Dear Young One

Here is a letter I wrote to my younger self as part of a writing-workshop-group-writing-together, and I saw two folks in the flesh yesterday. Here’s a chapter in my book connecting a previous chapter to one I have not yet posted here. Lost yet? I am taking the advice to share my work as it develops even if I am feeling reluctant to do so. Some things to keep in mind: the details below may or may not be true, this is a work in progress, and my main goal is to teach readers about the Ten Essentials by telling a story.

A Memoir.

Decorative image
a favorite spot in the backcountry
(attribution c’est moi)

Dear Younger Self,

Forgive yourself. 

The second thing, dear Little One. Know this. If I could live our life over again, I would.

There are few things I wish we could do differently. Nothing I would not do again.

Save for one. 

I would floss more. 

Recently I thought of you while I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost, she writes: 

Cut a chrysalis open and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly. A fit emblem of the human soul…

As I write to you, Younger Self, I think of you as this mythical creature. I wish I could say this will be the last time you feel this way. For now, take a deep breath and feel relieved that you did no harm to anyone other than yourself. How to tell you, Dear Young One, in some ways, darker times lurk around every corner. How to tell you things are better beyond your wildest dreams? How to express gratitude for all of the things you are discovering?

Let me start by reminiscing about the first time you sought out adventures in the forest. Good job. You will need these mountains more than ever in the future, so congratulate yourself for figuring out how to save your sanity so early in life. When I think of you and who you are on the cusp of twenty, you are busy meeting the mountains and falling in love with its backcountry.

Breathe deep and enjoy this moment.

Remember the smell of loamy soil. Hold the crisp pine scent of trees in your heart. These trees may be lost one day. Close your eyes and savor the scent of being on the trail. Mountains will become a temple to your middle-aged soul. When you first discover the joys of a trail, it is a complete miracle that nobody will see you as being way out of your league and a danger to your personal safety. Truly! You trick everyone into thinking you knew exactly what you were doing. Nice work, by the way. Turns out this is a life-long skill you will continue to hone well into middle-age.

Talk a good game, sister; it’s soul-craft. 

On your first extended trip, you had a good backpack. Spendy-looking boots you found on sale. A smile that attracted a surfer boy from California who offered to share his tent. A wit that appealed to a granola girl from Vermont who needed a partner-in-crime. You looked the part. Won the role. Joined the cast of delinquents who like a party in the woods. 

What I’m writing to you, Young One, is what I wish I could have told you then. Our life lessons, if you will, recorded here from the perspective of somebody who got to choose her own adventure. This is all the advice from lessons learned from the years we will affectionately come to call our 20s and 30s. Don’t worry, we don’t become a sad woman who pines for the past with regrets. We could have just been, shall I say, a bit more aware.

Relish in the fact that you are the last generation to enjoy unfettered time in the woods. No adult in your life tried to give you any structure when you were a kid playing outside. Your independent stubborn spirit never got in the way of your education. If I could whisper a few things in your ear, other than remembering to floss every day, here’s what I’d say. 

Read up on the Ten Essentials. 

This classic list of materials will help keep you safe in the backcountry instead of relying on extraordinary good luck. Be aware that you’re not exercising good judgment when you make a decision with the phrase:

Fuck those dudes, I’ll show them…

Focus, instead, on learning to dare yourself. 

Public libraries exist, for instance, I dare you to read up on details you need to survive in the mountains. Maybe exercise your library card a bit more instead of doing bong hits in the morning while lusting over maps.

Reading, it turns out, is incredibly helpful and much more productive than daydreaming of new places to go. You will suffer longer than necessary as you become a backpacker. Your fancy-ass expensive degrees will teach you the terminology to describe what you need: motivated self-directed informal education

Spoiler alert! You somehow figure out how to graduate from college. No shit.

It’s also a great idea to remember to turn on some lights while you look at those maps, by the way, you may be ruining your eyesight.

Speaking of maps. 

Always remember to pack the map you purchased. Know where your trip takes you. Yes.

Accept this obsession. Your best dreams swirl with topographic lines. 

Pay attention to where the sun sets in the sky.

