The Sound of Cosmic Laughter

From what I’ve read, thru-hiking the Appalachian trail teaches us important lessons.  There will be things we need to learn, aspects of our lives we have to come to grips with during our ordeals.  If this is true, I have a sneaking suspicion that my lesson will involve recognizing how little control I actually have over my life — because so far, absolutely nothing that I’ve done to prepare for my thru-hike has gone as planned.

hammock4Here’s an example: Since my husband and I have no hammocking skills (or recent camping experience, to be honest), I figured we’d go about learning how to use our hammocks in a methodical way.  (1) First, we’d set them up in the basement and sleep in them for a couple of nights to get used to how they feel.  (2) After that, we’d set them up on the deck for a night or two, then graduate to a nearby campground where we could take refuge in our car if things didn’t work out. (3) Finally, we’d do a multi-night shakedown hike on the local section of the AT to iron out any remaining kinks.  This way, by the time we started our thru-hike in the spring we’d be seasoned hammockers, all ready to go.

It seemed like a good idea — and it probably would have been, except that I waited too long to order our hammocks (Warbonnet Blackbird XLC).  They finally arrived a couple weeks ago, but the top quilts I ordered (Enlightened Equipment Revelation) are apparently coming across the country on foot because they are nowhere in sight.  I haven’t decided on our tarps yet, either.  I’m still dithering over whether to buy cuben fiber tarps that are ultra lightweight or sil nylon ones that offer more privacy. (I’m leaning toward less weight, privacy be damned.)  In the meantime, winter weather has arrived, making it difficult to camp outdoors.

But that still left the basement, right?  So after a trip to the hardware store, my husband rigged up some ropes to the floor joists.  Excited, we headed downstairs to attach our hammocks and try them out.  But when we pulled the first one out of its stuff sack we realized that we were lost.  We couldn’t figure out which end of the hammock was which.  The whoopie slings weren’t as simple as we’d thought. We pulled up a couple of Youtube videos for a quick tutorial and managed to attach the hammock to the ropes…then spent the next hour playing Goldilocks.  The hammock was too low, and then too high.  The ridgeline was too tight, and then too slack.  The angle was all wrong.  The ropes needed to be farther apart.  After a lot of frustration and watching a few more videos (can I give a shout-out here to Youtube?), we decided the ropes simply weren’t going to work.  We’d have to go outside in the blustery wind and find some trees.

It took yet another how-to video – and another half hour of practice – to learn how to put a Marlin spike hitch in the tree straps, but once we felt marginally competent, we drove to the local community college in search of a likely spot.hammock12

Of course, it would have been too easy to do all this last summer when the weather was mild.  So with the cold wind whipping, and our fingers freezing, we tried to set our hammock up.  We raised it into roughly the right position, shivering the entire time.  Hurrying, we tried to get the tie-out stakes into the ground, finally abandoning that effort for another day.  We then took a couple of quick turns getting in and out of the hammock, trying to imagine spending the night swinging from the trees.  The hammock was cozy and nice…but it was cold!  We attached the underquilt, but without a top quilt and tarp to block the wind, it didn’t do any good.

hammock8Still, we’d managed to hang up the hammock. It was crooked and sloppy with the bug net hanging loose, but at least we’d made a start.  We took it down in record time, then hopped back into our warm car and drove home, sobered by the realization that we were nowhere near ready to camp.  We still haven’t figured out the tie-downs.  We’re still clueless about the tarp.  And I can’t imagine trying to set all this up after an exhausting day on the trail, or worse yet, in the pouring rain.

So here we are, four months from the start of our thru-hike, and nothing has gone as planned.  I still don’t have all my equipment.  What I do have, I don’t know how to use.  Foot problems have set back my conditioning.  I haven’t even begun to think about our food.  In fact, I have yet to spend a single night in the woods!

Did I mention that I’m starting to panic?  Or that I thought this part would be easy?  Am I insane to still think I can do this?  Please tell me that isn’t the sound of cosmic laughter I hear!

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Comments 29

  • Lisa Parker : Nov 22nd

    You have the BEST posts! Looking forward to cheering you on! You’ll figure it out I’m sure!

