You may do this, I tell you it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.Jane Hirshfield
Readers who listened to the blog a couple of weeks ago will know that throughout most of my lifetime of hiking, I carried a very large pack. I was not alone in this. The term “ultra-lite” did not exist. Gear was designed to be sturdy, not necessarily lightweight. We all wore heavy leather hiking boots that extended above our ankles. Being prepared meant carrying the Ten Essentials, to be ready for the emergencies a long hike on a mountain trail could bring. I went out by myself for trips as long as two weeks without a resupply stop. Food had to last for the entire duration of those trips. And should an injury arise, I was prepared with a well stocked first aid kit.
So it was after I passed sixty, that I slowly came to realize I had to lighten up. I had taken a bad fall while fording a mountain stream, a fall I attributed to a top heavy pack that enabled my small frame to carry a heavy load but threw off my balance. I was preparing to hike a section of the Pacific Northwest Trail, and I knew I would not be successful if I started the trail with a fifty pound pack. I had too many aches and pains by then to subject my small frame to such an impact step after step, mile after mile.
I set my pack before me, leaning it against the wall. I had weighed it many times but never weighed the individual items that went into it. I brought out the kitchen scale, determined to toss out items that were too heavy and failed to serve some essential purpose. I had not defined what “too heavy” meant. I thought that I would figure it out as I went along.
I started with the first aid kit. “That should be easy,” I thought. After all, every item in it was of course essential no matter what it weighed. I laid the red zipper bag out in front of me and unzipped it to lie flat, four compartments that folded out and were lined with pockets that contained various potions and products to fix injuries and bring about healing.
There was a certain satisfaction in all of this. At the time I first began carrying this particular kit, I was newly divorced, had just finished graduate school, and still working under supervision to acquire the necessary practice hours to function independently as a nurse practitioner. I was struggling financially and had two little girls who were utterly dependent on me for their every need. There was little in my life that could be easily fixed. Blisters and cuts were the exception.
So it was with trepidation that I zipped it back up and set it on the scale. I could not believe what the scale was telling me. I had a first aid kit that weighed exactly eight pounds. Assuming the scale must be wrong, I removed the kit and then replaced it, expecting a different result. Eight pounds. Lightening my load was not going to be so easy after all.
I began to remove the sacred items from their pockets. Each one told a story and was there for a reason. There was the small bottle of calamine lotion that fit snugly inside the folds of the kit. It had been added after a difficult trip during which I had performed a face plant in a patch of nettles. I was nearing the end of a long hot day of hiking, and I had run out of water a few miles back. When a small stream appeared some distance below the trail I descended as quickly as I could to fill my water bottle and quench my thirst.
When one is driven by the forces of survival caution is often thrown to the proverbial wind. I had descended only a few feet when I tripped on an outcropping and tumbled face first into the tall brush. My cotton shirt was pushed up so that my bare belly lay on a bed of nettles, along with my arms, my legs, and my face.
Most hikers have at some time felt the stringing brush of nettles against their bare legs as they walk through tall brush. Small red welts are quickly raised, followed by some mild stinging, itching, and soon the welts disappear and the irritation is gone. That had been my experience in the past, which is why I was not particularly concerned about my predicament. I got up and safely descended the rest of the distance to the creek, filled my water bottle, and drank deeply. I returned to the trail, grateful that I had survived yet another fall on the trail and that my water bottle was full once again and I had slaked my thirst.
I’d hiked about another mile when I noticed that the red welts on my legs were melding into some kind of massive flushing. The same thing was happening on my arms, abdomen, and presumably on my face. When I made camp that night I pulled out my pocket mirror and examined it. I looked as though I had been badly sunburned. The stinging progressed to a burning sensation that covered most of the front half of my body.
The burning kept me awake that night, and I lay in my sleeping bag thinking about Makah whale hunters, who were said to rub their naked bodies with nettle leaves to keep them awake during the hunt, as if being naked in a canoe on the Pacific was not sufficient stimulation.
When I climbed out of my tent the next morning, the burning was still present but was less severe, and by the end of the day, there were only a few red welts left here and there that betrayed the suffering that had kept me awake all night.
When I returned home a few days later I added a small bottle of calamine lotion to that indispensable first aid kit. There it remained for the next thirty years, tucked into its own little pocket, and though I checked the expiration date every few years, and replaced the bottle with a new one when necessary, it seems I had learned my lesson about nettles.
So it was I now held the small bottle of pink lotion in my hand, a sixty-eight year old woman trying to decide what will go and what will stay, as I was doing with many things in my life. At first I set it in a pile I called Doesn’t Weigh Much, suggesting that the item might someday be needed and since it didn’t weigh much I might as well keep it. That pile was rapidly becoming a black hole, sucking in the gravity of things that “didn’t weigh much.” The fact remained that I hadn’t needed the calamine lotion in thirty years. I didn’t need it now. I set the small bottle on a shelf in the medicine cabinet, thinking of the various itchy things I encounter while gardening.
On my first day hiking the Pacific Nothwest Trail, my pack weighed twenty-seven pounds, about half what it had weighed thirty years ago when I tumbled into the nettle patch. I felt light enough to fly, soaring above the Selkirk Mountains. I had survived the nettles and a few other things along the way.