Saturday, 8 August 2015

On Being a Princess

Third wave feminists have been behaving so poorly that I'm unable to call myself a feminist, but I do hold fairly egalitarian views. My classrooms this summer are composed almost entirely of men. In particular, the majority are Latino men, a demographic known for machismo. You might expect that this would make for some friction in the classroom, as macho men and feministy-types are generally not the best of buds.

Yet, I feel quite tickled to be a princess every time my students fall over themselves in the mad scramble to cross the room and take the 5-gallon water bottle for the cooler from me. When they see me pick one up by myself, despite the fact that I have no trouble doing so, the expressions of panic on their faces are very near priceless. It's like they've been caught with their pants down and they rush to make up for being remiss in their manly duties.

Recently, the window air conditioning in my rinky-dink classroom died suddenly in the middle of class. When pressing the power button didn't restart it, I took a few steps toward the breaker box. As my students realized my destination, they all inhaled sharply with surprise and held it in anticipation. I threw the appropriate switches to the sound of astonished gasps. Then, I returned to the A/C, pressed the power button and it fired back to life. It should have made headlines: Young Female Teacher Knows How to Flick Switches on a Breaker Box; Turns On Air Conditioning Unit.

I am always amused around new mothers. They report the accomplishments of their babies with such enthusiasm. "Last night," they say, their eyes alight with pride, "Ava rolled herself over." Or, "Did you see that? Liam just picked up his own head!" By the time you are in your mid-twenties, you have to work much harder and do much more impressive things in order to garner that kind of approval and praise. Nobody ever shows me off like that anymore, no matter how long I sit up by myself without falling over.

But, in my classes, I am a bit like one of those babies. I am congratulated and adored for doing barely more than just existing. It is a wonderful boost to the ego, one that I highly recommend. Now, if the reaction to me doing stereotypical "man" things were grunts of arrogant disapproval, that would not be such a feel-good experience. However, my class generally appears to be genuinely impressed and astounded that a woman would do these kinds of things.

A number of my students know that I drive a manual transmission. I would hardly be surprised if they bragged about that fact to their buddies on nights out (although they would undoubtedly leave out the vehicle being an unsexy second-hand Honda Accord):

Student 1: My teacher is better than your teacher!
Student 2: Oh yeah? I bet my teacher is better than your teacher!
Student 1: My teacher can.... teach English!
Student 2: My teacher can.... teach English.... WHILE SHE DRIVES A MANUAL TRANSMISSION!
Student 1: Your teacher is clearly superior.

Now, if their point of origin was a more egalitarian society, like Canada, they wouldn't find these things particularly impressive or even noteworthy. Probably, they wouldn't bring me treats or censor their language around me, either. So, while I may personally like the idea of less rigid gender roles, I have to admit that I'm reaping the benefits of both systems right now: being treated like a princess while being adored for acting like a man. I guess I just never learned to be offended while I'm basking in the glow of my own awesomeness.

Let it be known that neither chivalry nor believing gender stereotypes are quite the same thing as sexism, latent or otherwise.

"What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, Sir, mighty scarce." Mark Twain

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Pipestone: Sunshine and Happiness

Nighttime at Devon Lakes was an interesting period in its own right. Bedtime is always an important part of a hiking trek. After getting into camp, eating your freeze-dried food, and playing with your dice, there's generally not a lot to do but go to bed.

This is a good thing, because hiking all day is strenuous and rough on the body. And, as Clary told me that evening, "There's nothing that a good night's rest... ah," she paused, rewound and started again: "There's nothing that a night's rest can't fix."

"Well," I responded, "Tonight will be interesting because there's a giant tree root under our tent, running right across my back." This was the result of very limited campsite space at this particular location.

"Oh, in mine, too," Clary said, quite optimistic about the situation. "Maybe, if it's in just the right place, it will be therapeutic."

I decided to try to see things her way. "I suppose," I said, "that it could be like a massage, if we roll around over it."

