Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Walking Off the Dead

Robert Hammond in the Sierra - photo courtesy of Robert Hammond.


At 58 years old, Robert Hammond did something entirely unexpected. He sold his business, his car, all his possessions, and wandered off alone, on foot, into the Sonoran Desert. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn't trying to live out any romanticized mountain-man fantasy. Robert Hammond was trying to change his life.

From a dusty roadside in Ojai, California, Hammond reflected on the year that nearly killed him. In 2014, the anxiety and depression he had battled since childhood had finally won.

“I have covered up my mental duress with wit, humor, alcohol and drugs to mask the living hell that makes its residence in my brain,” Hammond said.

In 2014, he couldn’t contain that hell any longer. After he lost his temper with his teenage son Dillon, Hammond set out on a 15,000-mile road trip around the Southwest. Long a nature lover, Hammond thought the natural beauty of the vast western landscape would heal him. He thought it would change him. But the road trip soon morphed into a “death drive.”

Behind the wheel he dwelt on the incident with Dillon. His own words knives in his heart. Guilt and regret often obscured the desert vistas and mountain views outside his Jeep windows. In 10 minutes of screaming at his son he had “ruined” a tightknit relationship that had taken him 17 years to build. He could never forgive himself. He reasoned that he was better off dead.

Hammond yearned to “check out,” but the pain he knew it would cause those he loved always stayed his hand. Then one night in a “sleazy” Roswell motel room, he saw a report of Robin Williams’ suicide on T.V., and it saved his life.

“I realized that depression is non-judgmental and does not discriminate,” Hammond said.

Above all, he considered how devastated Williams’ kids must be, and resolved not to afflict his own kids with the same pain.

He resolved to be a better father. He needed to see his son graduate high school. He had to be with his daughter on her wedding day. He wanted to be there for the birth of his grandkids. He wanted to live. But how?

“I knew big changes had to take place as I was among the walking dead,” Hammond said.

He decided to walk off the dead by trekking 2,500 miles to Seattle via the Pacific Crest Trail. There he’ll see his oldest daughter Lauren’s wedding and meet his new grandchild. Maybe do some motivational speaking if anyone cares to listen. After a brief stay, he wants to catch the Continental Divide Trail in Montana, and trek another 3,000 miles back to Arizona.

Dillon believed his dad’s plan was “a little crazy.” He supported him anyway, hoping that this trail to self-discovery would bring the change he knew his father desperately needed. Hopes aside, Dillon can’t help but feel a little skeptical. This isn’t the first time his father has tried to remake himself. Through the years Dillon has seen the back-and-forth. The up-and-down. He knows the mammoth challenge his dad is facing in becoming the man he wants to be. Despite this, Dillon remains ever optimistic.

This time his dad, “seems to have a different attitude,” he said.

After a January 15 start from New River, Arizona, Hammond is poised to enter the famed Sierra Nevada range in California, but high winds and a frigid forecast find him waiting restlessly in the low-country. He’s battled injury, illness, hunger, thirst and cold. He quit his antidepressants cold turkey three weeks ago. But well over 1,000 miles in, his spirits are high.

The desert took its toll. Water was scarce. Some days he carried 2 gallons to be safe. Other days he drank from puddles. His 16-mile-a-day pace brutalized his feet (he’s currently on his fourth pair of boots). A chest infection laid him up for four days; shin splints for another two. But he kept going.

In southern California, he veered off the PCT. His savings dried up and hotels were no longer an option in towns. He slept in a train car, under bridges, on beaches and next to highways. In San Bernardino, he stealth camped behind Sears.

Despite some detours, Hammond always returns to the PCT. Like so many other hikers, drawn to the solitude and peace of mind that only wilderness provides. For Hammond, the trail is therapy. The lonely miles provide endless hours of reflection and retrospection. The snowcapped mountains a reminder of that which truly matters; family, friends and human decency.

