Playing Housewife (or, I’d Rather Be Camping)

If “zen” is used (casually) to refer to a state of mind where you experience life as it is vs through the thoughts you have about your experiences, I have to wonder if being a housewife/husband is the fastest path to achieving a state of zen.

After all, I’ve heard stories of how zen masters teach achieving enlightenment by doing repetitive, unappreciated tasks that will only be undone and need to be done again.

One of the things I have been working on intensely is learning to leave behind my Type-A habits, be fully present, and really experience my life instead of missing what’s happening because I’m busy worrying about an imagined past or future.

I have run head-on into the most stubborn part of my Type-A traits recently. Having extended my leave of absence from my day job for another 6 months, there are some new developments in our lives:
We must re-learn how to carefully evaluate our spending decisions if we’re going to stick to the financial plan we made when I started my leave (personal leave comes with no pay).
This means one or both of us must cook more.
My husband is working long hours on his feet all day, so the cooking is falling to me.

Any of you who have read my blog for any length of time or who know me personally are probably aware of just how much I like to cook.

This is the crux of what I dislike about cooking (or any household chore): it’s a lot of effort for something that gets completely undone in only moments and then must be done all over again only to be undone once more. You are never done. You can never check it off your to-do list.

The incredible inefficiency of going in a continual circle makes me batty–it’s going backwards. I have an obsession with efficient, forward progression. It is my most Type-A tendency. Almost paradoxically, I would rather sit on the couch doing nothing than invest time and energy in a task that will have to be repeated–I become a Type-B when contemplating such a task!

There is nothing I struggle with more than going backwards.

So far, I have tried to counter this feeling by cooking in bulk. By making large quantities of soup, I have the satisfaction of seeing neat containers in the freezer and fridge waiting for us for days.

But as the supply dwindles, I find my old resentment bubbling up again. I question whether we would be better off just going back to eating out–couldn’t that time cooking be better spent growing the business than saving a few dollars?

I would love to hear from someone who genuinely enjoys cooking for their loved ones and how they get satisfaction from such a task. I’ve heard there are such people in the world, but I suspect it’s one of those legends like Big Foot.

Missing Summer

It dawned on me today that it’s August.  Kids are getting ready to go back to school just as I am noticing it’s summer.

This summer, I have spent sitting.  I’ve done a little math.  I figured I’ve spent an average of 80 hours a week sitting in front of a computer, 45 hour sleeping, 7 hours walking the dog(s), 1 hour doing yoga, 14 hours eating (mostly more sitting), 3 hours socializing (yet more sitting), 3 hours shooting, 4 hours working with birds, and the remaining 11 hours doing mundane tasks like getting ready in the morning, driving places, grocery shopping, dog washing, dog feeding, taking the dog to the vet, making coffee, and doing household chores.

That’s not exactly how I might have planned my summer.

I think back to the summers of my childhood when they seemed to stretch on forever.  I remember running around in the neighborhood with my friends playing whatever game we could come up with much of the day.  If I wouldn’t have been an avid reader, I probably would have spent the entire day outside.  When friends weren’t available, I took my books outside and read in our treehouse or in a make-shift tent made of blankets hung over our swing set.

There were chores and, when I was old enough, a job.  But my first job was mowing lawns–even that felt like a fun outdoor activity once I got started.  I used to love the smell of fresh cut grass and the look of a neatly trimmed lawn.  All of it spoke of summer to me.

It’s funny that we grow up thinking we will have summers forever.  Summers with less responsibility, fewer deadlines, and an open schedule.  Summers where the biggest worry is that we’ll be bored.  Do kids still have summers like that?  I miss them.

I miss the feeling of sleeping in on a weekday, rising to an empty house with a stocked fridge.  Meandering through the day without a single thing planned, required, or demanded.

I suppose the whole summer wasn’t like that.  There was a week of camp.  Days I had to do things.  But I looked forward to those days because the freedom of the unplanned days was sometimes overwhelming.

