I graduated from 3 programs at The Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School (https://guideschool.com/) and worked for a short time for the school’s owner. It was October and the snow had begun to fall on the Grand Mesa and Battlement Mesa where my adventures were located. That particular adventure may have been ending, but as Robert Earl Keen says, “The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends”. Before my introduction to the world of Rocky Mountain outfitters and guiding, I was living on a ranch with a family on a mesa in south west Colorado. The woman who I was dating at the time said that she was putting the teepee up that we were living in and moving back into the house with her son, but that I could keep camping if I wanted to.
On my way home to the ranch, I stopped at the Cabela’s store in Grand Junction, CO. I was very excited to be purchasing the (Cabela’s Big Horn III Tent – Swan Hikes) tent that I had dreamed about for a few years. The old man who grabbed a cart for me shared in my glee at my new home. It was nice to be standing there with a fellow outdoorsman who was happy for me. Although a store employee, he was not making a commission, he works at Cabela’s because the outdoors is his passion. We talked for a bit as I also picked out my new Colorado Mesa Stove. The store employee told me about a Cabela’s tent that he had recently purchased. It was a great day for an outdoorsman with a paycheck in hand.
When I got back to the ranch, everyone was excited. The ranch hand and the foreman’s brother-in-law and nephew came down to help me set it up. Once it was set, I added a mattress, portable wire armoire, some black and yellow totes from Home Depot, rugs, and then off to work. It was October and I had no firewood. There was a couple down the road who had a lot of wood that was starting to rot. There was also a lot of pine that they would not burn in their house. I spent days going back and forth in my light, short-bed truck picking up 3 or 4 cords of wood to get me through the winter. Soon, the snow would have everything covered up.
I stacked the wood on the north west side of the tent to protect it from the cold winds that blow across the Mesa. On the other side was a stand of scrub oak that made a nice wind block. The family that I lived with, regularly had people come to camp and had made tent pads. It was the perfect spot. The rugs on the floor and my Cabela’s 0-degree flannel and canvas sleeping bag helped to take the edge off of the freezing cold.
It was lonely when I was camping by myself. I still took pride in the fact that I was trying to live outside through a Colorado winter at 9,000 feet elevation. I had been working at 10,000 feet. There is a big difference that 1000 feet can make. The foreman of the ranch had become my EX-girlfriend, but I continued living there because I got along with the family. I was part of the circle. That was nice, because I greatly respected her father who I learned a lot from. I am very grateful to her and her family. Never-the-less, an ex-girlfriend is an ex-girlfriend and I felt the need to get away.
In January, I moved across the state to a small mountain town on the front range. I was couch surfing at high elevation, but spent some nights sleeping in a mine shaft, because my new room-mate, a stranger, was doing some things that did not groove with my conscience. Around the same time that I met him, I began dating another woman who wanted to move, but needed a room-mate. We got an apartment in the city together and broke up a month later, which was right on time, because I did not like living in the city.
I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I wanted to be outside and that I did not want to settle down anywhere. Before I bought the fancy tent, I was going to do a winter hike of the Appalachian Trail, but my ex-girlfriends father convinced me to stay with them and wait until Spring for such a journey. Most of my stuff was still on the ranch. I took the tent down, but was unable to pull it up due to the frozen ground. My friends at the ranch used the tractor to pull the stakes out of the ground and I met with them down in Montrose to get it. It would have been difficult for me to get a 2-wheel drive box truck up that Mesa. It was a scary drive taking a box truck across the frozen continental divide twice. I drove straight through a winter storm front that had my booty puckered like all-get-out! Hah!
I made the 2000-mile journey home to a storage unit in Georgia, packed my backpack and got dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park on April 1st 2019 and began hiking north. I didn’t know how far I would go. All I knew was that I could not sit still. Before heading out, I sent my resume’ out to several Rocky Mountain outfitters hoping for employment as a camp cook. I thought that I would hike to Pennsylvania and then turn around and walk back to Georgia, unless I got hired, in which case I would go west again. I got dropped off at the top of the falls and set out on the busy approach trail. To read about my hike, please start here: The Walk-A-Bout Continues – Swan Hikes. Thanks for reading!
I made my way down the Jewell Trail in heavy fog thinking about the times I had hiked above treeline in the Rocky Mountains. It was going to be a very bad day for Rusty. No matter how vigilant I was above treeline, I consistently found myself off course, but I knew the general direction was down. My concern for Rusty was calmed by the awakening of nature around me. The fog slowly cleared as I made my way down the mountain.
It felt like a very long time to get below treeline, but I finally made it into the spruce and pines. I can smell them as I sit here and type. The smell of the forest in New England purifies the soul. The image of the jovial Jewell Trail is burned in my brain like a pyrograph. It was beautiful, but seemed to never end. I walked along the duff covered trail, alongside a stream, and close enough to hear the Cog Railway, whose base station I was walking to.
The all night rain soaked the trees and shrubs. The fog permeated every pore in my poor rain jacket and skin. Spruce and Pine boughs blessed my shoulders and pack with drops of dazzling dew. Weather-worn, I weaved my way along the winding trail and across the Ammonoosuc River to the base station. I left my pack outside and went in to use the WiFi and contact a shuttle to take me to Gorham, NH.
A local shuttle driver picked me up from the Cog Railway and took me to a hotel in Gorham, NH. I was really looking forward to seeing Rusty that evening. My foot hurt pretty bad, but I wanted everything to be perfect when I saw Rusty that night, so I hobbled down to the laundromat where I ran into Dave Mac, a hiking acquaintance and a traveling nurse. I had been asking different people on trail what they thought about my foot. No one thought it was broken. Dave Mac was the closest. He said it was a sprain. I found out later that there was a sprain and a break.
The weather started to get pretty bad and I was wondering where Rusty was. We started texting back and forth from her Garmin to my phone. Most of her hike that day was above tree line. It didn’t look like she was going to make it, so I took myself to dinner. While I was at dinner, the sky went from gray and rainy to black and stormy. Thunder shook the Chinese restaurant as I ate my Umami soup. I began to feel uneasy as it shook again and the waitress came by to congratulate me for not being on the mountain in that mess. I told her that my partner was up there and she was supposed to be at dinner with me and I was starting to get pretty worried. The waitress shared my concern.
I walked back to the hotel and started looking at the comments on the Guthooks app, to see what the trail was like and if there were any side trails she could use to safely exit. The comments on Guthooks did not inspire hope as I read things like, “Jagged rock outcroppings that cut your hands”. I texted Rusty to see if I could get dropped off at the trailhead she was hiking to and I could hike to her and spend the night. I was concerned with her being wet and cold. People die of hypothermia in the Whites in the summer time, and this was fall. She told me not to.
