Hey, did I ever tell you about the times I’ve walked through gunfire on the trail?


Five years ago, way back when my now-husband and I called each other by our trail names and subsisted primarily on Snickers bars dipped in Nutella, we walked, unwittingly, into the midst of a shootout. We were somewhere close to the Pen-Mar state line, in a wooded area crisscrossed by service roads. At the bottom of a steep hill, we started to hear a loud, rapid pop-pop-popping. At first we assumed it was someone playing with firecrackers: annoying, but par for the course on a glorious fall afternoon in a stretch of easy-access woodland. As we crested the ridge, we realized the popping was way too loud, way too consistent, to be amateur pyrotechnics, and suddenly the trail in front of us was a haze of smoke. Amidst the smoke were dozens of men in uniform, fully armed, and an array of armored vehicles. Only then did we realize what was going on: these were soldiers firing blanks. We’d walked into the midst of a fully-equipped military training session, taking place on the Appalachian Trail corridor. There was no warning, no signs posted on any trees or at any of the small roads we’d crossed. The violence, even simulated, came as a complete surprise and felt completely incongruous with the surroundings. (Later, the host of a nearby hostel mentioned to us that in Maryland the trail passes very close to Camp David, and it all made a little more sense.) Instead of pausing the combat exercise to let us pass by, a soldier escorted us through the crossfire, like we were a pair of civilian stand-ins. It was surreal. I guess that’s better than terrifying. I realized, in that moment, that this is the closest to armed combat I have ever come, and just how privileged this makes me.     


Fast forward four years. For most of those four years we lived mostly, I should mention, in Las Vegas. Our son was born there in 2014, the year of the CiCi’s Pizza/Walmart shootings and the Bundy Ranch standoff. We’ve since relocated, and watched Mandalay Bay unfold from afar, but it struck a deep nerve nonetheless. Anyway, fast forward to late summer 2016. We were on the last leg of our end-to-end hike on New Hampshire’s 180-mile Cohos Trail, pushing through an excruciatingly long (26 miles?), hot day of mostly road-walking. We were on our way to Pittsburgh, New Hampshire’s northernmost town, one of us lugging a massive pack, the other lugging a sweaty, tired toddler. Did I mention it was hot? Did I mention we’d spent the entire day hiking on roads, except for the portion we’d spent hiking on dusty, heavily-trafficked ATV trails? Did I mention we passed by miles and miles of beautiful lakeshore, all of it private, without a single public access where we could stop and swim? Did I mention the bullets whizzing over our head on Cedar Stream Road?


A view of Lake Francis from the Cohos Trail

If our experience in Maryland went from scary to surreal, our experience that day on the Cohos Trail was the exact opposite: surreal to scary. We weren’t sure if the first bullet was even a bullet. We’d heard the crack of a rifle, but Coos County, the North Country, is a hunter’s paradise. Cedar Stream Road, which follows the shoreline of Lake Francis, borders the Lake Francis Wildlife Area. Many of the houses we walked past that day are hunting and fishing camps. But maybe that swift rustle in the leaves above our heads was just the wind, a broken branch, a leaping squirrel. When it happened a second time, and then a third, it was unmistakable: the sudden report, the zip of a bullet overhead, the rustling of leaves on the other side of the road.

Our dog slunk along, straining at his leash, ears pinned back against his head. Our toddler begged us to make the gunshots stop, and when it was clear to him that we couldn’t, he begged us to go faster. And we did: we moved along at a good three-mile-per-hour clip, not stopping for water, despite the midday heat. We didn’t stop until the gunshots faded in the distance and we’d left that wooded stretch of road behind us. We’ll never know who was up in the woods, or what they were shooting at. Ducks on the lake? Neighbors’ mailboxes? Us? Nothing in particular? We’ll never know if they saw us, if they knew we were there or not. What I do know is this: New Hampshire state law prohibits firing a gun across, or within 15 feet of, a road. Was the shooter willfully violating the law, or did they not realize they were shooting toward the road? Malice is malice, but I don’t have much tolerance for irresponsibility either.


