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!
Rusty got a hitch into Gorham, New Hampshire where I was. It was wonderful to see her. We spent a night there and the next morning, we called for a shuttle to take us to the notch to continue along our way. I was in a lot of pain and trying to hang in there. My foot ached so bad. Rusty taped my foot up with KT Tape as she had begun doing on the regular. The KT Tape really supported my foot. I was abusing myself by taping my foot up to keep going, but it worked!
The shuttle arrived 15 minutes late and I was irritated. When I opened the back of the shuttle, a bunch of backpacks fell out on top of me and I noticed that the vehicle was full, except for one seat. Rusty and I were a party of two, and I had told them this on the phone. I said something about it and the young college age driver shrugged his shoulders. Not having many options, we got in. I became increasingly angry that it was so crowded and that there were not enough seats for both of us. Rusty was sitting in my lap. I got into a battle of wits with the driver. I was really pissed, but calmed down by the time we got to where we were going. The driver ended up saying that the ride was free. We tried to pay him anyway, but he took off. Over a year later I can say that I still would have been upset about the driver’s smart mouth, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. In retrospect, I was probably transmuting the pain into the beratement that I gave the driver. Sorry bub.
Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is where we were dropped off. We went inside and looked at the gear and books they had for sale. There was a cool 3D topographic map that I really wanted, but it didn’t seem practical to carry it on my pack. After filling up our water and using the bathrooms, we stepped off. It was a nice little nature walk for a minute, until it was time to ascend up into the mountains again. There was a bit of a nerve-wracking scramble that we both had to go up. I told Rusty to stay way back from me, in case I were to slip, because I didn’t want to create a domino effect and crush her. We both made it up and continued hiking up to the top. We sat down together on a flat rock overlooking Highway 16 in New Hampshire. I began to shake vigorously. The sweat combined with the wind chilled my core. Rusty and I cuddled up and I began to cry. She tried to comfort me, but I was miserable. I felt sick, broken, and was beginning to wonder if I had some kind of infection that was giving me fevers. The words came out as painful as what I was feeling in my foot,
” I might have to get off the trail, Rusty.”
Rusty: “Will you go back to Georgia?”
Me: “I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave you or the trail.”
Rusty: “I don’t want you to go either, but I have to finish the trail.”
Me: “I know. Maybe, I can go back to Georgia and recover and get a bicycle and peddle it to New Orleans to see you. That would be a fun adventure… AAAHHHH. I am going to try to keep going. LET’S GO!”
I got up and continued hiking over 4,000 foot mountains, in the autumn, in the White Mountain National Forest. Every third step heard me cussing. I was cold while I hiked. I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I cold? I am on mile 5, hiking over a ski mountain, I should be warm.” But I wasn’t. We took a break on top of Wildcat Mountain, but didn’t stay long. I was so cold, sickly, and broken that we had to keep moving. After several miles, we began to descend into another notch. It was so beautiful and steep. The foliage is burned into my mind. We made our way to the bottom and took a side trail to one of the huts. I am so happy that the White Mountains have the hut system, because they saved my tail – twice!
We walked along a stunning side trail. There were little ponds on each side of us and I took some beautiful photo’s of my lovely lady and tried to make it a happy experience, because I knew this might be the end for me and the Appalachian Trail. We made our way inside the hut and searched the log for the names of our friends.
“Oh look Rusty, Grock stayed here on his way down from his flip!”
Rusty managed to get a work for stay, but I paid for myself. The last thing I wanted to do was work. We played cards and board games and had a good time. There was another pair there. Eventually, we retired to our private bunkhouse. The only reason it was private was because it was so late in the year. Many huts had already closed. As I laid there on the bunk, I began to shake uncontrollably. Rusty laid on top of me to warm me up. I was so cold that she became cold, as well, in her efforts to warm me. I couldn’t figure it out. I knew how to dress, but my body would not regulate properly. I called my friend James, from New England, and asked him for advice. It was all stuff that I knew and nothing was working. I told Rusty that I was going to have to quit my hike. We both cried and went to sleep.
The next morning, Rusty had to continue hiking north. I would be taking the 19 Mile Brook Trail down to the highway and calling a shuttle. It was a very emotional morning. I walked her out to where the trail forked for us to go our separate ways. We stood there embracing for the longest time. It was difficult. By this time, we were really in love with each other, but maybe too close to see it. She told me that we would could keep dating and that I could see her when she was done with the trail. I wasn’t ready to totally part company with her. I decided to take a shuttle to the next town that she would be at and I would brainstorm on how to stay with her for a few days until I saw her again.
