By the time my friends and I reached our trailhead deep in Georgia’s Cohutta Wilderness, we were all bone tired. It was 7:00 PM, it was raining, it was dark, it was forty degrees. We’d already decided to camp at the trailhead and begin our trek in the light of day. As we pulled up next to the ubiquitous national forest information board (Warning: You Are Entering Bear Country!), the headlights of our rental car illuminated several well-graded, inviting campsites.
Inviting, that is, if we’d come equipped with ground shelters.
After a lifetime of pole-supported shelters and sleeping pads, I’d decided to give hammock camping a try. All-day long, I’d been looking forward to easily finding a spot to sling my weary bones. I suffer from what I like to call site-selection anxiety – that feeling that no matter what semi-flat, root-infested place I choose for my tent, a different semi-flat, root-infested place will be comfier.
I’d imagined that my new shelter, a Kammok Mantis, would solve that problem. I certainly wasn’t expecting to have trouble finding a spot to hang it on my very first night of testing. But the woods around the trailhead were woven with a dense mixture of saplings and thorn bushes. As the rain intensified and the temperature dropped, my buddies and I tramped around through the thicket, searching for any clear spot in which to hang.
We finally found a halfway-decent clearing, and I pulled my Mantis out of its stuff sack. In twenty seconds, I found myself in the middle of a cordage hurricane – all twelve tension lines on the hammock and tarp seemed simultaneously tangled with each other, me, and at least six thorn-bushes. I tripped over the mess and went tumbling into a sticker bush, ripping a hole in my ultralight rain jacket.
Things were not going well.
It’s been a long time since I was so out of my depth – struggling with an unfamiliar system in the dark, battling cold hands and feelings of inadequacy. I was supposed to be the backpacking expert in our group. My friends, though relatively new to backpacking, had more hammock experience than I.
It took me something like twenty minutes to get my shelter up, and my gear stowed away, by which time they were already warmly snuggled in their underquilts.
I woke up a few hours later with an icy sensation on my spine: not anxiety – water. I’d hung my underquilt in such a way that rain collected on the line and drained down into my hammock. It was official. I was a backpacking newb again.
Nick, Levi, and I started our day in an exurb south of Atlanta. We all grew up there, and I’d since moved to California by way of northeast Ohio and west Texas. My wife and I were home for Thanksgiving, and my friends and I had decided to carve out a little mountain time together. A four-day, three-night trip in the Cohutta Wilderness on the Georgia/Tennessee border sounded like an excellent way to blow off some holiday steam. It also seemed like a pleasant, low-stress way to test out some new gear for BPL, chiefly the Kammok Mantis, Kammok Mantis UL, and associated accessories.
It’s a pleasant drive to the North Georgia Mountains once you clear Atlanta, and a long-promised storm seemed to be holding off. I was excited to show my friends around the Cohutta – it’s the place I learned to backpack, and it holds fond memories.
Spirits were high right up until Levi’s ancient Toyota Corolla clunked to a stop on a gravel forest road halfway between the blacktop and our trailhead. It stubbornly refused to restart – despite us raising the hood and staring manfully at the engine while muttering “come on, come on,” under our breaths.
The rain started while we were waiting for the tow-truck to arrive.
I’ve had breakdowns all over the country, including one memorable U-Haul failure in an apocalyptically empty corner of Wyoming. So I was unsurprised when our tow-truck driver fit a type I’ve had the pleasure of encountering from one end of America to the other – a hefty, gregarious, scruff-bearded, chain-smoker. These fellows are, without fail, some of the best folks you’ll ever meet.
The tow driver parked behind us on the narrow forest road and ambled with Levi to the raised hood of the stricken Toyota. Nick and I took a few prudent steps backward as the driver lit a smoke and leaned over the engine. He couldn’t identify the problem, but he didn’t cause an explosion either, so we all considered it a victory. Shortly thereafter, all four of us crammed into the tow-truck’s cab. We won’t speak of the harrowing attempt to get a flat-bed tow-truck turned around on that forest road – nor of the smell of four soaking-wet men sharing a space that seemed to be designed for, at most, two-and-a-half sprightly twelve-year-olds. Some things are better left unsaid.
At a garage in the little town of Chatsworth, we dried out on red, peeling, faux-leather sofas and watched the Chattanooga news call for a weekend of rain and thunderstorms. The weather wouldn’t end our trip – I’m always explaining to western friends that backpacking in the southeast consists of 60% getting rained on, 25% getting dripped on, and 15% sweating through your clothes. So we were prepared, if not excited about the rain.
But the car situation might be a trip-ender. After four or five hours, the mechanic emerged from the shop with a grim expression – the kind of look mechanics and doctors use to broadcast bad news.
Levi’s Corolla was toast.
At such dark times, only beans and cheese will suffice. You might find this surprising, but out-of-the-way Georgia towns have some of the best Mexican food in the country. We hiked across a few adjoining shopping-center parking lots and found a little place with cheap beer and free tortilla chips. Feeling fortified, Levi gamely decided to put off any further decision-making about his car until after the trip. We were back in business.
We called for a rental, and by 6:00 PM we were once again heading towards our trailhead. Our original itinerary had us arriving at 11:00 AM. By the time we finally pulled in – eight hours late – the late-fall sun was long gone, and the rain had turned chill.