I’m not interested in offering policy prescriptions, and I don’t have a knee-jerk response to the question of gun control vs gun freedom (which I do not see as mutually exclusive). This isn’t a problem that is going to be solved by speaking in absolutes, in terms of all or nothing, which seems to be all anyone can do in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy. My suggestion is merely this: let’s have an ongoing conversation about guns, rather than sporadic outpourings of heightened sentiment in the wake of crises and tragedies. Instead of treating guns as talismans, let’s address them as real objects that affect real bodies. Let’s talk about the impact of guns on our day-to-day lives. Let’s talk about how things do or do not change when you add a gun to the mix, or take one away. Let’s talk, also, about the way our culture is steeped in militarism, about how law enforcement has become a militarized presence in our lives. I can only speak for myself, from my own experience: to my knowledge, I have never been in a situation that would have been improved by the presence of guns, but I’ve been in a couple that would have been improved by their absence.  


Thinking Like Naturalists (or Poets): A Review of Ted Kooser’s Picture Books

This summer I learned that Ted Kooser, former US Poet Laureate, writes children’s books. So far, he’s published three: Bag in the Wind, House Held up by Trees, and The Bell in the Bridge. Reviews seem to suggest that these picture books will hold more appeal for adults than children because they are nostalgic, lyrical, and tell very simple stories with subtle nuance. The illustrations are done in soft earth tones and they emphasize landscape. Some parent reviewers complain that the syntax and vocabulary are unconventional. In other words, these are sorta “boring” books, too difficult to be engaging.

Well, lemme tell you, my three year old thinks Ted Kooser’s books are MAGICAL. These are books about observation and reflection. They deal in minutiae, memory, and mundane mysteries. All three of Ted Kooser’s children’s book take place largely outside, and deal as much with “things” and places as with people. The text and illustrations urge you to engage your senses with the landscapes they present. The human characters are, by and large, dwarfed by their environments. I really adore all three of these books. They demand a little bit of patience. They encourage readers to think like naturalists, or like poets, zooming from macro to micro, observing structures and textures and the smallest movements.

bellI probably would never have found these books on my own, as they don’t seem to have received much press or marketing, but my son found The Bell in the Bridge at the library and insisted we take it home. He’s an avid reader to begin with, but rarely have I seen him so utterly captivated by a story. Of the three, I’d say it’s his favourite. The narrative structure is perfect and the protagonist is relatable. Bottom line: these are some of the least infantilizing, least patronizing children’s books I’ve encountered in recent years. They’re beautiful, and I can tell you from experience, they’re a joy to read over and over.

In Which I Rant. About Chacos and Other Sandals.

Guys, I am so sick of my Chacos. They’re too heavy, they’re not *that* comfortable, I don’t need the arch support (in fact I’m pretty skeptical of the benefits of arch support), and they’re a pain to adjust when your feet swell, and sometimes they chafe and give me blisters. I’m looking for an alternative but haven’t found anything even halfway decent. What I’ve tried:

  • Xero Sandals (Z-treks and Amuri Clouds). While I love the idea of a minimalist sandal (the light weight! The flexibility!) what drives me crazy is the way the toe portion of the footbed flips under on itself and catches on everything. Also, there’s so little foot protection, I find myself wondering why I don’t just walk around actually barefoot. Also, the plastic adjustment toggles feel bulky and floppy (on the Clouds — I returned the Z-treks because the toe strap hit at a really uncomfortable spot), and the toe post and the round shoelace-style straps just are. not. comfortable. (Note: I hate flip flops. Always have. Not cool with rigid things between my toes — I’ve done alright with Chaco Z/2 styles, because I like how the toe loop prevents footbed flop, and doesn’t really feel like a toe post, since it just wraps around your toe.)
  • Natives and Crocs. I’ve always hated Crocs. The material is gross. They don’t actually fit. Your feet just slide around in them. I thought I’d try Natives, because they fit more like “real” shoes and look sort of cute and come in SO MANY COLORS, but the snugness, compared to Crocs, just compounds how awful the EVA foam feels against your feet, and makes it impossible to remove all the debris that sneaks in. So not good. I should’ve known better.
  • Keens. They don’t fit my feet. Every pair of Keens I’ve ever tried on has been heinously uncomfortable. Why? I dunno. The last just doesn’t work for my feet. It’s baffling, but there it is. No Keens. Ever. (One thought: I could maybe try a men’s Keen instead of a women’s?)
  • Tevas. Before I wore Chacos, I wore Tevas. But I’m absolutely not ever going back to velcro sandals. They come undone in the water and wear out after a year or two, whereas Chacos last for decades. Literally decades. What kind of useless sandal-fastening material comes undone in the water?
  • Astral Mary Jays. These looked so cute I had to try them on in the store. But they’re too narrow/low-volume for me, and the seams inside seemed (hah) like they would be really uncomfortable.

