Do one thing every day that scares you.Eleanor Roosevelt
This past weekend, I celebrated the first day of spring by going out on my very first “backpack trip” with new titanium hip joints. I put “backpack” in quotes, because the site was only a mile from my car. But that gave me all the cushion I needed should things fall apart completely.
It wasn’t just my hips being tested. I was also doing a “shakedown” – a test in real conditions – of new gear. Gossamer Gear in Austin, Texas sent me several items, most notably a new tent and a new backpack.
Lake Maria (pronounced muh-RYE-uh) boasts one of the few remaining stands of “Big Woods,” a maple, oak and basswood forest that once covered southern Minnesota. It’s rolling terrain along kettles, moraines and eskers left over when the last glaciers receded, and ideal for hiking with just a bit of challenge in the mostly flat Midwest.
It’s also unusual in that it’s designed with only “primitive” backpacking sites – no car camping or RV’s. Except for an outhouse, a picnic table, a fire ring and a basic food locker, there are no amenities at all, and a hiker can feel a bit like she’s out much further in the actual wilderness.
But first I had to get there, driving through traffic in downtown Minneapolis. Where is everyone going? Aren’t we still in a pandemic?! Then far to the west, and the little town of Monticello.
I arrived around 5:00 with the sun already making long shadows in orange light. Exactly as I arrived, two other solo hikers both minimally outfitted pulled out gear from their cars and headed in opposite directions. The park is large enough, I never saw or heard them again after we wished each other a good night.
When I got to the site, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Greeting me were birds using the lake and forest as a staging area before continuing their northern migration, and others making this tiny Eden their home – crackling Sandhill Cranes, car horn-like Trumpeter swans, honking Canadian Geese, vibraslapping Red Wing Blackbirds and a lone Pileated Woodpecker laughing hysterically before pounding like a shotgun into a nearby tree trunk. It was an absolute cacophony of creatures on Maria Lake also known as Bjorkland, mostly still frozen through a screen of exploded cat tails down a short trail.
I slumped my gear in the dry grass near the flattest spot, the Gorilla pack feeling like a second skin on my first 10-pound carry in five months. The tent is basically an A-frame using both trekking poles, though I had some trouble making things work, not entirely sure if I needed my poles to be out all the way or in all the way.
Alarmed that I’d need to use six stakes to hold this tiny tent in place and wondering if I had the patience for a set-up that would take more than a minute, I kept wandering back and forth between the tent site and the picnic table. That’s where I’d rehydrated a black bean dip recipe from BackCountry Foodie. I was ravenous, downing it with a side of fritos, a thru-hiker’s favorite food.
After a few healthy bites, I’d go and stake out the tent, put it up, then change my mind and give it another try, eventually finding a reasonably decent set up. It was dry and cold and the sun was setting fast, so in went the Therm-a-rest and “Big Greenie” – my Western Mountaineering Versalite sleeping bag, myself following much later after watching a waxing crescent move across the sky.
I followed that moon through the night until she set over the lake in a pancake of magenta. The birds quieted down and gave way to oak leaves, their brown hands rattling in the wind, ready to fall to the ground with spring’s new greenery.
Stars filled the sky and I was up with the dawn, my new tent frozen solid though quickly thawing in the clear sky. Now it was time to have one of my famous bars along with a Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake before packing up and giving walking a try carrying those ten pounds on my back.
I circled the entire park, following thin catwalks up and down and around tiny but deep ponds of wood ducks and hooded mergansers, crunching ice-filled footsteps that slowly became mud as they day wore on.
I did well, notching things up just a bit by not simply taking a walk or carrying weight, but determined to sleep out there and in a new shelter.
But in spite of the success with these incremental challenges, I felt like because the weather was so good, maybe I needed a bit more of a test, so I notched it up yet again last night heading out into a steady drizzle, set the new tent in my back yard and got in for the night.
The rain came down most of the night but I stayed cozy in there, reminding myself that even if only one mile from my car or thirty feet from my back door, I am a backpacker – a full-time pedestrian, and one now who can make it happen with titanium hips.