Never-the-less, it was an emotional departure. I used to yell, “YEE-YEEEEEEE” as my call to let my tramily know that I was near-by. Rusty had been living up to the nickname that she got in New York, Mama Wolf, and howling to call out. Sometimes, she still sets the woods alive with the howls of Canids reaching out to her. After a long tearful embrace, we parted ways. We called to each other for a mile, until the distance was too great. I sobbed. I couldn’t be without her.
The hike was incredibly easy and beautiful. The 19 Mile Brook Trail is almost graded and very well groomed. Limping out alongside this amazing brook helped to calm me. I continuously checked my cell phone for service and when I got it, I called a shuttle driver who was listed in the Guthooks App. He met me at the trailhead and took me to Bethel, Maine, where I would await the arrival of my queen. I hobbled into the main entrance of the Chapman Inn, where I told the lady my troubles and our love story. She put me up in the bunkhouse and said that when my Lady Love arrived, that we could have a private room. The Chapman Inn was a great place to get my head together. I could barely walk, but the one Uber driver in town was really nice to hikers and really helped me out, for a small fee. As I was lying in my bunk, licking my wounds, I got a satellite text from Rusty. She had summitted Carter Dome, but her water purifier broke and the rain cover on her pack flew off. Freezing rain was coming down with heavy winds blowing across the peaks. She said she also missed me and that she was taking a side trail out of the forest and coming to see me. I called the same shuttle driver and told him what happened and he said that he would be waiting at the trailhead for her. I felt bad that she had some logistical hiccups, but elated to know that I would soon be in the warm embrace of “Rusty, Mama Wolf, Bad Ass”. She arrived and we were moved into one of the haunted rooms at the Chapman Inn.
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.
The Wandering Kiltsman and I were separated from each other for over a month, but he finally caught up. It was nice to see him again. Crash and I had been telling Rusty stories about our hike down South. Most, if not all, involved TWK. Rusty was excited to meet him after months of stories and bought him a bottle of rum. This crazy guy did 30 mile days for a week to catch up with us. A couple days later, everyone woke up in camp and decided to pass that bottle around. It had been a crappy night, the hike was rough, alcohol weighs, and my foot hurt. I really am not much of a drinker and was quickly three sheets to the wind. I hiked and came to a parking lot where there was a pair of thru hiker alumni waiting with more alcohol and a ride to the store. I got so drunk. I wanted to camp in the parking lot. Rusty convinced me to hike. We needed to hit miles.
I staggered along the trail until we came to a large boulder at the bottom of Webster Cliffs. I laid on top of the boulder and hoped to sober up. It felt like an hour or more. We compromised and decided to camp at the top of the cliffs. There was no water source there, so we had to fill up before we got to the top. There was supposed to be one water source along the way, but we never saw it. Rusty even went on a wider search for water. The next reliable water source was 5 miles ahead of the cliffs through difficult terrain. It was early afternoon and we had a liter of water per person. We camped in the trees on top of Webster Cliffs.
The next morning, we woke up dehydrated and began our trek. I had promised Rusty that we would hike at least nine miles to the Lake of the Clouds hut. A mile or two into our hike, I felt like I couldn’t go past the hut a few miles away. I was so dehydrated. Rusty lost her temper and told me what an asshole I was for suggesting that I may have to break my word. She was furious. We were hungry. Our bodies were starving and dehydrated. We sat in the middle of the trail to eat. Rusty started to eat dry food and I suggested that she eat something with moisture in it to mitigate the dehydration. She ate tuna.
At a certain point she even told me that she wasn’t leaving the relationship, but that she wouldn’t allow me to hold her back and was going to leave me on the trail. I knew that while she could out hike me based on how many hours in a day that she was willing to hike, I could hike faster. I hiked ahead of her so that she couldn’t see me, but I kept my ear out so I could be there in case she ran into trouble. The thoughts of holding her back or being left did not sit well with me. I had decided that, “I would show her,” by hiking the rest of the way to Maine alone even if it was detrimental to my health, and still be there at the finish line.