Dad had a thicker air mattress and so wasn't really affected by the tree root. He did, however, notice that it was particularly cold that night, and spent some time wiggling around in his sleeping bag, trying out the various features to keep warm. Our bags are both rated as good until -18 degrees, but only if you use them right.

He buried himself inside and began pulling on strings he found there. "This one seems to close the opening around my face," he reported, pulling it tight.

"You look like a mummy," I replied.

"And this one," he fumbled around a bit, "this one, I think, wraps around my neck."

I commented that it was always good when things wrapped around your neck and then I made him pose for a picture.
Remarkably, everyone woke up the next morning stronger and without kinks in our backs, including Clary and me. Morning also brought another surprise.

"Carla!" Clary exclaimed as I was getting my stuff together, "Look what I found in my backpack! Another rain poncho! I didn't know it was in here!" She immediately delivered over the unopened, hooded vinyl rain poncho. It was the twin to the poncho that Mike had been using all weekend. It was a good deal thicker and tougher than the pitiful panda poncho I had been wearing to that point.

Dad commented, "I don't know if you're making a friend of Carla or an enemy right now, pulling that out on the third day." Clary smiled sheepishly, and I made no threatening movements, so peace was maintained.

In addition to all the usual preparations that morning, there was one extra business item on the schedule at Devon Lakes. There was no outhouse anywhere, so the evening before, Mike had pulled out his hunting knife and explained to everyone the mechanics of digging a hole and doing number two in the bush. Despite trying, nobody had been successful.

I had given Mike back his knife and, upon being questioned, announced to the group that it had been a false alarm. One of the other members of our group explained that they can last ten days without needing to empty. Andrew, on the other hand, seemed to take the lack of outhouse as a personal challenge. It was a point of pride to him when he marched back to Mike in the campsite that morning and declared, "What needed to come out, eventually came out." He then spent the rest of the day discussing with Dad (and the park ranger we encountered) the superiority of squatting over sitting, gloating that only men had been successful at the task, and planning to share his victory with all his coworkers back at the office.

Apparently he was so proud, he even documented the experience photographically.
The hike back to the first campsite, Fish Lakes, was much, much, much less difficult than the hike in had been. In addition to the majority of the path being downhill this time, Mike dropped some electrolytes into my water bottle before we even got started. Plus, they quickly dressed me in my new poncho as soon as any precipitation started. I say that they dressed me because I was pretty much a princess on the third day. I just walked. Everything else was done for me, from handling my water bottle every time I wanted a drink, to washing my dishes. Dad even affirmed for me explicitly that I was a princess, but he meant it affectionately.

The first time I had someone get me my new poncho, I ruminated over the best way to wear it with a backpack on. "Just wear it over your pack, like I do," said Mike, and took over the process of arranging it on me. Upon finishing, he took a step back.

I flapped my arms a little bit, playing around inside my new duds. "I'm happy as a clam!" I announced. Truly, in the backwoods, the difference between "happy" and "in despair" is usually no bigger than a two minute break or a piece of vinyl.

Mike cocked his head and took me in. "Is that what I've been looking like?" he asked.

Though I may be as happy as a clam, I look more like a rock. Or a pile of poo.
Mike, in the same duds, looks instead like a ninja turtle. Please note Sean on the left, dressed as a Jedi.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to happen on the third day of the hike was that it snowed. Up until the third day, my back had been pretty much the only thing to not get wet, due to the backpack shielding me from the elements. The snow, however, landed on my neck, melted, and rolled down my back with ease. Also, it coated the bushes so as to completely soak my pants with freezing water.

As you may have gathered, I was in much better spirits for most of the third day, despite the snow. At one point, my hip felt like it was on backwards, but a short rest sorted that out. After lunch, I was struck by the idea that although I could barely hobble seven feet to collect my thirty-pound backpack, I was expected to carry it all the way down the mountain. Yet, I found this hilarious instead of horrifying, proceeded to shoulder my pack, and do exactly what was expected.

Ironically, the third day also seemed to be where the rest of the group began to flag. Dad seemed more tired than me by the time we arrived at camp, and Mike started planning his post-hike meal out loud about halfway down a series of steep switchbacks. I believe his desire was for a prime rib steak burger or something of that nature. Dad hungrily joined the conversation, but for what may have been the first time, I was content to let my mind wander.

