“It’s a seven-mile hike-in, you know?”
That was the second time the park ranger had mentioned the distance I’d have to trek in order to get to the rustic campsite I had booked for my first ever solo backpacking trip at a state park near Ann Arbor.
Was that skepticism in her voice? Or was that my own skepticism sneaking in, making anything anyone else said sound skeptical?
Either way, we both had a pretty good reason to believe that this wasn’t going to end well.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had hiked seven miles. And I had certainly never hiked seven miles with a full pack on.
And those seven miles were just for the hike-in.
The hike-out for the following day was five miles — five miles which the trail map indicated were full of “Serious Hills.” I imagined the hills grimacing at me very seriously, possibly while mumbling Very Serious Hill things under their Very Serious Hill breath.
“Those are the Hills from Hell,” the park ranger tapped the map where the “Serious Hills” were. Now the Very Serious Hills were very seriously grimacing and mumbling at me from the fiery pits of the underworld.
I stuffed the hiking map into my new hip pack. My hip pack was just one of the many new things I found myself buying before going solo backpacking — all things that I’d never thought I’d buy, like moisture-wicking pants, and, well, this:
Within minutes of starting my seven-mile hike, I was sweating so much my sunglasses kept sliding off my face and I was struggling with my new hiking poles.
The hottie Australian I’d watched in the Youtube video entitled, “How to Use Trekking Poles (Like a Pro)” had assured me that the poles would “just feel natural.”
Maybe hiking poles feel natural to Australians, who are probably born with hiking poles in both hands to help ward off alligators and just in case they want to go on a walk-about when they learn how to walk. But they didn’t feel natural to me. I kept on swinging them in the wrong direction or tripping over them or dropping them and then having to pick them up while risking toppling over.
I also couldn’t quite get the hang of my new hydration pack — which is another thing I never imagined I’d buy in my lifetime. I mean, it’s basically a big Ziploc bag with a tube attached to it that you’re supposed to drink out of like some big, hiking baby. Is drinking out of a tube also supposed to “feel natural”? Because it doesn’t. Like, not at all.
In addition, there was the problem of the mountain bikes. Oh, so many mountain bikes! And they were all heading in my direction.
While the park ranger had made a point of mentioning the seven miles I’d have to walk in order to get to my campsite, she never bothered to mention the seventy-billion mountain bikers I’d have to dodge in order to survive those seven miles.
Plus, it didn’t help that the path was usually nothing more than a narrow deep ditch up the side of a “Serious Hill.” Also not helping: the fact that the mountain bikers were not stopping. Or even slowing down really.
So as soon as I’d see a mountain bike heading full-speed in my direction, I’d have to scramble up the side of the ditch, propelling myself forward into some foliage, hoping that it wasn’t Poison Ivy or seething with live snakes.
Somewhere around Mile 6, everything started to hurt — my feet, my left knee, my right shoulder where my backpack strap kept on digging in. I was sure my hottie Aussie Youtube hike instructor had a video on how to properly adjust your pack so it doesn’t dig into your shoulders, but I hadn’t watched it.
I didn’t even know if I could make it the final mile to my campsite, let alone the five miles it would take to get back to my car the next day.
I started to pay attention to all the roads I passed, telling myself I could always hitch a ride back to the parking lot if I needed to. Of course, this would probably mean being kidnapped by hill-people and being forced to live the rest of my days in a rusty cage. But even this sounded better than walking another five miles with my backpack on.
I finally made it to the campsite, where I was reminded that tents don’t just put up themselves even though you’re super tired and EVERYTHING HURTS AND OH GOD WHY AM I EVEN DOING THIS WHEN I COULD BE AT HOME ON MY COUCH WHICH DOESN’T REQUIRE ANY ASSEMBLY AT ALL BEFORE I SLEEP ON IT??
Luckily, dinner was easy. And surprisingly tasty for something freeze-dried and prepared in a bag. I suspect there were a lot of chemicals in this thing — delicious, adventurous, life-affirming chemicals.
The next morning I didn’t feel nearly as bad as I thought I would. I didn’t feel good, exactly, because my definition of good doesn’t involve all the muscles in my legs screaming at me like they’re on fire.
But I didn’t feel like I needed to risk hill-people kidnapping in order to get home.
On my five-mile hike-out, all the stuff that felt weird and awkward and totally unnatural the day before didn’t feel quite as weird anymore. I swung my hiking poles a bit more easily and was able to drink water out of the plastic tube without choking so much. Even dodging mountain bikes started to feel more natural — as natural as anything can feel when you’re scrambling up the side of a ditch in an effort not to be squashed.
When I finally made it back to my car, I felt tempted to stop by the park ranger’s station and show the skeptical park ranger I had made it.
But that would have required my walking all the way across the parking lot — a parking lot which somehow looked longer and tougher than any of the twelve miles I’d just hiked.
This was a Very Serious Parking Lot.
Possibly a Very Serious Parking Lot from Hell.
I decided I had better not risk it.
Have you ever tried solo backpacking? What was the hardest part?