As I was lost in my thoughts, I came across a tent and I thought I could score some water, but no one was there. After a few minutes, I came upon two weekend hikers who were on the way to their car (it was their tent). I told them how angry Rusty was with me and how it was 100% my fault and that I screwed up. If they could give me a little water, it could really turn the day around. They gave me half of their water, because they had more in the car. When I caught up with Rusty, she had filtered bog water through her bandanna and was drinking it through her Sawyer Squeeze water filter. She was still very angry, so I continued to give her space.
We came within a mile of Mizpah Hut, part of the Appalachian Mountain Club hut system. Rusty stopped me and said, “Look, we need to work this out before we go around people”. We both apologized and made up and walked into the hut together. It had been getting very cold. It was nice to sit in the hut and warm up. I was able to buy some Polartec gloves and the hut worker even took my trash for me. I felt horrible and wanted to make it up to Rusty. We sat there and tanked up on water and food and looked at maps. I had promised to go to Lake of the Clouds hut, because that was the last hut before Mt. Washington and you have to be very careful due to the extreme weather up there. The embarrassment and shame of drinking to the point that it negatively affected us spurred me to go beyond our goal for the day. Bad weather was rolling in, and it would be good to summit the second highest peak on the 2,000 plus mile trail before things got ugly. We looked at maps and tried to find side trails we could take to safety if things got bad. I pointed out Tuckerman’s Ravine. The hut worker immediately said that was a bad idea, because that is where the most accidents and deaths happen. Finally, we decided if worst came to worst, we would back track.
With my new gloves on, we hiked past the Lake of the Clouds hut to summit Mt. Washington. I felt like a conqueror, because I went from having one of the worst days on the Appalachian Trail to over-delivering on a promise I thought I couldn’t keep. Rusty allowed me to lead the way to the summit. The whole way up, I kept thinking about our trail friend “Grock”. He was on a flip-flop hike and had driven up to Maine and started hiking south after completing the southern half. He crossed our paths again several days prior. We were concerned due to the amount of weight he lost. He looked a bit more beat up than the last time we had seen him. I asked him what Mt. Washington was like and he said, “It was like WWHOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSHHHHHHHHHHH”! He used his voice to imitate a strong and sustained wind. Mt. Washington has the highest land wind speed record on earth at 231 MPH.
We made it to the top of the mountain, a mountain so steep that it has about 4000 feet of elevation gain over 5 miles from it’s base. The wind? What wind? We must have been the luckiest hikers on Washington. The skies were clear and there was no wind. We went inside the visitor’s center and bought a bread bowl of chili and looked at the list of 200 fatalities that have occurred on the mountain and mumbled a few words of respect. Afterwards, we stood in line to take our picture next to the sign, which was a comical experience. I had to chase her around it to get a picture. The stranger taking our photo got one of me chasing her and one of us beside each other. We have them in a double frame that we travel with.
As the sun began to set, we made our way down the mountain. Our friends, Rooster and Tinklebell, told us about a tradition of mooning the Cog Railway train. Our descent was timed perfectly and we did our part in keeping the tradition alive. We continued to walk across rocks above the treeline. It became darker and darker. Hiking above treeline could be compared to walking on the surface of the moon. Soon, it would become very difficult to navigate and there were approaching storms.
We decided to backtrack a few hundred yards to the Jewell Trail. It would not have been smart or very feasible to pitch our tent above treeline. We came down to a sub alpine area of Krummholz (stunted and gnarled trees and shrubs at treeline) and camped in the middle of a day use trail so that we would not destroy any of the fragile plant life. We got dumped on. The next morning when we woke up, everything was wet. The fog was so thick that there may have been 10 feet of visibility. Keep in mind that there wasn’t much to look at besides rocks. This is a navigational nightmare.
My foot was causing me an excruciating amount of pain. I no longer had a fever. Between the weather forecast, hiking above treeline, and the state of my injuries, I told Rusty, “I’m not doing it today”! I told her that I was taking the side trail and finding a ride to Gorham, NH and getting a hotel. Rusty would continue on to Mt. Madison. It was not that many miles from there to the trail head where she would be getting a shuttle to meet me up with me. The issue is that we were in the White Mountains, which are treacherous. We normally could hit 15 to 20 miles or more with no issue, but in the Whites, we were hiking 6 to 12 miles a day. We had been splitting up the components of our tent so that both of us were carrying our own weight. She considered not taking the tent, because it was not very far and she could hike there faster with less weight. I reminded her that the Whites are unforgiving and she took the whole tent. She said her Garmin In-Reach device was charged and on. We kissed and I began my descent as the brave Rusty continued into what would become a pivotal moment in her wild adventures.
