It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me…

This is it. The beginning of my book on backpacking and how I fell in love with the wilderness. I intend to blog it, one story at a time. My hope is that you will join me. There are many, many adventures: most are fun, some scary, and all challenging. If you been following me for a while, you will recognize several of the stories. I have every intention of mining my blog. I’ll keep the stories short, something you can read in a few minutes. So sit back, relax, and enjoy. Here we go...

This is Popcorn!, one of many through-hikers I met on the 700 mile backpack trip down the PCT that I went on to celebrate my 75th Birthday. She offered me some valuable advice…


On Bathing in the Woods

Getting naked is as essential to bathing in the woods as it is to bathing at home. The definition of clean, however, changes. Speed becomes critical when your bathwater comes from an ice-cold stream. A hundred mosquitoes viewing your bare body as a large neon sign blinking “Eat Here” hurries the process even more. You can almost hear the clarion call go out: “Major target located in northeast quadrant. Proceed at once to location. No invitation is necessary. BYOB. (Bring Your Own Beaks.)” A few swipes with a wet cloth and you’re done. So what if you still smell. 

“Wipe your clothes with pine needles,” Popcorn! suggested. “Then you will smell like a pine tree.” It was a morsel of through-hiker wisdom. Popcorn! was heading north on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in her quest to hike the 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada while I was heading south from Mt. Ashland, seeing how far I could push my 75-year-old body over the summer. She had caught up with me near the top of Red Mountain between Interstate 5 and Burney Falls in Northern California. I had just huffed up the mountain in hundred-degree heat toward the end of a long day and had to persuade my feet to move. “Okay left foot, it’s your turn.” I was taking a break while eating my late lunch of two fig bars and a handful of nuts while contemplating a nap. Old people do that.

Popcorn! had stopped to chat for a few minutes and introduced her trail-name with an exclamation point. She was a young woman with a wide smile and straight, shiny teeth that looked like they belonged in a dentist’s ad. Earbuds dangled down from her Osprey backpack shoulder strap. Tunes helped her hike the 20-30 miles per day required to finish the trail. I’d asked about swimming possibilities in Peavine Creek, where I planned to camp for the night. I was meeting my wife Peggy at Burney Falls the next day and wanted to be cleaner than trail-normal. Popcorn! had told me that the creek was shallow and covered with brush. Even getting water to drink was a challenge. That’s where the pine needle discussion had come in.

As she had prepared to hike on, I’d asked if I could take her photo for my blog: “Of course,” she responded, “as long as you put the exclamation point at the end of my name.” You quickly learn that through-hikers are a cast of characters and trail names are special. I’m Wanderer. After she left, I reached up and plucked a bundle of needles from the young Ponderosa pine I was using as a pillow and applied the sniff test. They had a rich piney smell. Not bad, I thought to myself, but I’d prefer red fir needles. Then I would smell like a Christmas Tree. I idly wondered if Peggy would view me as a present. Maybe, if I wrapped a ribbon around my body. I had some red parachute cord along… 

Given the challenge of bathing in the woods, I was a surprised a few weeks later when Peggy declared, “That was a good bath!” as we made our way back to camp after washing off next to James Creek in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon. I had jumped north in my journey, trying to get away from the endless smoke and fires of California, and found a trail section that Peggy could hike with me. We had carried our small, folding buckets across a meadow to the meandering stream so we could fill them with water and avoid getting soap in the creek. I’d also carried a ground cloth to throw down on the grass.

The good news about the bath was that there were no mosquitoes. It was too late in the season. The bad news, as we expected, was cold water. But there was more. First, we were out in a meadow exposed to the world. Anybody hiking down the trail would see a pair of old folks as naked as the day they were born. Thrilling, I’m sure, but all the more reason to be hasty. Second, there were cute little green frogs hiding in the grass. There was a real danger of squishing one under our bare feet. And who wants to squish a cute green frog between her toes— or even an ugly one? 

Finally, there were the spiders, hundreds of them. I’ve never seen such a concentration. I spotted them scurrying away from under our tarp when I tossed it down on the grass. Apparently the instant eclipse had upset their world view. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley encountering the mass of hungry spiders in the Chamber of Secrets leapt into my mindFortunately, these guys were small and seemed more interested in running away than toward us. Peggy didn’t spot them and I chose not to tell her.  She’s not particularly fond of bugs with eight legs. Any spider that has the audacity to crawl into our home in Southern Oregon is guaranteed a short lifespan. “If they wanted to live, they’d stay outside,” she declares airily. Even though the meadow spiders were obeying her rule, I pictured her stomping across the grass committing arachnicide. 

NEXT POSTS: Thursday— The loneliest road in America. Highway 50 as it makes its way across the desolate Nevada Desert. Next Tuesday— my book introduction continues as I answer the question why I decided to take on the challenge of hiking down the PCT at 75, much of it by myself.

20 thoughts on “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me…

  1. What a great start. Tell Peggy that spiders can stay in our house if they are high up on the walls or on the ceiling. Otherwise they get carried out in Poor John’s handkerchief.

  2. I love this Curt! I love even more that after reading it I get to have a nice, warm shower, spider free, which I will appreciate more! 🙂 Looking forward to future installments – Anne

    • Laughing, Anne. One of the greatest pleasures after an extended backpack trip is always a bug-free hot shower. No matter how much you try to keep clean out in the woods, the dirt has a way fo gathering. Glad you enjoyed the tale. I suspect they will keep coming for quite some time into the future! Thanks. –Curt

  3. Ha! You should hear my tales of heating water on a wood stove and mixing it to the right temperature for January bucket showers in the woods up at the hill country cabin. Thank heavens for warm water, in that case. On the other hand, mosquitoes aren’t a problem up there, so you have my sympathy on that score. There wasn’t any risk of visitors, either — except for the deer and the armadillos.

    • I’m right there with you Linda. There have been times when I have broken out my stove to heat a little water in the wilderness, especially when the water is snow melt and so danged cold it gives you a headache if you use it right out of the stream! I’d heat more except that carrying extra gas for heating water adds weight and weight usually trumps the cold water. The other solution is to simply avoid a bath. 🙂 –Curt

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