Day 22: Logistics
I’ve been 3 weeks on the trail, and still no Forrest Gump-like following walking along behind — it’s still just me. I’ve been secretly hoping that some young, idealistic man would run up exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s really you! … here’s somebody who’s got it all figured out. Here’s somebody who has the answer! I’ll follow you anywhere Mr. Brown.” And then another would join, and another, until by the time I hit Alaska it would be a whole legion of adoring disciples, walking North in eager anticipation of when I preach my message. I love that scene from the film, when Forrest finally stops and turns, his long beard moving in the desert breeze. Everyone gasps noiselessly, as one of them whispers, “Quiet, quiet he’s gonna say something!” Staring blankly, Forrest finally says in his southern drawl, “I’m pretty tired… I think I’ll go home now.” And the confused crowd parts as he slowly starts walking back to Alabama.
Forrest may not have had all the answers to the existential questions of his followers (“I just felt like running!“), but he did have one thing figured out: how to travel light. On his 3-year, 2-month, 14-day and 16-hour run across America, Forrest never seemed to carry anything but the clothes on his back. As I watched, I wondered how he did it… did he carry a credit card in his pocket, sleeping in hotels and eating in restaurants? By that time, he was already head of Bubba-Gump Shrimp Corporation, so I suppose he could afford it — but what about his followers? And even if buying food and lodging every night was his strategy, didn’t he at least need to carry a map, or a water bottle, or a toothbrush?
This leads me to the subject of today’s update: logistics. How am I making this trek work? Of course, hiking up the U.S. West Coast isn’t really that complicated — certainly nothing compared to sailing around the world or climbing Mt. Everest (as my friend Hari was attempting without supplemental oxygen until the disastrous avalanche closed the season). It’s not even as complicated as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, because I’m passing through so many little communities along the way where I can re-supply myself. Still, it’s not entirely intuitive how to walk 20 miles per day up the American west coast, large stretches of which are rather pedestrian un-friendly. But after 3 weeks, I think I’ve figured enough things out to tell you my few tricks, if you’re interested in hearing them.
During the minimal planning I had time for after finishing my PhD, the order of the day was light weight. Not having a 50-pound pack makes life easier in so many ways, so I made this a real priority. Weight, as I’ve learned from talking to other backpackers and climbers, has a way of compounding itself. Take “The Nose” for example, a 3000-foot climb up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley: it takes most climbers a few days to ascend. But the longer they take, the more food and water they have to bring… which in turn makes everything heavier and slower, so they take even longer, necessitation even more food and water. And the converse is true as well: the less you carry, the less you need to carry, not just in terms of food and water but, for example, by being able to use a smaller, lighter pack. This is why “light and fast” is a maxim, a style even, in the mountains. I’ve tried to co-opt it for the coast.
So, not wanting extra weight to slow me down and cramp my poor body, I bit the bullet and bought some brand new lightweight gear. New sleeping bag (REI flash), and pad (Therm-a-Rest NeoAir), and a lightweight Mont-Bell cookpot. I made up a lightweight first-aid kit (just the essentials — of which earplugs, duct tape, and tiny nail clippers are 3), and I brought a tent, only without the tent bit (just the ground cloth, rain fly, and poles). And, as one astute lightweight backpacker advocated in an article I found online, I “ditched the Nalgenes!” which are actually pretty darn heavy. Although in normal life I prefer drinking out of stainless steel or glass (god knows what’s in these plastics), for these few months I’m drinking from Powerade bottles: they’re light, indestructible, they never leak, and they’re cheap as could be to replace. And to pack it all up in, Hari gave me a perfect, relatively small, lightweight pack (the Osprey Exos 48 liter) as a graduation present.
What do I do about rain? Raincoats, rain-hats, and rainpants are heavy — this is one good reason to hike during the summer! So essentially, I decided to say “screw it” to rain (at least until I hop in my kayak in July). I’ve got a tiny windbreaker that weighs next to nothing (the Patagonia Houdini) — I figured it’s enough for the coastal mist you often encounter in this part of the world, and if it’s really raining, you’re probably going to get wet anyway, so why bother with a big bulky raincoat? My “screw it” mentality was tested pretty fiercely a week ago, on Day 14, when I hiked out of the town of Westport in fair and beautiful morning weather. Some 5 miles in, it started raining, and it only got harder as I walked mile after mile towards Usal campground. I was entering the uninhabited Lost Coast, and I couldn’t help but feel bitter about this cruel fate — the rain had to come just after I’d left the last town, and this would be about the first night I wouldn’t be able to find a hotel room to dry out! Hour after wretched hour I walked, turning down rides from sweet passers-by, finally reaching the campground as darkness fell, soggy, miserable, and slightly hypothermic. This experience didn’t change my thinking about a raincoat (hopefully in other rainstorms I’ll be able to find shelter!), but I am now carrying a waterproof pack cover (thanks Fran!) — for as I tried to set up camp that night, I found everything in my pack was drenched. Live and learn, on trips like this.
