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Too Old For Homework

Updated: Aug 3

My theory is that if you look confident you can pull off anything — even if you have no clue what you're doing. - Jessica Alba

1 July 2023, at home

It takes little effort to cast my parks challenge as a curriculum in the College of National Parks. I started with the easy, introductory classes: think Parks 101, Hot Springs - take a short hike, then recover with an hours-long spa treatment. Easy!

A number of upper-classman courses soon loomed. How about Parks 301, Bicycling with the Bison at Theodore Roosevelt NP. Or Wet and Wild 402, navigating Zion's Virgin River Narrows. (And who could forget Survival 411: Timing Your Call to NPS Search & Rescue.)

Of course, I had to deal with graduate-level coursework. Anyone care for Pushing the Envelope 555: Mushing a Dog Sled at -30°?

Now I feel like I'm facing my doctoral dissertation in the Pacific Northwest, preparing to fly to Seattle in a few days. For Olympic, North Cascades, and Glacier NPs, I had settled on relatively mild experiences early in my planning. Exploring tide pools! Riding a Red Bus! That left Mount Rainier NP.

I'd visited the park a couple of times while living in Washington, and held a special affection for the Wonderland Trail. I'd hiked a few short stretches of it,

exulting in its scenery. However, the trail actually circled Mt. Rainier, affording a continuous stream of photogenic moments.

Wouldn't I love hiking the whole trail?

Reality immediately intruded. Wonderland rambled across 93 miles of mountain terrain, a huge loop that took most hikers 10-14 days of backpacking to complete. That's more backpacking than I've totaled my entire life. Then someone mentioned 'slackpacking' to me. What a concept! You cover the same territory as you would backpacking, but without carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc. Instead, you end each day at a trailhead, arranging for a ride to take you back to civilization. The next day you return to the trail to slackpack the next segment.

That darn reality keeps getting in the way. In the park, there are three access points where roads pierce into the park, in the south, northeast, and northwest. Between each access lies 25-40 miles of Wonderland Trail, far more than I could do in a day (especially considering the elevation changes in each section).

A call to the ranger identified another option. The northwest access road ends at Mowich Lake below Mother Mountain, a peak less than half Rainier's height. Wonderland runs north of the peak, then heads south on its west side to Mowich. A side trail breaks from Wonderland south through Spray Park and a waterfall, then west to the lake. Put together, those two form a loop of ~17 miles, perfect for a three-day pack - just the length I hoped for.

Lady Luck now flashed me a rare smile. Most campsite reservations along the trail had gotten snapped up, but I found openings for consecutive nights that meshed perfectly with the rest of my schedule.

That left me with one concern: in the past three decades, I had backpacked precisely twice. (Three if you consider climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro - though I did not pack my goods up, since the porters carried all our gear.)

My last time had come in 2010, while we lived in Pullman, WA, home of Washington State University. When Sue saw the ad for a three-day, Labor Day weekend trip along the Pacific Crest Trail offered by the WSU Outdoor Recreation Club, Sue eagerly said, "Oooh! You should go! Get out and enjoy nature!"

Twelve people signed up for the backpack. The other eleven all attended WSU (including part of the university sculling crew), with the oldest of them a GTA only half my age. The plan: hike 6 miles to the PCT on Saturday, 6 miles Sunday miles along the PCT, then 6 miles back to the cars on Labor Day.

Day 1 went well, and I was not quite the slowest of the group. We enjoyed a bucolic day with pleasant temps, surrounded by greenery. But in the Cascades,

September claims 'fickle' as a badge of honor. We woke up Sunday morning to snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. Midway through the day's hike, the group leaders changed plans. "We'll never find a good, dry place camp up here, so we'll just do the all the remaining miles back to the cars today."

Even the sculler athletes dragged by the time we finished.

Now I'm on to plotting my park 'dissertation'. Looks like time for homework for this dinosaur, this natparkasaurus. From storage I liberated the backpack of my Litterwalk days, and stuffed my tent (also dating from the Litterwalk) in it to add weight. Every day or two I would drag myself out to the state park,

or trod around the neighborhood, attracting stares.

Homework included research. I stopped at REI and cornered a young woman, asking her to educate me on what I may be missing. She showed me backpacking stoves, describing their features - check. Bug and bear spray - check. First aid kit - you bet! Water filter - a necessity. Flashlights, rain gear, sunscreen - all check. Trowel and toilet paper - oh, yeah, can't forget that.

Transporting everything to the far coast didn't excite me, but the worker mentioned another option: Rent! REI had a flagship store in Seattle where I could rent a tent, pack, sleeping pad, and stove, instead of lugging everything through a series of airports.

In two days, I will wing it west. Truly, the planning for this journey had possessed me more fully than my other packages. Time to finally put this plan in action...

NOTE: a couple weeks ago, I assembled a video summary of the first quarter of my challenge. I have posted it on YouTube at . I hope you enjoy it!

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