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Getting By: Learning Life’s Little Lessons

At the holidays, I find myself, like most Americans back home with my family, and usually just after we finish our holiday ham and while still leaning back with full stomachs, the subject of my life comes up. Often this leads to the discussion of my job or lack of job as they see it – a full-time adventurer. (They read Slacker)

On a recent trip, I sat and listened to the normal chatter of, “I don’t know why you ever quit your last job. It was so good. You made good money there,” until I couldn’t’t take it anymore.

“I’ll tell you why,” I said. “Because I’ve learned everything that I need to know to get by out in the woods.”

I come from a family of focused business owners, so they stared blankly at me as a few tales started to come out of my mouth. As business owners, the constant worry over money is often at the front of their minds, and any learning that doesn’t involve how to make more of it doesn’t come across as well as it should. I stood determined to make a difference and change their minds this time.

“These are three of the most important things that I’ve learned,” I continued. “And I could have never learned them at a 9 to 5 job.”

Along the Way to the Boulder Field

The first of these three I learned of the slopes of Long’s Peak in Colorado. I was living in Rapid City, South Dakota for the winter, and my climbing partner and I decided that it was about time that we climb to the top of a Colorado 14er in the middle of winter. Long’s seemed like the best 14 to pick. It had an easy route albeit longer route up the backside, and a shorter by slightly more technical route up the north face. We figured that we would carry gear for the north face, but climb the longer if conditions looked bad. After a long drive through the night with the only stop being in Estes Park to get a permit from the backcountry office and to eat breakfast, we arrived at the parking lot for Long’s well after the sun had risen.

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Our first campsite was a huge jaunt up the mountain to get to the boulder field. We geared up and started up the mountain, luckily for us the path was well packed, so we didn’t bother to bring up snowshoes. We hiked up the mountain until we got to the tree line. We ate a late lunch and we were both feeling the altitude, but not enough to warrant any major concern. After a little more hiking, my partner was feeling pretty bad, so I told her to leave her pack and we would hike until we found a good place to pitch the tent. We hiked and found a good place to pitch our tent. We weren’t to the campsite yet, which was still 3 miles and a good 1000 or so feet above us, so this was a significant setback to our schedule. I pitched the tent and put her into my sleeping bag, then I ran back to get her pack and ran it back. After we both rested up, I cooked dinner and then we went to sleep. In the morning, we decided not to climb the mountain, but we hiked to the top of Mt. Lady Washington and took picture of the diamond face of Long’s Peak.

I learned that you have to help people when they need help, and sometimes when you do, your plans my change, and that’s not bad.

Waist Deep in Snow and Now Where to Go

The second happened on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee. My partner. We were hiking on Roan Mountain, which is a bald mountain near the town of the same name. Years back, there had been considerable trouble in this area. The government made a land grab to reroute the AT, and that grab angered the locals. Storied circulated about fishing hooks hung across the trail at eye level to snag hikers for revenge, guns shot over the heads of hikers, and vicious dogs let lose on hikers. With thoughts about these antics, we wanted to get out of the area as fast as possible, but got stuck in an early season blizzard. After a night of camping in zero degree weather in twenty-degree bags, we awoke to find on of our friends down bags had become soaked from condensation in his tent. We figured that we needed to hike up the mountain to where we assumed the next shelter on the AT would be. Rumor had it that the shelter was an old cabin with a working fireplace.

In order to get to the cabin, we hiked up the mountain, which snow covered now in depth up to our hips. I broke the path in a relentless crawl up the mountain. Then in the distance assured by the falling snow, I thought I saw someone. And it was someone.

Two men walked towards us. They wore carhart bibs and a flannel. They carried no pack, so I knew they weren’t hikers. With slight apprehension because to what had happened to hikers in the past in this area, I asked them where we were compared with the top of the mountain. The shorter guy opened his mouth, and he was missing teeth. I thought, “This is a drunken snow loving hillbilly ready to pull a deliverance on us.”

Out of his mouth came a lisp so flaming that I about fell over. I couldn’t believe it. On the Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain in Tennessee in a once in 100 years freak southern early season blizzard we run in to two bib and flannel wearing backwoods missing teeth, flaming homosexual hillbillies, who turned out to be some of the nicest people that I’ve met in the south.
They gave us direction to the top of the mountain where all kinds of people where just up for the day, so we hitched a ride to the town and had some good pizza and stayed in a hotel.

The lesson learned was a hard one. Ask for help when you need it, and you most likely will get it.

Was He Lagging or Was I Mistaken

The third happened on a Boundary Waters trip. Our group consisted of four people, three of us had tripped in the BWCAW before and one hadn’t. We brought three canoes; one tandem, my cedar strip, and two solo canoes both Bells. We planned to put the new guy, Dan, into a solo canoe although he had never soloed before, but this was my first trip in my newly built tandem, and I wasn’t going to let anyone else paddle it other than myself and my significant other.

After loading the canoes upon arriving, we set off gliding across a perfect lake of still water. I noticed Dan struggling to keep his canoe going straight. He was doing loops, so we turned around and I gave him a couple of quick lessons on how to paddle a solo canoe. The entire day he struggled to keep up, and we contemplated putting him in the tandem.

By the second day, Dan still lagged behind us, but about half of the time he could keep the canoe going straight. We slowed our pace to keep him from becoming too frustrated. On the fourth day, we came across a badly wind whipped lake with waves a couple of feet high. I guided our canoe out into the fray and headed straight across to an 80-foot cliff that we hoped would have good fishing next to it. Dan prudently kept the solo near shore and paddled in the protection of the tree, he then needed to cross in order to make it to the portage. Kneeling he pushed out across the waves. With the wind blowing his canoe around, he managed to make it across without any problems.

On the last day, occasionally, he led the way, and we didn’t have to slow down at all.

A Learned Lesson is a Good Lesson

The lesson learned was that sometimes you don’t need to help too much. When you give someone the right instruction, go at a pace that will challenge them, they will eventually be able to perform.

After, I recounted these stories and the lessons that I had learned to my family at the holiday table, I leaned forward. They were all looking at me with gained respect or so I thought. I imagined that they all had become enlightened until my father looked at me and said, “So, when are you going to get a real job.”

I leaned back in my chair discouraged, but my grandfather cleared his throat and said, “You know, those are good lessons.”