Thursday, September 3, 2009

Expectations on Film

It had been a beautiful hike through the Ozark forest. My camera, a cheap Cannon SLR that I had earned by painting houses all summer, was held up to my face almost the entire way. Though the winds were cold the sky was clear, winter blue. The leaves had already fallen, exposing my shutter to rolling hills covered in a rusty carpet of leaves and massive gray hardwood columns.

I shuffled out of Wal-mart, package in hand. I jumped in my car and began to open it even before I turned the heater on. As my breath fogged up the car I flipped through the stack of glossy photographs. Quickly at first but once I had gotten through them once I went through again, giving special attention to each one.

I was used to this kind of disappointment but it still irked me. I just knew for damn-sure that these pictures were going to be spectacular. Somehow they all looked the same. The lighting was off enough to be distracting. I always have a problem with sunny days. It’s hard to balance the shadows of the trees with the bright patches of sun on the leaves. The great halls of hardwood just seemed to be a collage of bright and shady splotches.

I set the pictures in the passenger seat and drove home. On the way, I glanced over at the pictures again. At least I’m sure that there was something out there worth pointing a camera at.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Light Pack Syndrome

We would’ve been safer had we invited a suicide bomber to go backpacking with us. A light breeze drifted down through the branches of oak and hickory that were just budding new leaves. The day had been cloudy and cool allowing for perfect hiking weather.

Our company of ten bullet-proof teenagers had just stopped to rest and to let the old guys catch up again on the side of a steep, forested hill that the trail was climbing. The pace we had set was somewhere well below sprinting and well above a relaxing stroll. However this hippie’s holiday pace was still too fast for some of our more burdened crew. So we had a group of faster hikers, striking out in front, and slower hikers, plodding along behind. Eventually the slower hikers emerged from a copse of foliage and joined the rest of us as they had done several times throughout the day.

We all sat calmly for a moment catching our breath. A quiet tension slowly became apparent between the two groups of hikers. Then, as if a member of the Al-Qaida itself had walked into our midst to buy some coffee, it exploded. Like a storm that had been brewing all day just over the mountain, it rushed down upon us in one fell swoop. Our trek had suddenly become victimized and corrupted by the pestilence known as Light Pack Syndrome.

When pursuing such a gritty endeavor as backpacking there are many physical ailments and illnesses that a hiker is exposed to. Blisters, cramps, and loss of time are the most prominent of ailments. Snake bites, giardia, hypothermia, and an unhealthy longing for fast food are among the less probable but still common place dangers. And any Appalachian Trail veteran could not forget the endless array of thru-hiker STD’s. But none are as potent and unheard of than Light Pack Syndrome (LPS).

This age old epidemic has long affected hikers, backpackers, climbers, and adventurers of all pursuits and styles. However due to its focus upon the pack and what is carried, backpacking is where the most severe cases of LPS detonate themselves, reducing the “Merry Travels CafĂ©” to a pile of debris. But we are in luck! With the proper knowledge, training, and policies, LPS can be avoided, just like global warming and AIDS! Now if only the fast food craving was as easily stayed.

In order to prevent this disease we must first come to a full understanding of how it works. Much like global warming, LPS affects an entire group of people rather than a select few, and everyone contributes to it, whether scientist can prove it or not.

It begins in the early packing stages of the hike. One may choose a smaller pack thinking it lighter and limiting items to only the essentials. And so begins his quest to have a pack just heavy enough not to blow away in the wind. Dreams of five-mile-an-hour paces dance through his head, as he absentmindedly removes obsolete things such as sleeping pad, toilet paper, extra clothes and food from his pack. Upon meeting the rest of the group our hiker is unbearably chipper about his light pack. However when the dishing out of food, tents, stoves, and collapsible recliners begins, he is somewhat dismayed. But thanks to his smaller pack, though stuffed to the brim, he can still easily heft it over his head with one arm. Once again he dreams of a speed that will land the group in camp by mid-day and leave the afternoon for leisure. It’s not that he took any less of the group gear than anyone else did but that he set the group up for uneven speeds and abilities. He has fallen into the new age of backpacking style which dictates that you cover as much ground as possible carrying only what will keep you alive. This is why LPS is more common among the younger generations of hikers who are beside themselves with eagerness to push the dimensions of speed and distance.

