You have completed your ultralight set-up, now it’s time to hit the trail, but unless you have had your sights set on a particular long distance trail, where to go?
GR 20, 112 miles, Corsica
Europe has trails. And when we mean trails (just talking about the Grande Randonnée - or GR - network) the mileage adds up to a staggering 37,000 miles in primarily France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. Corsica, however, has the most challenging of all the GR footpaths, the GR 20. Translated into English, the GR 20 means “big excursion across the mountains,” an apt description considering two-thirds of the island belongs to a rugged ancient mountain range of 20 peaks reaching over 6,500’.
I had the privilege of going to see the movie Wild yesterday in Portland. The audience was composed of some 30% or more former Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers. Among them was Roger Carpenter. Roger walked with Cheryl on her hike and is portrayed in the movie as the character Greg.
I have to say I was quite impressed by the movie and the way it explored the nature of long distance backpacking. I realize that numerous thru-hikers have bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t a hiker eccentric film. Though I would tend to disagree on this point. I’m not sure how one would go about having a more hiker oriented film that would still appeal to a wide audience.
A phrase that’s pretty common in the thru-hiker parlance is that “a thru-hike is 90% mental and %10 physical”. This is certainly true once you've passed through the early break-in period of a long hike. It was highly demonstrated in the film.
One of the big difficulties of any long hike is coming to terms with spending long hours living in your own brain. In spite of the all the terrific scenic views, walking separates us from the usual distractions of everyday life. It is inevitable that over the course of time, we’ll replay our life’s traumatic events. Attempting, as it were, to derive some meaning from the events that makeup our lives.
Much like the movies constant cutting back and forth between Cheryl walking the trail and scenes of pre-trail life, in our own heads we replay our own past successes and failures.
Some find this aspect of long distance hiking so daunting that they quit the trail. Others find great solace in using the walk to help them to find new meaning to their lives.
I just recently returned from spending a month walking the Camino de Santiago. A journey that’s not nearly as arduous or long as Cheryl’s journey on the PCT. Still even in the confines of that crowed trail, thousands of people find new meaning for their lives.
In a post movie gathering at a local brew pub, I didn’t talk to a single thru-hiker that felt that the movie failed to honestly reflect the nature of a long hike. While every hikers journey will be different, “Wild” certainly captured both Cheryl’s hike along with the challenges of undergoing a long walk.
Backpackers have a certain tolerance for hardship and extreme conditions; long miles, bad weather, and missing trail can all make or break an adventure in the backcountry, and then there are those that seek out the challenge: the routes that aren’t really a route and the miles that make you tired just thinking about it. Scott Martin is one of those who likes to challenge what the body can do, but instead of breaking him down, each adventure seems to build him up, and ultimately any day spent bushwhacking up a mountain side or running well after dark is a good day. He’s out there, just where he wants to be.
“I fell in love with backpacking first, and when I found ultrarunning, fell in love with that even more,” Scott said. A teacher, father, and intrepid adventurer, his ultrarunning is, in part, a way to get as far out as he can while still making it home in time for dinner with his family.
Always up for a challenge, Scott explains his ultra evolution, “At first my goal was to find an easy one to get out there and try; I was kind of terrified of the distances, but in the last few years, it’s gone the opposite way. It’s not just how fast I can do it, but I find the most ridiculous physical challenges out there. Sometimes it is something I create for myself or my friends or anyone who wants to come along and just see if it is possible in a given time frame.”
Some of the most ridiculous physical challenges this past year include the Plain 100, a trail race in the Washington Cascade Mountains; the Euchre Bar Massacre, a 50 mile race along the North Fork of the American River in California with 20,000’ of elevation gain, bushwhacking, and route finding; and the Me-Ow Marathons, inspired by the Barkely Marathon, or one of the toughest races on the planet.
“My new favorite race is the Euchre Bar Massacre,” he said. “I did the 50 mile last year and this year, and didn’t finish both times, it’s the only race I didn’t finish twice. There has been one finisher in two years, and he barely made the finish. That is the challenge for this coming year, everything I’m doing is to get ready for that...It’s in your face, it’s just hard.”
It wasn’t only the opportunity to bring cottage industry ultralight gear to Germany that drove Henrik Raßmann to open the online retailer, trekking-lite-store.com, in 2010, but also a response to his own efforts to lighten up.
"We started trekking-lite-store.com at the beginning of 2010 which was probably the high time of ultralight backpacking," he explained. "I myself started in 2006 to lighten up my gear. I saw that it wasn't easy to get this lighter gear here in Europe, so we started the business and retailing of lightweight backpacking gear only."
Years ago Henrik began paddling as a way to avoid a heavy backpack and the knee pain that went with it. "It was better to sit in a canoe with nothing to carry at all!" he exclaimed. But unlike his experience on the water, the dirt trails deep in the woods provided his desired wilderness experience. "I always tried to go back to the woods, so I started to minimalize the (more traditional) gear, so I had to carry only a little pack. It was often that we got home from bushwacking wet & tired - but [still] not completely happy."
Mike "Hikerbox" Henrick is a seasoned backpacker about to embark on an exciting adventure to thru-hike the Te Araroa, Arizona, and Continental Divide Trails for a total of 5,500 miles, and all to raise funds for the respective trail organizations.
1) How did you get started backpacking?
My folks took me car camping and enrolled me in the cub scouts when I was little which helped make sleeping outdoors seem more normal early on. I really think introducing kids to the outdoors early is more important than most realize. However, the real impetus for my wanderlust was when my older brother Chris and his two friends took me on a 2,000 mile segment from upstate NY to Fargo, ND of their unsupported cross country bike tour to the west coast. Fully loaded, my bike weighed almost 70 lbs with all the REI style gear. How things have changed!
I was happy with road biking and racing for a few years but eventually felt too constrained with pavement so I started mountain biking, which got me back into the woods. I still love the zen and thrill of it today. A few years ago I realized there are so many incredible places only accessible by foot if you can live without the thrill of bombing down rock strewn hills and avoiding hugs from trees on a bike. I did a few short backpacking trips in New England before the wanderlust became too strong and led to a 2013 through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (minus the 60 miles north of the Saufley's that was on fire and getting worse by the day). Now I have plans for the AZT, GET, CDT and Te Araroa! (Photo of Mike courtesy of Sectionhiker.com)
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