The Best Thing About Backpacking: Part 2

A light breeze was rustling the rainfly when we awoke the next morning, but the downpour was over and waves of sunlight rolled past, lighting up our little orange home. I flipped from side to side a couple of times on the hard ground, trying to keep myself from tumbling down the slope. More sleep being evasive, I was eager to start the water heating for the first cup of coffee in the woods – a unique pleasure that combines two of my favorite things into one. I sat up and put on my old pair of backpacking glasses, found my meter case safely stashed in a plastic bag, and checked my blood sugar. 160 mg/dl – a little high. This was, I thought, to be expected, since I was 137 when I went to bed and I’d cut my Lantus dose by half in preparation for the day of hiking. Better than fighting lows all day, I thought. I unzipped the soaked rainfly which now clung to the tent after its stick stake had crumbled and given way overnight. I managed to haul myself and my pack out from under it and stumble into the bramble patch that we’d appropriated in the night. Ahead of me, a few short oak trees canopied blueberry bushes and huge ferns. Further, at the border where the land turned steeper, big Balsam fir trees spread their evergreen branches into regal teepees. To the right, mountain after soft mountain, rolling in the Virginia way. Behind me, a taller peak with a bright green bald was dotted with what could have been nothing else but a herd of wild ponies.

Unbeknownst to us, we had set up our camp in paradise. I ran back to the tent and crawled into the deflated vestibule. “It’s so beautiful out here!” I shouted to my slowly stirring companions. “Really?” “Oh yeah?” I had already run back outside. The Navigator unzipped the trail side door of the tent, just in time to say hello to a pair of early morning hikers. Also unbeknownst, we had set up our camp at most 10 feet from the Appalachian Trail. In the night, in the rain, it had felt like we were far from the pedestrian thoroughfare. This was an accident of minor importance though. We set up our first breakfast on a small rock to enjoy the views of ponies and passersby. I took about half my normal dose of Novolog to go with a higher carb breakfast than usual and halved my morning Lantus dose (I’m on a split Lantus regimen right now) once again, to set myself up for a day with less lows.

From there the skies just got bluer, in every way. After we’d retrieved our wet clothes from the branches we’d decorated with them, we set off again, this time North on the AT, to begin our ‘loop.’ Within moments we stumbled upon this scene:

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Unlike my last eager venture to Grayson Highlands, I decided that this time I would allow the ponies to come to me if they wanted, but I would not approach them first. Luckily this worked out just fine. They were very friendly. They also seemed intrigued by my hiking poles (just another reason among the many to carry hiking poles).

Sometime later, we said goodbye to the ponies and continued on our way. Light clouds dappled the sky and the colors around us shone in response – bright greens, sunset oranges from the just-past blossoms of the wild, fire azalea bushes. It was slow going because we had to keep stopping to greet and photograph every pony in the area. We could probably provide a pony census to Virginia if it was ever needed. And just when we thought ponies had come to rule the Highlands’ ecosystem, we happened upon…

 

these lovely (and somewhat intimidating) ladies. They were lunching on a high mountain pasture, so we decided to as well. For the first few minutes of lunch I fed the low blood sugar that had crept over me as I gazed out over the 360 degree views in a partial daze. It seems like for those first few hours of backpacking I can’t ever eat enough to keep my blood sugar up. I slowly came back to our beautiful reality while Raindancer, who had quickly become comfortable with the herd, fell asleep for a 15-minute nap.

Somewhere before or after lunch the trail took us over a little stream and we stopped to refill our Nalgenes. Hiking/life in general with diabetes requires a lot of water. I recently learned (remember this for your next trivia night) that diabetes comes from the Latin for: “It has to flow” (I know that clinically this is not a good thing, but philosophically I really dig that slogan). So anyway we got out our Aquamira and engaged in the process of readying our water. In life, I’m not always patient with the process, but there’s something about the process of purifying water with Aquamira that I love. Maybe this is part of ‘the best thing’ about backpacking – engaging deeply with the process of getting where you want to go.

Sometime around 7 pm we made it to a crossroads, literally and figuratively. We needed more water, we had reached a large boulder that supposedly offered good views, and we were tired. We decided to set up camp and go in search of water, rumored to be just around the bend, after eating dinner. Prior to eating dinner though, we ascended the curved face of the boulder and were met with a literally breathtaking view. You hear people say things like, “she looked breathtaking,” or “wow, this sunset is breathtaking,” but if something is really breathtaking you can’t speak because you are gasping. And that’s how this view was – like, “Ahh!” So beautiful, so unexpected. The sea of clouds had parted and the mountains were everywhere. Although I’ve grown to love the Piedmont of NC, views like this remind me that there’s just nothing like having your breath seized by the mountains. Could this be the best thing about backpacking?

