An Open Letter To Rob Graham

guadalupe mountains 021

Dear Rob,

Well, I followed your advice and have gradually reduced the weight of my backpacking gear to pretty much nothing.  The sleeping bag weighs 3.3 lbs and is super comfortable no matter how cold (or not) it gets.  My tent is probably a little bigger than you would choose, but I was figuring maybe some day I’d be sharing it with one of the boys so got a two-person tent–packed weight 4 lbs 3 oz., and I’m glad for the extra room when I’m by myself.  The best addition has been the backpack, which is awesome.  When I slung it on the first time before taking off down a trail upcountry, I immediately wondered if I had really put the tent and sleeping bag inside, because the pack felt empty:  the ULA Circuit, 4200 cu. in., 39 oz.  Just totally awesome.

Rob, I’ve known you for a long time.  I admire you.  You are one of the few people I have known in my entire life who is totally, completely honest with me–with Rob what you see is what you get.

So why, Rob?  Why did you hide this ugly truth from me?  It’s a “lie by omission” Rob.

We both know there is no water in either Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.  We have discussed this before.  We both know a backpacker will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day.  Rob, you are the one trained as an engineer.  My degree is in Liberal Arts, god damn it, you knew I was not going to do the math.

My goal was to spend three nights upcountry.  So three gallons of water, right?  Three is a small number.  Then why Rob, with all the emphasis on weight that any conversation with you concerning backpacking gear ultimately devolves to, why did you not clarify to me that the real number I needed to think about was 8.24 lbs?  You knew that is what one gallon of water weighs, and for some reason which only you will ever understand, hid it from me.

My usual preparation for things like this is to throw everything I could possibly need in the back of the minivan and go.  I know I have enough stuff in the van when I say “fuck this, I’m done.”  But once I’m face-to-face with the trail, I’m quite methodical.  Step (1): you have to carry everything you’ll need, so start with the backpack.  Step (2): sleeping bag and tent go in the pack, because I’ve learned that they are always necessary no matter the weather.  My first mistake was thinking that Step (3) was food, because I like food and what I eat is totally integrated into my idea of what it means to spend time outdoors.  So food is what went in next, which isn’t much:  mostly energy bars and instant breakfast cereal and ramen.  Lightweight stuff you just add water to.  Step (4) is then “sundries,” which is an easier way of saying a change of socks, shirt, toilet paper, toothbrush, and a bunch of etc’s.

Which leaves only water, and I’m thinking about that magical number 3.  Three gallons of water doesn’t sound like much, so I’ll just put that in the bag and I’m off.  About this time, this is also where I looked up and said “I had planned on doing this trip a couple of weeks ago when it was cooler; it must be 85 degrees today.”

Rob, you’re going to perhaps do an involuntary little Engineer’s Laugh here, but I have learned that an 8.24 lb gallon of water takes up only 231 cu. in. of volume, which sounds inconsequential inside my 39 oz. Circuit backpack’s 2400 cu. in. main compartment.  Unfortunately, that is a “book number.”  In the real world, standing at the trailhead in 85 degree full sun, contemplating a 2300 foot elevation gain in four miles of trail, those three gallons of water, all 691 cu. in., 24.72 lbs. of it, are substantial.  My 15 pounds of gear now weighs 40.

So, what can come out of the backpack?  Sundries go first.  If sundries were truly important we’d name each item individually.  They take up a fair amount of space, but weigh perhaps a pound all taken together.  Next comes food, things I had planned on eating not only for calorie replacement, but for the intangible value things like drinking coffee brewed on a mountaintop at dawn or chocolate slowly chewed at the end of the day add to being outdoors.  I am not risking leaving the tent or sleeping bag behind (which turned out to be a good decision), so all that is left to pare down is water.  This is how the thinking goes:

  1. if I’m very disciplined I can get by on less than a gallon a day.  You remove some water, but there is still not enough room and too much weight.  So,
  2. I know I can go a long time without much food, and I can eat as much as I want when I get back, so about half of those calories are staying here.  Still not enough room , so
  3. you strap as much water in bottles to the outside of the pack as you can, and start walking.

About one hour later, less than half-way up and feeling both the weight and the heat, I come around a bend and have my “oh, shit” moment when I see this: guadalupe mountains 009To be continued.