My thought is to try something more-minimalist-than-Chacos but more-rigid-than-Xeros: Luna Sandals, Bedrock Sandals? Anyone have a minimalist/barefoot style sandal that they really love? I would try Unshoes, because they look simple and comfy, but I am unconvinced they will be any better than the Xeros.

Or do I just suck it up and buy some ugly $3 water shoes to wear in the water (hello, zebra mussels, fish hooks and broken bottles), hike exclusively in my trail runners because they’re better than anything in the whole wide world, and find some actually-classy, not-even-remotely-gear sandals to wear around town? My only hesitation, apart from the inherent ugliness of $3 water shoes, is what to wear on canoe trips. Do I know any paddlers who prefer their trail runners, or plain old sneakers, over dedicated river shoes/sandals? I know I’d rather portage in my Altras than my Chacos, and they dry somewhat quickly…

Please, Internet, this is a cry for help. What do you wear in the water? What do you wear when it’s too hot for socks? Inquiring minds want to know. Ending my long-term relationship with Chacos is going to be hard, but I’m SO ready to move on. 

Coming Soon…

Apologies for the extended and unannounced hiatus. Now that I’ve successfully uprooted my family from Southern Nevada and moved back to my New England “homeland” I hope to pick up where I left off last summer and catch up on my (extremely stale-dated) trail journalling and maybe even some shiny new reviews.

In the meantime, if you’re desperate for a bit to read, I have a political essay over here.

Day Four: Painted Rock to Tahoe City

01 July 2015. Day Four: Painted Rock to Tahoe City. 8 miles.

Need to catch up? Start at the beginning: Day One.

A long hike is, in truth, a series of short hikes glued together by resupply stops. Our first resupply is in Tahoe City, which is conveniently located right on the trail. A trail town that you walk right through: this is a thru-hiker’s dream. And Tahoe City is nice in other regards, too. Lots of food options, an excellent outfitter’s shop, and, ahem, beaches.


Tahoe State Park – note the diapers drying on the boulders.

Before we left home, I made my best pre-trip planning decisions ever: I booked one of the last remaining tent sites at Tahoe State Park. Tahoe State Park is a short walk from the trail, and it’s literally next door to the post office and the grocery store. How ideal is that?

It’s just a few days before Fourth of July, the height of camping season, and Tahoe City is hopping with people. There is a definite holiday vibe and we get caught up in it. We’re so excited to have a little campsite all to ourselves, complete with a picnic table, a fire pit, grill, and a water spigot. Leisurely camping is such a novelty for us backpackers–especially with campfires banned or restricted almost everywhere in the California backcountry.

We don’t look anything like the car campers with whom we’re sharing the park, and we can’t help but look a little enviously at all the folding chairs, hammocks, frisbees, water floaties, and other luxury camping accoutrements. For us, just having access to showers–to any running water at all–feels luxurious.


World’s largest potato or world’s tiniest knife?

Stealth Baby has serious hiker hunger. In the Safeway, he chants, “Goo, goo, goo!” which means “Juice, juice, juice!” Back at camp he drinks about half a pint of chocolate milk and then half a pint of apple juice. No worries about dehydration here! For dinner PPL requests a grilled steak, and I pick up a pack of vegan Field Roast sausages for myself. Even after a big restaurant lunch (we ate at Rosie’s, which has a dog-friendly patio and a very kid-friendly waitstaff–SB got a balloon, cleverly weighted with a wine cork so he couldn’t lose it), we still want to eat ALL THE THINGS.


Fun with bear boxes (watch your fingers, kid)!

Spending a night in town, off the trail, is a surefire way to interrupt one’s hiking rhythm, so we don’t expect too much of ourselves for tomorrow. We still have chores to do: we’ve weeded a bunch of items out of our packs that we’ve decided we don’t really need, and we’ll mail them ahead in a bounce box so we don’t have to carry them. We’ve also decided to bounce Klein’s backpack. His paws are too sore for him to carry any extra weight right now, and the dog pack doesn’t offer any weight savings for PPL and me if we have to lug it around ourselves! We’ve made enough extra space in PPL’s pack that it makes more sense to put Klein’s food in there. We are hoping that a long rest this afternoon and a nearo (that is, a nearly-zero-mile-day) tomorrow will replenish Klein’s energy. We’re looking forward to a morning of relaxing without worrying about miles. “This,” PPL declares over dinner, “feels like a real vacation!”


Gorgeous lilies on the way into town. I didn’t take nearly enough photos of wildflowers.