I entered this summer without acknowledging it.  I didn’t just spend it sitting; like walking past a lost penny, I didn’t pick it up to spend it at all.  I didn’t notice the longest day of the year.  I didn’t catch any fireflies.  I didn’t spend a single night gazing at the stars.  I didn’t take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot sunny day, feeling the breeze and thinking life is good.  It seems like a summer wasted.

Tent Cabins

On our trip to Yosemite several years ago, we spent one night in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows.  This was long before the recent scare related to the Hantavirus infection in Curry Village.  Plus, Tuolumne Meadows is a long way from Curry Village.

There are many differences between Curry Village and Tuolumne Meadows.  Curry Village is located in Yosemite Valley, where the temperature is far warmer.  It’s also the most popular part of the park, so Curry Village is larger and has more people in it.  This results in a lot more noise and a lot more bears.

It’s really hard to get that many people to comply with rules about keeping anything scented in a bear locker.  Even well-intentioned people overlook things like lost M&Ms in their cars or in pockets.  Cars parked at Curry Village are often in danger of bear raids.

By comparison, Tuolumne Meadows is cold.  It’s at a much higher altitude in a remote location above the valley, resulting in much cooler temperatures.

We were there in July–and it was even a warm July.  We slept in sleeping bags rated to -10 degrees.  We wore fleece, warm hats, and zipped our mummy-style bags securely around our heads to stay warm.  Thankfully, the bags were warm enough even after the fire in our tiny, inefficient wood-burning stove went out.  There is nothing about a tent cabin that is energy efficient, unlike our 2-person tent that can often get quite warm with our bodies in it.

But the advantage of the cold temperatures and more remote location is that it’s a smaller village with fewer, quieter people who tend to be more serious about hiking and more conscientious about storing their stuff properly.  There are far fewer bear encounters in Tuolumne Meadows as a result.

Another advantage was that, because of the remote location and smaller number of people, they served a really awesome hot breakfast right in the village.

The biggest challenge we faced was identifying our bear locker in the long row of lockers.  People used unique rock arrangements on the lockers to mark theirs.  We made the mistake of remembering the rock arrangement on the locker next to ours, which had changed by morning.

Anything with a scent must go in a bear locker.  This includes toothpaste, hair gel (if you happen to have brought hair gel), deodorant.  If it could possibly smell like food to a bear, into the locker it goes.

The black canisters are a portable equivalent of a bear locker–all things with scent go in one on the trail.  The Yosemite bears are so familiar with bear canisters they don’t even try to break into them if they see one that’s been properly closed.  We left extra stuff that didn’t go on the trail with us in a bear locker at the trailhead.

There was often evidence a bear had checked out our campsites, but they’d always left quietly without disturbing anything.

Through the Woods

Stepping silently is impossible, especially in the woods.  But under the refuge of a heavy rain, each step disappears, blunted and blended into the sounds of the rain.  If ever I needed to escape or evade, I would hope for a downpour to hide my sound, my scent, my very presence, truly allowing me to leave no trace.

Perhaps it is the feeling of being encapsulated in a rain shower that causes an illusion of privacy.  As we put one foot solidly in front of the other, I forget my companions.  I look around in a panic realizing I haven’t heard Tisen’s familiar jingle for quite a few yards.  He is close at my husband’s heels, still trying to keep his head dry by hanging out under the over hang of Pat’s pack.  He hasn’t yet learned rain is its own kind of shelter.

Stepping through the rain becomes a meditation.  I cannot hear my own breath nor even my thoughts.  My mind has gone still and I focus on planting a trekking pole, placing a foot, planting the other trekking pole, placing the other foot.  I feel the muscles in my arms flex as I push off the poles.  I feel the twinge in my knee that threatens to turn into a sharp stab should I push it too hard.  My shoulders are already screaming.  I shift my focus back to my steps.  I don’t think about the distance left or the distance behind.  For those moments, I am my feet, my arms, my shoulders, my legs.  My boots and the ground move together as if the earth moves with me and all of me has melted; I am the rain.