So that’s how I ended up nearly strangling myself with an unfamiliar system of straps, knots, hooks, and loops in the middle of a shoulder-season rainstorm, in the dark, in hypothermia conditions.
It was frustrating. It was infuriating.
It was the feeling of being a newb!
It’s been a minute since I was a newb at backpacking. I grew up with the sport – and if my father and grandfather weren’t necessarily ultralight, they did make sure I was able to start a fire in the rain since well before I started shaving. The essential skills were there before I traded in my leather boots for Altras and my Wal-Mart brand pop-up for a Tarptent.
But the switch from a ground shelter to a hammock threw me for a loop.
It seems to me that a trail runner and a boot are related to each other in the same way that orangutans and homo sapiens share 97% of the same genetic code. The basic idea is the same, but the execution is slightly different. So switching from one to the other is a big change, but not a gigantic change.
On the other hand, a hammock and a ground shelter seem to be further apart in the web of life – like the difference between sloths and cheetahs. Not understanding this, I’d thought that my thousands of hiked miles and hundreds of nights spent outdoors would allow me to pick up the nuance of hammock camping within a few minutes under less-than-ideal conditions.
I was extremely wrong about this. As the Stoic author, Ryan Holiday says, “Ego is the enemy.”
As I mentioned previously, my friends Nick and Levi are just beginning to take up the sport of ultralight backpacking. I’d entered into the trip expecting to teach a lot of Ultralight 101. And I did.
Challenging weather, bushwhacking, huge deadfalls, trails utterly erased by wildfire, and steep terrain challenged our every step. The rain and cold were relentless, and we’d started the trip mentally exhausted from the sheer effort of getting to the trail. It was probably more of an adventure than either of my friends wanted (especially Levi, who had to buy a new car at the end of the trip). Nick and Levi did a lot of things for the first time, including serious river fordings, off-trail navigation, and on-the-fly route changing.
On the other hand, they’d already developed a knack for identifying ideal trees for hammocking. In contrast, I spent a lot of time wandering around our campsites trying and failing to eyeball tree spacing correctly. They had their shelters set up quickly and efficiently while I fumbled and cursed and tangled myself in silnylon and shock cord. They knew how, and where, and why to connect all the little geegaws and gizmos that can add to the pleasure of a hammock system. I routinely used these items in the wrong way or in the wrong place or hadn’t even considered the need for them (like, for instance, an under-hammock storage system, or the ability to suspend gear from the ridgeline. So handy!).
By the time we finished our trip, we were all feeling more confident in our new skills. As I taught my friends, they taught me.
My newbie experience with a hammock shelter got me thinking about beginners – how they feel, how we treat them, and how we shepherd them to expert status (or not).
These days I’m usually pushing hard on solo adventures or guiding in groups where I’m an expert. If I bump into other hikers in the woods, I feel pressure to appear confident, capable, and smart. My biggest takeaway from dipping a toe into hammock camping is that I need to spend more time being a newb. It’s good to learn a whole new skill-set as opposed to fine-tuning or making incremental changes to existing skills. Plus, there’s lots of fun gear to explore in the hammock world – à la carte kits, fancy designs, accessories, and tarps galore.
Zen Buddhists have a concept called shoshin or “beginner’s mind.” My layperson’s explanation of beginner’s mind is that it’s the practice of approaching a task or subject with a spirit of openness and humility – even if you are already an expert. Perhaps especially if you are already an expert.
Beginner’s mind opens up avenues for learning and growth that might otherwise be closed down by the ego. But it also shifts your viewpoint and gives you some empathy towards those who are true beginners. Empathy and compassion towards beginners are the best way to help beginners become experts. Experts are safer to hike with and can be better stewards of the places they hike – experience tends to breed awareness.
It was a joy to be in the woods with my friends as we shared knowledge and experience with each other. We all came out of the Cohutta Wilderness as more skillful backpackers. That wouldn’t have happened if any of us had been unwilling to learn or frustrated at having to share our knowledge.
I think a beginner’s mind can be applied to all aspects of our interactions as outdoorspeople – how we approach our existing skill set, how we speak to each other about skills and gear, and how we introduce the outdoor world to newcomers. As someone who writes for the internet as a part of my living, I think about the way we speak to each other quite a bit.
Beginners who have their budding passion nurtured with humility and grace instead of scorn or mockery will be far more likely to do the same for others – creating an interconnected web of humans with a vested interest in enjoying the outdoors with safety and stewardship.
You might be saying, “Sure Andrew, but what’s one less person in the woods? We go into the mountains to get away from crowds. The fewer people out there, the better. Crowds are noisy, crowds are aggravating, and crowds don’t know how to be stewards.”
I get it – but we can’t think like that anymore. We need all hands on deck to preserve what’s left of our natural resources. We can’t afford to alienate folks expressing an interest in the outdoors for the first time. And that’s where I’m really going with all this. Every person we turn away with snobbery or well-intentioned frustration is one less person paying attention when, say, the EPA rolls back more regulations or the Department of the Interior is gutted from within.
We don’t really have a choice anymore. The clock is ticking, not just on what we (wrongly) think of as “our playgrounds,” but on the world as a whole. We can’t save it as a small group of experts high on our own knowledge. We have to welcome as many beginners as possible into the fold. We have to teach them. We have to guide them. By adopting a beginner’s mind, we can do so with the most effectiveness and humility – and the most fun.