I'm out of the dirt. Since there was no chance of rain in the forecast, I didn't pitch the tarp, and so enjoyed looking at the stars and watching the sunset and sunrise from the warmth of my sleeping bag.

This was also my first trip with a steripen (4.4 oz). I switched from my trusty, bulky, heavy pump (17 oz). I'm not convinced the steripen will work as well as my pump, but hopefully I won't get sick, and I will learn to love my steripen. For me, this is a process, so I try to remember how far I've come-- my first backpacking trips, I carried in all my water from home!

I also practiced leaving some gear (intentionally) at home (with my pack down to only 26 lb pack with 3 days food and 3 L water). I missed my campshoes until Still Waters reminded me to take off my shoes and air out my feet. I propped up my bare feet on a rock, and warmed them near the fire. Worked like a charm! I also didn't bring a hat or sunglasses, which works OK for me because I usually stick to shady spots and would rather be a little uncomfortable for a short while than bring the extra stuff.

Besides gear and physical preparations, I have been thinking about practicing *how* I want to hike. My tendency is to hike fast, but I value spending the time to fully savor my surroundings. As I hike along, my eyes constantly scan for flowers, and I usually take the time to stop, investigate, and photograph those that I find. This is second nature to me, and keeps me motivated, curious, and open, and not lost in thought or mindless brain-chatter. What does not come as naturally for me is stopping and sitting down, just to look around. On the second day of the trip after lunch, Still Waters wanted to stop to rest. My initial reaction was frustration, because I wanted to hurry up and get to camp. But we found a spot by the river, and while she lay down, I cooled off in the river and sat on a rock, watching the water flow and a flock of geese, being aware of the changing seasons. It reminded me that this is a valuable skill to have-- being still and just observing. One of my reasons to hike long-distance is that I believe in the personal transformation that happens during this process. I have noticed that the quality of my thinking can be enhanced when I am simply sitting and being still.

Nature notes:
Spotted many wispy white featherbells, a type of lily.
Cardinal flower along the river.
Orange fringed orchid was past it's prime, battered and dried out. Still excited to find it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Training: Trapeze

Photo by Lauren Puls
I've been taking trapeze and aerial fabrics several times a week for the last year. Trapeze captivates my imagination, and provides a full body workout like no other. I keep going back week after week for comradery and the pure joy of it. It challenges my brain to think in three dimensions, to remember routines, and develops mind-body connection. It makes me feel beautiful and graceful and strong. It reminds me to play and dance and feel like a kid.

Lessons from trapeze that help me (in hiking and in life):

1. It's not all about strength. Flexibility and balance are just as important. But you can't do it if you aren't strong, so practice those situps, pushups, and pullups *and* stretch!

2. You have to learn to let go at some point, and trust that you've prepared sufficiently, so that when you fall, the fabrics and knots you've created will be enough to keep you up.

3. You can tap into your energy reserves and go beyond what you think you can do.

4. You have to know when to stop when your muscles are shaking and your brain is too tired to think clearly.

5. It's not about the tricks and the poses, it's about finding the beauty in getting from one move to the next, and savoring the flow, making the in-between the most interesting part. Because most of the time is the in-between time.

Trying my new hammock

Today, I got my new Warbonnet Backbird hammock in the mail.  I was so excited to try it out, that I used cheap carabiners for the rigging because I couldn't find any others.  Guess what?  Boundless enthusiasm alone will not keep you aloft like in Mary Poppins.

But I also learned that if your hammock rigging does slip and cause you to fall to the ground, it's not a big deal.  Startling, but not painful.  I will have to remember to not be afraid to fall.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What I love about hiking

One of my friends told me that it seems like I've written lots about my hikes and about nature, but encouraged me to write more about myself, so here are some more things about me....

What I love about hiking

I love the physical swing of my legs as I move down the trail.  I love how my connections with other people happen so naturally while hiking.  I love the mental aspects-- the clarity, awareness, looking, watching, finding and sensing the world around me.  I love watching the ideas flow through my mind and then seeing how my mind relaxes as I settle into the pace of the natural world.  I love experiencing the changing weather and terrain. I love feeling tired and hungry afterward.

On hiking every weekend

As I've mentioned before, I've hiked every weekend for the past five years, only missing a week if I'm really sick.  It's my passion and as essential to me as eating and sleeping.  Honestly, there is nothing I love more than hiking.  (As you can imagine, this has not always gone over so well in my relationships.)  During the busiest time in my life, while I was finishing my thesis and working harder and longer than I ever have, ignoring practically everything and everyone, consumed only with writing and thinking about my research, I still hiked every Saturday.   During that time, I brought my notebook with me and wrote down lots of ideas about my research while on the trail, and the flashdrive with a copy of my dissertation stayed in my pocket the whole time ('cause you never know if the whole university will burn down and destroy all my precious writings and data).  The week before my PhD defense, as I was hiking along, I was so consumed with thoughts of my research that I walked smack into a tree and got a huge bruise on my forehead, which, thankfully, no one on my committee commented on at my examination.   But I knew I needed to hike especially during this time because it calmed me and got me through it, relatively in one piece.

On tradeoffs

I've made certain choices to have this life filled with hiking.  I don't have a house, marriage, pets, or kids.  When the conversation turns to sports, TV, or pop culture, I have embarrassingly little to contribute.  While other people my age go out on Friday night or stay late at work to further their careers, I go to bed early so I can be on the trail early the next morning.  I've simplified my life, and I've made these choices deliberately.  That's how I get to hike so often.

The red bump on my forehead from walking into a tree.