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My friend took me on my first overnight backpacking trip last month. Via the Crow Pass trail, we were due to leave Girdwood early in the morning on Saturday and arrive at the Eagle River Nature Center parking lot late Sunday afternoon.
I looked forward to this trip for months. I created a curated playlist of songs about walking. I perused Fred Meyer’s selection of freeze-dried instant foods, all set to expire in 2067. I bought a bladder.
On the morning of the trip, she left her car in Eagle River, and I drove us to Girdwood. We snapped a fresh face “beginning of the trail selfie” (a tradition according to my friend) and began tottering along with our walking poles.
Upon reflection, this would become the “before” shot, to be compared later with the “after” shot, of what shape my body would be in after finishing the trip.
The trail began with a 3,500-foot elevation gain. My friend sprang along the trail like a jackrabbit, and I soon lost sight of her. The backpack, taller than my entire torso, made it difficult to balance, and I hobbled along waiting to twist my ankle. The shoulder and chest straps were so tight my breathing was restricted.
I’d brought a small portable speaker, currently and fittingly tuned to “Dead Man Walking.” The music broadcasted my presence to my intended audience (bears), and all other collateral damage (any living being).
I rounded a corner and found a small group of fellow hikers looking at me bemusedly.
“We heard you coming!” they called. “We wondered who was bringing the party!”
In the far distance, I saw my friend waiting patiently at the summit.
I trudged slowly towards her. After an eternity of crawling uphill –
“My backpack….” I sputtered between gasps. “It really…hurts…. Is it supposed…to hurt…like this?”
“Well, that’s backpacking!” she sang delightedly.
For the first time, I considered the possibility that my friend might be a lunatic. She voluntarily put herself through this pain, multiple times per summer… for fun?
She suggested we sit down and have lunch, and I ate three large pieces of cold pizza in quick succession. They were the last pieces of food I could eat that would have had to know the insides of a refrigerator.
My friend announced she hates cold pizza.
Confirmed, she was a lunatic.
I struggled back into my pack, requiring her help because I couldn’t get one arm through the strap; instead, I was hopping around like a chicken.
Seeing me struggle, she stared at me quizzically. Then, without warning, she grabbed the shoulder straps, pulled two cords, and they loosened.
Relief shot through my chest and shoulders. I took my first real breaths of the day.
And then we were off again. I felt lighter than air for about seven minutes before the pack began pulling into my shoulders again as the weight of gravity took hold. I would spend the next day and a half periodically loosening and tightening straps, depending which part of my back was seizing up in that particular moment.
Crow Pass covers dramatically different terrain throughout its full twenty-one miles. Starting with the stark elevation gain, hikers pass through snow, down shale coated mountains, through grass so tall and thick you can’t see bears coming, over boulders, through forests, and, of course, crossing Eagle River.
Trudging through snow, I started to worry that my newly acquired “backpacking sleeping bag,” rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit, was going to be warm enough.
Contemplating this chilly prospect, my foot slipped, and with an “Ummm…” by way of announcement to my friend, I tipped over and rolled down the hill.
What with the weight of the backpack, I began to roll faster and faster. Ever gaining speed, I hurtled towards the bottom of the mountain, and the large rock wall waiting for me there.
Growing up in Fairbanks, I knew the best way to slow down after bailing out on sledding hills was to increase your surface area as much as possible. I spread out my arms and legs and hoped I would slow down.
As I passively pondered what life would be like with a spinal injury, I felt my momentum stall, and I stopped sliding about 15 feet from the wall.
I sat up, took off the backpack, and looked at my friend, far up the top of the mountain. I’d lost a walking pole and my hat somewhere along my slide.
At a loss for anything else to say, I called up to her, “Um, can you get my hat? And I think I lost one of your poles.”
She shook her head.
“No, let’s keep going. You don’t need them.”
This was a moment of ratification on my status as a material girl. I hate losing things.
Loath to leave any belonging behind, I stood up, and started climbing back up the hill, justifying my actions to my friend.
“I need the pole for balance!”
By now, it was mid-afternoon, and my friend was definitely fidgeting because we still had not made it to Eagle River. She wanted to camp at the river that night, and cross first thing Sunday morning when the water was at its lowest.
Pole collected, hat on head, and backpack grudgingly placed on, I continued down the mountain, away from the snow.
I was thrilled the temperature was warming, and we were seemingly once more in summertime.
That’s when my friend cheerily reminded me to crank up the tunes again; we were back in bear country.
We entered some tall grass, positively obliterating any potential bears from view.
Knowing we were trying to make it to the river, I did my best to pick up the pace, though the ground was covered with giant boulders. If you took your eyes off of your feet for even a second to study the bear infested tall grass, for example, you’d trip and hit your head.
Feet burning with new blisters, and my pack once again feeling like the weight of the entire universe on my shoulders, I pouted silently, wondering how I was ever going to make it back to my car by this time tomorrow.
Amongst these gloomy thoughts, there was a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us, and we both stopped and seized our bear spray.
Two young men emerged, looking mildly amused as they took in the site of us brandishing our weapons.
As we lowered our arms, they happily announced that a woman on this side of Eagle River had just been removed from the trail by ambulance helicopter; she’d broken her ankle.
Realizing it would take more time to finish the journey with a broken ankle, I decided to just go ahead and continue at my poky pace. My friend must have decided the same thing, because both of us began walking at a noticeably more leisurely rate thereafter.
We sat down in the forest to have dinner around five. My friend had a nifty propane heater and a pot, in which we boiled water. We dumped the water into our freeze-dried food bags, and stirred the contents. My dinner was, ostensibly, spaghetti and meatballs; her’s beef stroganoff.
I eyed both gloopy messes suspiciously. When she told me about the food, I ventured that I would just bring some protein bars, or something. Having largely lived off of Lean Cuisine in college, I’d long since sworn off instant food of any kind. I’d eaten my entire lifetime’s worth over a four-year period, and my allotment was completely used up.
My friend, however, insisted I would want hot food and that I really should buy these unique items, guaranteed fresh for 46 years!
I stirred my spaghetti with a grimace and took a salty bite.
The spaghetti tasted exactly like Lean Cuisine.
It did, however, put some pep back into my very tired steps.
We cleaned up from our meal, leaving no trace as good backpackers should. Naturally, and just my luck, I was beginning to regret bringing the cold pizza, as the leavings in the bag were beginning to stink.
We hopped along, revived from the sodium ladened slop, avoiding tree roots precariously popping up throughout the forest. My friend confirmed we were almost to Eagle River, so we hurried along, trying to finish the day’s journey.
With a crack, my left ankle twisted out, and I went down with a yelp.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Sarah Brown suffers in silence. Feel free to pester her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; she rarely fights back. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.