    Reply
  • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

    Thank you so much, Lisa! Sometimes I feel confident, and then at other times I wonder if I’m delusional to think I can actually do this. This is SO much harder than I expected, and we haven’t even begun the hike! But hopefully we will figure it out without too much pain… Maybe. Or at least we will survive. Stay tuned!

    Reply
  • Cherre Bybee : Nov 22nd

    Gail if it is cosmic laughter I hear it to. Being new to backpacking there are so many things to learn. I love reading your journal because I can relate to you in so many ways, I will be starting a NOBO in March so we might not meet on the trail but you never know, maybe the universe will make it happen. Hope so. Cherre

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      Cherre, I’m sorry you’re going through this, too, but I’m glad I’m not alone! Honestly, I’ve never felt so incompetent in my life. I thought I was a fairly quick learner, but this experience has really humbled me. Even the simplest things are more complex than they seem! And looming over all of it is the fear that my old body won’t be up to the hike. Still, I am determined to try!!! We are still trying to decide between a traditional NOBO hike and a flip flop. When in March are you going to start out? We are leaning toward the flip flop because of the crowds, but a NOBO route makes much more sense.

      Reply
      • Cherre Bybee : Nov 23rd

        Gail I’m hoping to start 18 March. I have a dental appointment on the 16th so will watch the weather and try and pick a time with decent weather. A NOBO is my first choice but with the fires I might have to rethink and a flip-flop may be a better option. I’ll turn 64 on the trail so I know what you mean about the body holding up for the hike. I’m walking with and without my pack most days. Did a short shakedown in Sept on the trail, approach trail to Cooper Gap which answered so many questions. I’ll be taking a tent, Zpacks duplex, I didn’t think I would ever figure out how to hang a hammock you’re doing great, Cherre

        Reply
  • Katherine : Nov 22nd

    If you’ve got your Warbonnets and your underquilts you’re good enough for practice. Improvise the top insulation for now — an old sleeping bag unzipped or something — not a ton you need to fuss with there.

    Keep practicing the suspension OR swap in the simpler webbing/caribiner style suspension.

    I’m coveting a Hammock Gear cuben fiber tarp. That said my simple sil-nylon hex tarp (Warbonnet) works just fine. Learn how to do a “McCarthy Hitch.”

    Most important part is to take good care of those feet! Good luck with that.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      Katherine, the only reservation I have about the cuben fiber tarp is that it’s a bit transparent. Still, it weighs a lot less than the sil nylon version, and that means a lot to me. Every ounce matters at my age!!! I have no idea what a McCarthy hitch is, but I’ll look it up:). Thanks for the advice!

      Reply
  • Angie Romans : Nov 22nd

    love this post! I’m a 50yr old married to a 61yr old and we hike often but mostly 5-7 miles, we camp out of our car – my husband is spoiled & likes to cooks us steaks for dinner after hiking, LOL… seems like a tent would be easier & warmer but maybe the hammock is lighter? I want to do one of these trails too & my hubby is willing to do a section. It is alot to figure out but you can do it. Many people do it and plenty who are older. It’s definitely worth trying and you’ll get in shape on the trail. You’ll figure it all out in the next 4 months so don’t panic. I’ll be following!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      Angie, cooking steaks after a day of hiking sounds like heaven:). I’m obviously not much of a camper, so I can sympathize with your husband. This is a real stretch for me. But I figure I’ve got the rest of my life to relax, so I might as well do something bold while I can. We considered a tent (mostly because I figured my husband could carry it!), but after talking to a lot of older hikers, we became convinced that hammocks would be far more comfortable for our aching hips. I tried out several pads at REI, and none of them made me want to sleep on the ground. So even though this means I have to carry more weight, I think hammocks will worth it in the end.