Day Three: Brockway(ish) to Painted Rock

30 June 2015. Day Three: Brockway(ish) to Painted Rock. ~11 miles.


Watson Lake

Need to catch up? Start at the beginning: Day One.

We really hit our stride this morning. Great weather and easy terrain put everyone in a good mood, that and the promise of swimming in Watson Lake. In my original itinerary, Watson Lake was to have been our destination for the day, but we’re ahead of schedule and arrive at the lake around noon. The water is the perfect temperature, and there’s even a big raft that someone made out of old logs. Stealth Baby is happy for the chance to get down, run around, throw rocks in the water, and watch tadpoles and frogs. We even see a snake swimming across the pond. It looked just like a garter snake but I’ve never seen a garter snake swim before!

We give ourselves a long siesta, about four hours of resting, splashing in the water, and doing chores. Since Watson is our only water source of the day, we use this opportunity to wash dishes and diapers, cook a big lunch (mashed potatoes and refried beans!), and get ourselves a little bit clean.

The lake has a reputation as a party spot; a forest road runs right past it, and there is a small campground with picnic tables, fire rings, and bear lockers. Moreover, there are bottle caps and little bits of broken glass everywhere, which makes watching SB a bit of a headache. He even manages to find some used TP in the bushes–by far the nastiest trash he’s found so far. Catholes, people! Put it in catholes! Nice deep ones, please, far away from the water…

As the afternoon wears on, the lake, which we had all to ourselves at first, grows busier and busier. Lots of kids and lots of dogs. Klein is pretty worn out and not in much of a mood to play. The longer we hike, the more defensive he becomes of his territory. By four o’clock PPL and I are tired of refereeing the kid and the dog, so we decide it’s time to pack up. Our goal is to hike another 5 miles of so up to Painted Rock, where there is, according to our map, a nice vista and spots suitable for camping. We ready for the quiet and relative solitude of the trail.


Easy walking and gorgeous afternoon light.

On the trail to Painted Rock, we meet tons of mountain bikes. Apparently, this stretch is very popular for a quick afternoon ride. The trail here feels much more like bike trail: hard-packed dirt with steeply sloping sides. The erosion patterns made by wheels are so different than those made by feet. Luckily, Klein is much better with bikes than he is with people on foot. In theory, bikers are supposed to yield to hikers, but in practice it is almost always easier for us to move off the trail and let them pass.

The views from Painted Rock are really nice; unfortunately the mosquitoes are even worse than last night. Little do we know, those bugs are only a taste of what’s to come once we hit Desolation Wilderness.


Sleepy baby missing out on some killer views.

Day Two: Mud Lake to Brockway Summit

29 June 2015: Mud Lake to Brockway Summit (plus a bit). ~12.5 miles.

Need to catch up? Start at the beginning: Day One.

After a night of pitter-pattering rain (and some Papa vomit), we got a late start. The sun was high in the sky by the time we hit the trail. PPL felt really crappy all day. Between the sun, the altitude, the immensely heavy pack, and the fact that he hadn’t really eaten any food in the past 24 hours, we were moving pretty slowly. Only the second day, and already we were discussing bail-out plans!


Drink up! Water cache at Brockway Summit.

We encountered two other TRT thru-hikers today, which helped put PPL in better spirits. He loves chatting with other hikers, and meeting thru-hikers helped shift us into the right frame of mind to keep hiking. Even if we did decide to bail, we needed to make it the next 11 miles to the road. One of the hikers, Nicole, was headed in the same direction as us, and almost finished with her trip–her end (and start) point was Tahoe City. We played leapfrog with each other all day, running into each other at vistas and once more at Brockway Summit (the road crossing where we’d stashed our water the day before).


“You guys, this isn’t going to work.” (It didn’t. We took the jugs off.)

The weather today was cooperative and the views almost as spectacular as the day before. But the most exciting part of the day was catching sight of a bobcat just ahead of us on the trail. It scurried down the slope and into the brush as soon as it caught wind of us, but we got a pretty good look at it; alas, no photos. Klein must be pretty tired already, because he wasn’t nearly as interested as he is with the stray cats back home.


an army of mosquitoes

Our four gallons of water were, thankfully, right where we’d left them, tucked away in some bushes a few hundred feet from the Brockway Summit parking area. We made good time and had lots of daylight left to cook a big meal (PPL’s first since we set out), wash diapers, and relax. Sitting in the shade, eating hot ramen noodles with lots of salty broth was exactly what PPL needed. (Being back down at 7000 feet helped, too!) After eating and drinking, he was raring to go, and we pushed on for another mile or so, far enough that we couldn’t hear the traffic anymore, to a flat area of open forest that looked like it had been part of a controlled burn recently. The rain last night must have kept the mosquitoes at bay; tonight was more than a little bit buggier thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to all the dead and burned wood around us. It’s a good thing we did all of our chores earlier; as soon as we got the tent up all we wanted to do was take refuge from the mosquitoes.


