Short-distance Long-distance hiking

On our first night of the Long Trail, an AT (section-hiker! not even thru!) informed us that our dehydrated refried beans “wouldn’t rehydrate.” Then in a trail log a little later in the trail, he noted (snarkily, based on our previous disdainful interaction) “it’s interesting to see how short distance long distance hikers do it.” First of all, our beans rehydrated deliciously. Second of all, WHAT is that supposed to mean? I’ll be over here with my whisperlite trimming my eyebrows.

It was two years ago, and I am still salty about that guy’s scorn of us “short” distance hikers. “Short” distance is still pretty long-distance to most Americans driving their Suburban from parking lot to parking lot, from outlet to outlet. It’s not worth pulling rank. We are all going outside–hike your own hike, right? But how much does your pack weigh?

We scored a permit to hike the John Muir Trail this summer. It’s shorter than the LT (211 miles plus the 9-10 mile hike off of Mt Whitney to the LT’s 272.5 miles) but possibly more intense. I think. There will be more planning required, anyway, because the LT is in my backyard. The JMT is across the country.

So what’s the point of walking around in the wilderness? I get the impression that some think it’s a waste of time and perhaps money, when a person could be at home, being bored or searching for awesome jobs, or getting out there and networking. Not to mention the failure to make money while in the wilderness. Money is the most important thing by this calculation! But why wait ’til I have both the money and the time, say, retirement-ish, but my ass is thoroughly busted? I’d like to be busted because I earn it by doing sweet things.

I can’t even totally articulate why this is so damn important. I have some guesses, both personally and politically. We are so wrapped up in the short term, but in the two years since that month-long hike, the LT was still the most interesting individual thing I did. I still remember the giant moth that was flying at our headlamps one night, and the red efts everywhere risking being stepped on. There’s just something so awesome about those little things turning into the big things.

Individualism and DIY Homemaking

Attachment parenting and DIY foodie culture are promoting a huge step back for women and a dangerous opt-out of social safety nets (the FDA, for one) instead of rallying for change in our communal institutions. We are social creatures, like it or not, and although growing your own vegetables and making your own bread are great, it’s important to focus on the community as well.

Maybe women my age would be less interested in attachment parenting if our country had better maternity (and paternity) leave–if you didn’t have to choose between going back to work full-time in a matter of weeks after you have a baby. So, lacking choices (it’s not really a “choice” when Mom has the lower income, say, and then you can ask WHY Mom is usually the one with a lower income if you want to be serious about the feminist implications of “choice”), you just give up that job to stay home and are bored senseless by being a stay-at-home mom unless you fully embrace the cerebral, high-intensity, inflexible attachment parenting and home birth philosophy. Because women are made to nurture, and well-educated women are going to get intense about it when you start feeling bad about (not) using all that expensive education.

Maybe you’d also give your brain and hands something better to do by turning wholeheartedly to homebaked bread and homegrown (beyond organic, of course) vegetables because God only knows what’s in that crap at the supermarket.

And then you can turn your attention to a sick kid with whooping cough because you refused to vaccinate him, out of fear that there might be something creepy in a vaccine.

Mother knows best, obviously. Definitely better than the pediatrician that spent 4 years in school followed by some more years in residency. Obviously it doesn’t hurt to be well-informed and to ask intelligent questions of doctors, but we’re lucky to have those vaccines in the first place that make those common childhood diseases preventable. We don’t want our children to die “naturally,” after all.

We are doing ourselves a serious disservice by saying that the FDA or the CDC or our public schools are doing a bad job, and as a result, we’ll just opt out. We need those communal institutions, whoever we are.

Freeloaders

Healthcare is the theme of the moment, and Americans apparently want health insurance so badly that all the websites made for signing up for the exchange are overloaded. Contrary to Republican claims, methinks this says more about how the populace approves of health care than how it’s defective.

