Dear Younger Self,
Take a deep breath and accept that you did no harm to anyone other than yourself by thinking you were smarter than you actually were in your twenties. Truth is, you were dumb as fuck. “Dumb AF” as we say these days because it’s too hard to type out entire words during the Trump Era. The whole cultural milieu is exhausting in ways you cannot imagine. Even the small naps you needed after reading the newspaper during the Bush years will pale in comparison to the daily train wreck we now call America. You’ve accepted the slow decay of how we communicate as a species because as the planet burns; it seems silly to lecture people on where a prepositional phrase should be. (See what I did?)
How to tell you, Dear Young One, that in some ways, it doesn’t get better and that darker times continue to lurk around the corner. How to tell you?
Let’s step away from politics, and focus on the first time you sought out adventures in the forest. You’ll need these mountains more than ever in the future, so congratulate yourself for figuring out how to save your sanity early in life. Mountains will become a temple to your middle-aged soul. When you first discovered the joys of a trail, it was a complete miracle that nobody outed you as being way out of your league and a danger to your personal safety. Truly! You tricked everyone into thinking you knew exactly what you were doing. Good job with that, by the way. Turns out this is a life-long skill that you will continue to hone well into your 40s. Talk a good game, sister; it’s soul-craft.
On your first extended trip, you had a good backpack. Spendy-looking boots that you had found on sale. A smile that attracted a boy from California who offered to share his tent. A wit that appealed to a girl from Vermont who needed a partner-in-crime who liked to party. You looked the part. Won the role.
What I’m writing to you, Young One, is what I wish I could have told you. Our life lessons recorded from the perspective of somebody who got to choose her own adventure. This is all the advice for the years that we’ll eventually affectionately call our 20s and 30s. Don’t worry, we don’t become that woman who pines for the past nor do we have regrets; we just could have been a bit smarter. Here’s how.
Read up on the Ten Essentials.
That classic list of materials could help keep you safe in the backcountry instead of relying on extraordinary good luck. Public libraries exist, so it’s really easy to read up on the details that you need to survive in the mountains. Maybe exercise that library card a bit more instead of doing bong hits in the morning and lusting over maps. Reading, it turns out, is incredibly helpful and much more productive than daydreaming of places to go. There was information available, you neglected to get smarter for a lot longer than you should have, and thus, you will suffer longer than necessary. However, all of the daydreaming and tracing the lines on the maps did help you figure out how to read topographic maps. Your fancy-ass expensive degrees will teach you the technical terminology for this: motivated self-directed informal education. Sounds like total horse-shit, I know, but it’s worth getting in debt for, I promise.
Oh, and speaking of maps, always remember to pack the map you purchased and don’t leave it in the car! Having a destination is to actually know where you’re going, it turns out. That love you have for maps, only intensifies as you get older. Accept this as an obsession.
Pay attention to where in the sky the sun sets is a good start since you will most likely sleep through most sunrises. Not knowing how to find the four directions the minute you walk out of your tent is already starting the day off in a struggle. And really, let’s be honest. Not getting stoned first thing in the morning would really help as well. Wait, I’ve already told you that. See? What they say about damaging your short-term memory is true, Younger Self. The cliche of being concerned with the journey and not the destination is kind of bullshit when it is raining in sheets and you’ve lost the trail. Never doubt that those who sometimes wander can get quite lost. Pay attention to forks in the trail. Look up. Look around.
A compass really helps, and it will help to invest in a cheap one many years before you do. Just take a minute to learn which way is west on every new trail. Trust me. In every new state you visit. In order to “Go West, Young Woman,” you’ll need to know which direction to walk. Love many, trust few, and paddle your own fucking canoe. All that.
And you’ll struggle with this tip for life, I’m afraid, but try to remember sunglasses and sunscreen. After The Great Eye infection of 2005, you’ll learn to always remember sunglasses and eye drops. The freckles you have are more from getting shit-faced drunk at outdoor concert festivals than hiking anyway. Want to know an easy way to remember to look West? Look north, then look down at the freckles on your left shoulder; they are bigger than those on your (stage) right shoulder. Wait. Who am I kidding? Admit that you like how you look with a tan and sunscreen makes your face breakout. Just start wearing a hat earlier in life. Buy a cute hat. Don’t borrow them from boyfriends, who are weirdly possessive about their hats. And they get super-pissed when you lose said hat. Remember those eye drops. Always. You can use them to hide the fact that you enjoy getting stoned in the morning for a lot longer than you like to admit.
Don’t forget the extra clothing. Spend money on the best stuff you can afford from the start. The Army/Navy clothes, albeit fashionably edgy in the 1990s, are really heavy. Those clothes are made for soldiers to suffer. Wool is scratchy. It makes you bitchy. Own up and buy the obnoxious pink colors of wickable fabrics on sale. Claim that what you are wearing all the shrinked and pinked gear for style. Gear, I am pleased to report, both in terms of clothing and equipment, does get significantly better over the years. It’ll blow your mind. Trust me. If you are going to forget any item of clothing, do not let it be extra socks. Never hang your bra outside to dry while you’re, um, hanging out with a guy in a tent. Deer like salt.
The guy in the tent won’t mind that you have fewer clothes, but you will. Hiking with a duct-taped sports bra is a great story that gets you a lot of laughs for years, but it sucks the joy out of many miles of beautiful trails in northern Montana.
