Living in South Carolina present lots of challenges. First of all there is the ever present backwards, redneck stigma to get over. Yes, we started the Civil War. Sorry about that. We also tried to integrate the bible into our laws last year, by naming the state fossil “The Wooly Mammoth which was created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field”. Yeah, that was it’s official name. “The Wooly Mammoth” all by itself wasn’t good enough. Sorry, again. We were in the news last month for arresting a lady for saying “fuck” in WalMart around her own children, who if the truth was known probably hear it a LOT at home. Sorry, a third time. Besides, it was WalMart. The pajamas and no bra look offends me a lot more than someone dropping an f-bomb or two.
But the biggest problem is the oppressive heat and humidity. Look, I like the outdoors as much as any hiker, but I don’t want to suffer through walking around in a tropical rain forest in 100 degree weather and 95% humidity.
I went to the Baltimore Aquarium, once. We happened to be in DC for a wedding or something, and took time to go to aquarium in Baltimore, MD (one of Baltimore’s only redeeming qualities, or so I’m told). As we took the escalator to the top floor rain forest, they continually warned people about it being 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. I wondered why they were giving warnings about weather than was cooler than we were used to. 90 degrees? Why are they air conditioning a rain forest?
The hiker magazines love to show people standing on top of rocky outcroppings looking into the distance, maybe pointing at some far away peak at sunset, all happy in their little packs and dry freshly-pressed looking shorts and shirts. You never see these people dripping sweat, hunched over panting heavily sucking down a liter of water. The only reason you don’t see them sprawled out on the rocks, is the rocks are too damn hot to sprawl out on after sitting in the sun all day. They like to proclaim March and April as the start of hiking season in the magazines, and I guess for a LOT of folks, that’s true. The last vestiges of snow are disappearing in the east, and while an odd storm or two may hit and dump a little more of the white stuff, you’re probably safe.
In the deep south, April signals the return of the gnats and mosquitos, requiring the addition of bug nets if your tent doesn’t have them, and enough DEET to melt the nylon legs of your convertible pants (yes, you’re wearing long pants – sure its hot, but the alternative is to experience the jellyfish-like sting of Stinging Nettles, and the weeks long rash from Poison Ivy). Not to mention the ticks intent on sucking out your blood and maybe leaving behind a little Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or the new disease, which essentially leaves you allergic to red meat, for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
I’m sorry, but I love tenderloin. I’ll just have to get a prescription for epi-pen so I can keep going to the outback, even if it means jabbing myself in the thigh with a spring-loaded needle so I can have just a little more meat soaked in A1 sauce.
I like being out in nature, but I’m not such a big fan of nature itself. Something always wants to poke you, prick you, sting you, suck your blood, fly in your ears and eyes, buzz around your head, bite you or molest your food in some way by landing on it or stealing it.
That’s why I like fall. The stinging nettles are dying back, the poison ivy drops its nasty rash-causing leaves, the ticks are gone wherever ticks go, the gnats and mosquitos can be coaxed into submission with minimal DEET spray (40% instead of 90%), and the weather is so much nicer. When I climb into my hammock at night and need to warm up, thats a good night. When I climb into my hammock in August and it feels like I’m a burrito under the warming light down at Taco Bell, I can tell it’s going to be a bad night.
There’s the lack of the summer crowds, too. In a lot of places, after the leaves have fallen and you’re staring at sticks, people don’t hike. They put the packs up for the season and hunker down to eat and buy presents. Winter means carrying more weight, because you have to carry warm thick bulky stuff to keep you alive over night. But when you find that awesome camp site, there’s less of a likelihood that someone will be there. The summer works the same way with rain – if you KNOW there’s 100% chance of it raining all weekend somewhere, go hiking. I can almost guarantee you’ll have your pick of spots.
Of course, winter hiking has a few bad points. It’s not all peace and quiet and no bugs. First, there’s the cold. Sitting around the campfire is a nice way to warm up in the evening. Yet, that means as soon as you step away from the fire, you start shivering and shaking until you can get warmed up in the tent. Mornings are just as bad. Unless you want to wait on someone to get up and make fire, you better be prepared to stumble around half-cold until you can get a fire going, or get some hot food in you.
Daylight comes later, and night comes early. There’s less light to hike by, and less time to set up camp, so you make less miles on long trips. In August it’s light about 630 and doesn’t get dark until after 8. By 530 in november, if you aren’t setting up camp, you better have a headlight.
Ice and snow. Yes, sometimes you have to deal with the unexpected. Going down to the creek edge for water and having to chip away ice or worry about slipping on snow can be uncomfortable. A friend of mine went for a hike and they expected two inches of snow. No big deal, right? Two inches? In the south we shut down schools for that, but hey, two inches you can walk pretty easily through… Unless you wake up and it’s two FEET of snow instead of two inches. Then the day looks pretty bleak as suddenly you find yourself struggling against pounds of the fluffy stuff with each step.
That doesn’t happen in August, of course, instead in August you get thunderstorms, howling winds, drenching rain, and lightning. I will gather more people have probably frozen to death out there than have been zapped by electricity from above, but that’s just a guess.
But winter hiking has it’s own rewards, and for the most part, no matter how cold you are getting up in the morning, theres a good chance when you shrug on that pack and start walking up a decent incline, you’ll get warm fast. It’s fun to be freezing and sweating at the same time.
I have some lofty goals to accomplish before the end of the season in April. For one I want to finish the Foothills Trail, a 77 mile path along the SC/NC border. I’ve done roughly 1/2 of it at one time or another. A day trip and a three day trip should get me through the rest of it, hopefully unscathed.
Then there’s our twice-yearly newbie trip where we introduce new people to the sport of backpacking. I say we, but I just tag along with our meetup group. Its fun to meet new people, most of whom we never see again after the newbie trip. I’m not sure why not, maybe some people just try it out, like frog legs, to say they gave it a try. “Oh, backpacking, yeah I did that once”. The trip is usually enjoyable and there are some interesting souls out there.
I really want to start hitting some of the AT as well. I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of cooking, sleeping, repacking, moving on and unpacking again. A hiking friend once said, “The cleanup is the same whether you go out for one night or four, I’d rather go out for four nights”. It’s true, no matter how long you are out there’s the same packing and unpacking and washing and drying of gear. So hopefully after the winter snows start packing it in for the season, I can get out there and see some of the Appalachian Trail.
Of course, that’s before the ticks, gnats, and mosquitos come out in force again.