D1: Get the Gear, Get on the Bus, and Get Campin'

Trip Start Jul 07, 2012
Trip End Sep 27, 2012

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Where I stayed
Near the Pacific Creek Trailhead

Flag of United States  , Wyoming
Thursday, July 19, 2012

My phone alarm rang passionately at 5:30 in the morning, a modern-day bullhorn rising the troops for their first day on the job. My roommates (Max, Theo, and Jason) and I scrambled to pack our bags, get our linens outside for the cleaning ladies, brush our teeth, and in some cases, to take that last, sweet shower before they become an extinct idea. I opted to forego the shower to get started on my manly musk, and what is one more day when you are going 30 days without showering? 31 days. Duh.

At 6am, our hiking group and 3 other groups who were leaving that day congregated in the dining room adjacent to the lobby for a hot breakfast. My foods of choice were a heaping helping of hot blueberry pancakes and fresh fruit. It occurred to me as other people pointed it out that one thing we would be missing for the next 30 days is fresh fruit. Bummer dude. But the blueberry pancakes were delectable, a good final fruit of sorts.

By 6:40, we had migrated to the Rocky Mountain (RM) Branch, which is where all groups going on a NOLS trip in the Rocky Mountains get their gear and get packed. NOLS has branches like these in all of the areas where people go on trips, like in Teton Valley, the Southwest, and even places as far away as India. The first order of business was going through what we had to bring. The list, as you may imagine, was quite long, and you have the ability rent anything that you didn't bring with you. Once the instructors explained what we needed, they asked us all to take everything out that we wanted to bring with us. Then, they came around individually to each one of us to tell us what personal items we could bring, what we couldn't bring, and what we needed to rent.

This process took a good 2 1/2 hours, and it left me with free time to delve into my thoughts and a read a book I bought in Denver a couple days prior: Fear and Loathing in the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. It was during the waiting time when my head was not concentrating on one of the many surreal political/drinking/drug-induced stories Hunter Thompson provides of the race for the Democratic nomination in 1972 that I began to fully rationalize what I was about to get myself into and what it would entail. Being out of contact with friends and family, no phone, no internet, having to learn something from scratch for the first time in a very long time. It hit me like a tidal wave, and I was overcome with a large, tense weight of anxiety. I did not expect this in any way, yet it hit all the same. I never faltered in my desire to do this trip, but something inside me that clearly had not rationalized the fact that I was wrenching myself out of my element into totally uncharted waters began to yell and scream, asking if I knew just what in the blue hell I was doing. My internal reply went something along the lines of "I guess we'll find out over the next 30 days, won't we, dude!".

This internal dialog went on for quite some time until thankfully interrupted by Annemarie for my equipment check. This also showed me that I was jumping into something I knew little about. Of my 3 longsleeve shirts and 6 shortsleeve shirts, Annemarie told me that I would need only 1 of each. I thought "But wait...what about clean clothes...Ohhh". The idea on these trips is to pack as little as possible because the pack is already heavy, and as part of that, you wear just about the same clothes every day. I believe my words to her were "Well, this will be new." as I smiled graciously. I also lacked a number of supplies which I then rented, some of which I knew about, some of which I did not: A huge backpack, a sleeping bag and a stuff sack for it (I didn't know how the hell I was going to fit this sleeping bag in this sack. It looked like I was going to have to fit an elephant into a Yankee Candle. Seriously.), a nalgene bowl, a trucker hat, gaiters (they wrap around your boots and shins to help prevent scratches and knicks to your shins), a thin foam buttpad for cushion while sitting on the ground, and chapstick. I was officially a camping Noob (Hint: this is slang for "Newbie" or "Novice" for those of you not lucky enough to be born during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush or William Jefferson Clinton).

After getting our gear, we all went to the Gulch to pack our food for our first 9 day ration. The way food works is that you get X amount of food, then horsepackers literally bring the next set of food into you on horseback. Wild. Anyway, in this fairly small office were hundreds of pounds of flour, potato pearls (you mix them with water to make mashed potatoes), powdered milk, cornmeal, oats, peanuts, cashews, almonds, trail mix, and just about any type of food that can be packed over a 9 day span and not spoil. To my surprise, our ration also contained a few 1 pound blocks of cheddar and monterrey jack cheese and summer sausage. My suburban mind immediately questioned the usability of unrefrigerated cheese, but I was assured that this wasquite normal. It reminded me of buying unrefrigerated eggs in Scotland. I suppose people once lived without refrigerators. Funny the things you don't think about while living in middle class America.