Thunder shook the hotel over and over again. Rain beat hard on the walls as it blew in side-ways. The mountains could not be seen due to the black wall of worrisome weather. I messaged my cousin, and called my brother and friends. They reassured me that if she made it that far, that she knew what she was doing. Plus, I was always telling everyone what an impressive hiker she is.
I was going crazy, but she finally texted me that she made it below tree-line and set up camp.
I was a different animal when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail – confident, determined, and stubborn to the point of folly. When I woke up on the swag between Mt. Washington and Mt. Madison, not quite below tree-line and damp from the rain the night before, it did not occur to me to be concerned about the cloud coverage. I had been warned numerous times about the weather in the White Mountains, but with over 1000 miles under my belt, I was fearless.
Swan’s foot had been hurting him for some time, and with more alpine experience than me, he looked at the fog appraisingly and said, “I’m not doing it today!”
He would take a side trail down to the cog railway that ran to the summit of Mt. Washington, and wait in town for me as I hiked an easy 12 miles to him. I didn’t even want to take the tent, because I would be in Gorham, NH that evening, but out of an abundance of caution I tied the tent to the top of my pack, put on all of my rain gear, and kissed Swan. It would be good to collapse in his arms at the end of the day, I thought.
The terrain in the Presidential range is unique and unlike the hundreds of miles that stretch in either direction, north or south, on the Appalachian trail. There is almost no tree coverage or even much soil. The rocks are jagged and range from a pale beige that is almost white in the high sun, to a deep gray that turns black in the rain. The vegetation is hardy and windswept, deep magenta and desaturated greens and yellows. All of it is low to the ground, and reminds me somehow of coral. Perhaps it is that walking along the trail in these mountains feels like being alone out at sea.
There was no one out on the trail that day, which is an oddity for the AT, but the White Mountains are remote enough that it isn’t unheard of. It wasn’t until the fog turned into a light, persistent rain that soaked all the way through my rain jacket, that I realized that no one was out hiking because of the weather. It didn’t matter, as long as I kept moving I wouldn’t be cold.
Sometime in the mid-morning I looked down at my phone to check my progress. I had a GPS map installed on it called Guthook, which could accurately pinpoint my location anywhere on the trail. I had made distressingly little progress, and was actually a bit off trail. I looked up and spotted a cairn off in the distance and walked to it, then I walked haphazardly to the next, losing the trail every time between cairns. It was extremely difficult to navigate in the fog above tree-line because everything looked the same in every direction, and the trail was not well worn. Side trails had been created in the places were 100 other people had gone the wrong way so often that it made the trail look like a spidery web with no real direction. Had I really only gone two miles?
I came across a hut at noon. The employees were outside, servicing the composting toilets. I won’t go into much detail about what they were doing, but suffice it to say that I did not think they wanted to have a conversation with me. I passed them, and they barely noticed my presence. They had other shit on their minds.
I rested there within sight of the hut but upwind of the smell. The rain had stopped for a minute and I told myself I really needed to pick up the pace. I got up and told myself “Ms. Rastelli, you better hustle. You got a hot date and you don’t want to be late.”
I pressed on, and climbed right back up into the clouds. The rain was more earnest now, the rocks sharper and more slippery, and the wind was picking up. I slipped on a rock and fell to my knees. When I fell, I had a little ritual that made me feel better. I always ate a snack while on the ground, preferably chocolate, before getting back up. I ate the chocolate and rose to my feet as much as I could, but the force of the wind kept me half crouched. I struggled forward,
but between the wind, the rain, and the difficulty of the climb, which was hand over foot in some places and still very difficult to navigate, I was starting to have to literally crawl. My stomach rolled over as I looked out at the endless black sea of unforgiving rock.
There is a little delusion that most hikers have, a delusion propped up by the quality of our gear, the food in our packs, the filters on our water bottles, and our outdoor experience. It’s the delusion that we have some sort of control over nature, that we can set a goal and with adequate respect and preparation, nature will invite us in. Under many conditions, this delusion is helpful, it allows a mere human to go off into the wilderness alone and emerge unscathed, and tap into the companionship with the natural world that is inherent to all other living creatures. The truth however, is that nature owes us nothing, and it is entirely free of limitations. So while I valiantly tried to keep my body warm, and the rubber side of my shoes down, the heart of the storm rolled in. I cried. I could feel the electricity building in the air around me, and I had nowhere to go but up. I was going to be the tallest thing around for at least another 5 miles and the wind consistently tried to blow me off the side of the ridge. The water was coming down as heavily as a cold shower, and with only 2 or 3 feet of visibility I was only sure I was going in the right direction on the rare occasions that I saw a cairn, or came across a sign.
I pulled my satellite phone out and began texting Swan.
“I hate this,” I told him.
“You can do it, just move slow,” he answered.
I kept on texting him as I made my painfully slow progress. It became clear that there was no way I was going to make it to town. At this point my only goal was to make it below tree-line. I sang to myself about how much I loved trees, and that, “all I want for Christmas is to get below tree-line, to get below tree-line, to get below tree-line.”
It took the entire day for me to go 7 miles. Sun was starting to set when finally, finally, I saw the forest a few hundred feet below.
“I love you!” I called out to the trees. When I hiked up to the first tree I put my hand on it and thanked it. The tree cover immediately made me feel about 10 degrees warmer, and protected me from the ferocious wind. I looked at the clouds and realized that this was why I had so misjudged the storm. After months of walking through the “green tunnel” that is the majority of the AT, I had no idea how different the same conditions felt when exposed. The trail was easy to follow, and although steep and slippery, I hopped down another few miles. I wanted to get as low as possible, I even considered night-hiking to town. As soon as I had that thought, the sky rumbled. I found a little patch of flat-ish dirt on the side of the mountain, and the first crack of lightning hit the mountains just as I pitched the tent. I mopped up the inside as best I could, because the inside had gotten soaked by rain in the 5 minutes it took for me to pitch the tent.
I texted Swan that I was safe, and that I would hike out to him early the next morning. Too tired to cook a meal, I changed into my driest clothes and laid down. The hardest day I’d had to date on the Appalachian Trail was behind me. Slugs gathered underneath the cover of my tent, and with a bit of amusement I counted my new slug friends until I fell asleep.
I’ve had harder days in the wilderness now, but that storm on Mt. Madison imparted more wisdom on me in a few hours, than most of my preceding years of life.