In September of 2019, while hiking the New England section of the Appalachian Trail with Rusty, I broke my foot. I can’t tell you how many times I yelped and mumbled a cuss word under my breath, or how many times she looked back at me with concern. At first, it had to be tendinitis, but at what point it actually broke, I can only guess. The pain was relentless. The worst part of it is that you, as the reader, want to know how I did it, but I don’t know. Walking?
North Face Ultra Fastpack III boots were waiting for me in Hanover, New Hampshire. The Ivy League school, Dartmouth, is what makes Hanover a town. It is a very artificial looking place, almost like walking onto the set of a TV show. Dartmouth students flock the streets like sheep on a hillside. Seeing their reactions to the dirty, stinky hikers who have invaded their gargantuan, green pastures was a real treat for me. Dartmouth? MEH! I am a Harvard man! Yes, it’s true: I, Swan the Guide, am a Harvard man, thanks to Charles W. Eliot. He was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909 and is considered to be responsible for building Harvard into one of the worlds greatest universities. He put together a list of books and said that if a person were to read every single one of these books, they would have what is equivalent to a Harvard education. These books could take up a whole book shelf with titles such as: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, The Iliad, and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It is a 51 volume anthology. Does Harvard know I am a student? Probably not, but when I am done with the list, I will be sporting a Harvard t-shirt. As much progress as I have made on the list, perhaps I should wait no more.
Back to Dartmouth – We had heard that the Dartmouth Outing Club had a system for allowing hikers into the cafeteria for free food. Rusty, Crash, and I all tried to reach someone by phone, but were unable. I took the lead and asked a random student from overseas if they would, “swipe me in”. Each of these students has a card that allows them to eat and they have so many guests who are allowed to use it per year. Unfortunately, my manners were exceeded by my hiker hunger. My sponsor seemed to want to ask me a lot of questions about the trail. I was freaked out by the amount of people inside, the amount of food options they had, and my friends had not yet made it inside. I was rather short with the kind individual who let me in the cafeteria, but I think he understood how hungry we all were. The smell exuding from me, had to help me make my escape from socializing. Many a wrinkled nose was pointed at me, but not a word was said.
The cafeteria at Dartmouth is like the food court in an upscale shopping mall. There was pizza, burgers, Asian food, salads, Mexican food, soft serve ice cream, and more. One could actually go to every line if they wanted. I quickly got my food and found a corner table for Rusty, Crash, and I. It was so loud. The sheep dotted the cafeteria so thick that it was difficult to walk. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Rusty to rejoin me at the table. What we ate, I can not recall, but it was filling.
Afterwards, we walked to the Dartmouth practice fields and camped in the woods behind. The next day, Rusty and I went to the coffee shop and the post office. The Dirt Cowboy Cafe was very crowded, but we were able to sit at a table, charge our phones, enjoy pastries and coffee, and use the bathroom. I kept making lame jokes about how a real cowboy was eating at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe in an Ivy League town, while getting stares and nose wrinkles. Speaking of nose wrinkles, on our way up to the coffee shop, some stuck-up, entitled, little Dartmouth girl had the nerve to make eye contact with Rusty and wrinkle her nose and looked us up and down as if to say, “How dare you dirty people enter my artificial town”. I can see why some Ivy League politicians are so out of touch with the rest of the country. They grow up in a super safe and idyllic pasture of theory without application and then shape-shift into wolves once they take office.
At the post office, Rusty and I both picked up packages. Finally, new boots. I had only been needing new boots for a couple hundred miles. “This could be the end of my troubles,” I surmised. It was also beginning to get cold and I needed a puffy jacket. Due to spending all of my spare money in North Adams, I didn’t have money for a puffy, so I spent less than twenty dollars on an army field jacket liner. It was better than nothing. Rusty had a poor opinion of my new garment. I defended it the entire way, because if I admitted it was sub-par then I would feel colder than I already was and I couldn’t afford anything better.