Day-to-day, I plan my route. I have an indispensable guidebook with me called “Hiking the California Coastal Trail, Volume 1: Oregon to Monterey“. It’s small, and it keeps getting smaller as I tear the pages out from sections already completed. Like everything that’s apparently ever been hiked or written about the American west coast, it goes from North to South, presumably because no readers would be so silly as to hike northward, into the dominant winds. This makes things doubly inconvenient for me: I’m fighting the winds AND I have to try to comprehend all the directions in reverse. The California Coastal Trail (there are Oregon and Washington Coastal trails as well, albeit without official guidebooks) is a dream in the making. Through assiduous work from governments, agencies, non-profits, and individuals, much of it exists as interconnected trails, dirt roads, and beach walking — but an unfortunate amount still steers the through-hiker onto the shoulders of highways. And I subject myself to more highway walking than absolutely necessary according to the guidebook, because I want to keep my mileage down — many of the nice coastal sections would require long detours away from the highway to access. I’d guess that so far, I’ve spent nearly half my time walking in the company of zooming cars. But this last stretch of Northern California should be great hiking, and once I hit Oregon (within a week!) I expect it to be a lot of beautiful beach walking.
Finding places to camp is easy! The reason: I don’t have a car. (Cars, and how nice it often is not to have one, will be the subject of my next post.) If I did, everything would have to be planned out and permitted ahead-of-time — the campground reservation, the backcountry permit, the parking place — every night I would need a plan for where to leave my car so that it wouldn’t get a ticket. Because when the authorities catch you for being where you’re not supposed to be, 99% of the time, they’re not catching you, they’re catching your car. As it is, when I set out in the morning, I almost never know where I’m going to sleep that night, and this bothers me not at all. All California beaches are public (thanks to the hard-won California Coastal Act of 1976), and I’ve had little trouble, as the shadows grow longer in the evening, finding places to drop down onto the beach, roll out my sleeping bag, and cook myself a meal in the shelter of some rocky outcrop. In the sections that cut inland it’s a little trickier — here, it’s mostly private ranch land or timber leases — but even then there is usually a public space (a State Park, National Wildlife Refuge, or BLM land) that I can duck into for the night. One of these days, I might get caught camping in public lands, but if I do, at least it’ll be by a well-meaning ranger, not a red-necked rancher with a shotgun.
I walk with fairly minimal food (triscuits, cheese, snickers, bread, dried soup, oatmeal, and peanut butter and jelly mixed together in a plastic container — though this last one revolts my British friends — I think my PBJ count is well into the triple figures by now). Enough food for a day or two, supplemented with some vitamins from berries or wild greens on the trail and the occasional stop at a market or fruit stand. I can usually carry less than 1 full water bottle, since I can almost always knock on a door or flag down a passing car for a refill. This is one thing I was able to ditch in the interest of weight: my water filter. I’ve got some of those iodine tablets for an emergency, but people are very generous with their drinking water, even during a drought, and I haven’t had to dip into the emergency tablets these 3 weeks.
Then I have a ziploc full of personal effects: a little cash on-hand (many of the small town markets don’t accept credit cards), a debit card (I can buy things and refill my cash supply), my drivers license (good for getting a beer or the occasional run-in with suspicious policemen), and a stash of stamps, addresses, and a pen to send out postcards from these quirky little towns. I’ve got a journal and a pencil, as well as a watch and a tidebook to take me through some of the tighter beach sections. Then there’s my thumb-drive with all my research stuff (one of my papers is in peer review right now, and I may eventually have to stop somewhere and return my mind to science long enough to make some revisions!), as well as all the Inian Islands Institute stuff that I will hopefully use in giving some presentations along the trail! Likewise, I have little III business cards I’m handing out as well, so that folks can get in touch about our Alaska project.
So, there you have it! Really, this trek is simple as could be… beautiful coastline, colorful towns, friendly faces, the occasional shower, beer, and NBA playoff game (go OKC!)… and tired legs from 400 miles of walking so far, nourished by the hope that Inian Islands Institute will soon come true.