When I lived in Texas, I thought 50 degrees was pretty cold. I would laugh at the Norwegian expats living nearby for stripping down to sit outside at that temperature in order to receive the rays on their pale skin. The very idea made me shiver. Having weathered nearly six winters in the mountains of western North Carolina, I now get excited when it gets to 50 degrees in February. It’s not so painful as I once thought, and I am able to understand the Nordic types who worshipped the sun at a temperature that wouldn’t render one completely frozen. So, on a day that promises to rise above 50 degrees (even if it starts at 27), my guy and I tend to wrestle the dog into the car to go find a place to hike among the naked foliage and confused bears.
Maps are consulted, day packs crammed with water, snack bars, dog treats, and spare clothing is stashed in the car. You never know when a rogue cloud may cover the sun and leave you two miles from your transportation (with its tushy warmer and forced-air heating) shivering as the temperature takes a dip below the comfort zone. I am prone to carrying my rain pants in my pack and tying an extra jacket around my waist to prevent potential hypothermia, just in case the weather suddenly changes back to full-on winter and I have miles to go before I sleep in the car during the ride back home. A wool cap and gloves might come in handy as well and fit nicely into front or side pockets of my pack. I’ll never have the constitution of a Norwegian, but I am comfortable going out into the woods, taking a hike of shortish duration as long as I am prepared for the next ice age.
It’s probably my age and level of middle-class pampering that drive me to hold onto a comfortable situation as long as possible these days. Do I want to leave the hot pack/soft wooly blanket situation on the couch at 10 pm on a winter night to walk the dog before I go to bed? No. I do not. Not when the dog can fend for herself in the backyard or my cohabitator is willing to do that chore. Would I be tempted to slide around on the icy streets of my neighborhood in order to get some exercise as the winds buffet my parka and threaten me with potential hypothermia and/or broken bones? No, I would not. I’d rather do jumping jacks in my living room and momentarily stick my head out the back door to breathe in a bit of fresh air. I’ve done my fair share of braving the cold over the years. I deserve to wallow in coziness.
Looking back on the adventures of my life, I see that time I backpacked in the Wind River Range in Wyoming for a week in early autumn. I was the only woman. Nine men accompanied me on this trek. One of them married me two months later. Maybe he was attracted by my adventurous spirit. This was, of course, not my first hike in the woods, but it was of a longer duration, and the highest elevation I had ever attempted. It had all the elements which would put me off today as I type this story. Driving to Boone and staying in a B & B is the most strenuous goal I have at the moment, adventure-wise.
Living on the Gulf Coast of Texas for many years tends to make one foolishly believe that hiking for a week in September, at high altitude, would be a welcome relief from the heat. It snowed the first day on the trail. As I trudged along, pondering the wisdom of my choices, it wistfully occurred to me that the temperature was in such a stark contrast with the 97 degrees in my backyard at home. We hiked up to over 9,000 feet the first day and made camp on a level spot of ground near a creek. After the snow stopped, with a fire lit, our campground seemed quite cozy. After sitting awhile, as the sun went down, my only thought was, “I’m never going to pee for the duration of this trip.” Peeing meant wandering a ways off from those nine guys and finding a secluded spot to turn off my flashlight, remove clothing, squat and pray no curious wildlife would come up from behind me, attracted by my warm-ish liquid output. There are times when you gotta do what you gotta do. And I did. On waking next morning, the water was frozen in my water bottle, but the sun was out and I was ready for the trip up along the ridge of a valley to a lake at 10,000 feet. At least it wasn’t snowing.
We walked and gawked at the beauty and majesty of the Wyoming mountains. We made camp on the shore of a beautiful lake. As I admired the view, the long hike, the wind and the low temperature joined forces to kill me. My body was depleted of energy and heat. It was the only time, in all my years of hiking and backpacking when I was truly scared. My husband-to-be set up the tent and wrapped me in both our sleeping bags to retain as much of my body heat as I was able to muster. Camp stoves were fired up and hot food was delivered to the door of my tent. I rallied a bit, and tucked my water bottle under my knees to keep it from freezing overnight. I gave my tent mate back his sleeping bag and we settled in for a miserable night.
We were greeted in the morning by sunshine and twenty-something degrees. We huddled around the fire, making decisions about what was best for me and the guy with a painful knee. Four of us decided to hike back down to 9,000 feet. The others would carry on with the original plan and we would meet up at another lake at a considerably lower altitude. It was that decision that saved the rest of the week for me. As we hiked further and further down the mountain, the relatively warmer temps brought me back into a modicum of comfort. I was able to take a sponge bath in a lake. This type of activity can really turn one’s outlook around from survival mode to fledgling enjoyment.
On day 6, making our way to the rendezvous spot to camp and wait for the others, my hiking companions and I rested awhile and savored the magnificence of the Wind River area. At repose, we spotted what would be my demand for any and all future backcountry treks. Llamas! An intelligent group of hikers passed us by with all their gear loaded onto llamas! How could I not have known about this option? I dreamed of llamas for many years after that day, but no llamas would assist me in any of my future hikes…at least, not yet. Now, I’d settle for a dog to carry my gear–one that was trained to make tea and put up a tent as well. I’m working on it.
That evening, we dined on fresh-caught trout and everything else edible we had left in our packs. The mood on this last evening was high. The moon gave us a gallant glow, the camp stove provided the tea, and my eagerness for leaving this place was replaced with a willingness to linger for awhile. The rest of our gang arrived for the final night of camping before we hiked to our vehicles the next morning. I remember this all nostalgically now because I’m in my warm home with my guy and the dog (in-training) and I have a bathroom with a door. My backpack and sleeping bag are tucked away for possible future use, but there will either have to be llamas involved or a well-trained canine or else I’m off to Boone and that B & B for some day hiking.
February is a difficult month to plan any fresh-air outings in the mountains. It could be 27 degrees in the morning and 64 by noon. Or 45 at day break with temps plummeting downward after lunch. No camping trips have been planned and all our current hikes are short and close to home. Temperatures in the fifties are perfect–as long as the sun shines and the breezes are mild. I can’t help but think my former Norwegian neighbors would have a hearty laugh at me for having such a narrow window of opportunity for winter hiking. I’d lift my recently-made cup of hot green tea and say “Skål!” (which I think means “cheers!” in Norwegian, but might mean “you’re right!”). I’d keep to my current standards… even if I had a llama.