This alone is enough to breed a stout case of LPS but there is also another disorder that can greatly contribute to LPS to turn your trek into the mother of all A-bombs. This is known as PMS. Mind you, I am not referring to the little feminine demon that makes some relationships a living hell (though this too can escalate the intensity of LPS). What I am speaking of is Pack Mule Syndrome. This is very much the opposite of Light Pack Syndrome. While LPS is usually found in the younger generation of hikers, PMS shows up most often in older men seeking to demonstrate their bull like toughness and will of stone. These are the dirty work-oholics that are always willing to break themselves to meet the needs of others. A hiker developing PMS always has an extra of everything. Little Timmy seems to have forgotten his sleeping bag. Never fear. Mr. PMS comes to the rescue producing an extra -20o goose down sleeping bag weighing in at around four and a half pounds! Not to mention the portable bomb shelter, packed just incase those Russians get restless. Madness! But ultimately they (the PMS’ers and the Russians) mean well and are the ones who think of the group first, which is a good thing.

Now the way that these disorders act upon the morale of the group is where the iron vice takes hold. There were about four of us that had unknowingly developed a severe case of LPS. We valiantly led the group and often looked back to find the other few trudging ten to fifteen minutes behind us. All day long we charged ahead, propelled by our knowledge that we had packed smarter and lighter than any of the others. Deep down we knew that we should slow the pace, but holding back unburdened, healthy legs on an open trial is like trying to keep a three-year-old from the candy aisle. It just doesn’t happen. It did not matter to us that we had left out all of the cautionary items such as the patented and portable bomb shelter. We knew that if disaster struck, we would just have to endure anything from a cold springtime storm to an atomic bomb. Come what may. Meanwhile, the slower and more cautious hikers in our company were forced to witness their inferiority mile after mile.

Now, at a time like this, a hiker might say to himself that backpacking is a relaxing recreation that is everything but competition. It is enough to take one’s time and become one in the natural beauty of what surrounds us. Backpacking is something we do to leave the world behind for a while and find out who we are right? While this is all well and good, for most of us this is a load of idealistic bull. No matter how detached a person thinks they are there is still that little glimmer of jealousy, that tiny thought in the back of the mind that says, “I can do that. He just has a lighter pack.”

This, my friends, is what sets the torch to the hay we have been piling up. Constantly trying to match the LPS pace slowly wears on the moral of the PMS’ers. He now feels an irksome rush, as if he were “behind schedule.” Of anything, this is not what backpacking is about. Before long the PMS’er is making excuses for why he or she is moving so slow. Whether it be, “I have a full time desk job and don’t have time to stay in the shape that Nazi LPS’er is in.” Or always, “I am carrying no of the food, a whole tent, an extra stove, and the cast iron skillet that they simply had to have.”

So there we sat, all chipper and rested from fifteen minutes of waiting for the others to catch up. As Mr. PMS breathlessly approached, he did not stop and take a seat with the rest of us. Rather, he stormed up the trail to where Keith sat and jerked the ear buds of an MP3 player out of his head. The man then proceeded to deliver the metaphorical equivalent of an un-gloved slap in the face through a raving lecture on the principal of team work and the dangers of I-pods. He had had enough of being the slow one. Not that he was designated the “slow one” or that we were griping about his pace, but it is a feeling in the back of the mind that just blooms in situations like this. As he yelled on, we all felt like five-year-old children who had just gotten caught in the act of making little Timmy eat worms. A portable bomb shelter was looking pretty good right then.

