July 20, 2010

The Rhythm of the Trail

Attribution: All but one of the pictures in today's blog, and most of the pictures in yesterday's blog which include me, were taken by Tom Overstreet. Tom has an artist's eye, and the heart and mind of a poet.

When you are hiking with a far destination in mind, and especially when the going is going to be tough, one of the best things you can do to preserve your energy and your sanity is to get into a good rhythm. A steady, rhythmic swinging of your legs, with arms in opposite swinging sequence, and not too much upper-body movement, will take you way farther for the same amount of energy than herky-jerky, stop-and-start, twist-and-turn hiking. It's like getting the best gas mileage from your car; Find a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow, and set the cruise control.

Hiking poles, if you have them, are a real bonus for rhythm and energy saving. A heavy backpack perched high on your upper body will make you tipsy, or is that tippy? If you get out of balance from the high center of gravity and start to lean, start to fall, it takes a lot of energy from your legs and core body muscles to re-right yourself. Hiking poles give you two extra legs for balance, and they can help power you uphill, and break the shock to your knees and body when you are going downhill. If you've never used them, I recommend them to you.

The problem with most of the hiking we did on our recent off-trail backpack trip was that, well, it was off trail. It is difficult to get into a rhythm when you are dodging rocks and trees, hopping over boulder fields, taking your boots off and crossing streams, hiking straight uphill or downhill. I have read about the guys and gals who hike long trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico up into Canada. They carry light packs (25 pounds would be heavy for some of these "through-hikers"), stay on the trail, get into a rhythm, hike from before sun-up to after sun-down, and cover 25 miles a day, plus or minus.

The "hike" we took from Miriam Lake over Ruskie Pass and down into Seven Gables Lakes , which I described in my previous post, covered less than four miles, and took almost six hours. Every step was an effort.

Boulder hopping is, perhaps, the most energy-consuming and dangerous of the non-rhythmic hiking methods. It takes planning and energy to hop from uneven boulder to uneven boulder. Usually there is no real pattern or discernible rhythm to the progress one makes hopping from boulder to boulder. And it is dangerous. Especially on steep talus slopes, where gravity and the smallest dislodged rock might bring tons of rock raining down on you, or on your hiking companions below you. Care needs to be taken to not hike too close above or below your companions in these situations.

I have read stories in backpacker magazine and elsewhere of hikers who were boulder hopping and dislodged massive boulders that either crushed and killed them, or pinned them to other boulders. One story was about a guy, still living, whose arm got pinned. He ended up severing his own arm with his pocket knife to save his life. Another story was of a guy who hopped onto the top of a boulder which rolled, throwing him down to his feet in front of another boulder, and pinning his whole body between the two boulders. He was able to reach some paper and a pen in his backpack, which was pinned to his body, and over several days journaled his experience; He knew he was in a dire situation, and he eventually died there from exposure and dehydration. It was an emotional and heart-rending story, which included many entries from his dying diary.

On the last day of our hike we did hike on trail the whole day. It had rained on us Thursday night, and when we got up it was still raining. Everything was wet, so we just packed it all up and hit the trail. We got into a good hiking rhythm -- though a little fast. Bud has long legs and a big stride, and runs half marathons for fun. He sets a pace on trail of slightly more than three miles an hour; In my opinion, two-and-a-half miles an hour is a better trail pace. Anyway, it rained on-and-off the whole day on Friday, and we did not stop at our scheduled Friday night stop (about a seven mile hike). Instead, we stayed in rhythm, and hiked the full 15 miles to the Bear Creek Diversion Dam trailhead. The end of our trail.

There is something about getting into the rhythm of the trail that is sedating and satisfying. It's like life, in some respects. And therein lies the danger of getting into the rhythm of the trail, and the rhythm of life. You have to be careful that you are not so sedated by the rhythm and the hiking, and so focused on the final destination, that you don't pay any mind to the beauty around you at the moment. The sun comes up, the day passes, the sun goes down, night comes, night passes, the sun comes up. Monday comes, the week passes, then Sunday comes, then Monday comes. Spring comes, then summer, then fall, then winter, then spring. And suddenly, before you know it, 50 years have come and gone, and you are at, or near, the end of your trail.

And today is another day in the rhythm of your life.

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