Minutes later, I had wondered if perhaps tearing into a tortilla bowl of beans, tofu, cheese, and avocado as you stretch your tired legs out on the bare ground was perhaps the best thing. There’s nothing like eating dinner in the woods when you’re really tired after a day of hiking. Also, here’s where I’ll make my plug for never going backpacking without hot sauce – it’s worth the weight. I carry mine in a small Tupperware given to me by none other than the Navigator, who understands my love of sauces. It’s very lightweight and a huge improvement over the whole glass bottle of Cholula I carried last time I was in Grayson Highlands.

The day was perfect – magical in every way, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that the night sky would have been perfectly clear, illuminated only by the pinpricks of a million tiny blazes of light. Why should we have been shocked that the ground flickered with the slow awakening of mountain fireflies, who move with more direction and purpose than the rapidly flitting lowlanders? And yet still, with stars above and around us, we stood mesmerized. I’m all about favorites, ultimates, zeniths, etc., and so I could say that if there was a thing that was best about backpacking, it had to be this mountain field under the cover of darkness – air the definition of fresh, a comforting silence filling the space in between the calls of katydids and click-click of bat wings.

But, I just can’t say that. In fact, no one of the miracles of the day could take the title of ‘best thing.’ To categorize our time would have been to leave out the process, the parts of sum; to forget that each moment was a combination of feeling connected to the Earth and to each other. Perhaps, if I want to answer my friend’s question, I’ll land on connection as the best thing about backpacking. It’s different every time, but it happens, somewhere in between bailing water out of the tent with your bandana, spotting a speckled salamander under an old log, and helping each other find the trail.

A quick acknowledgement and plug for the amazing blog of Hiking Bill. He provides in-depth descriptions of many hikes in the Southern Appalachians and includes helpful ‘hike planners’ at the end. 

You can find his description of the Pine Mtn/AT Loop that we used to plan our route here.

The Best Thing About Backpacking: Part 1

Last night, as we were standing in the kitchen, my roommate and friend asked me what it is about backpacking that I love so much – “You know, like what’s the best thing about it.” It was a good question; I had been talking about how usually, the day after a weekend of hiking and sleeping in the woods, I get back and feel elated for the first half of a day and then grumpy and disoriented for the second. It’s like I’m coming down from the extra endorphins my body makes when I’m frolicking in the mountains. I thought back over the past weekend, starting with the first moment, in order to answer her question.

It was around 9:40 pm this past Friday night when two of my dearest friends and I started our weekend hike. This is by far the latest I’ve ever started a backpacking trip, and I both do and don’t recommend it. I don’t recommend it because navigating in the dark, even with headlamps, is a little trickier, and I do because experiencing the woods at night and getting in touch with the feeling of the ground under your feet so quickly, immerses you immediately in the experience. We planned to hike about 2 miles, half of that headed South on the AT, before resting for the night. Along the way, as I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months and who now I could only see via the narrow light of my headlamp, a moth flew down my throat. If you’ve ever been around anyone who this has happened to and you think their coughing seems a little excessive, as if they are just trying to be dramatic, I beg you to think again. This is one of those unique experiences of discomfort that can’t really be compared to anything else. In fact, I couldn’t shake the physio- or psychological trauma of swallowing that little bug until the next morning, its memory eclipsed by the pounding rainstorm we weathered overnight.

It was around 10:20 pm, perhaps five minutes after the swallowing and two minutes after one of my friends made a comment about how glad she was that it wasn’t raining, that the droplets began to lightly fall. At first it felt nice – even though we’d driven North and the air had cooled some from our sticky Triangle, NC climate, hiking had heated us up fast. After the light sprinkle turned steady though, we remembered that there was every chance that the campsites we were searching for weren’t going to be marked with neon signs. At that point we started looking for shelter. We had passed a couple of grassy clearings a few yards back, so we turned around. I headed down a narrow deer (or pony) trail to look for a spot, my friends following. We came to nothing, at least nothing good for sleeping, and I pivoted to head back to whence we’d came. Promptly, one of my friends who I’ll call ‘the Navigator’, alerted me that I was headed off in some random direction that was most certainly not the one we’d come from. This would happen at least 8 more times over the course of barely two days. No one would ever call me the Navigator, nor should they, which is one of the many reasons why I consider backpacking a team sport.