I enjoyed, immensely, being in Cowpoke, Wyoming and The Wind River Range. Sometimes, I can still see the mountain range from Elkhart Park, and smell the aromatic, alpine air. The feeling of walking down the main strip in boots, vest, and hat, after coming down out of the mountains, has a way of making one feel like they have been transported to a modern, real life version of an old western film. Wyoming is “The Cowboy State”, and true to its name.
It is atypical to have any time off while working for a horse-packing/fly-fishing outfit. People normally work until the season is over. In Western Big Game Hunting and Fishing Outfits, if you work an entire season, you are almost a seasoned veteran due to high turn over.
The first few weeks I worked there, I stayed in town in the bunk house and cooks cabin. I cooked inside the house while the crew prepared horse tack and trails. The company also had to rent 50 horses to add to their stock. Shoeing all the horses takes a lot of time. There is hard prep work that goes into getting ready for fishing season in the mountains. There is a 3 car garage with half of the building being the “Cook side”. There are freezers, shelves, and a work table. Canned and boxed foods line the shelves from floor to ceiling. The Sysco truck delivers trailer loads of food here. All of the cast iron and other pots and pans are on shelves or in large totes. Hundreds of broken plastic dishes, utensils, etc. littered the room. Water filters, stoves, and everything you can imagine for the camping trip of a lifetime lives inside. This is an OCD outdoor gear junkies dream…or nightmare if they weren’t up to organizing the mess.
You see, with such a high turn over rate in this industry, Outfitters often have people quitting or getting fired before the season is over. They seem to rarely have anyone left at the end of the season. Trying to break down camp and reorganize is a huge job. Usually, by the end of the season, everyone has quit and the outfitters are left to chunk everything in a corner until they can hire someone 7 months later to clean up their mess from last year.
For me, this is great! I love to organize and keep things that way. If you tell me that I am in charge of these things over here and no one else is supposed to bother any of it, my workspace will be immaculate. There is no need to micro manage me, because having owned businesses myself, I do well at managing myself. I work most efficiently when I understand the job at hand and am left alone to do the work. To my delight, that is exactly what this outfitter did while we were in town. They said, we need you to have this place organized, cleaned, and stocked within 3 weeks. In two weeks, everything was done. The outfit was satisfied with me.
The owner gave me the weekend off as a reward and even drove me to the wilderness. I was ecstatic to be going to the Bridger Wilderness in Greater Yellowstone, alone on a backpacking trip. He questioned me on survival topics and made sure I had what I needed. His wife admonished me not to break a leg, because the outfit needs a cook. I assured her that I would be fine. I was shown a wall map of the area and took a picture of it with my smart phone. He described the terrain to me and asked me to take a route for part of the way, that had no trail. He described a few trees, rocks, and topography to me. My backpacking trip was becoming a reconnaissance mission to see how the snow pack was, in the high country. My personal mission was to walk and acclimate to the elevation, making it a bonus for me that I was able to help out my employer and be entrusted with more responsibility.
On the way to my starting point, I had the most enjoyable conversation with my new boss. He is an “Old School” outfitter and has seen a lot. Something that makes him interesting is that he also has a wildlife biology degree. The amount of knowledge in his brain is impressive. I often wonder what makes highly intelligent people get stuck in ways that are no longer effective. Maybe age does it to us all.
He told me stories from the 1950’s in Utah and “The Winds”, as this swath of mountains is colloquially known. I heard stories of how he persevered through the years in the outdoors industry. Here was a man who had 60 years of experience in a certain field. A man who learned from even older outfitters. His stories had me on the edge of my seat and asking questions. He told me of difficult holidays with barely any food, as well as times of plenty. The dogged determination he had would be inspiring for any entrepreneur.
Early in this mans life, he had a cross country/ down hill ski lodge. There were partners who were no good. As is often the case with business partnerships, my former boss did all the work and put in his money and the other partner contributed money and drama. Ski slopes typically open just after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, it was a strange year with no snow. How was he going to feed his family and pay back creditors if there was no snow on the mountain?
He knew this local Italian guy who owned a lot of businesses in places like Vegas and New York. I understood the insinuation. The loan he took could cost him fingers and toes for being late. What better motivation does a man need?
He also took a loan from the grocery store for thousands of dollars worth of food. Surely there would be snow by December and people will want to hold parties at the lodge. Unfortunately, none came. The food spoiled. On Christmas Eve, this hard working man sat down to have a humble Christmas Eve dinner with his family. The emotion in his voice led me to believe that this was one of the most difficult times of his life. There was a knock at the door. It was his friend, Tom, the owner of the grocery store. His heart lifted, he thought Tom may have been there to bring a ham or dessert or something. Instead, Tom asked him to step outside and said there would be consequences if he was not paid back immediately. The young entrepreneur and father laughed with exhaustion. “Between you and the Italians, I just don’t care about your consequences. You will get paid when I make some money.” He slammed the door in his friends face and went back to his family.
Miraculously, there was snow. Everyone got their money soon after. Hard times turned to good. The seasons changed. 60 years later, he is still hanging on.
He dropped me off in the wilderness after pointing out some geographical features along the way and helping me learn the names of the peaks in “The Winds”. I was learning to identify every peak and pass from different angles. The first thing I did upon getting dropped off was pull out my compass, binoculars, and a photo of the map. Off I went, starting out at 8,000 feet elevation.
I followed the OHV road to the point where I would cut through the sage brush and make my way to a stand of burnt timber. Once I found the burnt timber, I hiked my way up a spur jutting off of the mountain. I made a live feed video on FaceBook while catching my breath. During the video, I found the horse trail that led to camp.
All in all, I ended up hiking about 10 miles and topped out at 10,000 feet elevation on a hill top. From the vantage point of a boulder sitting atop the hill, I was able to sit cross-legged for 45 minutes, lost in the wonderful beauty of the Wind River Range. I began to notice a mild headache and shortness of breath is why I initially sat down. High elevation begins at 7.500 feet. For me, symptoms of elevation sickness don’t show up until I hit 8,000 feet. At, 8,000 feet, my stamina weakens. At 9,000 feet and above, I can seem inebriated until I am able to acclimate. High elevation can be dangerous. People die and lose body parts, who have not properly acclimatized to the body working so much harder to provide it with oxygen and blood. Pulmonary edema is not a way that I would want to go out.
