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Lighten Up, America


Watching the high school kids tottering up the hiking trail under ridiculous burdens I was reminded of the studies of GIs who jumped into the surf in the Normandy landings with 80 pound packs on their backs and promptly drowned. These days the overloaded back pack is coming under scrutiny as kids totter home from school hefting 30 pound loads. I’ve become a devotee of the famous long distance hiker Ray Jardine, whose philosophy of life and loads is set forth in his 1992 classic Beyond Backpacking, which should be nestling next to the works of John Muir on your book shelf.

Jardine and his wife Jenny have hiked all the major trails, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian, and watched with horror as overloaded plodders lost any sense of pleasure and often quit the trail altogether. After thousands of miles and much experimentation, the couple ended up with a total packweight each, minus food and water, of around eight pounds.

I read the book in the spring and was convinced. Out went the heavy hiker boots and in came modestly priced sneakers. (Jardine counsels you to tear out their tongues.) Out went the elaborate back pack with scores of irritating pockets and a metal frame. In came the simple Jardine-designed pack, weighing l4 ounces.

Jardine is persuasive in his denunciations of tents and sleeping bags as weighty traps for moisture. His tarp tent and sleeping cover plus pad, plus the tarp tent are undr 4 pounds overall. In the end I took to the trail along the Sinkyone Wilderness on a glorious weekend on California’s North Coast without tent under a pack weighing 15 pounds including food and white spirit stove and pan.

What a difference! Each stop to drink water and enjoy the wonderful vistas of redwood stands, Doug fir, and rock-girt seashore wasn’t prelude to the grim business of once again hoisting a 40 pound load onto sore shoulders. Going up the up steep grades was a breeze. I gloried in nature’s temple rather than feeling I was on the uphill slope to the morgue.

I was hiking with Bruce Anderson, supreme commander of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, beacon of freedom in Mendocino county and in fact America’s greatest newspaper. As we clambered out of sea level inlets up the trail to the 1,400 foot contour level three, four, five, six times across an overall hiking time along l6 miles of about eleven hours (plus a night under the stars) Bruce groaned beneath his old fashioned pack, thick sleeping sack and self-inflating mattress pad. Pad and bag were abandoned at dawn the second day and his spirits improved markedly.

Except for that party of high schoolers trekking up out of the Usal campground at the south end of the Sinkyone near the end of our hike we saw no one. We had about ten miles of the most beautiful trail on the Pacific coast all to ourselves. A neighbor took his grandson on Memorial Day weekend to camp for a couple of days along a well known trail some twenty miles north of Eureka. It runs along Redwood Creek and is far from punishing. They saw no one. Americans have given up hiking. They stay at home watching Fox or CNN and getting fat. Or punishing their bodies with Dr Atkins’ diet.

I’ve plenty of agreeable memories from that outing in the Sinkyone Wilderness: A stately elk, as encumbered with his vast rack of antlers as so many hikers with their loads; the bare vestige of Wheeler, a little logging town burned down by Georgia Pacific for reasons of liability back in the 1950s, now surrounded by triumphant stands of redwood.

But one image that will stay with me is of a young, plumpish fellow in that group heading north on the first steep climb up out of Usal. Already he was tired and lagging. His pack was large. It was easy to predict that after five or six miles his life-time pledge to avoid all hiking trails. There should be a new standard: no back pack over twenty pounds including food and water and if possible, under 5 pounds. No American over Well, you figure the appropriate weight to height standard. We make our stand against the food industry (America’s biggest killer) and the recreation industry, which mostly takes the fun out of the great outdoors.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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