Nervousness was setting in as we got closer and closer to the White Mountains. I was nervous for a few reasons: It was getting cold, I was injured, and about to meet Rusty’s parents. We were 40 miles from Hikers Welcome Hostel where we would stay. One thing about meeting Rusty’s parents is that they did not know that she had a lover. It was incredibly awkward for me, because I was in love with her and would be hiking with them. She explained to me that she felt more comfortable telling them in person. It was also strange, because for hundreds of miles, we were inseparable. I didn’t have any money for staying in hostels, so I paid a small amount to camp out behind the hostel and use the shower and laundry. Rusty went out with her parents and had told them about us before she came back. They picked us up the next day and we hiked up Mt. Moosaulake together. Mt. Moosaulake is a monstrous mountain. I was injured and feverish and looked miserable. I was trying to look happy and make a good first impression, but there was no mistaking the pain that I was in.
I was very impressed with her parents hiking ability. It was a strenuous hike for us, but we had our trail legs. We made it to the top and hung out in these walled off areas made of rocks that lay on top of the peak. It was a nice wind break. I took some photos and then made my way back down the mountain, giving Rusty time alone with her parents. Much to my surprise, Rusty’s father put us up in the Holiday Inn and was so hospitable and kind to me. Her step-mother is an avid hiker and her excitement for our cause allowed me to be more comfortable around them. She seemed to be in tune with what we were doing.
Remember in my last story how I was talking about how pervasive hiker funk is? Rusty and I were sitting in the hotel room when there was a knock at the door. It was her father. She jumped up to let him in and it was so funny: he had a kit of different deodorizing products for us to use on our gear, clothes, and body. He looked a bit mortified to know that those smells could come out of his progeny. Maybe he felt sorry for her for having to deal with my stink. Either way, we were very thankful. We get used to it and can’t really smell each other, but we also know how bad we must smell to the outside world. I always tell her that she couldn’t possibly smell bad, because nothing comes out of her except sunshine and rainbows.
Meeting her dad and step-mom was a real honor for me. I had a cold, fever, broken foot, and was nervous as hell. They were as gracious as they could be to me. On their last day with us, we took many pictures. Her dad said, “Why do I feel like I am taking wedding pictures?” I remember thinking, “That could happen one day.” Of course, I never said that. Her step-mom looked me in the eyes and admonished me to, “take good care of her”. It was all I could do to keep up with her at that point. All I needed was to hear that from her step-mom for it to become my duty. No matter how much pain I was in, how could I possibly leave the trail? We were about to walk through the roughest section of the Appalachian Trail.
The people of Pennsylvania were wonderful, but I hated the trail there. The trail in New York was beautiful, except all the people and car sounds. Connecticut, well that is New York’s, suburb. We made our way through Great Barrington and camped out behind the rec center in Dalton, Mass. In Massachusetts, we found ourselves back in the mountains. What beautiful mountains exist in Western Mass. Mt. Greylock is a mountain that has inspired many literary giants: J.K. Rowling, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville, to name a few. It is the tallest point in the state.
Growing up in Georgia, I often heard negative things about the Northern States. I have to say that what I heard about New York was accurate. Most of what I heard about Massachusetts came from northerners who moved to Georgia. They informed of the term, “Masshole”. I have to say that I never saw it. Maybe that is in the city, but even on my foray into Boston, I didn’t see it. The folks on the western end of the state kept their distance, but were nice and helpful. The people in Boston were distant, no matter how close the physical proximity, but one local picked us up and gave us a ride and we were not even hitching.
From the moment I met Rusty, I started keeping an eye out for where I might find art galleries along the Appalachian Trail. She is a very talented artist, working in oil/acrylic and ink. North Adams was the place to be. During our visit, there were close to 20 murals on the walls of establishments throughout the city. They even had brochures with maps on how to get to each one. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is located in the city with other museums of note nearby. We wanted to go to the one that had Renoir’s nudes, but being on foot, we weren’t sure if we could make it there. Mass MoCA was a couple blocks from the Holiday Inn we stayed at. We went there and another smaller gallery with cool geometric shapes made from hardware cloth that you pass through light to see different angles of trapezoids, parallelograms, etc.
Modern/Contemporary art and all the abstractions do not give me the pleasure that more real and impressionistic styles give me. Even so, we went because it is a world renowned art gallery. There was a pile of toys that a kid forgot to pick up. This is art. I had a million dollars under my bed as a kid and my parents never knew it. There was also the Mound People. It was an exhibit of paper meche mounds that you could go inside with creepy religious paraphernalia and adolescent angst. The artist created an entire comic book of over 500 pages based on the mound people. It was obvious that he had a very difficult time growing up in his fundamentalist religious home. It was creepy and creative and I was ready to leave. We left from that football field size exhibit to go into a room with colored lines painted on the walls. I found a nice bench to sit on. Another couple walked by us and said, “Is it bad that we think the benches are the nicest things in this museum?” We all laughed. It was an experience.
