First, you buy a backpack. When you buy a backpack, you’ll have to start training. When you start training, you’ll need to know where you’re going and what that training will require. Once you’re ready and it’s time to start your adventure, things won’t go as planned. And so on, and so on….
So here’s the short version.
Missing my adult daughter led me to agree to a new challenge. A four day, three night backpacking trip in May 2019 with a 35 lb pack in the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. I’m an avid hiker, but I’d never carried a heavy pack, and in my early fifties, I needed to up my fitness level in order to be ready. I also knew that walking on flat trails in northeast Florida would in no way prepare me for the ups and downs and weight-bearing requirements of carrying a backpack and negotiating 3000 + feet of elevation change on the Skyway Loop Trail of the Cheaha Wilderness. So, the first challenge was getting in shape. I borrowed a backpack, loaded it down with about 15 lbs, which I increased over the course of two months, put on my hiking boots, and began hiking four to five miles on the rooty, rough (but flat) trails of Hanna Park in Jacksonville, Florida. I worked my way up to 8 miles with the help of Spotify and Lady Gaga to keep me company. By early May, I thought I was ready.
There would be no story without any problems. Day One. Problem one. My daughter, the experienced backpacker, forgot to bring her sleeping bag which we realized on the highway crossing from Georgia into Alabama. In her defense, we had just spent a hectic morning moving her belongings out of her college dorm room and into a storage unit before heading up to the trail. So lesson number one is anyone can forget anything and you better be flexible with a backup plan. We dashed into Academy Sports and picked up the lightest weight compact sleeping bag in stock, which was 3 lbs. This is heavy for a backpacker, but pretty light for a cheap compact sleeping bag.
Our next problem was a dangerous one. Too much heat and not enough water. Yes, we were prepared for heat. We live in Georgia and Florida, and we know about heat. But when you add your pack weight, plus elevation, and the month of May in the South, it doesn’t really feel like spring. It feels like August. Plus, the known water sources on the first four miles were dried up leaving us with no place to refill after the creek on the early part of the trail. The solution? We dumped our gear at a camping spot after a grueling climb up the “Stairway to Heaven” and went in search of the next water source a mile or more further on. When we got to the spring my heart dropped. All we saw was a small muddy pool. With our mouths feeling like we’d been eating dry leaves we had no choice but to fill up. We used our filters and carefully dipped our bottles into the inch of clear water on top of the silt. Slowly, slowy, clean water filled our bottles and saved the day. Truly, that muddy pool gave us the cleanest water we had on the whole trip. We filled our drom (extra bag of water) and our two bottles and slept well knowing that the next day we would be camping by a little waterfall.
Problem three happened on the second night as we were awakened at 1:30am by the sound of gunshots about a mile away. The yelling and shooting were faint enough that we couldn’t tell if it was rowdy partying or a shooting rampage at the nearby public camp grounds. Needless to say, we put on our boots in case we had to make a quick exit and slept not so soundly the rest of the night. In the morning we headed out and asked some passersby on the trail if they’d heard the gunshots and what it might have been. They were local hikers and they laughed and said, “It’s Alabama, there’s always gunshots.” So, armed with the knowledge that only partiers and hunters were around, and likely no mass shooters, we set our sights on enjoying the rest of the day. Indeed we did, as we reached my favorite part of the loop, The Chinnabee Silent Trail.
Constructed in 1977 by the Boy Scout Troop 29 from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, The Chinnabee Silent Trail meanders along Cheaha Creek through mountain laurel and hardwood forests with interesting wooden walkways and viewing points of Devil’s Den Falls. It has great places to stop and soak your feet or take a full plunge, which we did before heading on to our last night’s campsite.
The last day brought no problems but did provide a little blow to our pride as we struggled through the final four miles of our multi-day 17 mile total trip. Passing us throughout this day were members of a running club who were participating in a single day trail running event on the same route we just did over four days. They started early in the morning and would be done by the end of the day. Granted, they had no packs, but still. That’s impressive. But my lovely daughter reminded me to “Hike Your Own Hike“. Don’t judge yourself by other hikers accomplishments.
And so, the end of the story. I was proud when I finished. And dirty, sweaty, sore and hungry. The Steak and Shake we ate on the way home was the best junk food I’ve ever consumed. I discovered my old bones could handle hiking and carrying a pack uphill. And I learned that my daughter has a full music library in her head with lyrics from the Beatles to Bruno Mars, which helps pass the time by the campfire or on the trail. And as for my words of wisdom to other aging backpackers or newbies, get the thickest (but still lightweight) air mattress you can carry.