I backpacked only a few times on my trip around the Buckeye Trail, but I wanted to go back and do some more. First, though, I had to see what I could cut out of my pack. You see, each year I try to trim weight from it so that the gross weight of the pack and the hiker remains roughly the same as when I took up the sport. I usually fail–it seems each year that the total weight only grows grosser and grosser.
It used to be easy to trim weight, simply because my first pack was so heavy. I carried it on the AT, and it weighed in at 45 pounds. Four pounds of that came from a cast iron skillet. You should have heard the thru-hikers when they saw it. When they asked what I planned to cook in it, I whipped out whole potatoes, a pound of bacon, and a carton of fresh (mostly unbroken) eggs. Sillies, what else would go in a skillet like that?
Dropping weight from my pack as quickly as I gain weight myself has been costly. Dehydrated bacon and eggs and ultralight titanium pots aren’t cheap. One year I upgraded my tent; another, my air mattress. I even got a new, lighter pack. I have discovered the rule of thumb for hiking gear: the lighter it is, the more it costs. I still question my decision to retire my one-pound knockoff Swiss Army knife–the one with 42 accessories (not counting the three knives on it). I replaced it with a one-ounce penknife, at the cost of twenty bucks. Per pound, that’s $320 for the penknife, $10 for the knockoff, and 50 cents for the skillet (purchased at a yard sale, where most of my gear used to come from). I rest my case.
When I had finally spent enough to get my pack down to 20 pounds, I planned a four-day, three-night solo trip around East Fork Lake near Batavia, Ohio. The BT joins the southern part of the loop; the rest would be new ground for me. The trip started so easily I almost felt guilty. My strong Protestant work ethic made me recoil at how light my load was. It almost didn’t seem right not getting a sore neck and shoulders, a backache, and plantar fasciitis.
However, when the Sunday School lesson about carrying reasonable loads and easy yokes came to mind, it wasn’t long before I managed to adapt my thinking. I decided to enjoy the journey and practically coasted around to the last night’s camp. I felt great. The only soreness was the usual aches and pains that this 60-ish hiker doesn’t need to go backpacking to get. I spread my bag in Shelter Four. I slept well, but only until about 2 a.m. It was then that I realized the three-sided shelter was one wall short. Something was out there. . .
I looked out and waited for my eyes to adjust to the eerie blackness, but it was so dark I still couldn’t see too far past my nose. I did hear a plethora of night noises, though. I was used to the deer snorting, the frogs and crickets chirping, and even the occasional twig breaking, since I had heard them so often the two nights before. When the noises got too scary I would turn up the volume on my radio to drown them out. And scary noises are what happened at Shelter Four on this night.
A scream pierced the night. Then more screams, like someone getting one papercut after another. And it seemed to be getting closer. I turned up my AM station to its full volume–that is, until I realized that someone was calling the host about vampires. (Just what I needed.) With trembling hands I turned the dial a tad, and to my profound relief, it was the Catholic station. Much more comforting night-talk when deep in the woods and alone. (Well, almost alone.)
Then I remembered my one-ounce knife. A tiny object is not easy to find in the dark, even when it has been strategically placed under the pillow. It was actually so small that I had to hold it daintily between my thumb and forefinger. A lot of good it would do; it probably wouldn’t inflict as much damage as the papercuts seemed to be doing. I guess the monsters in East Fork had gotten wind of another defenseless ultralight backpacker. I longed for my one-pound knockoff. If none of the three large blades did the job, there was still the saw, the scissors, and if the creature still kept coming, I could poke out his eye with the awl. WAIT! What I really needed was the cast iron skillet. Oh, for the good old days!
The minutes seemed like hours. Finally, after several more screams, peace returned to the woods. I guess my radio had done its job. (Good thing I hadn’t left it at home as part of my lightweight regimen or someone might have found a lot of free, lightweight gear abandoned in Shelter Four.) I lay awake until dawn, then rose early to fix my last powdered eggs and bacon.
I got back to the trailhead in record time and headed home. I wanted to google “screams in the woods.” When I did, I discovered that foxes do some screaming–why I’m not sure–and that might well have been what I heard the night before. At least that was the first thing that came up on Google. I didn’t click any further. If it wasn’t a fox, I don’t want to know what it was.
I don’t know what I can cut out to reduce my gross weight this year. I have this uncomfortable feeling that the only answer is for the hiker to lose a pound or two. Guess that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Hey, if I lose enough, maybe I can take the skillet on my next trip.