Gift yourself at dusk and slow down since you will sleep and miss most sunrises until you are much older. Not knowing how to find the four directions the moment you walk out of your tent is already starting the day off with a struggle. And really, let’s be honest. Not getting stoned first thing in the morning would be really helpful. Wait, I’ve already told you that. See? What they say about damaging your short-term memory may be true, Younger Self.

It may also be menopause.

Here’s what I know: the cliché of being concerned with the journey and not the destination feels like bullshit when it is raining in sheets and you’ve lost the trail. Never doubt that those who wander do indeed get very lost. Your goal is to go there and back again on the trail. Easy. You don’t want to end up on the news.

Pay attention to forks in the trail. Look up. Look around.  

A compass really helps. Invest in a cheap one. Take a minute to learn which way is west on every new trail. Trust me. Follow the advice of “Go West, Young Woman.”

Know when it is time to walk.

And you’ll struggle with this next tip for life, I’m afraid, but try to remember sunglasses and sunscreen, especially livin in the PNW. After The Great Eye Infection of 2005, you must try to always remember sunglasses and eye drops in your first aid kit. The freckles you have are more from getting shit-faced drunk at outdoor concert festivals than hiking anyway. Want to know an easy way to remember which direction is west? Look north, then look down at the freckles on your left shoulder; they are bigger than those on your (stage-right) shoulder. Wait. Who am I kidding? Admit that you like how you look with a tan and sunscreen makes your face breakout.

Start wearing a hat earlier in life. Buy a cute hat. Don’t borrow them from boyfriends, who are weirdly possessive about their hats. And they get super-pissed when you lose said hat. Remember those eye drops. Always. You can use them to hide the fact that you enjoy getting stoned in the morning for a lot longer than you think.

Don’t forget the extra clothing. Spend money on the best sweat-wicking stuff you can afford. The Army/Navy clothes, albeit fashionably edgy in the 1990s, are really fucking heavy. I’m sorry to report those clothes are made for soldiers to suffer. Wool is scratchy. Makes you bitchy. Own up and buy the obnoxious pink colors of wickable fabrics when they are on sale. Claim that you are wearing all the shrinked and pinked gear as style.

Gear, I am pleased to report, both in terms of clothing and equipment, gets significantly better over the years. It will blow your mind how good it gets. How unbelievably expensive it becomes. If you are to forget any item of clothing, do not let it be extra socks. Never hang your bra outside to dry while you’re, um, hanging out with a guy in a tent.

Deer like salt. 

The guy in the tent will not mind that you have fewer clothes, but you will. Hiking with a duct-taped sports bra is a great story that gets you a lot of laughs. It does, however, suck the joy out of many miles of beautiful trails in northwest Montana.

Praise you for being one of the first people among your friends to buy a headlamp!

You turned so many people on to those strappy contraptions, it’s probably a shame you did not have stock in the company. Be sure to always pack that headlamp. You’ll need extra batteries. You like to read late into the night once you get over the newness of that guy sharing your tent. You usually fall asleep with your headlamp on because you’re tired, sunburnt, and stoned. And you hate the dark. Be sure to invest in the best illumination you can afford. Cheap ones do just fine, but they break.

True of most gear, really.

I’m delighted to tell you that you’ll find two headlamps while you’re bike commuting in Portland, Oregon. Enjoy giving headlamps away when you upgrade.

Be sure to sleep under the stars without a tent as long as you love to.

There will come a time when you do not want the dude in your tent. You’ll prefer him waiting for you at home. Like not anywhere close to where you are backpacking. It’s okay to take time to figure that out. Another hard truth is that most dudes in your life won’t be worried about where you are. It’s nothing personal or selfish; they just live their own lives. The magic of middle-age, My Lovely, you accept this about love after you find The Right One. 

You will wear 100 headlamps and still not see The Wrong Ones. It’s your cross to bear.

First-aid supplies. Bring those. Always. 

Don’t ever rely on somebody else. Love many, trust few, and paddle your own fucking canoe. All that.

Aim to bring everything you need to keep your spirits up while being mindful of weight.

Blister first-aid will keep The Bitchy Monster quiet and keep everyone happier around you. Have itch cream to silence bug bites. Ibuprofen for when you get a headache. Duct-tape. Always duct-tape. Burn cream. Floss. Keep that first-aid baggy clean. Make sure you have a Cool Rag which will rescue you for years. Teach others about the importance of The Cool Rag. It’s your freak flag of hygiene and so much more. The Cool Wrag is a bandana that you expressly use for dipping into creeks and streams to keep you cooler on hard climbs or on hot days. You can tie it around your head, your neck, your wrists, or drape it across your shoulders. It’s really helpful to keep the swelling of your hands down which inevitably happens during a long hike until you purchase hiking poles. You somehow hold on to the same Cool Rag for close to 30 years.