All of this, however, can easily be prevented. First of all, it is necessary to get to know who you hike with. Know their preferences, fitness level, and willingness to suffer the absence of things such as sufficient food or toilet paper. But most important of all is the higher nobler skill of balanced packing. If you have an older less capable fellow or younger inexperienced member in your company you should take more of the weight. If done correctly, LPS will not be able to take hold and the entire group can enjoy an even pace that puts no one to shame and leaves no hike in flames. Of course this is sometimes made difficult by the, “I can carry just as much as anyone else,” sentiment, but it is the mark of a true outdoorsman to set that pride aside. LPS is a lot like hard drugs. You only need to be reduced to the level of a five-year-old once to realize that is was a bad call.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Real Men Can Punch Through Drywall

I was in what men refer to as "stage five". My hands and feet were sweating uncontrollably; my legs were crossed tightly and bouncing up and down; my face was distorted and any sort of concentration was impossible. "Holding it" was no longer an option. I looked up the road where one deserted Ozark highway crossed another and saw what I knew to be the only gas station between here and our destination, which was still a full hour away. As the Subaru rolled into the dusty gravel drive our eyes grew wider with a mixture of horror, bewilderment, and waning hope for the future of mankind. This was no cut-and-paste shell station. This was one of those "ol' Joe-Bob's sto'e" kind of places that seemed to be the town gas pump, general store, diner, and possibly the city hall. Outside an armada of ancient pickup trucks was posted and armed with everything from shot guns to rifles. A stray mutt wandered here and there in search of handouts or a truck tire to mark. Not stalling to rethink this decision, I bailed out of the car and sped into the store. Had I not been so rushed, I might have realized exactly what I was walking into.

The lifestyle of an outdoorsman has always led me to beautiful, wondrous, and "how the fuck did we end up here" places. In my wanderings of the Ozark wilderness I have come across many interesting and unique creatures: Notoriously superstitious black bears who, avoid humans like the plague; Mischievous gangs of elk, who roam the food plots of the Boston Mountains and harass hunters; Horny skunks that try and crawl in bed with you. But of these strange creatures none remain such an enigma to me as the Arkansas hillbilly.

A defining feature of these people is the location in which they tend to be found. Deviating from outdoorsmen or nature enthusiasts (hippies), who usually live within the confines of civilization and journey out to the wilderness for their adventures, hillbillies thrive upon the shady line between the outskirts of civilization and the beginnings of "where-the-shit-are-we." In such a setting I was first exposed to these awkwardly mystic people.

The entire Beasley family lived on a desolate dirt road, nestled deep in the pine thickets of southern Arkansas. The Beasleys and Knights all belonged to the deer hunters' camp also found along this road. My father held strong ties to this area through family, so it was natural that we returned here many times a year to hunt and visit. And it was on any given visit that we would be greeted by a rural parade of sorts. A round fellow in a trucker hat by the name of John Beasley, the senior of the Beasley family, would ride his four-wheeler (hillbilly slang for an ATV) between his house and the deer camp just down the road. Anywhere this man traveled on that sputtering four-wheeler he was escorted by a gang of scrappy, backcountry dogs. However, this is in no way uncommon among hillbillies. The uniqueness in this situation is the fact that only one of these twelve dogs happened to be his own. And of all of the rottweilers, beagles, and mutts that faithfully followed his every footstep, his dog was the fat wiener dog, which he kept happily perched in a milk-crate that was bolted to the front of the four-wheeler. The rest of the pack belonged to other Beasleys that lived along the road. He had come to inherit the gang by simply by feeding them table scraps and occasionally patting one on the head. This was one of my first encounters with the home and humor of these country folk. The Beasleys instilled in me the enjoyable novelty of redneck company.

Most have seen or at least heard of the legendary film, Deliverance. While the movie may be somewhat of an exaggeration, when alone in the Arkansas backcountry, it is difficult not to let your mind entertain the suspicion that you could be stalked by some insane hick with a shot gun, banjo, and overalls. The night had fallen and some of my friends and I were hiking through a maze of country roads by moonlight. Finally, we found a large bluff over the Buffalo River where we lay down for sleep. Having already sneaked past a dark and disheveled house in this apparent nowhere, we were glad to lie in hiding and wait for morning. Just as we were nodding off to sleep, something changed in the sound of the summer breeze. I eventually became conscious of a roaring engine clanking up through the steep maze of roads. Cy and the rest of my friends seemed to be too comfortably asleep to worry about our impending doom. I listened. The louder and more distinguished the noise became, the more my thoughts turned to fear.