Back on the AT, another deer trail caught my eye, this time leading to a scrubby little oak tree, its branches spreading into an umbrella-like canopy. “Here’s a spot,” I shouted. My friends followed, but when they saw the tiny clearing surrounded by blackberry brambles, they looked skeptical. It was not the best spot ever, but the ground was flat-ish, the tree offered some protection but was not by any means taller than the rest, and it was now pouring. We quickly threw down the tarp and set up the tent, just to realize that the tent stakes were missing.

After finding some sufficiently dry sticks and jamming them into the ground to keep the rainfly off of the tent, we crawled inside. The Navigator was hastily bailing water from her side of the tent which had turned into a puddle over the past three minutes. We realized that the rainfly was sitting on the tent and causing water to pool up and drip inside, so the Navigator suggested that we tie a ‘sky hook’ to keep it off, which basically means tying a rope from the rainfly to a neighboring tree to create a canopy. While the Navigator bailed, my other friend, who I’ll call ‘Raindancer’ and I, leapt outside to tie the hook. At this point we were completely soaked and thoroughly scratched by the bramble we had pitched our tent in, but we reentered the tent victorious to find that Navigator had mostly dried the floor with her bandana.

That evening, as our bodies held the tent down, the long arms of Hurricane Cindy swept gales around us. The rain thumped down and the wind rattled our little tarpaulin home. I closed my eyes, smiled, and fell into an intermittent sleep.

Was the best thing about backpacking swallowing a bug? No, I thought. Was it getting lost down a deer trail within less than an hour of starting the trip? No, I thought. How about sleeping in damp socks, on a slight slope, in the pounding rain? Surely, this couldn’t be it. I’d have to keep retracing our tracks to figure it out.

To be continued…DSCN3619.JPG

Wild Adventures with Diabetes

Today diabetes took me on a walk. I’ve been a little resentful of diabetes lately. Sometimes it feels like my blood sugar controls every move I make. It decides what I will eat, if I’ll give myself a shot and how much insulin I will take, if I’ll exercise and for how long and how hard, and sometimes even how I feel about myself.

The last few weeks have been so busy and I’m longing for a little break, just a weekend away from everything, blood sugar included. But you know what, there really is no taking a vacation from diabetes. Checking my blood sugar less and loosening some restrictions in my diet might mean that diabetes takes up less of my time for a day or two, but pretty soon, not feeling as good as I could if I was sticking tighter to my ideal range doesn’t feel very luxurious at all.

So today, around 3 pm, when I was supposed to be working on my manuscript and doing other computer-based tasks, I checked my blood sugar and it was 180 mg/dl. I don’t like sitting when my blood sugar is over 150 – it agitates me to know that I could go on a walk or run to bring it down. It also agitates me when I think about how often blood sugar interrupts my plans. I’ve gotten better at choosing my plans over my perfect blood sugar in the past few years, but it’s a Sunday, and despite my agitation, I decided to let diabetes take the reins.

Immediately, driving off into the countryside around Chapel Hill, I was glad that I did. The sun was bright on budding green fields edged by thick stands of trees waving in the breeze. The trail I found was soft, dirt and gravel, easy on the feet. A muddy Piedmont creek ran alongside it. Towering strong-armed beech trees lined the path. And just when I was almost back to my car, I look up ahead on the trail and saw…

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My poor photography skills do not do her justice. Also, I was not going to get any closer.

a six foot long Black snake. I was mesmerized. My mind left diabetes and everything else behind, and as she slithered away I felt some real freedom from all of it for the first time in awhile.

 

Give the Piedmont a Chance

Twenty-eight years and I don’t think I’ve ever missed a Fall in the mountains – until now. The suburbs of Atlanta where I grew up never felt like home, but I still remember being instantly embraced by the mountains on family travels. When I was a little over a year old, my parents carried me up Mt. LeConte, swaddled against the misty cold in a trash-bag poncho. We spent weekends in our cabin in Toccoa, GA, nestled in a soft pine forest interspersed with tall poplars and beech trees.

