‘Born Again’ Backpacker

22 07 2014

Today I read an article predicting the “Death of Backpacking.” I started through the eulogy, my eyes flowing past phrases like, “I find that almost no one I know who is 40 or younger goes backpacking.” I guffawed audibly, but only my dog lifted his head to see what was so funny.


It was ironic to me because, literally, just yesterday, I was hiking the undulating forested terrain of Brown County State Park, saying the exact opposite. My wife and I passed two young men, 21 at best, who were fully loaded, hiking poles in each hand, navigating the occasional, fern-lined switch back along our 10 mile trail.brown county tree roots kelly

“Practicing?” I asked.

“Yeah, we are headin out  for a big hike soon.” One of the wiry, turtle-topped boys replied.

“Oh? Where to?”

“A place called the Appalachian Trail.”

I smiled and tried not to laugh. Yeah, I have heard of that one. “Awesome! Good luck!” I wished them as we passed by. Not only were these young men doing one of the ultimate hikes in the Unite States of America, but they were actually dedicated enough to PRACTICE, instead of just showing up like idiots with brand new gear and a smart phone. I was impressed that they were into backpacking at their age.


Later down that same path, we passed another couple, replete with two dogs carrying backpacks as well. We had passed them on our way out to Ogle Lake, and when we saw them again, I thought to ask them if they were also conditioning. “Heading to the A.T.,” they responded.


brown county bethany boardwalkHuh. Bethany and I kept hiking. Our loads were light, since we were just over an hour from home and doing a nice Sunday day hike before driving back. All we had was the essentials: water, camera, emergency first aid supplies. Oh, and the couple of bars of food that we almost forgot, but thankfully remembered before we got too far from our campsite. And, to be completely honest, I was carrying nothing but a smile. My wife carried all the gear and water for our 10 mile trek, as she often does for easy day hikes. I’m kind of spoiled.


As we hiked, I reflected on our recent trip to Glacier National Park, earlier this month. I was thinking about how lovely it was to be able to hike here and NOT talk. There are no bears in Indiana. No mountain lions. Not even prairie dogs to disturb our peace. Instead, we could calm our thoughts and walk in silence. It didn’t last for too long, but every so often we fell silent and just drank in the beauty of the forest. I watched the dappled sunlight filter onto my love’s beautiful face. I listened to the soft crunch of leaves and sticks, and my rubber soles rubbing against tree roots. There was nothing breathtaking. There were no vast expanses of mountains, no fields of wildflowers in every color imaginable. There were a few spots of scat, but mostly just deer, and an occasional butterfly that happened to flutter past.brown county ogle lake


It is a very different sense of beauty here in Indiana, but it is natural beauty, nonetheless. It quiets all the chatter in your mind. It wipes away the tenseness from your muscles that walk in the city, ready for fight or flight at any moment, be it from car or human assault. Don’t get me wrong, I love my urban lifestyle, and I feel very safe, but even my dog relaxes noticeably when we are in the wilderness surrounded by only the swishing of a breeze in the treetops. Nature is just… soothing. Wherever you are.


turtle brown county alien head flower brown county orange snapdragon like flowerIt amazes me that I took this long to come to hiking. I grew up enjoying nature, but always on the smallest scale. I lived on 7 acres, and spent time getting lost in my woods, using fallen tree trunks as balance beams and pretending that I was Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. I used to trespass onto nearby monastery land, blazing trails to get to the highest point in Oakland County. One time I stumbled onto a spot in the woods where a monk was sitting. Terrified I would get in trouble, I ran home. Now I laugh. Clearly, they got it. It took me a while to catch up.


On family vacations, we did the whole, ‘drive to lookout, get out of car and walk down paved path 0.63 miles, get back to car and drive more,’ kind of family vacation. I did not know anyone who hiked, and I never camped until I could drive myself. Once I was old enough, I was curious about hiking, but there was all this gear, and tools, and knowledge, that neither I, nor my friends, possessed. I wanted to go hiking, but I didn’t know how.


k river fallsWhen I was 26, I decided that it was now or never. I invested a few hundred dollars and bought a high-end, ultra-lightweight tent that I could assemble by myself in 2.4 minutes. I got a sleeping bag that, unlike my $20 Meijer’s cotton bag, compressed down to the size of my head, and weighed mere ounces! Oh, the joy I had researching and selecting this gear!! Even in the city, I had felt that rare connection to nature. That moment when your body feels electrified by the pure energy of trees and LIFE! I set a goal to camp as much as possible, and a long-term plan to make friends who through hiked, so they could teach me how to do it.