      Reply
  • Mark Stanavage : Nov 22nd

    Find a boy scout, learn the tautline hitch. I use it for everything. I gave up sleeping on ground and plywood years ago. Hammock Gear makes fantastic underquilts and top quilts.Super warm, compact well, just a bit pricey, however, you get what you pay for! After a long day of hiking, nothing like laying in a toasty hammock. Great too in case you take siesta in middle of day so you can finish up strong.
    Have fun, I’m sure you will do well!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      Thanks, Mark! I agree with you about hammocks. I have arthritic hips, and there is simply no way I can get comfortable on the ground. My mattress is bad enough! I have a feeling that we are going to love our hammocks once we get adept at setting them up. We have been researching equipment and buying the best things we can. I read so many fantastic reviews about the Blackbeard Warbonnet that I was sold. I’m looking at Hammock Gear’s cuben fiber tarps with doors now. I’m not sure if we need the doors, but they might give us extra protection in case we don’t hang our tarps just right. Any thoughts on that?

      Reply
  • Wiz : Nov 22nd

    Don’t worry, it will all come with time. Carabiner and webbing straps greatly improved my hanging set up.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      I hope you’re right, Wiz, although I have to admit that I am the least mechanical person on the planet, so my learning curve is probably steeper than most.

      Reply
  • Scotty : Nov 22nd

    I’d also recommended heading over to hammockforums.com to dive into even more knowledge. See you on the trail! – scooter

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

      Scooter, I have been visiting the hammockforums site stealthily during the past few months. I haven’t posted any questions because it’s all a bit intimidating and overwhelming for me. Some of the posts are definitely over my head. But I have been taking some notes about guy lines for a tarp (which are confusing me a bit because I don’t know how light I can go). Do you have any advice on that? I am trying desperately to reduce my weight.

      Reply
      • Scooter : Nov 22nd

        Gail, you’re in good company over there! It is a plethora of information, you can spend countless hours going down the rabbit hole. Guy lines, I use Dutchware pieces with zing it and shock cord. They weigh just grams and the simplicity on using them make them well worth it. There is no hassle with tying knots (picture tying to tie when it’s freezing rain and numb fingers). Dutchwaregear.com extremely quick shipping, and he’s running sales all week

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Nov 22nd

          Scooter, I just looked up the website. So zing it is the cord for the guy lines, right? What pieces do you use with that? Do I need shock cord if I have a Cuban fiber tarp?

          Reply
          • Scooter : Nov 22nd

            Gail, yes, I use that along with ‘dutch fleas’ that are tied to shock cord. Shock cord helps with some flex that could occur. There is a guy, Shug, who has a YouTube channel covering the gamut of hammock camping. He is very helpful and also entertaining. You are are more ahead of the curve than you think. Just keep digging around and practicing setting up/sleeping in your gear. Like someone mentioned above, you can use a sleeping bag for a top quilt until yours arrives. I have a thermometer tied on my ridgeline so I can keep tabs on temps as well, just have to practice..

            Reply
          • Jeff Walldorf : Nov 22nd

            Gail, I’m a member over at hammockforums and have been down the road your on right now. Look me up over there (user name Jeff-in-AL) and shoot me a PM with any issus you have. I’ll be happy to help you out.

            Reply
          • Gail Barrett : Nov 23rd

            Thank you, Jeff! I will definitely do that! Be prepared for a lot of questions!?

            Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Nov 23rd

          Scooter, I’ve actually watched a couple of Shug’s videos. He came up when I did a search. Having videos available on YouTube is so incredibly helpful! Honestly, I have no idea what I’d do without it. Thanks again for the informatio. I’ll check it out right away!

          Reply
  • Kate : Nov 23rd

    Gail, I’ve got the regular version of the Blackbird for my thru-hike next year. I have spent several nights in it so far, but haven’t quite gotten it dialed in yet. However, I assure you that as long as you can get it securely between two trees, you will have plenty of time for getting the “hang” of it on the trail. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Even the nights when I haven’t gotten it quite right, it’s still been a place to sleep. As for the shock cord tie-outs on the hammock, I think I’m probably going to remove mine. I find the one by the head nice for keeping the net away from my face, but I hate worrying about tripping on it. And I think the “shelf” side is perfectly fine as more of a pocket. I opted to go for a cuben fiber tarp and I’m really happy I did. It is quite translucent, but considering you’re unlikely to pitch any tarp even close to all the way down to the ground, there is going to be some level of exposure with whatever you choose. Might as well save weight and let in a little light!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 23rd

      That’s a great idea to just let the shelf hang loose like a pocket, Kate. The fewer cords I have to fiddle with, the better. Did you get the regular tarp or the one with doors? I’m wondering how necessary the doors are. If the wind is really blowing and it is raining, I can see that it would be good to have the extra protection, but it requires more stake out lines (and more to trip over). What do you think? I definitely want to get cuben fiber because of the weight.

