Are You Highly Campetent? (Stephen Colbert Would Be, If He Went Camping)

Like my new word? Thanks, so do I.

Since I really will backpack for chocolate, and since I just got home from doing just that, I’ve been making mental lists of the little extras that, over the years, have made ordinary camping trips extraordinary.

Though they’re most effective in backpacking, where luxury is harder to come by, I see no reason why these tips can’t be adapted for car-camping too.

Ready? Here we go:

Campetent campers pack mac & cheese. Highly Campetent campers do that too, but they add a small, chopped-up brick of real, extra-sharp cheddar…and some fresh greens. (Mustard greens are the best!)

Campetent campers pack a sleeping pad. Highly Campetent campers pack a chunk of carpet padding, 4 inches thick, 18 inches wide, long enough to pad a tired body from shoulders to knees, compressed in a sack to the size of a small sleeping bag. (I give all credit to my Mate on this one! Best camping sleep EVER.)


Campetent campers bring rope to hang their food out of reach of critters. Highly Campetent campers bring bright orange rope, so they don’t trip over it at the edge of their campsite.

Campetent campers stay fully hydrated. Highly Campetent campers stay fully hydrated in the knowledge that they can safely enjoy a small box of Cabernet after dinner and still be ready to hike next morning.

Campetent campers pack biodegradable soap. Highly Campetent campers make sure that soap is lavender, or peppermint, so when they take that icy, delicious creek-or-lake bath at the end of a hot trail day, not only does their body thank them, their fellow campers do too.

Campetent campers pack a change of clean clothes. Highly Campetent campers leave a change of clothes in the car to change into when they arrive, sweaty and dusty (or cold and wet).


 My dad used to mix Tang into Cream of Wheat to make camp breakfasts more fun. Not necessarily recommending that, but…Got any tips of your own?

Fighting Fire With Obliviousness: When One Person’s Disaster is Another’s Inconvenience

If I’m dying of heat stroke while you’re reading this, don’t feel sorry for me. I died in full, happy understanding that it was MY choice to go backpacking where the forecast called for 99-degree days.

I’m not here (again). I’m out on my annual pack trip with my Ironwoman goddaughter Allison. This year we’ve been shut out of our favorite destination by some of the most horrific wildfires Washington has ever seen.

“Oh no! The air quality in the Enchantments is horrible. We can’t go there! OK, so…let’s try somewhere new this year…”

We’ve had our brush with fire before, Al and I. Four years ago we had to literally outrun one. When a huge column of smoke suddenly blew up between us and our campsite, we spent an agonizing half-hour trying to decide whether to race down the mountain before it raced up, or whether we ought to hunker down by a little lake and hope for the best.

We raced. We and the fire passed each other like a pair of escalators–up and down. We saw treetops exploding. That’s as close as I ever plan to get to a wildfire.


The folks who LIVE near those fires on the east side of our state don’t get to plan. At the very best, if they have no friends or family to stay with, they have to find a way to safely breathe that particle-filled air, day after day. At worst, they’ve lost everything.

As of last week, according to the Methow Valley News, the Carlton Complex fire had burned through 390 square miles, making it the largest fire in Washington history.

The Community Foundation of North Central Washington has established a relief fund for victims of these fires. Click here if you want to help. Those folks need…everything.

Meanwhile, all Allison and I “need” to do is find a place where we can walk among the wildflowers for a few days. We’re on vacation. That strange parallel of our “needs” and those of the eastern Washingtonians has me thinking in general about the relationship between tourists and natives.

Tourists are “we.” Our lives are what really matter. Natives are not even “they;” they’re backdrop. Scenery.

I know this because, after decades of being a tourist in other people’s pretty backyards, I’m now a native myself. Tourists overrun our beautiful island in July and August. For the most part they are very respectful. But their obliviousness–riding their bikes down the middle of the road while we’re just trying to get to work; asking “What time do the whales come by?” –reminds me uncomfortably that I probably have exhibited this same behavior to some other eye-rolling community in my past.

But…back to me and Al for a second. Not only has our past trip been interrupted by fire, it’s also been interrupted by ice. One year we climbed up to our favorite 7,000-ft., wildflower-covered mountain lake area only to find it still under snow. Yeah, I know this isn’t exactly relevant to my theme, but discussing our pack trip gives me the excuse to share this wonderful video Al took of a goat stuck on a rock in the middle of rushing stream about to plummet over a waterfall. The log it wanted to cross on was covered with ice, so it jumped onto the rock, and…

Don’t worry. That goat finally made the leap safely across. And Al and I are probably just fine right now, camping somewhere in clear air. But wherever we are, I am thinking about the folks in the path of that giant fire, and hoping their lives will recover.

So right now, maybe you too could spare a thought for the “locals” in your favorite vacation spot who might be suffering. Are you a “local” yourself? Have you ever found a way to be a more tuned-in tourist than I have been?

Get Lost: Why Hiking Feels Like the Most Important Job in the World

The logline of this blog is “Will Backpack for Chocolate,” so I thought about titling this post, “No, Really, I WILL Backpack for Chocolate,” just to be cute. Because I went backpacking this summer and did indeed eat an awful lot of chocolate. (Mac & cheese too, but that doesn’t sound as snappy.)

But then I went for a day-hike last week and realized, all cuteness aside, chocolate has nothing to do with it. Descending from a bright, sunny ridge full of the vestigal summer wildflowers into dark fir woods felt like the most important thing I could possibly be doing. Never mind that it was a Tuesday in September and nearly every non-retired friend I could think of was at work. I felt completely justified, even proud of myself, for walking on a mountain.

How can this be? I’m pretty Type-A: I love making lists and checking things off. Days are for Getting Things Done, as much now, in my part-time baker/part-time writer “career,” as when I was schlepping through the school year as a mom/teacher. I check my watch a lot, even when I don’t need to. I schedule time for everything from thawing ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner, to catching up on DVR’d Daily Shows.

Why does hiking feel so…productive?

I have a few theories. Ready?

1. I’m a nature-girl deep in my soul, raised on runs in Duke Forest and trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains. My Senior year of American Lit. focused on the Transcendentalists, so I imbibed Thoreau & Emerson & Annie Dillard at a tender age. Of course I’m an environmentalist, if by “environmentalist” you mean I believe in marshaling communal resources to protect the natural world as much as possible. Therefore, spending time in nature feels like political witness: putting my money where my mouth is, walking the talk.

2. I am also very, very social. I love my family and friends, and I value the extra closeness that a day of hiking, or a night in a tent, creates. That validation you get from calling your mom long-distance and reconnecting, despite your hectic schedule? That’s what a day in the woods with friends or family feels like.


3. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve also been trained from a young age to put exercise of any form into the category of “Necessary and Good,” along with personal hygiene and music practice. Hiking is making me stronger, therefore it is good.

4. Emerson wrote in his essay Nature, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.” I have found this to be true even when I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. Nature has always been my church. (And, come on, what other church encourages the eating of M & Ms?)

Am I over-thinking this? Well, duh. I over-think for a living these days. But it’s interesting to tease out the strands, isn’t it?

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What about you? Does Nature give you another gift that I didn’t mention? Is there another completely self-indulgent activity you enjoy with equal lack of guilt? Or are you hopelessly infected with “There are better things I should be doing with my time”-itis? Let us hear!