It wasn’t all like that. There were large staged photographs of veterans dressed in their uniforms, only back at home with their families. One illustrated a female veterans PTSD from being blown up in Iraq, by showing a pilsbury dough can exploding in her kitchen in between her and the children. The veteran was cringing and covering herself as the can exploded. Another photo showed a male veteran sitting beside his buddies covered in blood and his wife on the other side of the photo camping alone. It depicted the difficulty in their relationship because they used to love camping until the man was in Iraq, isolated with his squad, inside tents, until they were attacked and a squad members eyeballs rolled in front of them. It was moving and brought tears to my eyes, that I am thankful to have.
After the museum, we went back to the hotel. When you are on a long distance hike and rent a hotel room, the stink from the gear and your body fills the room. The smell becomes thick as smoke, although you can’t see it. When we opened the door, hiker funk hit us in the face. I feel sorry for the housekeepers. We left a tip. We were back on trail the next day.
A local shuttle driver (David Ackerson) who also is a hiker and outdoor rec worker took us to the hotel and gave us a ride back to the trail. He told us about some of the galleries nearby and offered to help us get a pass to see Renoir’s nudes, but we went to Mass MoCA instead. He was interesting to talk to. He was section hiking the A.T. and after he dropped us off that morning, he drove to his next section and left a bicycle on one end and parked at the other. He said he would hike to his bicycle and then ride it back to the car. The shuttle driver also said he likes to snow shoe and cross country ski Mount Greylock. It all sounded like a lot of fun to me. He dropped us off and we continued to hike north. Ever since I met him and heard his story, I have thought about about how cool it would be to work in a university outdoor rec department. Unfortunately, I don’t have a paper degree, just over a decade of personal expeditions, combined with self-study, short courses, and military training. I wonder what life would have been like if I went to school for an outdoor recreation degree.
I think that Rusty and I hiked away high from our time in North Adams. I spent a lot of money in North Adams wanting to spoil Rusty and show her how important she is to me. I think that after spending my monthly discretionary budget in 2 days to impress her made me realize that perhaps I was in love with her. The constant thought in my head was, “I really hope that this doesn’t end in a matter of days or weeks now. Gosh, that would really suck if I did all that and it doesn’t go anywhere. Oh well, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I love art, good food, and nice hotels, and wanted to have a good time. I have all the food and gear I need, so it really doesn’t matter. I have to be ready to let her go anyway. I should just focus on the here and now and not all the what-if’s.” I know that she had a wonderful time and she profusely thanked me while encouraging me not to go all out like that, because I needed my money to hike on. She really is the best person I know.
Our time in North Adams over-shadowed our experiences from the rest of the state. It will forever be a fond memory of a place, time, and person. I don’t remember anything else after that until we arrived in Bennington, Vermont. Keep your eyes out for the next story in the series. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine is where things got real in every sense of the phrase: love, weather, injury, sickness, and meeting the parents.
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.
On the next trip, we had another new guy. This one seemed great. He didn’t know much, but was strong, intelligent, took direction, etc. It was a relief to have him in camp after the last two “Camp Jacks”. I really respected the guy. Unfortunately, his third day on the job, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he quit. Thankfully this guy was driving down to Texas and liked me enough that he let me ride with him from Cowpoke, Wy., down to Colorado Springs where I spent two nights and then flew back to the Appalachian Trail. The main reason for my departure is explained below:
We were camping near the base of Mount Baldy. Being 20 miles from the nearest road and hours from town, you had better be prepared. Remember the story about the stove pipe continuously falling on the tent? I let the outfitter know that, for days, I had been dealing with a cook tent that was filling up with smoke to the point that I couldn’t cook. It would be great to get this resolved in between trips The stove pipe was rusted, cut, and improperly fitting. One of the legs was broken and I had to wrap tin-foil around a stick and attach it with bailing wire. This is the first day of our second pack trip of the summer:
Me: Sir, we really need to get this taken care of. I thought it would happen over the weekend. How am I supposed to work if I am literally trying to put out fires???
Boss: What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11 ????
Me: Sir, obviously we can not do that. That is why I said something before we rode back in camp. Perhaps, when we get back to town in a couple of days, we could get a new one. Maybe I could call in to base and let them know we need one.