I have spent a lot of time alone. Many people do not seem to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is being alone and content. Loneliness is deprivation. I was missing my family, missing having a partner, and missing my Tramily (Trail + Family. LINK TO AT STORIES). Spending so much time traveling in rural areas and being in the wilderness, sometimes it is hard to meet anyone of a romantic interest. I had joined a dating site and had been emailing and texting this lady who was a world traveler, wildlife biology grad, and about to take on a job as a park ranger. Feeling the sting of loneliness, I pulled out my phone and saw that I still had service. We spoke for about an hour and I was trying to get her to come to Wyoming from a few hours away to go to the Mountain Man Rendezvous (more on that below). It was nice talking to her for a few weeks, but she moved further away to take a park ranger job the same weekend. We eventually fell off. It is hard to get to know someone new while working 18 to 21 hours a day.
I took pictures of the mountains with my smart phone through my Vortex binoculars. This acts as a great zoom and I was able to show my boss pictures of the snow on the peaks when he picked me up. I gave him his intel, thanked him for the opportunity, and went back to work the next day.
Another notable weekend was that of the Mountain Man Rendezvous. Have you ever seen the movie The Mountain Men with Robert Redford? The scene with the large gathering and the men doing drunken stunts on horseback? That was the first Mountain Man Rendezvous, 150 years earlier. There I was, a modern mountain man, 150 years later, in the same mountains, riding down into town to socialize and trade.
The weekend was filled with parades, rodeos, native dancers, re-enactors, living history demonstrations, and “Traders Row” filled with canvas tents and merchants selling things like hand forged knives, old fashioned soda, animal furs, historical clothing, and hand made jewelry. Up the road, at the museum, there were living history demonstrations. I walked all around town and enjoyed myself. I bought a few gifts for my nieces and nephews at the museum. Also, I picked up some bone and obsidian blade knives that I gave to a stranger who showed me kindness, and one went to a friend.
The most fun of all, I had in my head. I had been reading Jim Bridger: Mountain Man, as I lived and worked in the wilderness that bears his name. At the same time, there was another wrangler/ camp hand that was my coworker, who I have not mentioned. This man, Big Jake, was a short sawed off New Englander who grew up trapping and riding, and made his way out west for seasonal work in the mountains. About the time that hunting season is over in the fall, trapping season begins for him in New England and he travels back east. He once lived in the Adirondaks as a nomad. Now he is practically semi-nomadic, migrating with the fishing, hunting, and fur seasons across this great country. To my knowledge he has no children and has never been married. He doesn’t want to be John Wayne. He wants to be who he is. A man who has fashioned himself after the mountain men of yesteryear, but only 50.
We spoke often about trapping, riding, and camp. He was an avid reader of histories and biographies, as well. For a couple of years, he even worked as a wilderness guide for a wilderness therapy program, something I would really like to be involved in. He was the second person I met who had experience in that field. Although, technically, he was not in a management role in the company, he was a mentor to me. He was a man, happy in his level of responsibility, who was more experienced than me. Yet he was my helper, when MY Boss would let him. Excellent help is a real commodity. I also learned from his manner. There were things he actually meant to teach me and things I learned from watching. The most valuable advice I ever got in a work or school situation was from an ex-girlfriend I can’t stand: “Learn everything they teach you. Also, pay attention to the things they AREN’T trying to teach you (to have a full understanding).” If I see a person who is my elder and they do things that I want to do. I watch them like a hawk. It was a blessing to meet that guy.
The whole time I had been fantasizing about buying some horses and riding from Wyoming down to Doc Campbells Post in the Gila Wilderness come autumn. It sounds crazy, but over the course of a month, I planned routes that would keep me out of the high country and able to resupply. Locals were keeping there eyes on horse sales for me. It would be an epic trip that I would still love to take. I have yet to get my partner on a horse, but she is excited to try.
The first night we camped at Birch Spring Campground. The only Campground in the Smokies. It is located in a ravine. As you walk along the ridge, you come to a side trail that leads you down into the ravine. There was a fire ring and some logs that we made ourselves comfortable on. This is where we met a children’s author named, “Quill”. We also camped by a family on their first backpacking trip. They brought everything, including the kitchen sink.
We were worried that the family atmosphere would put a cramp in our style, and it did. It was nice that we were able to find camping spots near each other and mostly out of the way. The next morning after breakfast, I hiked off. I passed the family hiking down the trail in a row. They were beating their trekking poles together, as if they were rhythm sticks, because they were terrified of bears. It was reminiscent of the movie, The Parent Trap. Meanwhile, The Kilt-man was assaulted by a deer during his morning ritual (www.thewanderingkiltsman.com).
After a couple of days, we made it to Clingmans Dome, the high point of the Smokies and the second highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It was a beautiful day. We played frisby and guitar in a grassy park while we waited for the Kilt-mans family to show up. They picked us up and bought us Bar-B-Que. It was delicious. The details are getting fuzzy, but I think they dropped us off back at Clingman’s Dome where we hiked another day or two before they picked us up again for a zero day. We were all very grateful to his family.
The next morning, we woke up in camp and hiked off early. Squatch was with me when we walked up to the biggest living bear I have ever seen. It had to be 400 lbs. Squatch was in front of me, but we were hiking pretty close. It is fun to hike with Squatch because of his energy and music. I knew when he said a 4 letter word that it had to be something cool. Yes. A 400 lb bear.
“Hey Bear, I know this is your trail, but can we use it too? It’s your woods…We are just passing through!”
We both made noise and the bear just stared at us from the middle of the trail for a few minutes before he sauntered a few feet away and looked back at us with a hunger.
“Hey Bear, we see you, we don’t want any trouble. We are just trying to hike!”
We took a few steps. The bear moved farther away. When it felt safe, I snapped the best photo I could. Squatch was concerned because he felt like I had turned my back to the bear. He had a point. I figured that he was already watching that particular bear, who gave us room to pass. I was concerned about walking into another bear and wanted to have eyes in all directions. It was cool. We lived.
Fraser Firs and Red Spruce filled this section of boreal forest in the “high country” of the South East. There were breath taking view points. Wildlife is so abundant in Smoky Mountain National Park. After hiking for a while, we were ready to hit a particular shelter for lunch. The shelter was in sight and once again we were stopped. This time there was a 6 foot long rattle snake coiled up in the middle of the trail. The foliage was so thick to our left and right that we could not go around. At first, it was just two of us. Soon the rest of the Tramily arrived. It felt like we stood there for 15 minutes. We tried everything to get the rattler to move. Finally, Quill, the children’s author, walked up and said,
“Hey you little snake!!! You just need to slither on away from here!”
She said it in a sweet, but firm voice. The snake was diffused and slithered away. We continued to the shelter and had lunch with Quill, The Snake Whisperer.