And now it’s time for me to praise you for being one of the first people among your friends to buy a headlamp! You turned so many people on to those strappy contraptions, it’s probably a shame you didn’t have stock in the company. Be sure to always pack that headlamp/flashlight. You’ll need extra batteries. You like to read late into the night once you get over the newness of that guy sharing your tent. You usually fall asleep because you’re tired (read, sunburnt and stoned) with your headlamp on. And you hate the dark. Be sure to invest in the best you can afford. Cheap ones do just fine, but they break. This is true of most gear, really. Enjoy giving headlamps away when you upgrade. Your friends’ children will appreciate it. Keep the headlamp in the kitchen when you aren’t in the backcountry. You hate the dark inside of a house when the electricity goes out more than you do in the backcountry.
For as long as you can, be sure to sleep under the stars.
There will come a time when you don’t want the dude in the tent at all. You’ll want him waiting for you. Like at home. Like not anywhere close to where you’re backpacking. It’s okay to take time to figure it out. Another hard truth is that most dudes in your life won’t be worried about where you are either, so just accept that about them. It’s nothing personal or selfish; they just live their own lives. This is the magic of middle-age, my lovely, you accept this about love when you find The Right One. You’ll wear 100 headlamps and never see The Wrong Ones. It’s your cross to bear.
Bring those first-aid supplies. Always.
Don’t ever rely on somebody else. Blister first-aid will keep The Bitchy Monster quiet and keep everyone happier around you. Have itch cream for bug bites. Ibuprofen for when you get a headache. Duct-tape. Always duct-tape. Burn cream. Floss. Keep that first-aid baggy clean. Make sure you have The Cool Rag which rescues you for years. Teach others about the importance of The Cool Rag. It’s your freak flag of hygiene. The Cool Rag is a bandana that you expressly use for dipping into creeks and streams to keep you cooler on hard climbs. You can tie it around your head, your neck, your wrists, or drape it across your shoulders. It’s really helpful to keep the swelling of your hands down which inevitably happens during a long hike. You somehow hold on to the same Cool Rag for close to 30 years.
Now that we discussed how to stay cool, remember firestarter to stay warm. Check! You usually don’t have to worry about this one because you like to get stoned in the morning; having a lighter isn’t an issue. You might, however, be with a friend who steals lighters so she has three of them in her pocket and she may lose them all. Always buy cheap lighters. Waterproof matches, however, are worth the investment. Grab some lint from the dryer before you leave just to be on the safe-side to start a fire. Burn your trash. Convince everyone that you make a pretty damn good fire not because you have skills, but because you have an inner-pyromaniac. But remember she’s lazy and usually more down with putting on a fleece rather than mustering up the energy to make a fire. For a long time, you either complain a lot or you compliment the people around you so much that they eventually just give in and make the fire just to get you to shut the fuck up. Choose your the friends you take into the backcountry wisely.
Matches. Seems redundant on the list, really. See reference above about stoner girlfriends who steal and then lose said lighters. Let me add another lesson learned here while we’re on the topic. Make sure you bring extra rolling papers. You always run out. One drip of rain can ruin the glue on the entire pack. This lack of rolling papers will dampen spirits on trips. Trust your Future Self, here, pack important items in extra plastic baggies. Take inventory of your shit before you get stoned. Where was I?
A Knife. Right.
It will take you years to afford a good one. That’s okay. In fact, you’ll eventually cut back significantly on the pot smoking, so you’ll be able to afford a pretty okay multi-tool. Before that happens, the guys you share a tent with usually have one. Or you hike with somebody who has a better tool than you. A cheap swiss-army will always work. You will lose the splinter-tweezers immediately because you use them as a roach clip and misplace them. Just keep that part of the knife with your weed. Don’t try to put it back into the slot of your knife. It will be this really hard puzzle that isn’t worth solving.
And honestly, you don’t really need those guys with the knives. Hiking with a best girlfriend is way better. She’ll want to talk about your book and you don’t have to worry about her intentions in the tent. She’ll apologize for her body odor instead of thinking it’s her god-given right to take up space, and magically she’ll just want to sleep or talk. She’ll make sure to remind you to bring your bra in the tent.
Everything becomes easier when you leave the drama of love in the front-country.
Extra food. Or at least enough food. If you can afford it, this is always your best idea. When The Hunger visits, and it makes you miserable. You’re small but you can eat like a very large human. You burn a lot of calories with all that hiking. Ration your food before you get stoned. That’s probably the most important lesson. The most important essential, really. Buy extra ramen. You can still eat the noodles even if you run out of fuel for your camp stove.
Don’t be afraid to flirt with random strangers who may have food to share. Just make sure he doesn’t expect to end up in your tent when he shares snacks. Keep in mind that when you do this, it pisses off the Boyfriend-with-the-Cool-Knife who will not score any food from said Sexy Snack Stranger.
Backpacking Boyfriend be angry at you for days. Thinking of the kindness of a stranger who tried to seduce you with snacks instead of the weeklong argument with Backpacking Boyfriend? Totally worth it. Every time you eat spicy homemade jerky, you’ll think of him. Like Proust’s madeleine.
Hydration in the form of a hot drink at the end of the day is a must. Abundant water is key. You’ve only hiked in areas where water is scarce twice and you hated it. Despised it. You’re too impatient and you get terrible headaches from dehydration. Stay north. The desert is not a climate where humans should live, much less hike.
And this is probably the eleventh essential, and it’s just for the ladies.
What about the menses? Hiking on a full moon allows you extra light, but it might also mean that you’re taking Aunt Flow into the woods with you. I can’t substantiate this at the moment, I’m going to guess that a man put together this list of essentials. Menstrual cycle surprises are wonderful fodder for your friends to make vicious jokes about how you repurpose first aid supplies, but it sucks for you. Carry supplies. You can always burn them if you run out of fire starters. What you can’t burn, you have to hike out. But that’s a story for another time.
Some things do, in fact, get better, I promise.
With all my adoration,