Then, it was off to pack bags. Two words: Holy crap. Talk about heavy. Between a sleeping bag that took me about 20 minutes to stuff into its sack, sleeping pad, clothes, a 15 pound bag of food, water, a tent body, and assorted supplies, my pack weighed 48 pounds, and I felt every one of them as I lurched it onto my back for the first time. It wasn't unbearable, but it made me remember huffing and puffing about having to carry a couple books around in middle school :). Oh silly Past Ben.

We went back to the Noble for a hot lunch and packed a sack dinner of sandwiches for the night since we wouldn't be able to cook that night due to a late arrival. Then, just like that, we were standing in front of a school bus with big packs, ready to be delivered into the wilderness. Since the bags were so big, a cool guy named Noah and I climbed to the top of the bus along with Nan to haul bags up and tie them to the top. It took about 25 minutes, and it felt good to have some physical exertion to help my mind refocus on one of the main points of going on this trip: to explore the wilderness and myself. As we boarded the bus and it left Lander to sail into the mountains, my emotions were scattered everywhere. I chatted a bit with my seatmate Lily, a very nice girl from Minnesota, and dove into my journal to sort everything out. The further northwest we went, the more beautiful the scenery got, the more I realized that this might not be the carefree, easy, perpetually fantastic journey I thought it might be. This was going to be life for 30 days, at its simplest form. So I thought about that for awhile as I stared at the passing mountains.

At 6:11 PM, the bus parked at a trailhead labeled "Teton Wilderness Area", and we departed to eat our sack dinner. A few minutes later, the bus drove away. There we were, 18 people on the precipice of a 100+ mile journey with nothing but the packs on our backs (That rhymes!). We walked about 5 minutes to what was deemed our "kitchen", a flat dirt surface underneath some trees. I got to know Nan a little better during our short walk and we talked a bit about our backgrounds. Right next to the kitchen, Annemarie set up the "Bear Fence", or an electronically charged portable fence that we have to put ALL of our food into so that if bears come, they will come to the bear fence and not to our tents, which have to be set up 300 feet away. If anything touches the bear fence while it's on, it gets shocked with 9000 volts. Nan said some kids on her last course were fascinated with that fact and enjoyed testing the fence's capabilities. I opted to keep my distance while it was switched 'on'. For some reason I have this fascination with not getting a shock of electricity through my system, if I can help it. Yes I know, I'm a weirdo. Anyway, after getting to kitchen, we got a crash course in setting up tents. There were 4 tent groups, and mine contained three cool dudes named Max, Tommy, and Andy. At first, I didn't think the tents would be able to fit 4 people, but sure enough, there was just enough room to pack everyone in there without feeling like a sardine in an airtight can. It took us about 15 minutes, and we had our first tent set up!

While learning about the tents and among the craziness accompanied by the realization that you'll be sleeping outside in the middle of nowhere for the next 29 days, mosquitoes decided to swarm us as if we were the first warm blooded mammals they had seen in years. One of the items that NOLS makes you bring is a mosquito net, which I originally scoffed at internally. I was proved wrong. I and everyone else had to put on layers to keep them from biting like crazy. The prevailing attitude among the group was a considerable hope that this wouldn't be the status quo for the whole trip :).

By this point, it was about 9:30PM and it was getting dark. With no electronics of which to speak in the wilderness, you pretty much have to take nature's signal to get your butt to bed. That we did. As I was unpacking my stuff to put into the tent, I realized that I had a cheese block in my bag. Figures. I'm the one bozo who accidentally had food with him, so I had to go up to the instructors to have them open up the bear fence so I could put my food back. Nan walked with me and she was very nice about it. Upon getting back to the tent, the guys and I chatted a bit, then it was time to turn the headlamp off and end this long day. It was quite the experience, and I went to bed feeling good about our first hike the next day, all trepidation about lack of connectivity and technology aside. My thoughts turned to what other wild things we might surely learn on Day 2 and beyond.
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