I've always wanted to do a long distance hike. Not just a week-long backpack, mind you, but a walk that covers a truly significant distance -- like the length of a state. As a youth I devoured books on the marathon treks of Colin Fletcher hiking the length of California from Mexico to Oregon and then the entire Grand Canyon below the rim. More recently, I've been inspired by Ned Rozell's traverse of Alaska from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay and Christopher Wren's retirement hike from his office in New York City to his home in Vermont.
And I didn't just read about the exploits of Fletcher, Rozell and Wren, I dreamed about them. I longed to feel worn out after a full day of walking. To get to the point where setting up camp and being self-sufficient became second nature. To have the toned, tanned muscles and clean lungs developed through day after day of self-propulsion through my world. This August I'm applying for membership in that same fraternity.
My objective is the state of Nevada. I've haunted the state for over 40 years, ever since I lived in Hawthorne in the early sixties. My home was near Walker Lake about 35 miles east of California's Mono Lake, where I reveled in the high, dry climate, the see-forever vistas and the sunsets of crimson and gold. Nevada just made me feel good to be alive, and despite the recent population explosion, it still does.
Beginning the first week of August and lasting perhaps three months, my plan is to hike the length of Nevada from the Idaho border above the town of Jarbidge, to the Arizona border near Lake Mead. I will be paralleling the state's eastern border, in my opinion Nevada's handsomest and least understood slice.
At first I sought companionship. My friends all expressed admiration for my ambition, encouragement for the venture, but all professed to have other pressing engagements that prevented their joining me. So I decided to go it alone – not happy about it, but resigned to my fate. On the other hand, my wife looked positively alarmed.
Things changed dramatically when we attended my niece Laura's college graduation in Pennsylvania in June. I happened to mention my plans to her--of course with an invitation to "come along"-- and damned if she didn't accept. I had been asking the wrong age group. Now I have a 22-year old, who's headed for medical school in the fall of '06, as my trekking partner. (Too bad she isn't already a doctor, as I'll probably need one.)
I write these words in early August, 8500-feet up in the Jarbidge Wilderness and a week into the trek. Such a perch allows me to reflect on the year-plus of preparation required to reach "lift-off." It's amazing how easily a perfectly straightforward hike can take on the proportions of a Moon launch. In fact, my equipment checklist numbers over one hundred separate items, and I have a separate inventory of items for my wife's re-supply while I'm enroute. During the past year I've started and completed scores of "to do" lists, most of them requiring a trip to my local REI store. They greet me like a stockholder.
Chief among the preparation issues was my "backpack". Due to the long stretches without dependable water, I need to transport far more of the life-sustaining liquid than I could possibly carry on my back. To accomplish that I am pulling a rickshaw-like-vehicle-- I call it my chariot-- that is six and a half feet long, weighs only 35 pounds and yet can carry a Herculean 300-pounds.
The device uses downhill bicycle racing tires and brakes, a lightweight steel structure and an ingenious set of canvas cargo bins all designed by John Cutter, a master designer/builder in San Luis Obispo. I learned of John's work from Rick Ridgeway, the leader of a four-man National Geographic team that traversed Tibet with similar vehicles. Rick also authored a book about the expedition, "The Big Open," that featured a cart in the cover photo.
When I first received my rickshaw, I set out to practice hauling loads. Based on some short runs with 12 gallons of water (a hundred pounds) around my neighborhood, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be easy." Couldn't have been more wrong! Hadn't I had done vector-analyses in physics? The first time I tried to pull that same load up a "moderate" hill under off-road conditions, my friendly chariot turned into a torture machine. The initial couple of steps went okay. Then gravity placed a significant portion of the load on my waist-belt harness and I gasped for air. The next step brought a wobbly sensation in the foot still touching the ground and I veered violently to one side, barely managing to stay upright. Having both hands on the brakes saved me from being dragged down the few feet of elevation I had just painfully gained.
Finally I mastered the art of walking a straight line and moving the cart uphill at the same time. This consisted of taking five or ten tiny 4-inch steps, then pausing to suck air down into the depths of my totally evacuated lungs. Then another five or ten. Friends I invited to join me on my outings would get bored before we reached the top of the first hill. These were the same people I had usually ended up waiting for on previous hill climbs. Then there was the issue of being so breathless I couldn't talk to them. In short, I wasn't very good company.
Then came downhill; I thought that'd really be easy. Wrong again. Even with the well-designed brakes, maneuvering my chariot down a steep hill was a chore. Being attached to the belt harness, every time I hit one brake or the other to sort of steer, I was jerked farther in that same direction. It felt like I had an extra 150 pounds of ass behind me. The cart was designed so I could turn the brakes around on the hand-holds and steer the cart ahead of me down a slope. I was too scared to try that, not wanting to watch as my expensive machine dropped from sight on a hillside out of my reach. It finally occurred to me that the belt probably wasn't necessary on down hill stretches as long as I kept my hands on the brakes. Besides, without the harness, I found more flexibility in my walking posture. Ultimately, the machine and I came to understand each other and appreciate our respective strengths and weaknesses. It was superbly designed, but took a fit and experienced "chariot-master" to tame it.
Some of the more exotic items that graced my equipment list were a satellite phone and a handheld GPS navigation device. Both have proven their value in the first week of the hike. A solar-battery-charger (for multiple devices including a laptop computer) on the other hand, didn't seem quite "ready for prime time." I had trouble getting technical support, and my computer manufacturer couldn't assess the implication of a 4-volt mismatch between charger output (under optimum sun conditions) and the charger requirements on the laptop. It sounded too risky to spend money on.
Detailed route selection never did completely come together despite hours and hours of poring over maps. It probably would have been changed even if it had. I only know the exact details of the first of five segments, from Idaho to Interstate 80 near Elko. I plan to stay in Elko for a few days of rest, restaurant meals and maybe a bottle of good wine. I also have rest stops planned in Ely, Caliente and Mesquite before reaching the Arizona border. Details in between those stops will be finalized as I talk to locals and public lands officials during the course of the walk.
So it is with fear and trepidation, as well as an enormous amount of anticipation, that Laura and I set off on this 500-plus-mile-walk. The first week, hiking up to our lofty enclave in the wilderness, has been a shakedown cruise of sorts for our abilities, equipment and supplies. Camped here after a successful week, we are modestly more confident of reaching our objective. That would have us joining the fraternity of long distance trekkers sometime in October. Please stay tuned for more.