Then, it stops raining.  My metaphysical moment evaporates even before the sun dares to break in through the clouds.

Returned to my more mundane reality, we find a spot to stop for a snack.  I slide out of my pack and dump it, rain cover down, onto a log.  It looks like an overturned turtle who has given up and stopped waving its legs.

I can’t remember ever enjoying trail mix so much as I enjoy it standing on the trail with a grumbling stomach, wondering if we will make it back without stopping for lunch.  Tisen stretches out and opts for a quick nap while we finish eating our apples before strapping our packs back on.

Now, the wet forest demands my photographer’s eye.  Every stretch of the trail reveals even more beautiful mushrooms.  I do my best to capture some of them with my 24-70mm lens, but I wish there were such a thing as a weightless macro lens and tripod so I could get up close and not worry about camera shake.

We hike faster as we get near the end.  My mind is no longer in the moment.  I’m longing for when I can set down my pack and know I don’t have to pick it up again for a very long time.

 

Overlooked

Something I always seem to forget when I haven’t been backpacking in a while is just how badly I sleep.  At first, I thought it was about equipment.  I gave up on the ultra-light sleeping pad and invested in a Big Agnes inflatable mat.  That was a nice upgrade.  A big, thick, insulated, cushy air mattress that really didn’t weigh a whole lot more.  I still didn’t sleep well.  There are several factors involved:

  1. Noises.  These range from bears to my husband snoring (he claims it’s me), but there always seem to be noises I can’t ignore.
  2. Fluids.  I drink a lot of water when we’re hiking.  Unfortunately, particularly in cold weather, this leads to having to get up many times in the middle of the night.  The whole process of managing getting out of the tent and then wandering out into the cold and/or rain has a pretty significant impact on sleep.
  3. Discomfort.  Backpacking uses muscles that don’t get used while sitting at a desk all day.  They don’t even get used in yoga class, rowing, biking, or the gym.  These muscles start screaming as I struggle to find a good position for my head.  At home, I sleep with two pillows to keep my neck and lower back comfortable.  Perhaps I need to find light-weight pillows for backpacking.
  4. Time Shift.  When one backpacks, there is little to do at the campsite after dinner if there’s no fire.  We rarely have a fire.  In many places, it’s not allowed.  In places where it is allowed, it’s often a lot of work.  Sometimes, it’s just impossible.  For example, when it’s pouring down rain.  So, once dinner is over, the dishes are washed, teeth are brushed, the supplies are appropriately stowed, and fatigue from the many miles of hiking sets in, it’s bedtime.  When bedtime is very early, this contributes to waking up throughout the night.

Rain suddenly pounding on the metal roof above our tent caused noise issues.  No pillow and sharing a tent with both a man and a dog created discomfort issues.  Going to bed at 7:30PM contributed to time shift issues.  The only thing I did well was taper off on water consumption.  None-the-less, I felt like I’d gotten no more than 15 consecutive minutes of sleep all night.

I think Tisen felt the same way–he wouldn’t get out of the tent in the morning.

But, we made it back on the trail eventually.  On the way back, we discovered Tommy Overlook, a highlight of the trail we’d missed in the heavy rain the day before.  We were making good time on the trail–all of us walking double-time in some unspoken agreement that we wanted to get home as fast as possible.  We stopped for a good 15 minutes to enjoy the view of the 3 gulches converging.  I couldn’t help but imagine what it would look like in a few weeks when the trees are in color.

The Next 6.3 Miles

Mentally embracing the rain, we started down the trail, determined to make it the next 6.3 miles to a place called “Hobbs Cabin.”  We couldn’t help but hope the cabin (a rustic, first-come, first-serve arrangement) was available.

After about 10 minutes of hiking in the downpour, we realized hiking in the rain on a hot day was quite pleasant.  Instead of feeling stinky and sticky with sweat, we felt cool and refreshed and there were no bugs while it was raining.