Despite once nearly faceplanting into a rock, we made it to camp sans catastrophe, nearly an hour and forty minutes faster than when we had hiked the same trail going the opposite direction. But then, after Dad and I set up our stuff, we joined Mike and Clary at the picnic table (A picnic table! And there was an outhouse and bear pole! Oh, luxury!).

"Mike and I were just saying we'd like to take a vote," said Clary, "to see whether we would like to hike out today, after all."

"No!" Mike immediately asserted, a slight edge of panic to his voice. "I was not part of that conversation! We were discussing whether or not it was hypothetically possible to hike out in one day, that's all."

"I don't want to hike out today," I said.

"I don't want to hike out today," said Dad.

Andrew showed up. Clary said, "We spent six hours hiking today, and about six on the first day. So, it would be possible to go the whole distance in a single day."

Andrew's eyes grew wide (I remind you that he runs marathons), and he laughed incredulously before saying in a very loud, very definitive voice, "Yes, but I still wouldn't want to!" With that, Clary's hope for any support was quashed, and the potential disaster was averted.

"But," Clary said plaintively, "I hate sleeping in tents."

But sleep in tents again that night we did. I got up once to go to the bathroom and saw a porcupine climbing a tree. Otherwise, I slept quite fine. Andrew, on the other hand, found it more difficult to sleep soundly. We were, after all, three days and nights unshowered and unlaundered.

"I was stuck," he said over breakfast the next morning. "It was really cold, so I wanted to put my nose inside my sleeping bag, but if I put my nose inside, the air in there smelled so bad, I couldn't handle it!" This admission dampened the enthusiasm with which I was looking forward to the cramped car ride home with the lot of them.

The next morning actually broke warm sunny - the natural thing to expect, given that we were hiking out and wouldn't feel bothered much by inclement weather any more. I claimed more electrolytes, and found what Mike calls the "mule-state" while ascending the pass. The mule-state is the slow, plodding pace that's work, but that is maintainable for extended periods over any terrain. All-in-all, the last day was remarkably uneventful. It was largely pleasant, in fact, despite my growing blisters, and we shaved an hour off our original time (easy to do when you're going mostly downhill). 
Please spot Andrew.
Please spot Andrew again.
One thing happened that baffled me on this last day: Clary remarked to no one in particular, "Carla has a good spirit for this kind of thing." Yes, she was referring to backpacking in the deep woods. I suppose we were so used to rain that the sun we had that day fried all our brains a little.

In any case, when we emerged at the trail head victoriously and took a triumphant group selfie, we were all a bit burned by our few hours of sunshine.
The feeling of jubilation was not to be contained. Andrew began congratulating random passers-by for completing their quests. "You finished!" he exclaimed to a couple with bikes, "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," they replied politely.

"I don't know what you were doing, but you successfully completed it!" Andrew crowed.

We stripped ourselves of our stinking boots and cooled our sore feet in the nearby river, all the while praising each other for a job well done. Then, we hopped into the waiting vehicle and went to get Mike his long-awaited juicy burger. The waiter at the pub made no mention of our grime or odor, but we explained that we were fresh off the trail just to ensure there was no confusion.

After filling our bellies with the first non-trail food in four days, we slowly and with much effort let ourselves off the restaurant seats and made for the door. Andrew led the way and I followed.

"Whoa!" said Clary, behind us. "Both of you are walking in exactly the same way, which tells me that I'm walking like that, too." What she meant is that we were all waddling like football linebackers, wading through viscous goo.

We pushed our way forward to the vehicle and drove back to Calgary. We played several rounds of 20 Questions, nearly causing Andrew to lose his sanity in the process, and got caught in several traffic jams. The crowning moment of awesome happened on Sarcee Trail, when Clary looked out the window at a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

"That woman is walking as fast as we're driving," she commented. Then after a moment, "She has a strange gait."