The Smokies were also a time of great social synergy. Our tramily was having a good time and so was everyone else. We had really banded together when Merlin was with us, because there was a killer on the loose named, “Sovereign”. Really, that is how Merlin came to hike with us. Squatch brought up a good point that if he had a little sister and knew she was hiking out there alone with a killer on the trail, he would want to know she was protected. Merlin was no longer with us, but the band was as tight as ever.
One night, we stopped a little short of our goal and ran into a guy named “Mix Match”. I met him for the first time at Clingman’s Dome, but the rest of the band had met him long before. He was the proud recipient of a present from a local shelter: Norovirus! He got off trail to recover and then resumed his hike. He also plays the guitar and we had a great time passing it around the circle. There were lots of laughs and lots of singing. It was a good night.
I woke up incredibly early and took off ahead of everyone. It must have been 2 or 3AM. I made my way to the next shelter where everyone was sleeping. There were some people there who had been getting on our nerves, or else we would have pushed on to that shelter. Knowing they were there, we stayed behind to put distance between us. Every once in a while, I admit, I can be a bit mischievious. Everyone was asleep. I used the privy first, so I could make a quick get-a-way. I snuck up to the shelter and spotted the cables provided by the park service for hanging your food bag. It keeps bears and rodents out. A bush was beside it that I was able to crouch behind as I rattled the bear cables loudly and then stopped and froze. A hiker woke up and shined his flashlight toward the bear cables and scanned the area. Soon, his light went off and I was at it again, rattling the cables, as though a bear were nearby. The light came on again. He scanned more and kicked the wall of the shelter. I remained still. After the light turned back off, I bolted through the woods like a bear, until I could put some distance between me and them! The funniest part: a couple weeks later, we saw those guys again, and they told us about their bear encounter at the shelter and how they scared it off.
When we made it through the Smokies, I was ahead of everyone and came to a gravel road. There was a sign pointing to a general store about a mile off trail. The store was not on Guthooks and I had not heard of it. As I recall, I was famished and the next resupply would be several hours later at Standing Bear Hostel, however, I was trying to avoid Standing Bear Hostel because of a recent Norovirus outbreak. To my knowledge, they are great upstanding people, but those thing happen sometimes, and I didn’t want to put myself at risk.
I walked a mile down off the mountain and came to a general store in the middle of nowhere. They were not yet open, but had a picnic table out front. I dropped my pack, took off my boots, and laid down on the seat. They opened an hour later and actually had a shower that I paid to use. When I got out of the shower, there were a couple of section hikers who I had met the night before. They had completed their hike and were going home. I wished them good luck. They wished me good luck and I started shopping for my resupply. The cashier rang me up and asked for $40. I told her that I should be paying about $20 more.
“Yes Sir, you are right, but those gentlemen who were in line ahead of you donated a 20 dollar bill to your hike. They told me not to say anything until they left.”
The store had everything I needed, except for a fuel canister. They told me that the original A.T. route went along the road by the river and I might be able to catch a hitch if I took that route back to the trail. I did what she suggested. Walking alongside the swift, white, water was welcome to break up the monotony. It was a treat to be able to see the mountains from the gulch. Several cars passed me. Most people don’t like picking up a large male hitchhiker with a beard. There have only been a couple of occasions where I scored a hitch.
As I was thumbing my way down the road, a guy with a neck tattoo pulled up and asked if I needed a ride. I got in and told him I needed to go to Walmart or some place where I could buy a fuel canister. Instead, we pull up in his yard where it looked like a party was going on. He said that he had a spare one in the house that I could have and to come in and accept some hospitality. As I stepped into the hazy, smoke filled room, I noticed a large water bong being passed around. As my eyes adjusted more, the bare plywood walls were covered with swords and knives held up by nails. The closet was stacked with guns, with no door to hide them. One person was in a corner, inhaling Cannabis smoke through a gas mask. I only tried the gas mask on to evaluate it for it’s effectiveness because of my military training. I did not inhale.
I began my second season as a wilderness cook the evening I got to Cowpoke, Wy., at the house of a certain outfitter. It was a really cool place. The owner has a wildlife biology degree and grew up in the outfitting business under his grandfather. There is a lot of really interesting history with that outfit and in the Wind River Range. Even the small town of Cowpoke is super interesting for anyone who loves history. I was very excited to be there. Little did I know: I was being dropped into the middle of a wild west family drama, complete with cowboys and Indians, a killer, and the mob.
I was hired to be a camp cook/manager for their summer fish and horse pack trips. We would be riding 20 miles out into the wilderness and I would stay there for weeks to months while the wranglers brought me resupply and clean laundry. It was a dream job for me. I hit the ground running. Everyone was happy with my first dinner – Moose meatballs, in honey garlic sauce, on top of mashed potatoes, with salad. Over the next couple of days, I got to know the crew and company. Before we were able to get up into the high country, we had to stay at the bunkhouse, in town, on the outfitters property. The owners specifically asked me to get the bunkhouse under control. Sometimes, they have clients who need to stay in there. They said they always had problems with dirty cowboys to the point that the owners wife would go into the bunkhouse and rip apart all of the employees beds and even toss their possessions out of the living quarters. I was hoping to take a more mild approach. First step on the plan was to clean the bunkhouse to the point of being passable for a military inspection. Although, I was not required to, I cleaned it myself, because leaders set the example. I cleaned it for 3 days while the crew was out repairing tack. When they came back, I set up a cleaning schedule for them, and let everyone know that they needed to keep their possessions in their personal area so that everyone can utilize the bathroom. I had just cleaned the toilet that still had a turd in it and pee on the floor. The newest camp hand told me that he did not have to clean or pick up after himself.
He said, “I DIDN’T TAKE A WILDERNESS JOB TO BE CLEAN! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TAKE MY STUFF FROM MY BUNK TO THE BATHROOM AND PUT IT UP EVERY TIME!”
I told him that everybody has to, including me. In the wilderness, hygiene can become even more important than in town. If he didn’t like it, we could take it up with the company owners the next day. He told me that I was a tattletale and pulled a knife out and told me he likes to fight. I pulled my shirt off and showed him the crossed rifles tattoo, the symbol of the infantry, on my back and said,
“These crossed rifles PROVE that I like to fight! Now put the knife down while you talk to me!”
He did so. The next day, he decided that he respected me enough to start talking about his life to me and asking for advice. Then, during the course of a routine conversation, he tells me:
“Every time the owners daughter (a company foreman) gives me any sort of ‘constructive criticism’ I want to kill her.”