A Note on Diapers

Diapering is perhaps the biggest challenge to taking a young ‘un on a long hike. Dry diapers take up a lot of volume, and wet diapers are both high-volume and heavy. And on top of that, there’s, you know, the sanitation aspect. At home, I use cotton prefolds with wool covers. Cotton is easy to care for, highly absorbent, and lets the child know when s/he is wet.

We have practiced a laid-back version of Elimination Communication with SB since he was about 6 weeks old. At this point he is pretty good about asking to go potty when he needs to–and sometimes even when he doesn’t need to. Classic boy-who-cried-wolf. On the trail, “Pah!” (his word for potty) became his favorite trick for getting down off my back when he was bored. Clever monster.

I knew I didn’t want to deal with wool covers on the trail; as much as I love how breathable and temperature-regulating they are, they are also extremely bulky, as are the cotton prefolds we put underneath them. And most of the time, this combination is more absorbency and leak-protection than we really need with a halfway potty-learned toddler.

In the months leading up to our trip, I experimented with a variety of waterproof covers and disposable/biodegradable diaper inserts (in the world of cloth diapers these are referred to as “hybrid” systems–a mix of disposable and reusable components). I also experimented with hand-washing methods that I’d be able to take on the trail. In the end here’s what I ended up bringing:

  • 3 waterproof covers (I used GroVia because I like the way they fit)
  • 3 cotton birdseye flats (the original cloth diaper–extremely simple, packs down small, easy to wash by hand)
  • 12 Flips disposable inserts per 4-day section (According to folks who home-compost, these liners actually degrade faster than toilet paper as long as you break them up first. While hiking, we buried them just as we would our own waste and TP, in a cathole at least 6 inches deep, and at least 200 feet from the trail and any water sources.)
  • 2 large OPSAKs for washing (one for pee-only, one for poo)
  • 3 oz bottle of Sea To Summit Wilderness Wash (stronger and more concentrated than other biodegradable options such as Dr. Bronner’s or Campsuds)

Our diaper routine looked something like this:

In the evening I put on a Flip insert. Since SB has remarkable bladder control and rarely pees at night, I was usually able to continue using this insert the next morning. SB usually has his bowel movement before noon, so during the first half of the day I used the Flips to minimize the amount of poopy laundry I had to do. Once he’d pooped, I’d switch over to the cotton diapers for the rest of the day, and then back into a disposable at night (on chilly nights I also preferred using the disposable inserts to move the moisture away from his skin). The 15+ changes I packed for each stretch ended up being way more than we needed, so by the end of the trip, I was able to packing fewer diapers–2 flats and 8 or 9 Flips. I did laundry whenever it was convenient–usually whenever we hit our main water source for the day, which was also when we cooked a hot meal, swam, relaxed, etc. Sort of a siesta-plus-chores.

Washing the diapers and covers was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. OPSAKs have a strong, fairly trustworthy seal, so I’d just fill the dirty bags with water, add one drop of soap, and shake shake shake. I found it took about 3-4 rinses to get all the soap out, dumping each batch of water in a gray-water pit in between.

When it comes to diapers, the one thing I definitely don’t recommend is using conventional disposables from the supermarket. For one thing, you’ll be packing out a lot of heavy, wet trash. For another, sposies are heavily perfumed–which, in the woods, is a good way to attract unwanted animals to your campsite. If you bring scented diapers camping, they need to be stored with all food and toiletries, either in a bear-proof container or hung correctly in a tree. We hang our food (we haven’t yet hiked anywhere that requires a bear can) and prefer to store it in OPSAKs as well, so that it attracts less attention. Of course, even if you put your sposie diapers in a bear can, you still have to put one on your baby’s butt…

Oh! And wipes? At home, we use cloth wipes. On the trail, we used unscented disposable wipes and TP, depending on the level of mess. Ever ultralight, PPL wanted to try using just TP. But he’s not the one doing the majority of the wiping. 😉 Sometimes TP just doesn’t have what it takes. Plus, having a few wet wipes is really nice for cleaning hands and faces, too. Heck, we even met a PCT thru-hiker who’d abandoned TP in favor of wet wipes!


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