"It looks like she's trying to avoid putting weight on her right heel," Andrew confirmed.

"Great," said Clary with dismay, "An injured woman is walking as fast as we're driving. I'd rather be hiking right now."

"Not me," I said with great contentment.

On this high note, we made it back to Mike and Clary's house, the initial muster point. Dad and I exchanged last words of congratulation with the others and hugged them farewell, carefully timing our breathing so as not to inhale potent fumes during the close bodily contact. Mike resignedly stated that he had three days to recover before the next trip. Then, we parted ways.

Covered the last distance.

Arrived home.

***

Home is behind, the world ahead, 
And there are many paths to tread 
Through shadows to the edge of night, 
Until the stars are all alight. 
The world behind and home ahead, 
We'll wander back to home and bed. 

J. R. R. Tolkien, A Walking Song 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Pipestone: Approaching Infinity

The second day began on a high note. As I first extricated myself from the tent, Andrew greeted me with a cheery, "Carla! Guess what?! It isn't raining at the moment!"

Then Clary met me with a couple of big grey knit socks in her hand. They were dry. "Sean wants you to have these," she said, arm extended. "He had extra. He's concerned that they might be too big for you, but I told him that I really didn't think you'd mind."

I accepted this kind gift with raptures. Since the inside of my shoes were wet, I refused to put them on just then and tucked the socks away safely for nighttime use.

Sean was the source of a second hope for me that morning, as well. He had to work on Monday, so he wasn't going the full length of the hike with us. In fact, he was turning around and hiking back out again today. As we saw him off, Clary said something about the certainty of him soaking in a hot tub that night and I made some miserable comment that betrayed my dismay at the thought of getting hypothermia.

"You know," said Clary thoughtfully, "there is extra room in Sean's car."

"Yes!" Sean quickly agreed, eyes wide with sincerity.

"No!!" Dad intervened. "It's all part of the experience. And anyway, she's carrying my food."

"She could come with me and you could carry her pack, too," suggested Sean.

This suggestion was met with resistance and I felt obligated to maintain the original schedule. I longingly watched Sean begin the journey home - my last hope of escape disappearing into the trees. Then I sighed, packed up my gear, put on my wet socks, and prepared to plunge deeper the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, Mike read us a previous hiker's review of Pipestone Pass. It was novel length, quoted several prominent eastern philosophers, and made reference to the hallucinogenic agent in mushrooms. It also declared that in the glory of our stunning surroundings, I would become one with the landscape, throw off the shackles of civilization, and feel my physical limitations melt away. The author seemed a tad optimistic.

We found quite a few mushrooms growing in the mud along the path, which Andrew encouraged me to eat. I restrained myself, despite the intense desire to have no physical limitations. After all, we were a church group, and the reviewer had never stated explicitly that he'd needed any shrooms to achieve his results.

The first bit of real excitement on this day was a creek we had to cross. With all the recent rain, it was just wide enough to be a problem to jump, and deep enough that there wasn't a good rock-hop route. Nevertheless, we all made it across without falling completely in. However, as we set foot on the far side of the bank, Clary apparently stepped by a nest of wasps. In a matter of moments, she had been stung three times. I, who was following just a step or so behind her, was stung only once. Our first company halt of the day was to wring out our socks and tend to our punctured legs.

This was also the day I began to develop blisters and got a seriously pinched nerve or something at the base of my neck. Carrying thirty pounds on your shoulders all day doubtlessly does something to your spine. I'm pretty sure I shrank at least an inch over the course of the weekend.

 It was pretty, though.
The second bit of excitement came at the next pass we had to climb. As we ascended over the treeline, the wind picked up, slapping into us with a misty, icy chill. Then, when I was halfway up the pass, feeling dizzy and slightly nauseated, Mike put electrolytes in my water, Dad made me eat a fruit bar, Clary reminisced about other, more severe, cases of altitude sickness, and Andrew shouted Lord of the Rings quotes to us from far ahead.

