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Pack Stories, Trail Stories

I’m a late bloomer to the outdoors. I only started hiking and camping about six years ago. The longer and more challenging my trails got, the more, “lost” I wanted to become. Backpacking was a natural next step, but there have been things that have held me back. For some of us, there are barriers to the outdoors like representation, access to actual outdoor spaces, money for gear, and the ability to take time off of work. (I talk about these issues a lot on my blog and @UnlikelyHikers, an Instagram community for the underrepresented outdoorsperson.)

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With the help of some generously donated gear, I finally gave backpacking a shot!

In preparation, my partner, Brie, and I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of people filtering water, cooking on ultralight stoves, and packing backpacks. We practiced in our kitchen before heading out and honestly, I felt really prepared — ready for anything. Well, ready for anything except what was going to happen….

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I picked a trail I know well, the Salmon River Trail in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness on Mt. Hood. It’s in a beautiful, old growth rainforest just an hour away from my home in Portland. I knew from my day hikes there were many places to camp and get water. My objective for the first time wasn’t miles, but to get a feel of moving with a pack and trusting everything I needed was on my body.

We got a late start because I lead a group hike that morning. It was pouring rain, but we were prepared for it. Busy as I am, there was simply no way to reschedule it for later. We were going.

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We hiked a couple of miles in the rain to a great campsite, set up our tent, and hung out inside all night. My excitement about backpacking trumped the rain, but I do not recommend starting your first trip in bad weather. Even after just two miles, everything that wasn’t protected was soaked and there wasn’t exactly a place we could hang things to dry. Still, my sleeping bag was super warm and a hot meal cooked on our little stove for the first time in the vestibule of our roomy tent felt nearly luxurious. I slept relatively well, but I always find the first night on the ground to be the roughest. Also, the inflatable pillow I treated myself to deflated a few times even though Brie’s was fine all night. Not fair!

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We woke to sunbeams filtering through ancient Douglas firs and dreamy moss. No rain. I was grateful to wake up in this incredible place, knowing my body took me there.

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Brie got coffee going and I made us breakfast. We ate as our tent and rainfly dried in the patches of sunlight moving through our campsite. We packed up and hit the trail again. Our only goal was to hike more than two miles, further than we’d ever gone on a day hike. As I hiked, my pack felt surprisingly good. Full with food and water, it weighed 28.7 lbs. and it took only that first night to recognize things I didn’t need.

We got to a creek and set up to filter water for the first time, not counting practicing in our kitchen sink. We also had some back-up water treatment drops just in case it felt sketchy. The filter was so ridiculously easy to use it feels suspicious. The water tasted amazing. Brie, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure and used the drops in addition to filtering, making hers taste like tap water. Strangely comforting.

As our trail started to climb, it became clear we’d made a solid goal. Those couple miles took over an hour each! We took a long break at the viewpoint that normally signifies our turnaround spot for a day hike. It had gotten hot and we were already halfway through our second bottle of water. We also really needed to eat. We were a mile and a half from our next water source and we discussed finding a place to camp just past it. We soon found a spot near a gorgeous meadow. I started making lunch while Brie set up our tent. We were talking about how happy we were and how well we were doing, making jokes about being real backpackers now. I was hooked already.

Lunch was ready, so Brie came over and we started eating. That’s when it happened. A gust of wind. Everything changed in a second.

Our tent blew over a cliff.

(You read that correctly.)

Brie got distracted and didn’t stake it down. It was up for only a few minutes and then it was gone. We slept in it one time and it was gone.

I know it probably sounds funny at first, but please, imagine yourself in this situation: Hungry, tired, almost out of water, ridiculously happy about this new experience and how well it’s going. And the tent just blew over a cliff.

We could see it lodged between some trees, but it was a vertical drop. In our disbelief, we both tried thinking of ways to get it, but honestly it was crazy talk. There was no way.

My ego could not handle this failure. I was so sad, angry, and fearful of how this would look to all of the amazing people cheering me on. How am I going out like this on my first backpacking trip?! It all felt like too much. Yes, I was mad at Brie, but I couldn’t help but see what an honest mistake it was. Possibly one I could make, too. I also knew how horrified she was feeling and that in telling this story I’d have to say what she’d done.

As we stood there in shock, reality continued to flood in. It was after 4PM and some of our previous miles took more than an hour. We packed up and got back on the trail, not talking the first couple miles. I was too beside myself to say anything that mattered anyway.

We made a huge mistake. A huge mistake in a long list of successes. Brie pointed out how we’d actually done everything we came to do, besides sleeping a second night. We even covered all of our miles — maybe not how we planned, but how often do things really go as planned? No one was hurt. No one died from trying to retrieve a tent from the side of a cliff.

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Is this an Unlikely Hiker story, or what?! There was another thought I kept having as I processed all of this and I knew this thought mattered more than anything in the grand scheme of it all:

When can I do this again?

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