It is this decency that has made the largest impact on Hammond. His elderly mother faithfully sending care packages. The companionship of Chris (aka Knuckles) from his early days on the PCT. Priscilla Kelly, a Facebook friend he’d never met who provided him food and shelter. “Anonymous Dave” in Mammoth Lakes, who gave him gloves and sunglasses. The friends and strangers who have donated to his GoFundMe page. Longtime friend Lynda Lukan offering support and encouragement over the phone whenever he has a signal.

Hammond’s journey was somewhat of a shock for Lukan. Although they shared a home for five years, she never suspected the severity of Hammond’s emotional problems. For her, Hammond was a good man and a good father, who had regular problems like everyone else. It wasn't until after his fight with Dillon that she realized just how much he was suffering.

“I hope he gets clarity and renewness (sic). I hope he can forgive himself,” Lukan said.

As Hammond fights snow and cold in the Sierras, his quest continues. He feels like a changed man, and physically he is. Hammond has lost 30 pounds as hard-earned miles have slowly replaced fat with lean muscle mass. Emotionally, the depression and anxiety have mostly disappeared, but so far there’s no end in sight on the path to self-forgiveness.

“Failure has not been an option at all, ever,” he said.

Only time will tell.



*Hammond is currently back in Phoenix waiting to see Dillon graduate, and working odd jobs to raise money for the completion of his journey. You can help him get back on the trail by donating to his GoFundMe page, here.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Gear Review: Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp


Escapist in a windshield pitch.
The Dirt:

What is it? Ultralight backpacking tarp.

Comes with: Tarp, stuff sack, guylines, line locks

Materials: 15-denier silicone/polyurethane-coated Ultra-Sil® Nano 

Size: Medium - 6 ft. 6 in. x 8 ft. 6 in. Large - 10 x 10 ft.

Weight: Medium - 9.5 ounces. Large - 12.3 ounces

Price: Medium - $169.00. Large - $199.00.  REI.com

The Sea to Summit Escapist is my first true tarp. I've owned a couple tarp tents before: The Golite Shangri La and the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, and I like the Escapist better than both of them. 

The medium Escapist is the perfect shelter for the solo backpacker who likes to go extremely light. I love it for the desert because in the desert you typically don't need shelter, and there aren't many mosquitoes. In that case I carry the Escapist more as a backup, or more commonly, a windbreak. In fact, every time I've ever pitched the Escapist, I've done so primarily as a windbreak. That's why this thing is so cool. It is very versatile. There are probably dozens of ways to pitch a rectangular tarp, and the Escapists packaging comes with a few ideas.
Pitch ideas.
The Escapist has eight reinforced tie-out points that can all take a trekking pole.  Each of these points come with cord adjusters and reflective guyline, so it's ready to go brand new. All these tie-out points really give the Escapist its versatility. 

Since I primarily backpack in the desert, I've never had the chance to pitch this tarp using trees. I've always had to use my trekking poles. However, with practice, a proper trekking pole pitch is very sturdy. The Escapist has withstood 30 mph winds on multiple occasions. The drawback in pitching with trekking poles is that you'll need to carry some extra cordage. I've found that an extra 10 feet of spectra cord is the perfect length, and doesn't weigh anything,



What's impressed me the most about the Escapist is its durability. On a few separate occasion camped in the desert I've experienced extremely high winds. Winds that were blowing so hard I had to stack boulders over my stakes to keep them in the ground. This tarp is strong and well made and despite its lightweight, has stood up great over the last 6 months. It's got no holes, tares or any other problems. 
Favorite windshield pitch.

