Ballard and Walker: PCT Thru-Hikers

Couples Camping

August 21, 2000

Actually, our relationship has held up remarkably well, much better surely, than many would have secretly predicted. This is not to say that there wasn't plenty of reason for friends, family and even us to have doubts going into this adventure.

For me, these doubts should have started with my family history—that is if I had bothered to carefully consider it before embarking on a couple-hike. You see, the Ballard-Anderson men have tried this outdoor chivalry thing before—and the results have been amusingly dismal.

First, there was my Grandpa Anderson, who was the type of man who considered camping a perfect vacation. He was a frugal, practical guy who had a difficult time comprehending the sense of spending $15 for a night in a hotel room (moderately priced in his day) or the usefulness of lingering in front of a Rembrandt. A campsite next to a lake (filled with plenty of hungry fish) where no one would attempt to swindle his dime was his style. Unfortunately for Grampa, Grandma Anderson did not share the same sentiments—she was fond of classy hotels and fine restaurants but especially enamored with indoor plumbing. Gramps did his best to sway her, however, starting with a car-camping honeymoon in Yellowstone National Park.

Yet even in such a memorable location, things got off to a rocky start. Curled up in the backseat of Grampa's Model A, the newlyweds were, by all accounts, enjoying a romantic evening. That is, until the car started rocking violently. Gramps and Grammy may have been young and lustful at the time but this rocking was far more than either had bargained for. It turns out that Grampa had had the clever idea of storing the food bag beneath the car and now a bear had discovered that with a little wriggling he could claim the prize. So, it was this precedent that Grampa would have to attempt to overcome. It wasn't easy, but on occasion Grandma would humor him with a weekend outing. Without fail, however, she would assert her preference for the indoors and the her distaste for doing a #2 in the woods.

Grampa was a resourceful, inventive fella, and he figured that he could devise a way to make his wife's outdoor experience more enjoyable. His solution was a multi-purpose camp stool—a wooden seat with a circular hole in the middle. Placed over a cat hole, this would seem to remedy one of his wife's major objections to camping. A fine idea, but a messy outcome—when Grandma went to use her throne over the ceremonial ditch she collapsed the stool and was unceremoniously ditched. So much for convincing Grandma that the lap of luxury could be found outdoors. From then on, plumbing became a vacation prerequisite.

My father's luck wasn't much better, at least not initially. Once again, the problems began shortly after matrimony. My parents were excitedly planning their honeymoon just days before the Big Day. Being that they didn't have a whole lot money to spend, they decided that at least one night camping would be a good way to stretch their funds. My father generously offered the use of his tent. Dad had many fond memories of this tent—it was his boyhood ticket to adventure. His "pup" tent had been his shelter on many a Midwestern fall night in the woods near the local cornfields. He would bring along his little terrier Tiny and after an evening of exploration, my father would crawl into his tent and snuggle into his sleeping bag with Tiny curled up at his feet.

Buoyed by these fond childhood memories, Pops proudly pulled out his pup tent at a Cleveland-area campground on his wedding night. After nearly 10 years in his closet, this pup tent would help him make his transition from boy to man. There was only one small problem. Small indeed, was his pup tent. My mother took one look at the diminutive pup and doubted that her husband and a dog (even one named Tiny) could have ever fit in it. The newlyweds proceeded directly to the nearest motel.

Luckily, this misstep wasn't enough to cause my mother to swear off the outdoors forever, but its significance as a precedent should have nonetheless been of concern to me.

Should have been, but wasn't. With all the logistics to be taken care of before leaving, I didn't have too much time to fret about a dubious family history. Although I guess even if I had, what lessons would I have learned? I can think of at least three:

1) Do not turn a camping trip into a honeymoon (or vice versa), because you might end up in a tiny, gyrating tent. Hmmm, maybe not such a bad idea.

2) Do not try and make a camp stool do more than what it was born to do.

3) Being a Ballard, I should be prepared, after this trip, to never ever couple-camp again.

Who Cares What They Think?

