Above: Our campfire, built with precision by Micah Malone, left.
At 62, it was time to try backpacking
Hip deep in muddy water, I had to laugh. I had worked so hard to have this exact experience. I pulled myself out of the mud, surveyed the damage – none really, just wet boots and a loose bandaid where I’d scraped my shin a half mile earlier. It helped that I wasn’t the only one to get up-close and personal with the mud. My fellow first-time backpacker, Christine, had too. We pressed on – squishing a little as we felt for more solid ground.
I had never been backpacking and I wanted to try it – the whole thing, with the food, the sleeping bag, the flashlight, the bug spray, the tent. At age 62, however, I was beginning to feel like this wasn’t something that was just going to happen spontaneously. Then, in February, I interviewed Jonathan Malone, who was leaving his post as pastor at First Baptist in East Greenwich to start “Wilderness Journeys,” offering backpacking trips for everyone from first timers to advanced backpackers. It seemed like my dream was being served up to me.
Especially when he mentioned there was a three-day beginner backpacking trip in July. I signed up pretty quickly. It was months off and all things seem possible when they are months away.
It wasn’t the physical demands of the trip that worried me – the hike in was going to be just over three miles and two nights sleeping on the ground might not be super comfortable but it was only two nights. Rather, it was stepping away from my life here in East Greenwich, even if it was for only three days.
Mainly, it was because our youngest son, James, has chronic lung problems and my husband, Neal, and I do a lot for him at home. I knew Neal could handle a health crisis but traditionally I’m the one who gets up in the middle of the night if there’s a problem and I’m James’s “person” at the hospital. (James has Down syndrome and is not very verbal so he needs an advocate.)
My plan was to at least have caregiving help lined up for while I was gone.
Except we found ourselves in a caregiver lull – we had just one person who was able to be with James for seven hours a week. And James kept getting sick. Things were getting complicated. Then, a couple weeks before the trip, I got Covid. Neal, James and I had been lucky – we’d managed to avoid it up to now. I wasn’t very sick – thankfully it was more like a cold – but what if Neal or James got it? I emailed Jonathan and told him I needed to back out. When one of my fillings fell out the Saturday before the trip, I decided that was a sign. Clearly, I couldn’t go.
Our daughter, Catherine, thought otherwise. My tooth didn’t hurt and I could get it fixed after the trip. And, she pledged, “if James has to go to the hospital, then I’ll come,” she said. Catherine lives in western Massachusetts, about two and a half hours away. “You’ve been wanting to do this. You should go. James will be okay and Dad can handle it.”
Neal too thought I should reconsider, especially when I finally tested negative on July 4. The trip was in two days. I checked in with Jonathan, could I still come? He said, Yes!
I scrambled to gather what I’d need (thank you, REI, for being open on July 4) and arranged to pick up a backpack from a friend on Tuesday.
Still, I was nervous, then a little embarrassed about feeling nervous. After all, a three-mile hike? Two nights camping? With an experienced leader (who’d just finished an arduous wilderness first-aid training session in Utah)?
Get over yourself, I thought. You can do this.
The trip was to Tirrell Pond in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
I joined Jonathan for the car ride, along with his son Micah and another backpacking newbie, a 84-year-old man named Don (so he’d waited even longer than I had!). At the trailhead, we met up with Christine and Laura. Jonathan had mentioned we’d do some reconfiguring when we got to the trailhead – now I understood. He had all the food for the trip, as well as a couple of backpacks for people to use, tents and even a couple of sleeping pads. His pack was already very full (a whopping 70 lbs worth!) and the extra stuff needed to go somewhere. I took one of the four bear canisters full of food. Yes, bear canisters – metal barrels about 12 inches tall and 8 inches in diameter with bear-proof openings. I couldn’t imagine at first how I would fit it in. After all, I had a sleeping bag and self-inflating sleeping pad as well as my personal items. But I pulled everything out and started over and, voila! Everything fit. (Backpacks are amazing, by the way. Clever beyond measure.)