The implication that using any public service, be it welfare or public healthcare, makes you a freeloader, is the most offensive part of the rhetoric. In the context of our current health care LAW (not bill, not idea, not something in-the-works), what is really so “un-American” about making health care more available for all? Why is it more American to allow the health insurance companies to take full advantage of the sick or those trying not to get sick?

It is immoral. The idea that Obamacare/The Affordable Care Act (they are the same, people) is somehow compromising the values of Thomas Jefferson is offensive and wrong. Jefferson was a slave owner. We can all agree that that was a bad thing. Just because Jefferson thought it was okay at the time does not mean that there’s any reason to continue it. Likewise, Jefferson could not have even conceived of health care. Back in our Founding Fathers’ day, average life expectancy was about 50 years. Now, thanks to doctors and health care, our average life expectancy is about 20 years longer. That should be a right, not a privilege.

So the idea that Americans should not be entitled to even basic health insurance is idiotic.

Welfare is not luxury. Food stamps are not a luxury. Basic health care is not a luxury. We’re all human, and things frequently go awry. Health troubles do not discriminate based on income alone.

Indoor People

It’s leaf-peeper season here in Vermont. That means that the tourists are out in force peeping on the lovely autumn colors on the mountains and valleys around the state.

Vermont didn’t have so many colorful maples until we cut everything down to make pastures for merino sheep farming back in the 1800s, and the softer, brightly-colored, sugar-producing, fast-growing maples took over in the primary succession following the reduction in all that farming and clear-cutting. Old-growth hardwood forests are few and far between in the state now.

So all those fantastic colors are a byproduct of human activities anyway. Just like scenic dairy cows on postcards. That doesn’t necessarily make them less lovely, just less magical.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and a few Europeans migrate to Vermont to take a tour bus ride up into the spectacular foliage in October. Surely some will take a nice walk, but all the traffic around town says otherwise. How is it that we take in the outdoor beauty without actually spending time outdoors? Expensive jackets made for mountaineering and rock climbing are also making a fall colors appearance, although they are primarily used for running from the car to an outlet shop.

Foliage season is only pointing out with clarity that being outside, for many, is too hot, cold, or rainy. We like our nature prepackaged and managed. Do you need a $300 jacket to protect you from the elements when you spend no time in the elements?

We like to look at nature, but are afraid to participate in it on even a minor level. How can you hear the leaves crunching under your feet or smell the fall smells when they are masked by the sound of an engine or the smell of exhaust?

There is so much evidence that going outside and being technology-free helps manage stress levels and more–we need to stop hiding in our cars when it might rain or turning on the A/C full blast when it’s hot, and we need to just go outside and deal with whatever weather is out there.

Hygiene Hypothesis and Victim-Blaming

The Hygiene Hypothesis has interesting potential implications for those of us in the “developed” world. Essentially, it states that a lack of exposure to infectious agents (e.g., livestock and their bacteria-harboring), microorganisms (gut flora), or parasites (e.g., ringworm) makes us more susceptible to allergies and autoimmune disorders.

The hypothesis, however, is corrupted in the hands of those proselytizing raw and fermented foods. You will not cure any of your issues by drinking kombucha and eating raw sauerkraut. Plenty of us think those things happen to be tasty, and they might have a spare vitamin or two in them, but they alone won’t solve any problem. It is never a panacea.

Frequently, it is manifested in a victim-blaming sense: “You made poor life choices by being uptight and not walking around barefoot in privy areas.” You used too much anti-bacterial soap or didn’t get breast-fed (in that case, your mother made the poor life choices).

Mom shares gut flora with baby via breast milk. So you’re sabotaging your kid’s health if you (God forbid) use formula. There is nothing the new mothers of the world need more than judgment of their mothering choices. And then there’s the vaccine “debate”! Let’s not vaccinate our kids because they might cause autism and autoimmune disorders, even if the diseases you get vaccinated for might kill you. Also, vaccines don’t cause autism; symptoms of autism typically start appearing at the same time a kid gets the first big round of vaccines. Correlation is not causation.

