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Lightweight newbie, Andrew, along with Backpacking Light staffers Jay, and Will, in Navajo Canyon, Arizona.
Ahh, spring backpacking in beautiful, southwest canyon country, what could be better? Taking the trip with a bunch of fellow gear freaks and BPL staffers, that’s what! Add to that a newbie lightweight backpacker to regal with tales of underweight packs and words of ultralight wisdom – pure bliss!
Backpacking Light’s Pack Editor, Will Rietveld, Make Your Own Gear Editor, Jay Ham, Jay’s co-worker, Andrew, the aforementioned newbie, and I, spent five days in April hiking in and near Navajo Canyon, a drainage southeast of Lake Powell. The official purpose of the trip was to collect soil samples as part of Jay (and Andrew’s) work as soil scientists. Jay manages a 2.5 million acre soil survey project for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Will and I were along as official volunteers. Jay had special permission to enter the area, which is on Navajo land, for his project. Navajo Canyon is a special place as non-English speaking Navajo still live there, and ancient and modern Native American ruins and artifacts sprinkle the canyons.
The trip got off to a great start. I drove a couple of hours to Flagstaff, Arizona from my home in Phoenix to arrive in time to share a home cooked meal with Jay, his wife, two daughters, and Andrew. Backpacking Light staffers are located around the United States and in New Zealand, and we haven’t all met each other in person. This trip into Navajo Canyon was a great opportunity for me to really get to know Jay and Will better.
Andrew is an experienced backpacker and Jay had been advising him on becoming a lightweight backpacker. Early on as we talked gear over dinner, it became clear that Andrew would be the perfect foil for comic relief throughout the trip. This was to be Andrew’s first lightweight trip and he was obsessing over each item, and making last minute decisions on what, and what not to, bring. After some detailed and long-winded discussion throughout dinner, the show-and-tell began. (Luckily Joy and the girls are experienced backpackers and didn’t get too bored by all the gear talk.) Andrew showed us huge rolls of plastic drop cloths he had just purchased. One was 2 mil, the other was 4 mil. Jay and I were unanimous – both were too heavy. Andrew decided to bring the 2 mil.
The discussion then turned to sleeping pads. Andrew insisted he needed a good night’s sleep and had decided on a heavy-by-lightweight-standards, Exped Airmat air mattress. When Joy, who also prizes a good night’s sleep, brought out her synthetic fill Big Agnes Insulated Air Core, Andrew began to over-analyze his mattress choice – a not uncommon state for Andrew as I was to discover over the course of the week. At one point Andrew offered to buy Joy’s mattress on the spot, but later changed his mind. Watching Andrew hold a lengthy back-and-forth discussion on mattress merits, mostly with himself, was amusing – because I’ve been there! The evening discussions continued with topics ranging from which tent stakes to use to underarm odor.
We finally sent Andrew home so we could all get some sleep.
The next morning, we met at Jay and Andrew’s office, picked up a company vehicle and driver, and began the three-hour drive north to Page, Arizona where we’d rendezvous with Will who was driving from Durango, Colorado. Three more hours of near continuous gear talk ensued, with a short break for soil scientist talk amongst Jay, Andrew, and our driver, Carl, and a long break to talk more about underarm odor.
Over dinner the previous night, Andrew, out of concern for us, insisted that he needed to use deodorant on the trip. Jay and I mentioned that we don’t take deodorant on backpacking trips (turns out Will doesn’t either – we’re dedicated ultralighters). Andrew was not deterred, he continued to debate whether he should pack along a very small container of stick deodorant, or maybe one of those crystal mineral salt balls. He also wondered about the issue of underarm hair and how much that interferes with a deodorant’s effectiveness. We found out on the drive to Page that Andrew decided to bring a fragment of a crystal deodorant ball and that he had shaved all the hair from his left armpit. He said he started to shave his right armpit, but about three-quarters of the way into the job, he decided that being hairless might cause him to chaff, and stopped. So, he’d decided to run an experiment to see which pit smelled better after a few days of hiking in warm weather. We volunteered Carl to be the judge when he picked us up at the end of the week. For some reason, Carl didn’t want this honor. I started to see that although Andrew was still holding on to some heavy weight thinking, he definitely had the potential to be a fanatical, uh I mean dedicated, ultralightweight backpacker.
We hooked up with Will in Page, made a quick stop at a Subway for lunch – and dinner for some of us – and then hit the dirt roads to our drop off spot. After an hour of driving, we spend a half hour at the local Navajo Chapter house where we picked up an introductory letter we could present in case we ran into any Navajos in the canyons. After more driving we drove past a newly constructed five-sided Hogan (traditional Navajo dwelling) on a narrow, sandy road. No one was in sight so we drove on and turned down an even narrower path. After another half an hour of four-wheeling, we arrived at the drop off spot.
Carl had some soil work to do nearer to Page so he drove off with instructions (and a GPS waypoint) to pick us up at the exit point down canyon on Friday.
We greeted Carl at the pick up point just as a Navajo couple drove by in a battered pickup. Andrew asked Carl to do a pit-sniffing test, but Carl declined. Andrew did a self-test and concluded that shaving improved his post-trip smell. Then we drove off to return to our normal lives…but not before we got in a couple more hours of talk about lightweight gear and techniques.