While we were figuring all that out, Micah went on ahead. The plan was for him to hike to the campsite, drop his pack and find us on the trail to help with someone’s pack, if needed. (Micah, 16, is an experienced backpacker himself.)
Now we all just needed to figure out how to get these packs on our backs. Laura had some extra weight – she’d brought her c-pap machine and a portable battery that resembled a large brick, if slightly lighter. We took turns carrying the machine, which had a side strap, but the battery went into Laura’s pack.
It wasn’t pretty for any of us as we struggled to get our packs onto our backs (pro tip from Jonathan: rest the pack on a slightly bent knee, get one strap on and hoist – it works).
Remember how I said 3.2 miles would be no big deal? Turns out, with a 35 lb. pack, mud, wet rocks and occasional log traverses, it was a long 3.2 miles. Micah was back to us after we’d gone about a mile and half and he took Don’s pack, headed back up the trail a half mile or so, dropped it, came back, got Laura’s back, and went forward again. Jonathan’s wisdom in bringing his son (and Micah’s generosity in agreeing to come!) was suddenly very apparent, even on what Jonathan called this “Adirondack flat” trail (it wasn’t flat but the vertical was measured).
Eventually, we made it. The campground had a lean-to and an outhouse. Jonathan and I set up tents (Micah helped me with mine) and the others set out their sleeping bags in the lean-to. Per bear protocol – don’t eat where you sleep – Jonathan said we would be cooking and eating on an open stretch of beach on Tirrell Pond. When it came time, we took the bear canisters, fuel and cooking implements and our own dishes, cups and cutlery to the beach. Only, the short walk was itself a bit of a challenge, with a couple spots where you needed to walk on wobbly railroad ties over some wetlands. That got tricky especially after dinner, on fatigued legs and under a darkening sky. But the beach was welcoming and the pond in front of us beautiful with no lights, vacation houses, or boats, just water, trees and probably some moose and bears somewhere in those woods. Even just 3+ miles from the road, we were away, truly away.
And that has been Jonathan’s vision – to get people of all kinds into the wilderness and away from our day-to-day distractions so we can appreciate the simple grandeur of our surroundings.
The six of us were a disparate group. Funnily enough, between us, agewise, we covered teens, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 80s. Not bad for six people. And for each of us “clients,” this trip marked something of a rite of passage. For me, see above. For Don, it was a chance to test his physical limits at 84. Don recounted his indoor childhood as the only child of cautious parents. A retired music professor, he still plays and teaches piano. And he’s made up for a less-physical youth by walks regularly and doing yoga.
Christine has one more year of graduate school but recently separated from a long-time partner so the trip – with all of us strangers – was a chance to see what it’s like to be just one person again. Laura knew Jonathan from years earlier. She was supposed to come with her husband but an illness kept him at home. She was determined not to let sleep apnea keep her at home – hence the battery pack for her c-pap machine.
I loved that we were all coming to this trip from different points in our lives. Conversation was easy over dinner that first night. We had quesadillas, made one at a time and gobbled up minutes after they slid off the pan. It’s true, food tastes better after you’ve worked for it!
Jonathan’s evening routine is tea after dinner, with a shot of whiskey if desired. I desired. Back at the camp, it was time to prepare for bed, which included brushing teeth away from the camp, or at least spitting away from camp. Again, bear protocols. Apparently bears like toothpaste. Apparently, bears like any food-like item so our dishes, toothpaste and brushes all went into the bear canister that had held our dinner. And the bear canisters were stowed behind a log a hundred or so yards from our campsite, just in case. (I’m going to cut to the chase here: no bears during this trip. Thumbs up on the bear protocols!)