I told him that – THAT was not OK. I suggested that when she takes any corrective action with him, that he picture her body with a two year old’s face on it and pretend that she is having a tantrum. This is an exercise I use to deal with people who rub me wrong. I wish I could remember to do it more often.
At first, I thought he was a guy who just did not have control over his mouth. Then I began thinking about the knife situation, the threat, being far out in the wilderness, and the lack of sleep we were about to have for the foreseeable future. I went backpacking that weekend, one of two weekends I had off. It bothered me to the point that I called the foreman and had a talk with her. The following Monday, he was fired. It’s too bad he lost his job, but in the wilderness, you have to be able to have a basic level of trust. It especially bothered the foreman, because she had been put on a hit list.
There was this 17 yr old guy she went to school with who was described to me as being socially awkward and angry. He wrote out a 30 person hit list. This guy wanted to be with the foreman and she didn’t want to be with him so she ended up on the list, as well. He killed some people, but was not able to finish his list before he was apprehended. Every time he comes up for parole, her family lives in fear. What do you do when someone under the age of 18 does horrific things like that? I guess, what they did: Lock him up and hope he doesn’t get out to kill again.
To replace the crew member we lost, they hired a 20 year old kid who had just graduated a guide school that did not have him prepared in the least bit. There will be more about guide schools later. Furthermore, he hates horses. He was hired as a wrangler (Horseman) and camp hand. John – the wrangler, he seemed to be a very polite and hard working person. It was his first camp job, so he wasn’t expected to know much.
We had a long ride up to camp. It was my first ride in 7 months and it was going to be a 20 mile day. They gave me lots of warnings about how steep and rocky the mountains were. This didn’t bother me, because I grew up riding in the Appalachian Mountains and rode hundreds of miles on the western slope of Colorado the year before. They provided me with a horse that did not know anything. Normally, an outfitter wants their cook on a “Dude Horse” (A dude is someone from the city), but I had promoted my ability as a horseman in my resume’, because that is rare for a cook and I wanted to have a competitive edge. Actually, the week before, this particular horse had bolted on a greenhorn and dumped the newbie on the ground. From what I heard, it was hysterical. Honestly, they gave me the horse because I gave the guy a hard time about it. I thought it was in good fun, but maybe I did get carried away. It was my ego. I was a manager and this city slicker kept calling me “Dude”. It was silly on my part. Regardless, I rode that horse like a champ.
As I said, it was my first ride in 7 months. At the beginning of our journey we had to ride up “The Bastard Hill”. Why is it named this? If you ever have the chance to ride down it at night in a hailstorm, you will find out! There is a mental picture that this outfit likes to paint for people to motivate them to use proper riding posture, “Picture a monkey screwing a football.” That would be the wrong way to look while riding a horse. Now picture a large burly man riding up a mountain, looking like a monkey screwing a football. Good! That was me. After that day, I insisted that I be allowed to saddle my own horse.
Half-way up to the ridge, I stepped off my horse and got everything re-situated. It was much better. I was able to ride at max comfort and proper posture. Riding is not just sitting on a horse. Riding is an action you take in connection with that animal. It is almost like a dance. You want your body to move in rhythm with the horse. You keep pressure in the stirrups, thus always using your legs. We got into rhythm together and had a mostly pleasant ride.
She was as spooky as a 10 year old in a graveyard on Halloween night, especially while walking through water. This didn’t bother me too much, because I am an experienced rider. Picture a mule train with three strings of animals. In other words: A man on a horse, holding a lead rope with six mules tied together with string, walking at a slow and steady pace, in a straight line X 3. There is $10,000 worth of gear in each string, plus the cost of the animals. Now imagine a 1,200 lb animal freaking out and running through the middle of all that. She tried to get scared and bolt on me, but I was grounded and centered. There was not a soft place to land. We were in the middle of an alpine stream, filled with rocks and boulders. On each side of that are limbs to get “Clothes-lined” on. I took deep, deliberate breaths and imagined my calm energy transferring into the horse as I whispered, “Eeeeaaasssssyyyyyyy Hoss. Good Hoss. Calm. Calm.” I stroked her neck and her jaw began to soften and her lips quivered. This is a good sign that a horse is relaxed. My heart was racing, but my mind was clear. It was a peace beyond understanding. It is a feeling, that for me, seems to be exclusive to the wilderness: The physical feeling of adrenaline combined with the peace of mind and soul in the wild. At my core, I am wild. It is just a return to my true nature. For me, being in the forest is more sacred than church. I can look at building permits and know who put this church here. People have to go inside that box and invite the Creator in. It seems like a whole lot of extra steps, when I could just hug a tree, instead of cutting it down to build another box to put people in. I am too claustrophobic for boxes.
We made it to camp and set up all the tents (I continued to sleep in my backpacking tent), the high-line, toilet tent, and fire ring. The last thing we did was put an electric fence around the cook tent that did not work. It was to keep grizzly bears out. After the tents were up, the whole crew rode out and I stayed in camp alone for the next few days. I completed a list of tasks that had to be done in camp and setup my cook tent ahead of the clients arrival. Just before the clients arrived, I took a swim in a glacial lake, started a fire, and took a smoke bath to deodorize.
The crew would arrive first. It was late June, but still fairly cold at 10,000 feet elevation. I had the fire roaring inside the wood stove in the cook tent. I was tired and dozing off. Every time I got into a state between awake and asleep, the popping and crackling of the stove would sound like approaching horse hooves and I would jump up in excitement to meet the crew, and grab the 16 coolers and panniers filled with our food for this 6 day trip. This continued for 3 hours until they arrived.
I got all of the food organized. We used a mule train of 20 animals to bring everything into camp. The coolers and panniers had to weigh within 2lbs of each other to balance on the animal. They were packed accordingly. Everything was deep frozen. As soon as it gets to camp, I had to reorganize the coolers so that white meat was with white meat, red with red, dairy on its own, etc. I also had to change the amount of ice in the coolers so things would thaw in the same order as the menu was being served. Meanwhile, the wranglers and camp hands were out collecting water, wood, and solidifying what their tasks would be for the trip.
John was left with me as my primary camp hand while the other two wranglers rode out to get work done. I went over Johns tasks with him, wrote them down, and asked if he had any questions. It was an odd day since no one got into camp until the afternoon, so he wanted to know what to do at that very moment. I asked him to go start a fire for the clients. We were in a rush to get everything perfect for the clients arrival. He was not able to start a fire, so I gave him lighter fluid, as a short cut, to get the job done. We can’t use lighter fluid all the time, because we can only carry so much. He ended up using half a bottle to start one fire.