Boss: We have one!
Me: Yes sir and it is going to burn down your tent! I am literally putting out fires!
Boss: Once again, What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11?
Me: No sir, but looking at everything that was packed for me… I don’t have enough eggs for this trip! Someone is going to have to come up here anyways.
Boss: Why don’t you have enough eggs?
Me: I don’t know, Sir. I told your wife and daughter (who did the packing) that I only had one tray of eggs left. I use one tray of eggs per day. It is not my job to go to the grocery store and pack. I just give them my inventory and they are supposed to give me back what I need.
Boss: Are you saying that my wife and daughter don’t know what they are doing??
Me: No sir, I am saying that I can not help it if the eggs are not here, because I told them how many I needed and it is their job to go get the stuff. What else can I do?
Boss: I NEED EGGS! I Want eggs! How can we be in camp without eggs??????
Me: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, SIR? RUN TO THE F****NG 7/11 ??? I want a stove pipe so I don’t die of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. I would like a stove pipe so I don’t have a head ache every day from smoke inhalation at high elevation. You are worried about eggs? Why don’t you call a wrangler to bring in a new stove and stove pipe along with some eggs?
The next day, a rider rode in with a new stove, stove pipe, and eggs. Two days later, we all rode out of camp for the weekend. The owner asked me to ride with him back to the lodge. I was peeved and did not want to be near this guy. He did not like it when I spoke to him the way he spoke to me and had not stopped pouting since the day before. I had been getting 4 hours of sleep a night on top of all the other issues. The outfitter became instantly insecure as we rode down the road together.
Boss: Those clients were nice people.
Me: Yes Sir.
Boss, 5 minutes later: The Mexicans have been working hard on the fire mitigation.
Me: …well I said nothing, because I was tired and a statement was made that did not require a reply.
Boss, 5 minutes later: WHATS YOUR PROBLEM???
Me: What do you mean, Sir?
Boss: YOU ARE IGNORING ME!!
Me: What did you say, Sir? That the Mexicans are working hard? Yes sir, it appears that they are still working just as hard as they were when you made the same comment last week when we came through here. There is no need to yell at me. What’s my problem? I am very tired. I have a headache. I did not have the things that I needed in camp. I was literally putting out fires all week. Now you are getting a freaking attitude with me and I worked my butt off. Obviously, the clients had a great time or I would not have made $500 in tips in three days off of a family of 3. How about the week before when I got a trophy knife and $800. I am sorry that you had a bad week and didn’t catch any fish. Maybe instead of yelling at me, you should thank me for showing the clients a great time.
Boss: Yes! You made lots of tips! The clients loved you! You are being rude as hell to me right now!
Me: Sir, I am not sure how I am being rude. You literally will not leave me alone. You keep yelling at me. I am exhausted physically and mentally. I HAVE HEARD ENOUGH!!
Boss: FINE I DON’T KNOW WHY I EVEN TRIED TALKING TO YOU! When we get back to the lodge, I don’t need you to do anything else. Just go shower and go to bed!
Me: Yup, that is what I intend to do.
As much as I love that kind of work and being in the Wind River Range, I decided to quit, and did so the next morning. I walked into the kitchen with a stack of things to return to the outfit. I walked up to the owner and his family to quit and they said they needed to talk.
Boss: Swan, I did not appreciate the way you spoke to me. Also, you forgot to take out the trash the night before we left on our last trip. There was some broth that spilled out in the bag and got on the floor. My wife had to clean it up. WERE YOU TRYING TO BURN DOWN MY HOUSE?
Me, with a chuckle: Burn down your house, Sir? With broth??”
Boss: YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY??
Me: NOPE! I think it is sad. I walked in here to quit anyways. Here’s your paper work back. Here is the current camp inventory. I need my checks.
Boss: Here are your checks, SWAN. I’m watching you on your way out. You better not steal anything.
Me: Well, Sir, considering that my checks are short, it looks like you are the thief!
He corrected the checks and I left out with the camp hand. What the camp hand was going through was an awful thing. The outfit had been talking behind his back and saying that it was just an excuse to quit, but there is no way. That guy talked to me for a while about his mothers pancreatic cancer. His mom told him that she knew how much this job meant to him and for him to stay. His dad called him and said she did not have long to live and if he wanted to say goodbye, that he had better come home. It had me tearing up from thinking about when my own mother had cancer. Thankfully, mine pulled through OK. The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is not very good. I hope that she made it through and that he went on to better adventures. I am very grateful for the ride to Colorado.