In my little tent, I found my REI sleeping pad had not done much “self-inflating” during my absence. Maybe this was as good as it got? For a couple of minutes I thought, it’s going to be fine. Then I decided to just try to blow air into it. Anticipating several breathless minutes I was surprised that the pad quickly filled, even the side “bumpers” there to keep me from rolling off. Then it was time to organize things for a mid-night call of nature, putting my headlamp (which cleverly flips up so you don’t blind everyone in front of you) and toilet paper.
After a couple of “goodnight, John Boy’s,” everyone quieted down. My take on sleeping in a tent? It was pretty comfortable. Which surprised me since the pad isn’t all that thick. I was grateful. Except tent zippers are noisy! The tent had two layers, one the tent itself, and the other a dew cover. That meant every time I wanted to leave the tent, it was two zippers up and around the entrance, then you zip them up again to keep out bugs, etc. When you come back, you do the zipping in reverse. It feels a little like when your phone rings in the middle of a meditation session.
I couldn’t resist getting up early in the morning and heading to the beach, where I was rewarded by the sounds of loons. Loons! Breakfast was hashbrowns, a departure from Jonathan’s usual oatmeal because he’d brought a skillet – turns out you bring extra stuff when you aren’t lugging it far. And coffee – cafe mocha for those of us who accepted pouches of hot chocolate to mix with our instant coffee pouches. And Jonathan distributed fresh bags of trail mix to each of us – just as he had before we started out the previous day. It felt nice to be cared for in that way.
He had two methods of filtering water, which we collected from the pond – a traditional gravity-type filter bag and a UV stick that you stir around in your water bottle for two minutes. The UV light is a bit of a leap of faith but it’s also the same technology put to use during the Covid pandemic at hospitals and ambulances as a disinfectant.
The plan for the day was to spend time in and around the pond. We would stay our second night at the same campsite. In the morning we spent some time in quiet contemplation, each finding a spot to focus on. I chose a mossy tree stump I sat beside, marveling at the intricacies of the areas where the wood had softened and was falling away, creating crevices no doubt home to myriad of happy insects.
Afterward, Christine and I set out with Jonathan and Micah to circle the pond. There was a trail for the second half of the circle but the first half would be a bit of bushwhacking. And here’s where I became one with the marsh by sinking into it up to my hips. Christine had gone in just before me, so I kind of knew it was coming – we were bringing up the rear and we were about two people too much for that particular part of marsh. Just moments earlier, Jonathan had suggested moving any phones from shorts pockets and I’d moved mine (we were using them for cameras) from a leg pocket to my little daypack. Whew!
We found canoes at several points around the pond and signs of hunting camps. Some people had gotten these canoes up to the pond – no easy feat, but what a nice thing.
By the time we returned to the camp, it was past lunch so we moved food, etc., quickly to the beach for a simple cheese-and-summer-sausage-on-crackers meal. The weather was about as good as it gets in the Adirondacks – sunny and dry and not too hot, but by mid-afternoon the beach was warm and the pond inviting, at least for three of us. We women had the water to ourselves and it felt lovely against my scratched up legs.
That night, after a satisfying dinner of rice, beans and chicken, we got to enjoy a campfire built with beautiful precision that afternoon by Micah. We sang a few songs together in joyful if imperfect harmony and shared the sort of peace one gets when in a beautiful place with good people.
My nighttime routine was a little smoother this second night and I was determined to look up when I got up to pee as I’d forgotten to do the night before, missing the whitewash of stars across the sky. Sure enough, after I’d done my business (I chose a time-honored squat in an area a few steps away from the camp proper rather than a visit to the more-distant outhouse with its spider and who-knows-what-else inhabitants!), I stood outside my tent and cast my head back to take it all in. I’d come for this, the quiet, the stars, the wildness, the awe, and, yes, even the discomfort.
Postscript: Only a couple hours after I’d left Wednesday, our son’s feeding tube fell out. It was a mess but Neal handled it well, finding the extra kit we keep on hand for just such emergencies. The rest of the three days went smoothly.