The next day, I was working my butt off. In camp, the cook often works 18 hour days. We are up before everyone and often times can’t go to bed until everyone else does too. John was going about his tasks when it came time to burn trash. We kept a “burn bag” and a “pack out bag” for trash. Whatever could not be burned got packed out. Every day we burned paper and placed the “pack out trash” inside of coolers, to cut down on smells and bears. I asked John to build a fire so he could start burning the clients trash.
An hour later he walked in the cook tent and said, “Swan, I am still having trouble with the fire thing.”
I walked outside and saw that he had dumped a whole bag of wet, paper trash into the pit and tried to light it with a lighter.
“John, I asked you to BUILD a fire and ADD trash to it. You cant dump a bunch of stuff on the ground and spark a lighter. You have to build the fire, get it going, and slowly add the trash to it.”
Together, we cleaned out the fire pit and I showed him how to build a log cabin style fire and slowly add trash. He got it all done.
The next day, I noticed that even though his tasks never changed, I had to keep asking him to do them. I further noticed that, often, he was nowhere to be found. Tasks were piling up and I was having to do his work and mine. The wind picked up and knocked the rusty, improperly fitting stove pipe down, on top of the canvas tent. The whole tent was filling up with smoke as I tried to get this red hot stove pipe off the cloth tent without injuring myself. I was wearing leather gloves that I destroyed, plus using oven mitts that singed. I was yelling for him to help. It took some time for him to get there, because he was off on a nature hike instead of working. We got the stove pipe back up. By this time, the entire cook tent was filled with smoke and I had to cook for the clients, who were soon to arrive. I would hold my breath as long as I could and run in to do some work, then run back out and manually fan smoke out of the front flaps and try to catch my breath. I did this for an hour.
Meanwhile, John, was supposed to be building a new fire for trash that day. Finally, the smoke had dissipated and I was able to more efficiently do my job. I was in the tent cooking and had not heard from John in a while. I poked my head out of the tent and saw that there was STILL no fire going. John was sitting cross-legged on the ground with his face in his hands and bags of trash beside him. I patiently walked over and asked if he was OK?
He began sobbing into his hands, “I JUST CAN’T START A FIRE, SWAN!!!”
On the inside, I was flabbergasted. How could a 20 year old, who supposedly grew up hunting, went to guide school, and was hired as a camp hand/wrangler NOT know how to start a fire. I said, “OK John, just relax. It’s OK. Yesterday, I showed you how to start a fire by stacking your sticks like a log cabin. Today, I am going to show you how to build a ‘Lean-to’ fire.”
We built the fire together. I went back into the cook tent and resumed the cooking. Silently wondering what this world was coming to.
The next day, a couple clients stayed in camp due to fatigue. This usually means that along with cooking in a primitive setting and running camp all day, I also had to entertain clients. That is no problem. I have always enjoyed having one-on-one interaction with the clients. I had to keep John on task, because he kept wanting to disturb the clients, by asking lots of questions when they were trying to rest and he needed to be working. I asked him to go start a trash fire. He finally and successfully built a fire. I congratulated him. I went back to the cook tent and resumed my job.
After a while, I heard the clients out there and thought it was odd that they would be hanging out next to a trash fire, so I poked my head out of the tent to see what was up and they were watching John try to get the fire going again. He built a little fire and then suffocated it by dumping all of the trash on top of it at once. I walked over with heavy feet. At this point, I was sick of it.
I greeted the clients with a smile and said with a tired voice to the camp hand, “John, good job on building the fire. I think where you went wrong here was by dumping too much onto the young fire. I know this may sound strange, but fire is alive. It is born. It lives, feeds, and breathes. Then it dies. Think about nurturing the life of the fire with the perfect amount of air and food, because you keep snuffing it out. Have some patience.”
He proudly told me that he knew a trick. He asked to see my knife. I handed him my 6 in long Ka-Bar knife with an impressively sharp edge. He rammed my knife into a plastic bottle, dulling my blade. He handed my knife back in an arrogant manner, knelt down by the fire and began blowing through the bottle to give the fire more air. This let me know that he understood better about fire. The problem is, you don’t treat someones prized knife like that. I became furious, but held my tongue. I did not want to break his spirit or his passion for the outdoors. He had confided in me that he was not enjoying the work, and felt that if he continued to work there, that he would lose his passion. I told him that I did not want that and would help him however I could. The clients saw what happened. Being older outdoors-men, they instantly understood what happened. Their eyes widened and eyebrows raised. John handed me back my knife. I pursed my lips, squatted by the fire, and took a breath. I looked up at him, took my cowboy hat off, and lightly fanned the flame as it kicked up into a roar. As I stood up and put my hat upon my head, he said, “I didn’t want to get my hat dirty, Swan!”
The next day, I lost my temper with him. I was dealing with the sub-par equipment the outfitter had me using, and my two camp hands were working hard, but the good camp hand had to work twice as hard to undo the mistakes of John. There was a task that I could not do without them. They were in the middle of moving all of our stock (Horses and Mules). I knew how bad John was with the animals, so I thought everybody could get things done quicker if I went and helped with the animals. John was trying to walk a mule train through an alpine marsh carrying a bundle of 6 manties (tarps that cover the horse pack) in his arms and leading 6 mules at the same time. He kept dropping the tarps and tripping while leading the “string”. A string is a mule/horse train tied together by string that can break in case of an accident so it doesn’t wreck the whole train. I took the string from John and told him just to carry the manties (See main photo for an example of a mantie).
We had to continuously remind John, not to get behind the animals. It spooks them. As I am leading the string down to the new high-line area (High-lining is a way to secure the animals while lessening the chances of them getting tangled or tripped.), John walks directly even with the last mules hind-end. There are 6 mules heads ahead of him and 5 butts. How he came to the conclusion that he was not behind them, I don’t know. He tripped and dropped all of the manties, the mules went from being head to tail, to forming a shoulder to shoulder wall and running as fast as they could towards my back. I heard the commotion, looked behind me and tripped.
I thought, “best case scenario: I get trampled and die. Worst case scenario: I get trampled and spend the rest of my life as a paraplegic or vegetable.”
Miraculously, every single horse hoof missed me. I was terrified and shaken. I stood up and cussed John out.
He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, “Swan, I don’t appreciate you calling me a ___________________.”
There was a loud apology, “I’M SORRY JOHN… but in moments of near death, sometimes I cuss… HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU NOT TO WALK BEHIND THE ANIMALS???!”