Antibacterial soap, for most people, is a bad idea, but not because using it is going to give you an autoimmune disorder. It kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, you say? Guess how fast bacterial reproduction happens. That 0.1% of bacteria and viruses that survive your Lysol onslaught will be the ones to reproduce. Try cleaning them again with your 99.9% “cleaner” and you’ll just be going after a population that is already resistant to your chemical. Evolution is real, and you are making it happen in your nasty bathtub.

Most likely the overall sparkly-clean world (public transportation notwithstanding) that we live in has more to do with my autoimmune disorder and not the fact that I got vaccinated early on or failed to drink raw milk until a few years ago when I had access to it (importantly, raw cream has the best consistency for adding to coffee). I was breast-fed, so you’d think that would prevent all my lifetime problems (nope!) if you read the guilt-trip laid on new moms.

There are things that are out of our power. Instead of insisting that you give your recently weaned 2-year-old raw milk, maybe we should work on the group dynamic and fear of all bacteria, good and bad. We should pay attention to making our gut a more hospitable microbiome (another reason to not eat too much highly processed food), but if you don’t, there’s always a fecal transplant.

Vaccines save lives. Pasteurization was invented for a reason. You can’t control everything.

Hipsters

If you like fixed-gear bicycles with leather seats, homebrewed beer, and butchering, congratulations, you are ready to be dismissed as a hipster.

Using a typewriter, for example, will unleash a special vitriol directed at your life choices. Especially if you also occasionally use an iPhone. Because if you enjoy using a typewriter, you are definitely a hypocrite if you also use current technology.

Urban farmers and vinyl aficionados are frequent victims of the hipster dismissal. There is nothing good about being evaluated as a hipster–it implies a temporary posturing, a passing interest in something that might be cool. It’s not authentic.

Although surely there are people who are interested in establishing a tedious dominance over others through these various activities, chances are many are actually interested in these things. Speaking from experience, it’s next to impossible to go back to buying cheap meat at the grocery store after you work with livestock–a task that could surely have me dismissed as trying too hard. How was my choice to learn how to work with sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and honeybees just something to do to prove something when I have maintained much of what I have learned from that experience?

My refusal to eat cheap meat is a target for those who become eager to dismiss the whole small-scale food notion when they hear about it. “I don’t care where my food comes from,” they say, as they defiantly eat ground beef from the supermarket.

If you like riding bikes instead of driving, you too may be evaluated as an insidious hipster-force. Never mind that our reliance on sedentary transportation isn’t any good for us, and it may be in our best interest, no matter how hip, to walk and bike more often. If you like the simple mechanics of a fixed-gear, that’s even worse.

How can it be unreasonable to learn how things work, whether it is animals or bicycles or any other thing? Given that we are increasingly living in a world where we don’t know how anything works, this should be a good thing even if it’s impossibly hip.

Expensive Gear

We have developed a solid culture of weekend warriors and people who wait for retirement to do sweet things. The social structures now in place reinforce that lifestyle–you have to work your way up to freedom, save money, and then once your knees are busted, you are allowed to roam. Perfect. 

But until then, you are only allowed to drool over photos of Yosemite and buy a lot of expensive gear, just hoping for an opportunity to use it. At least you can look like a polished Patagonia model while you recover from staring at a computer for 8 hours per day. 

If you didn’t work 40+ hours per week at your fancy job, how would you ever afford all that sweet gear to imagine yourself using, climbing El Cap? 

So the question is, why are we investing so much in fantasy? Is it just money? How much gear do you actually need to go outside? Peak work years are also peak sweet-activity years–maybe it would be most reasonable to use up the body you have while it works, and spend retirement lolling around on fantasy climbs and telling the grandkids about the good ol’ days. 

Because obviously their parents will be relying on your busted self to babysit while they go do sweet things.