And while I chose to ignore my genes, I couldn't ignore the skepticism I sensed in others. In fact, the potential for relationship discord was the topic most frequently broached immediately after we introduced our plans. The reaction was either a "Gee, you guys must really get along well," or a look of disbelief and a "Wow, you'll really get to know each other." This comment meaning, of course, "There is no way that you will both be able to handle four-and-a-half months of close-up views of each other's dirt, sweat, and bodily functions."

I don't blame people for having this sort of reaction, it is a natural one, and it's indisputable that long distance hiking is tough on couples.

If it wasn't discouraging enough to hear the skeptical undertones in the voices of others, we also had to face the gloomy forecast found in our print research. Poor Dan White recounted his experience for the San Jose Mercury News.

Back in 1996 he and (now former) girlfriend Rebecca set off to thru-hike the PCT. His expectations were high: "I thought of great dinners, fresh air, and endless lust in the woods. I imagined Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields eating guavas and shacking up with abandon in The Blue Lagoon." Well, it didn't work out that way for Dan and Rebecca, and Dan's article proceeds to give some grizzly details.

Differences in hiking style, motivation, and appreciation of dirt led to their downfall. At the end of the piece, Dan offers some pointers to would-be couple-hikers, but even these have a taste of inevitable doom.

Here's an example of one of Dan's "helpful" hints: "Lighten the mood in any way you can. Rebecca and I did this with terms of endearment. I called her 'Ratface' and she called me 'Fish Body'."

Well, as I stated earlier, our couple-hike has worked out remarkably well so far. For us, the secret must have been realistic expectations, because we haven't sucked down too many guava smoothies on the trail and our shacking up sure hasn't been with "abandon".

Table for Two

This has certainly not been a luxurious, dreamy summer in the woods—and it's a good thing that we didn't expect it to be. What it has been is a job, a seven-days-a-week, 12- to 14-hours-a-day job. We are bound together in this effort in almost every conceivable way. We share a tent, a sleeping bag and blanket, a cooking kit, a pot, a stove, and a food bag. We even share a hair brush, toothbrush, and deodorant. As you can imagine, this arrangement can create everyday stresses.

An example? Eating dinner.

It's usually not difficult for us to decide it's time to stop for dinner. The fact that we are both nearly always hungry helps us in this respect. If one of us hears the "time to get my grub on" gong, the other doesn't need to strain very hard to hear it too. But while the "when's dinner?" decision-making is easy (and "what's for dinner?" is irrelevant—we'll eat anything), the actual chowing-down is a different story.

Since day one, we've been grubbing out of a single pot—each with a spoon, scooping away. Angela eats very fast, and since we tend to be exceptionally hungry by the time our noodles (or potatoes) are ready, she moves quicker. With a compact motion, she executes a delicate but rapid shoveling. I am a fast eater—although not that fast—but just as hungry, so I have been forced to speed up my own shoveling. What results is more of a race than a relaxing meal. End result? The first dog to finish gets to move in on the other's bowl. This nightly ritual was a small stress, one that we let build for a month or so. Me making snide comments (or so I've been told) about Angela's table manners while she grew embittered by the nit-picking. Finally after one sarcastic remark too many, Angela exclaimed "If you have a problem with how much I eat, let's talk about it." Which we did, leading to a reasonable system: Angela would use the smaller spoon and take small bites, and I got the jumbo cooking spoon and the larger bites.

We have had to work out other little incompatibilities as well. Angela likes more breaks, the silly little slacker. I have a naturally longer stride and can hike faster. I don't always like to consult the map, while she gets nervous about off-trail excursions (and now with good reason after several episodes of getting lost). And of course, she doesn't always appreciate my shouts of triumph in the tent when Jon Miller describes a ninth-inning Giants' rally.

But you know what? These are really minor differences. When you break it right down we should feel darn good about the effort—we have successfully avoided dangerous camp stools, resisted the urge to call each other "Ratface" and "Fish Body," and Angela hasn't left me for Rudy, or anyone else. And as for the guavas, they can wait until we get home.


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