One of the big drawbacks of pitching with trekking poles is the loss of head room due to the fact that your tied off into the ground. I found this a problem with the classic windshield pitch and the A-frame pitch. On those occasions high winds forced me to tighten the guylines, which resulted in a lowering of one section of the tarp. Usually the section in between the trekking poles. One way to offset this is by placing your poles in adjoining points. No matter how much you tighten the pitch, you'll never lose headroom. Bottom: In the classic windshield pitch you can see that I lost headroom after tightening the center guyline. If the center guyline were anchored to a tree it wouldn't have been a problem.
Classic windshield pitch.
There is a learning curve with the Escapist. Don't expect to purchase this shelter and set it up perfectly the first time (unless you are experienced with this shelter type). It's nothing like a freestanding tent. It takes practice. To me, the versatility and absurd weight savings are well worth spending a little extra time in camp with set-up. Using the Escapist I found that I was more particular than ever about set-up location and site preparation. 
A-frame

Bottom Line 

The Sea to Summit Escapist is great for anyone stepping into the world of ultralight backpacking. Its versatile, strong, light and packs extremely small. Set-up takes practice, but learning the different pitches is half the fun. 

Note: It rarely rains in the desert, and I never got a chance to use this tarp in rain. 


Modified A-frame

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Backpacking Fiasco

 How may of my trip reports begin with "The original plan was...?" This was one of those trips where nothing went right, even before I stepped out the front door. Since I had three days off in a row, I decided it would be the perfect opportunity for some backpacking. I thought I would head into the Superstitions for a few days. Enjoy some peace and quiet. Enjoy some solitude. My plan was to just "wing it". I would figure it out as I went.

Flowers are blooming
 It was Monday morning and I couldn't find my map. I had last used it back in December. The last time I was in the Superstitions. But now it was gone. Not to be dissuaded, I decided to visit the Cave Creek area of Tonto National Forest again. My "go to" spot, if you will. Plus, I had the map. At the trailhead I knew right away that I shouldn't be there. My hip was killing me right out of the gate. Sciatic pain screamed down my leg into my calf with every step. I didn't think it would be that bad. A mile in I was already limping. I considered turning around, but I just didn't want to quit. I could simply just ignore the pain. Like I do every day. Three miles in and I needed a break. I found a nice shady spot and lied down. I stretched my leg and did some other exercises. I considered turning around again. I was in too much pain for a solo jaunt through the desert. I clearly was not in the proper physical condition for backpacking. But I had made it three miles, so I decided to camp right there.

Me camp. Argh!
I pitched my tarp as a windbreak and collected firewood. Even that was painful. I lazed the afternoon away and cooked dinner with my alcohol stove. Chicken and mashed potatoes ala freeze dried. Good stuff. I turned in about 8 pm. Around 10 pm I awoke to the sound of breaking brush near my camp. Something big was near. I ignored the sound. There are no bears in the low desert. But the sound didn't abate. Something was hanging around my camp. I got out of bed, turned on my headlamp, and scanned the darkness. Nothing but shoulder-high brush and tress. I crawled back into bed. Not 10 minutes later I heard breaking branches followed by huffing and puffing. This time I jumped out of bed. I scanned the dark with my headlamp again. Again I didn't see anything. I decided to reignite my smoldering fire. I found a large branch and snapped it in half. The sound of the snapping branch pierced the night, and startled whatever was in the brush. It ran toward the creek and jumped in the water. I could hear its footfalls as it splashed across the creek and crawled up the embankment on the other side. 

I sat by the fire for the next hour, just making as much noise as I could. By then I was thoroughly spooked. There are no bears in the low desert. I have never seen bear-sign in that area before. The only large predators in that area are mountain lion, but I reasoned that it couldn't have been a mountain lion because lions are silent. If a lion wanted to eat me, it could have crept up to my bed and locked its jaws around my throat without me even knowing. It could have been a coyote, but I didn't think so. The coyotes I have seen in the desert have been very small. I reasoned that it had to have been either a deer or a javelina, or maybe even a herd of javelina. I have run into javelina in the desert and they have not been aggressive, so I knew that I had nothing to fear from them. Eventually my reasoning quelled my fear, and I went back to bed.