During high school my dad and I traveled from Atlanta to Wesser, NC, on Friday afternoons so we could launch into the icy waters of the Nantahala and feel the crisp breezes that sweep through the gorge in early Fall. Needless to say, moving to Asheville a decade ago was more like coming home than leaving it.

In August of this year I loaded up my belongings and drove away from my rented bungalow, my roommate for the past four years, a street full of friends, my nephew who came into the world just a few months before, my job and my mountains. I’m pursuing an MPH at UNC Chapel Hill, so leaving my job felt like a natural progression. The telephone, email and even Facebook help me stay in touch with friends and family. But you can’t call the mountains. I’ve scrolled back through my photo reel, read my old poetry, and meditated with their image in my mind, but still my heart aches for them. Their support and unwavering presence has always inspired me to seek that sort of peace in myself.

Maybe it was an effort to be strong like the mountains, probably it was just self-protection, but I decided I needed to stay in the triangle over fall-break. I would never miss the woods in October, so a girlfriend and I decided to make our Piedmont backpacking dreams a reality.

Read the rest here:

http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/hiking/give-the-piedmont-a-chance/

 

Ponies, pods, and Backpackin’ with Diabetes

I’m waking up dreaming of the trail and wishing that I was still out there in Grayson Highlands on the AT, trudging along with my loaded down pack and passing fields of wild ponies.

I want to talk in this blog post about packing the backpack with diabetes in mind because it’s a challenge on a physical and emotional level. Whenever I get ready for a backpacking trip, especially the first one of the season, I experience some level of dread at the thought of forgetting something vital. When I’m going through my mental and paper list I find myself playing through some of the ‘what if’ scenarios, that I might encounter if my pod alarmed, if my insulin vial broke or got too hot, if my pdm malfunctioned all together. To a large extent this sort of preventive troubleshooting is necessary, and it’s a little necessary, or has been for me, to spiral into the worst case scenario so that I’m literally prepared for it, because that is what T1 diabetes requires.

The problem for me is when that attitude carries over into the rest of my packing, and sometimes my life in general. I think the necessary preparedness of Type 1 makes it easier for me to keep this worst case scenario thinking, which often leaves me with a very heavy pack and a pretty stressed out mind, until I get about a mile down the trail and feel my whole body and being relax into the mountains.

On our trip this past weekend this moment came decisively after we had crested a small windswept knoll and entered a calm stretch of forest full of ferns and rhododendron, tulip poplar and beech trees. I was breathing heavier because my pack was so gigantic and on one inhale it felt as if I’d taken in the peace and simplicity around me. I exhaled out and came into the environment and felt my worries about the future and the stress I was holding onto from the past week fall away completely.

I did find that I could have left out a lot from my load. After all the necessary diabetes supplies and back-up supplies were in I didn’t have much time for finesse with the rest of my packing. Next time I will not throw in a whole pack of tortillas for one overnight trip in which I might eat 3, maybe 4 maximum. I won’t bring tupperware, but instead will use baggies for my celery and carrots. I won’t bring 5 oranges! Whoops. I wasn’t counting, I was just tossing things in.
I also probably didn’t need two water filtration systems on a trip with others who were bringing their own method too, but this is something I go back and fort on. I have really enjoyed using aqua mura because to me it is simple, I know it’s working, and it tastes…frankly I like the way it tastes which is almost imperceptible, but a little lemony. However I’m looking for any good water filtration recommendations and leaning towards a ‘Sawyer System’ that my friend recommended.

I plan on designing some methods and gear to help myself stay organized and cut weight on the trail, but I’m not there yet. Right now all I can think about is the next trip. One thing I won’t cut out is the tiny bottle of hot sauce I brought, because it easily pushed our food experience from good to great.
Wearing the pump was a really positive experience on the trail but only because I avoided disaster and changed a pod early the night before we set-off. I could see in the pod window that a little blood was pulling up and even though I was getting insulin because I was trending low, I decided to change it there on my wooden cot, versus in the woods. As soon as I removed the pod blood streamed from the infusion site and I knew I would have soon enough encountered a problem with poor absorption. My next placement seemed perfect, pod right below where my waist belt would fall, and it held firm the whole trip. I was also able to turn my basal rate way down and lessen the constant lows that I usually just eat my way through, drinking honey straight from a honey bear or eating clif shot bloks or glucose tab after glucose tab on the trail. I still ate constantly, but my mind was clear and my body felt strong most of the time.

I’m eager to hear any other T1’s experience’s hiking and backpacking, so please leave your tips and comments!