      Reply
      • Kate : Nov 25th

        I debated on doors or not for quite a while, too! I wound up getting the doors and added the built-iin tie-backs because it added so little weight. Even though I think I will keep them tied back most of the time unless there’s a big storm, I figured that having more options was a good thing. I haven’t had a chance to actually test it in the rain, yet.

        Reply
        • Kate : Nov 25th

          Oh, and if you have the doors tied back, you don’t need to stake them out.

          Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Nov 25th

          Thanks, Kate! I decided to go ahead and order the one with doors and tie backs. I figured the same thing you did, that it’s better to have more protection in case I need it. The extra weight is minimal, and it gives me some peace of mind to know that I’ve got extra coverage. Now I can’t wait to try it out!!!

          Reply
  • Claudia Wilson : Nov 26th

    I practiced hanging my WB hammock at home a few times, the trees are perfectly spaced. I hung it another place or two but that was it. The WB Edge tarp was my first choice, and it’s how I learned to hang a tarp.
    I ordered and received ZPacks hammock tarp just before my hike last spring. It’s opaque enough for privacy but I do wish it came in olive drab. Prepare to need sunglasses using a Cuben fiber tarp under a leafless tree during a sunny day.
    I used WB top and bottom quilts. In fact, I machine washed those quilts before hiking the AT again last August and they totally held up and performed as before. I’m not recommending this, by the way.

    At 62, out of shape, and totally new to hiking and backpacking and all things associated, I was a walking joke. Except I was serious and motivated and somehow very drawn to the adventure. I knew enough to pack light and go slow. Pack light and go slow and consume enough calories.

    Let me assure you that you and your husband are gonna be just fine. Being out there and ready to collapse into your (wonderful!) hammock after a day of hiking will sharpen your skills and technique fast. Some days I had a perfect hang and some days were less than stellar. I still managed to stay warm and dry the entire 6 weeks from Springer, starting the last week of April ’16. I thank God for that.

    I’m sure you already have Hansen’s Ultimate Hang book, considering your other resources. Seek him out on YouTube.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Nov 27th

      Thanks for the information, Claudia. I don’t have that book yet but will get it right away. I’ll check out his youtube videos, too.

      Since our first disastrous attempt to hang the hammocks, we have practiced three more times. Each time we get a little better and faster. We still haven’t slept overnight in our hammocks, but I’m actually beginning to look forward to it. Our top quilts finally arrived this week, so we went to the park yesterday and set up one of the hammocks with all the quilts, and it felt like we were lying on clouds! It was a little cocoon of downy softness! Heaven!!!! I am so glad we made the choices we did. These hammocks will feel blissful after a tiring hike.

      As far as the hike goes, my plantar fasciitis seems to kick in after about eight miles, so I’m going to have to take it slow. I simply don’t have much choice. I’ll start with 8 miles per day, then see if I can build up to 15 without too much pain. Right now the pain subsides overnight, but hiking back to back days for weeks on end will be different (and carrying weight). It’s humbling to have to go so slowly, but I guess that’s the way it is at our age:(. I’m really glad to hear that you did well. That gives me hope!!! If you have any more tips, I’d love to hear them!

      Reply
  • Kirsten : Dec 6th

    Your post reminds me so much of my epic fail last spring during my shakedown hike. I had practiced putting up my tent in the fall so I thought I remembered how to do it but I completely forgot and if it weren’t for my dad miraculously having 4G so I could stream a how to video on his phone, I would’ve had to cowboy camp in the cold. Haha. Hope to meet you along the trail at some point!

    Reply

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