At 3am I awoke again. This time from a heavy wind pounding my tarp. I had pitched the tarp in a windshield configuration expecting high winds, but the wind had changed direction by 3am. I crawled out of my bag and tightened all the guylines. The wind grew stronger and stronger and I couldn't fall back asleep. Finally around 3:30am, a huge gust literally pulled my stakes right out of the ground, and my tarp collapsed on top of me. I had anticipated this might happen, so I had stacked large stones on top of my tent stakes, but they had been flung aside by the wind battering my tarp. I got up and drove the stakes back in. This time I piled up boulder sized stones on the tent stakes. All the while, the bending and lifting was shooting pain down my leg. By 4am the wind had grown even stronger and it pulled another stake from the ground causing a corner of my tarp to flap. I got up and drove the stake in again, and piled 3 boulders on top of the stake. Then I lowered my trekking poles about 6 inches, drastically reducing the angle of the windshield, and thus surface area for the wind to hit. It worked perfectly. I wanted to kick myself for not thinking of it sooner. Such an obvious solution.

Cave Creek
I awoke with the sun around 7:30am. After such a brutal night I felt worse than I did when I went to bed. After a cold breakfast of granola and powdered milk, I packed up and headed back. The hike out was worse than the hike in. Of course, it was beautiful, and I did get to see many wonderful desert birds including a red tailed hawk, ravens, geese, and some cactus wren. The beauty of being there made up for the pain, but clearly I need to see a doctor before I do any more backpacking. I just don't have it in me at the moment. I guess for now I'll have to take it easy. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Writer in Review

I have this professor at school. She is managing editor of Arizona Highways magazine, as well as a published author. She said something in class that really got me thinking:

"Write as though every word is on trial for its life."

So I decided to go back and review what I have written on this blog. I have almost made it to the five year mark and I think a good clean-up is in order.

It's funny. There are so many things I didn't write about in the beginning. Why did I omit so many epic backpacking trips? The Seven Devils, Heart Lake, William O' Douglas, Revett Lake and tons more. I briefly considered going back and writing them all anyway, but I wont. Instead I'll just clean up what I have.

Reviewing my archives, it's clear that I just didn't take the blog seriously until I moved to Arizona in 2013. It's the stuff before then that I'll be working on. I want my blog tip-top. I want it to be the best.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Backpacking Stoves

Discussing 3 backpacking stoves, and weighing the pros and cons of each.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Oak Creek Fishing


Oak Creek
 It seems like forever since I've been fishing. Early last summer was the last time I went. I think. Fishing generally takes a backseat to backpacking for me, especially for overnight/multiday trips. I used to do them together when I lived in Spokane, but since I've been in Phoenix my backpacking fishing kit has been collecting dust in my gear closet. 

After an overnight stay in a plush cabin north of Sedona, my friends and I hit the creek bright and early Monday morning. Luckily I wasn't feeling the six-pack I drank the night before. The air was refreshingly brisk, and it wasn't until late in the morning when the sun finally reached the water in the canyon. I was elated by the weather. Cool air, running water and an abundance of trees isn't something I'm used too. Unfortunately, due to ongoing drought and low winter snowpack, the water level was really low. We hiked and bushwhacked up and down the creek searching for any pools big enough to sustain the brown trout we were looking for. They were hard to come by. 

Low water at Oak Creek
Raccoon?
 The pools we did find were really shallow. Maybe 2 feet deep at most. Jim and Mike fly-fished from the top, while I tried spinners, salmon eggs and even powerbait. The water was just too low, and we saw no sign of fish at all. I posted up on one pool and spent a couple hours throwing in everything I had. If there were any trout in that water, they didn't bite. Even though I wasn't catching anything, I was still enjoying myself. Like I always say, just being in the woods is enough. I saw some ducks, a great blue heron, and what I presumed to be raccoon tracks in the mud. That's what I love about the woods. It's never time wasted. There is always something to see and something to learn. Thanks for reading.



Friday, February 13, 2015

Desert Backpacking - Minimalist Kit

So, I finally got around to making a video about my backpacking kit. It was a lot of fun making, and I'll definitely be making more in the future. It did turn out really long though, which isn't too surprising considering I can be very long winded when talking about something I'm really passionate about like backpacking. This is worth a look if you are interested in desert gear or just lightweight/minimalist gear.