He said he wasn’t. What else could be said? I later apologized again, because I began to wonder if this person was legitimately, “A few french fries short of a happy meal.” I felt awful, but other people said that they felt I was as patient as anyone could be with him.
After dinner the next night, I was getting ready for bed. As I customarily do, if the company owner is in camp, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him before I went to sleep.
He said, “Yes, I asked John to dump the dirty dishwater on the clients fire after they go to sleep tonight. Will you just remind him? You know how he is…”
I gave him a, “Yes Sir!” and dutifully looked for John. He wasn’t by the fire, so I went to the staff tent. The other hands had not seen him in hours. I walked the perimeter of the camp and even went to the toilet tent. It was dark out at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range, 20 miles from the nearest road. Where could he have gone? Immediately, I told the outfitter that he was not in camp. This was a serious cause for concern. At the same time, we can not let the clients know what is happening. The boss asked me to go search for him by the high-line and to climb up the cliff and see if he is up there trying to get cell service. I took my head lamp and searched a half mile radius for this guy, alone. The other staff had a rough day and needed sleep. The boss is old and out of shape. It was up to me. He was nowhere.
Once again, I went to the outfitter and said, “BOSS, I’m sorry, but he is nowhere to be found. I even yelled out, ‘If you can hear me, you are not in trouble and no one is mad. We care about your life and want to make sure you are safe!”
The boss asked me if I had heard any gun shots. “Ohhhhh….s**t. You know, he HAS been depressed and talking about how bad he misses his mom and sister. This is his first time away from home. He was home schooled his entire life, and thinks that he knows all about the real world because after high school, he lived at a Christian camp for a year where he was, ‘On his own’. I didn’t hear a gun shot, Sir, but ya know… he did tell me earlier today that he was feeling very low. I tried to encourage him…but ya know, he did almost get me killed and I lost my temper and cussed at him. Do you think that was it?”
The boss said, “No Swan, I was pretty hard on him every day. You were actually really good to him. He just isn’t cut out for this. He can’t handle the horses. He is a hard worker, but he just isn’t meant for an outfit with horses. Will you go look for him one more time? If you don’t find him, call back to base and let them know to send Search and Rescue in the morning.”
I was off to find this guy. No one was going to get lost on my watch. No one was going to kill themselves. This guy needed to know that we all think he is a good person and a hard worker, but maybe he needed to find a place that would work better for his skills and temperament. I was so worried.
“JOHN! JOHN!! You have been gone a while! You aren’t in trouble! No one is mad! We need to know you are OK!!!! JOHN!!!!”
I walked back to the cook tent where the boss was sleeping.
I hung my head and said, “I couldn’t find him, Sir. I called base and let them know that he was missing. They are going to wait for one more call from me in the morning. If he has not shown up by then, S.A.R. will be out here.”
“Hey Swan, what’s up?? I was on the phone with my sister.”
In a hushed yell, “JOHN! GET YOUR ASS TO THE COOK TENT NOW! WE NEED TO TALK!”
We walked to the tent together to see the boss-man and thankfully, I was excused to get a whopping 3 hours of sleep, before I had to wake up the next morning and start another 20 hour day, breaking down camp, riding 20 miles on horseback to the trail-head, and then an hours drive to the lodge. Their conversation was a short one, but John later told me that it was an encouraging conversation. He went home the next day.
We had 5 clients on that trip. On our second to last night with them, they awarded me a very nice skinning knife in a wood case as a “trophy”. They said that the fishing sucked and weren’t happy with my boss. Normally, they all chip in on a trophy to give to whoever catches the most fish. They said they couldn’t do that this year, but had an amazing time in camp and wanted to give it to me, along with an $800 tip. It was much appreciated. I thanked everyone, except for one of these gentlemen, who was somewhat cantankerous and difficult to be around.
At one point, my boss was giving him a hard time and saying, “you know, some guys can be the nicest guys in the world, but when they get to elevation and it starts getting to them, they become real pricks!”
His friends understood the insinuation, laughed, and interjected, “HAH! Not him! He is a prick all the time! If he starts acting nice, he is sick.”
The only reason I did not thank him at the same time as everyone else was because he was not there.
I sought him out and said, “Sir, I want you to know how much I appreciate this knife. I know that you are not as happy as you were expecting to be, but you just made me very happy with this gift. Is there anything else that I can do for you?”
He said, “No Swan. You deserve it! Thank you for the camp experience!”
I smiled and nodded and helped him on his horse. The best clients that I ever had were now riding away.
I bought the MSR Hubba Hubba NX in late July of 2019 for the northern half of my Appalachian Trail hike. I had been using a two person tent for myself, because I am claustrophobic. I met my (now) wife (Rusty) a few weeks before I received my tent. It was a relief that it was roomy enough for both of us without me feeling claustrophobic. I think this mostly has to do with how much I love her and not the square footage of the tent, although the square footage is sufficient. For perspective I am a stocky guy and about 5’9” tall and she is petite and 5’2”. Now she carries the poles and I carry all the fabric.
The doors on each side are nice. We were able to use the vestibules to store things and crawl out of the tent without having to crawl over each other. The tent did not come with a footprint, so I used the old one from my Featherstone Granite UL2. I am planning to use a Tyvek sheet for my footprint on my next trip. Something I may do is cut the Tyvek so the footprint extends into the vestibule. One of my trail brothers has a different tent that is designed that way and I really liked that feature. I really liked how when I spread the poles out, they almost attach on their own. It is a very easy set up. The stakes are small, light weight, and very solid.
The second week in use, there was some “hubba hubba” going on IN the Hubba Hubba and we rolled the wrong way and ripped a couple stitches on the wall where the mesh and fabric meet, but it is still holding together after 100 more uses. I am probably going to repair it myself before my next big hike instead of using the 3 year warranty that came with it. I would not call the floor waterproof, but it is much better than my old tent, the Featherstone Granite UL 2. Again, use a footprint. The rain fly is really nice. You can zip it in different configurations. It fastens to the top pole very securely, which enables the user to setup different rain-fly configurations. When it was scorching hot outside, or if I just wanted a better view of nature, I would pull the sides of the rain-fly up and fold them over the top of the tent. It has lots of mesh on the inside and vents in the rain-fly that can be opened and closed. The tent breathes well and stays warmer than I expected.
I just used this tent last night in a deluge. There was thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. It has been packed up for several months, but still performed great. Rusty, Baby Wolf (our pet dog), and I slept magically beside a waterfall. It is a little too tight to have the dog in there with us, but it is also just a two person tent.