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.
After, my friend took her tee-pee down that we had been staying in all summer and moved back inside like a sane person when winter strikes at 9,000 feet, I bought the Bighorn III to continue camping. I bought this tent in late autumn of 2018 and pitched it on a mesa at 9,000 feet elevation in South Western Colorado. I lived in it from October to January. It was taken down in January, but because the snow was deep and everything was frozen, the fabric was left on the ground, covered up with a tarp. Later in the spring, the stakes were pulled up with a skid steer. It was put in storage for a year. Currently, it is being used in the Georgia woods and has been set up for two months. There is a bit of a leak at the middle top seam, but I have a tarp over it for a quick fix.
In Colorado, when I first bought the tent, I did not know that I needed the ember protector that costs an extra $100. I thought that if it was really needed, that it would come with the tent. I found out after my first fire when I discovered 6 pinholes from embers. This was very disheartening after spending $1,000 plus on a tent. I was using a Colorado Mesa Stove. The tent was positioned so that the smoke would predominantly blow away from the tent and not across it. I also had a stack of 3 cord of wood in between the strongest wind direction and the tent.
I lived in the tent full time for three months. Inside of it was a wire armoire, a double mattress, 3 totes, Colorado Mesa wood stove, a camp chair, and some rugs. Often times, I would wake up and there would be two or three feet of fresh snow. In the evenings, I would get a fire going in the wood stove and keep it going until bed time. This would be plenty warm. Before bed, I would stack the stove full of wood. It would get hot enough inside the tent that I would be sleeping with just my feet inside of my Cabela Outfitters 0 degree sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, the stove would go out and it would get chilly. After stepping out to pee, I would be thankful for my tent and jump back in my sleeping bag and sleep nice and sound until morning. In the morning, it would be VERY cold. This is where a Mr. Buddy heater is super handy. I would turn it on and get back in my sleeping bag while the Mr. Buddy would go to work taking the edge off the coldness. Then I would set it at my feet while I built a new fire in the stove and turn the Mr. Buddy heater off before I light my new fire.
I feel like the issues I had with this tent were user error, except for the ember protector not being included with the tent. This has been a great tent and I am glad that I have it. Soon, I will be repairing the pin holes and leaky seam and will write an article about that. Maybe even a video. Happy Trails!
UPDATE on 3/27/2021: This tent is currently in the garage. We used it for 6 months in the woods of Georgia. We then took it to New Hampshire. We stayed in the White Mountain National Forest for 2 weeks and then moved it up to Maine, where we lived in it for another three months. While using this tent in the east, I think it is best to keep a tarp over the top of it. We did finally patch the holes with the patch kit that came with the tent. It was not any trouble.
In my opinion, the tent was designed for use in dry climates like Colorado. With a name like Big Horn, that makes sense. I can’t afford to have two separate large tents like this for different climates. This is my go-to expedition tent and if I am in a wet environment, I use a lot of tarps.
Cabela’s Big Horn™ III Tent
Sturdy enough to take on extreme conditions
XTC fabric repels rain and snow with ease
Heavy-duty steel frame ensures support
Hexagonal design maximizes interior space
Three large multiple-panel windows
Zippered opening in the sewn-in floor for a stove
This is a new and improved version of our already popular Big Horn II tent, and we made it sturdy enough to take on extreme conditions encountered on extreme adventures. It’s a roomy single-wall tent made of XTC fabric that repels rain and snow with ease, and is tough enough to handle harsh foul weather. A heavy-duty steel frame ensures support to withstand wind and precipitation. The tent measures 12 ft. x 14 ft. with an 8’6″ roof tapering to 5’6″ sidewalls. The hexagonal design offers room for cots, gear and a stove around the sides while leaving the middle area open. We moved the stove area to keep the wall near the stove cooler. Three large multiple-panel windows include zippered covers, a clear-vinyl zip-out window and a mesh screen. There are three fold-down shelves that have mesh cup holders. There’s a sidewall stove jack, a storm flap and a heat-resistant insert, as well as a zippered opening in the sewn-in floor for a stove. The inverted “V” door is outfitted with a heavy-duty zipper. Includes 12″ steel stakes, guy ropes and zippered storage bag. The stakes weigh 11 lbs. Tent and frame weight is 72 lbs. Imported.