Happily, as my symptoms subsided and I ever-so-slowly led the troops onward, vast green valleys opened up on either side of us, and a wonderfully intriguing wall of purple and green rock was displayed ahead. In my emotionally fragile state, my tears of pain almost turned into tears of joy. Even without having consumed any mushrooms.

That was the expression on my face for a good deal of the day.
Eventually we came down from the pass again, and entered a knobbly, marshy land that was difficult to walk through. The path disappeared. That's when the third interesting thing happened. We got lost.
Our destination was Lower Devon Lake. We thought we found the path, walked about a kilometer, realized it was the wrong path, walked all the way back, and poked around some more for the real route. This is where my enthusiasm really tanked. Even Clary, who was the sole member of our group that wanted to do the 31 km walk-out, eventually groaned that, "This is the hike that doesn't end," and intimated that, "This is the most vigorous one we've done since the West Coast Trail."
 
My mind hit a wall and I was done, except that we weren't done. I angrily sat on a rock and didn't move until word came back that Andrew had found our camping spot. There was no outhouse, no picnic table, and no bear pole. There were, however, many patches of upturned moss and shrubbery, which was evidence of bears in the area looking for food.

"No bear pole," said Clary, "That's what I'll miss the most. But no worries, there is a cliff to hang our stuff from."

"That can't go wrong," I replied.

A cluster of trees surrounded the flat spot for our tents. We walked in, unclipped our backpacks, and panicked as suddenly a gale force wind hit with the power of a locomotive and brought with it another storm.

"The tents!" someone yelled, "Quickly!" All hands flew to action. Clary later admitted that her sole regret from the hike was not getting a picture of Dad and me trying frantically to wrestle our tent back down to the ground. "I wanted to get the camera," she said sadly, "but Mike sometimes gets annoyed when I ask him for the camera during emergency situations."

No sooner had the tents gone up than Clary and I both dove inside. Despite not having had a bathroom break or dinner, I had no intentions of coming out again in that weather if it meant that I sat there until the same time tomorrow, with the possible exception of going outside to scream and shake my fist at the sky.

Dad followed me in a little later and dug out our waterproof cards. Meanwhile, Mike braved the elements to make Clary supper (classical music emanated from their tent), and Andrew fended for himself.

By the time we had played two rounds of Whist, the storm had stopped. Hungry, Dad and I poked our noses outside and carefully ventured beyond the trees. "It's ok," I called back to everyone else, "The sun is shining!"

"It's ok," Dad added, "She's happy again!"

Everyone stumbled out after us and looked at the sky.
Sadly, this was not the glorious last remnants of the storm that had passed, but a sign of doom. It was the vanguard of another quickly approaching storm front. We had enough time to eat and brush our teeth, but there was no dilly-dallying in camp that night. And even with the short interlude of sunshine, I continued to wear my disposable poncho.

Dad commented, "Your poncho works pretty well as a windbreaker, doesn't it?"

"Yes," I echoed. "I'm glad to have it break the wind."

"I'll show you breaking wind," said Mike.

The rain began to blow in again as the men wandered off to find a place to hang our bear bags. Meanwhile, Clary told me a story of a woman who was eaten alive by a bear in 1967.

"The day after we first heard this story, we got to hike the exact same trail, see the exact campsite, and go into the lodge where she lay on the table while she died," she ended. "It was so cool!"

We then said goodnight and crawled into our tents before the rain got any worse. I put on Sean's still-dry knit socks.

Mike and Dad slept with their cans of bear spray near their pillows and Andrew angsted all night over why he hadn't borrowed any from his father. I heard a bear roaring every time someone's sleeping bag rubbed up against their mattress, but our particular tent was shielded on two sides by trees and on the other two sides by the other tents. I took comfort in the idea that any nocturnal ursine visitors would likely eat Andrew or Mike and Clary before it came for Dad and me.

Overall, the second day of the hike was more miserable than the first. Nevertheless, I did survive.

***

ANTIGONUS (from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale): Farewell! The day frowns more and more: thou'rt like to have a lullaby too rough: I never saw the heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour! Well may I get aboard! This is the chase: I am gone for ever!

[Exit, pursued by a bear]