Now that we discussed how to stay cool, remember your firestarter. Grab some lint from the dryer before you leave just to be on the safe-side to start a fire. Burn the trash that you can’t recycle. Check!

Always buy cheap lighters. Having a lighter isn’t an issue, stony. You might, however, be with a friend who steals lighters so she has three of them in her pocket and and then somehow loses them all.

Leave no trace.   

Matches. Seems redundant on the list, really. See vague reference above about stoner girlfriends who steal lighters. Let me add another lesson learned here while we’re on the topic of fire and warmth.

Expensive waterproof matches? Worth the investment for emergencies. Weather events. Make sure you bring extra rolling papers. You always run out. One drip drop of rain ruins the glue on an entire pack. Soggy rolling papers dampen spirits on trips. Trust your Future Self here, and pack all important items in extra plastic baggies. Take inventory of your shit before you get stoned. Where was I?

A Knife. Right. 

It will take you years to afford a good one and then you’ll lose it. And that’s okay.

In fact, you will eventually cut back significantly on pot smoking, and you’ll free up some of your budget to afford a pretty okay multi-tool. The guys you share a tent with usually have one. Or you hike with somebody who has a better tool than you.

A cheap Swiss-Army knife will always work. You lose the splinter-tweezers things immediately. They are quite handy to use as a roach clip. Keep that part of the knife with your weed. Don’t try to put it back into the slot. It just becomes this really hard puzzle to solve that makes me embarrassed for you.

Honestly, those guys with the fancy knives? You don’t need them either. 

Hiking with a best girlfriend is way better. She will want to talk about your book and there is no worrying about her intentions in the tent. She only wants to sleep. She will apologize for her body odor instead of thinking it’s her god-given right to stink up the space. Before you both fall asleep she will remind you to bring your bra in the tent.

Everything becomes easier. Getting older is magic.

Extra food. Yes.

Or at least enough food. If you can afford it, this is always your best essential. When The Hunger visits; it makes you miserable. You’re small but you can eat like a large human; you burn a lot of calories hiking. Ration your food before you get stoned. That’s probably the most important lesson. The most important essential, really. Buy extra ramen. You can carry light noodles as emergency food if you run out of fuel for your camp stove. Crunchy dry noodles are better than hiking hungry.

Don’t be afraid to flirt with bearded strangers who have food to share. Make sure he does not expect to end up in your tent. Keep in mind that when you do this, there will be consequences with pissing off the Boyfriend-with-the-Good-Knife who does not score any food from said Sexy Snack Stranger. In fact, the stranger ignores him as he pours homemade jerky into your cupped hands as you scoot close enough to hear him smell you. The benefit of being able to reminisce about the kindness of this stranger, outweighs the cost of the weeklong argument with Backpacking Boyfriend. Totally worth it. Every time you eat spicy homemade jerky, you’ll think of this Sexy Snack Stranger, like Proust’s madeleine. You don’t know what that means yet but you will.

A hot drink at the end of the day is a must. 

Abundant drinking water is key. Moving on.

Hiking in areas where water is scarce is to suffer. Rationing water is simply not fun. You get terrible headaches from dehydration. You suffer in the desert. Stay north.

And there is an eleventh essential: Just for those who menstruate. 

I could not find a single Ten Essential list with a mention of the menses. Seems off. Hiking on a full moon affords you extra light in the evening sky, but it also means you may be taking Aunt Flow into the woods with you. I suppose it could be classified under first aid, but it is an omission in most guide books.

Carry your own supplies for bleeding. You can burn most of them if you run out of fire starter. Menstrual cycle surprises are fodder for your friends to make vicious jokes about your repurposing of the gauze in the first aid supplies, but it is no fun for you.

What you can not burn, you have to hike out. But that may be story for another time.

Some things do, in fact, get better, I promise. Better than you can dream possible.

Keep enjoying this one wild wonderful life,

Middle-aged Me.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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