"Who could be out in such a place at this hour?" I thought to myself. "Could they be heading for that house? No, it was farther back. Are they coming from the house? There was a beat up truck in the thicket across from it. But that was missing a wheel. It doesn't sound like a healthy truck. Maybe there were people in that house, and they saw us and this is their land, or at least they think it is, and now they are out looking for us with shotguns to kill us and feed us to their hunting dogs! But wait, they can't find us here. We are off of the road and the brush is too thick. It is ok. We are not going to die. I can hear voices. What? Son of a Bitch! Why are their headlights shinning towards us? We are going to die! Hell no we're not! You can out run them. What about my pack and gear? Fuck that, just get out of--. Why the hell is Cy running at the truck with his Boy Scout pocketknife in hand! We are going to fucking die!"

Immobilized by panic, I stared after Cy as he disappeared into the headlights. I cringed, waiting for shouts of, "Get the hell out?a here boy!" closely followed by the boom of a shotgun. But the only sound was that of the idling engine. Eventually it was shut off, and I heard Cy's voice conversing with another in calm civilized tones. It turned out to be a country couple that was driving around looking for a scenic view to spend the night under. The threat actually came from a can of mace, which Cy almost earned, rather than a shotgun. Through chatting with them we discovered that upon seeing him they nearly shit their pants, as we did ours, when he rolled like a ninja out from the woods. Though not exactly Deliverance, the principle remains the same: hillbillies should be humored and enjoyed but always with reverence and a boy scout pocket knife handy. For you never know what to expect form a couple of folks up in the hills. This is a lesson that I wish I had remembered at that lonely gas station.

As the glass door shut behind me, a dusty diner full of haggard old men craned their necks expecting to see someone they were familiar with but instead received me: a tall kid wearing strange new styles of clothing, girly long hippie hair, sandals, and liberal politics. There they sat in their mud-covered boots, worn carhearts, hunting caps, and century-old plaid jackets. They sipped on dark coffee as they watched the mornings hunting and fishing shows. The glare they gave me could have curdled a year's worth of milk. I still have trouble looking old people in the eyes. They seemed to wonder why I had stopped there, as if I had just barged in uninvited. My hands dripped cold sweat and the back of my neck burned ice. The beaver damn of my bladder was desperately failing to hold back the ocean of piss my damn kidneys had manufactured. I had no time to hunt through this lions' den for the restroom. I swallowed my heart and asked the wooden man behind the counter where it was. He raised a shaky, wrinkled hand towards the rear of the store. I shut the door to the small, dingy room behind me and hastily relieved myself. As I did so, I first began to observe my surroundings. Of course, there was writing on the wall as in any public restroom, but this was a different kind of writing. Statements such as, "The south will rise again and slavery will rule this land from sea to shining sea," where scrawled upon the wall. I had always known hillbillies to be good God fearing people, but I was dumbfounded and half scared when I found Bible verses written upon the wall next to little reminders such as "suck my cock." The only Bible verses that did not threaten those who had not found Jesus with death and damnation spoke about acceptance of slavery.

But by far the climax of my observations came when I read the inscription beside a hole in the wall twice the size of my head. It read, "Real men can punch through drywall!" My mouth dropped in a confusing mixture of disbelief and realization. What was more is that the puncture continued into the wall and through an outward bent piece of sheet metal surrounded by imprints of knuckles. Scrawled beside the previous message were the words, "and sheet metal too."

Two minutes later we firmly locked the car doors and sped out onto the highway hoping to get out of bullet range in time. It was through this incident that I learned the respect I now have for hillbillies and rednecks alike. I now maintain that they should be dealt with much like bears and lightening. Though an amazing and wondrous part of nature, if not shown reverence and respect for their power, they can turn on you (or a good bit of drywall) without even a warning. And it often takes an event such as this confrontation to learn this lesson. I am just thankful I got off easy, unlike so many that had to learn the hard way.