Tisen, on the other hand, was not so enamored with the feeling of cool rain. He did his best to walk underneath the overhang of our packs to try to avoid being rained on directly.  He ended up just as wet as the rest of us, but there must have been something comforting about feeling like he had a roof over his head.

When we got to the first overlook of the “gulf”  (apparently that’s what a gulch is called in Tennessee), the rain had taken a break.  The sky was overcast and it was hard to tell it was noon.  The break in the rain was nice, as was the breeze blowing up from the valley below.  But, alas, we were trying to cover 6.3 miles before it got too late in the afternoon, so we couldn’t stop long to enjoy it.

As the trail veered away from the edge of the gulch, we re-entered the woods, and perhaps a time from the past.  It was easy to imagine the first settlers finding their way through woods like these when such woods covered much of the Eastern US. Of course, they would have all be old-growth forests back then.  But, these woods, mostly free of invasive plants, made me feel like we’d been transported in time. Thankfully, our gear wasn’t transported back to historical equipment–I think we would have needed a wagon.

At long last, we arrived at Hobbs Cabin and were relieved to find it unoccupied.  A tiny, dark, uninviting shelter, it was equipped with 6 bunks and a table fastened to the wall.  The bunks were wood planks that would require sleeping pads and bags to make comfortable.  The small windows on the back wall let in so little light that even with our flashlights, we had trouble seeing inside the cabin.  I had a hard time imagining spending the night in there.

I proposed we pitch the tent on the front porch, screening out all insects, putting us where we were sure to get a breeze, and under a great big roof to keep up out of the rain.  We hung the rain fly in position just in case we started to get wet, but planned to sleep under just the screen for the night.  Tisen was more excited than a child to crawl into the tent with us, even though we decided to call it a night around 7:30PM.  It was the earliest we’ve ever gone to bed.

2 Miles

There is a fine and delicate line when it comes to backpacking between having what you need to survive and having too much weight on your back to have any fun.

Once a backpack reaches a third of your body weight, or even a quarter, when you get a few miles into the hike, you start to question the wisdom of backpacking vs day hiking.  This has been a battle played out over years for me.  The first time I went backpacking, I barely made the ascent up a 4 mile trail that climbed almost 1 mile in elevation.  I didn’t even know how much weight I was carrying at the time, but I had packed things like an 11-cup percolating coffee pot, so I’m pretty sure it was a lot of weight.

When my husband and I were in official “backpacking training,” we went on a 3-day trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in Monangahela.  This was right after I’d read a book called “The Ultra-Light Backpacker.”  I took no spare clothes except socks and underwear, no tarp, no extra anything.  If I thought I could live without it for 3 days, I left it at home.  My pack was a lot lighter, but it rained the entire time, except when it snowed, and we came pretty close to hypothermia by the time we hiked out the 3rd day with no dry clothes to change into.

Ever since then, we’ve erred on the side of too much weight.  As we headed down the trail on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we not only were carrying too much stuff for us, but also too much stuff for our dog:  His new special diet frozen and packed so it would stay cool long enough to be fresh for his dinner and breakfast; his bedroll strapped to the outside of Pat’s pack; extra towels packed just for drying the dog; and, of course, Tisen’s special water bowl and his own water bottle.  Spoil our dog?  What are you talking about?

It’s not surprising that after about 2 miles, we were ready for our first snack break.  We stopped right on the trail as there was no where else to go.  We opened up our packs, broke out our snacks, and started munching.

As we stood there with our stuff strewn about, we heard a sound.  It wasn’t just the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  It was the sound of an enormous sheet of rain blowing through.  Pat went for the tarp while I went for the rain cover for my pack.  I got my pack closed and covered while Pat built us a little shelter.

We felt a little foolish when three backpackers came through soaking wet and had to duck under our shelter to continue on the trail.  We started packing up our stuff and accepting that this rain wasn’t going to just blow over.  It was time to get wet.