It wasn’t until I was preparing to turn 30, that I finally took the plunge and bought a full hiking pack. I went to REI and got fitted, though I had no clue what all I was supposed to fit in it. I knew that as long as I did not have the right gear, it would be my crutch and my excuse. I wanted so badly to get out there, that I was willing to take the financial risk that this could be a total waste of money that I would never use.


The first summer I knew my wife, we went on our first backpacking camping trip. We researched a park down in Hocking Hills, Ohio. We booked a walk-in site. We spend WEEKS packing, tweaking, and repacking our gear. We weighed our packs, lightened our loads, and figured out where we had duplication between us. When we first got down to those beautiful rolling hills, we were SO excited! We parked the car, threw our packs on our backs, and headed down the trail… all of about 300 feet, to where our campsite was. Oh. Well, that wasn’t quite what we expected when we booked the site. Nevertheless, it was a trial run, and we had a blast. And there has not been a trip since that we have not continued to refine our packing list and keep seeing how else we can shave a few ounces to lighten our loads.
trail 3 moss rock - CopyBackpacking is the ultimate experience. There is nothing quite as enthralling as hauling your ass up 1,670 feet to see countless vistas, waterfalls, and wildlife, only to land on top of the world! When you reach your destination, wherever it may be, you know that all those thousands of other people were satisfied just parking their cars and walking 0.63 miles, only to get back to their car and drive more. This place you hiked to? This is SPECIAL. This is something you EARNED. Nobody can take that away from you. Not even the bear that stole your camera.


Braving the Bears in Montana

7 07 2014

“Your free Companion Fare is about to expire,” the automated email warned me.

“What? I didn’t realize that we had a free flight still waiting for us.”

campground vista 3We had just cached in some frequent flyer miles to book a trip to Utah for this fall, so planning another trip was not quite on my radar. I logged on and confirmed, and, sure enough, we had earned a free flight, but the catch was that it had to be redeemed by July 31st, and it was already the end of May.


Initially, I wrote it off as a loss. I told my wife about the unfortunate timing, as we started planning our camping trip to southern Indiana for the week of July fourth, which I had requested off from work. It was only May, but it was already muggy and in the 80s-90s most days. I was starting to wonder what I had done by moving from Michigan to Indiana, as I wiped sweat from my face while planting seeds.


“Honey,” Bethany said slowly, in that tone that says, “Um, DUH!?!”

“What if we used that free flight to go someplace cooler for our fourth of July trip? You know it’s not going to be very much fun tent camping if it’s this hot, right?”


GENIUS! I knew I married her for a reason. We talked about a few options. We could go visit our friend Misa in Marquette, MI. We could explore Vermont. We could try Canada (nope, not valid for international travel). “Hey, I know, let’s go see Glacier National Park!” we finally realized together.glacier np


Immediately we dove into our research. Bears? Check. Camping? Hmmm, I’m not sure. AirBnB? There were some in Whitefish, about an hour drive away from the west side of the park, but they were almost as expensive as the hotels near the park. Our friends emailed us lengthy messages about the hikes they recommended, and gave us contact info for at least 2 different parents who live in Montana. When it came right down to it, we booked a pretty short trip- Sunday-Thursday- and decided to risk camping in bear country so we wouldn’t waste time driving in and out of the 1.2million acre park.


Bear-SignWe arrived on Sunday after driving up from Missoula, about 2 hours south. The skies were growing dark as we entered the national park, but the sun was still shining in the foreground. The infamous Going-To-The-Sun-Road was closed about 18 miles from the west entry, but we knew we wanted to explore this side first, in order to rent bear spray. You see, bear spray is highly recommended in the park. It is basically pepper spray on steroids, and costs $50 per bottle. You cannot fly with it, and so if you buy it, you then wear it on your hip holster for a week, hopefully never use it, then throw it away before you get on your plane. Thankfully, a lovely young couple recognized the insanity of this waste, and they started renting the spray for $5 per day.


We found the bear spray rental kiosk easily and rented our bear spray, just one for themcdonald lake two of us, since we knew we would be inseparable. Then we walked a few  hundred feet to overlook the south side of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. It was gorgeous; the water was a deep blue-green, growing darker in the distance before butting up against the snow capped mountains and the dark, stormy sky in the distance. We drove as far as we could up Going-To-The-Sun-Road, but the charcoal clouds had begun to weep down on us, so we did not get out to hike. We scoped out possible trailheads, then drove 1-½ hours down around the south end of the park to get to the east side, where our campsite was reserved.construction


By the time we got to St. Mary’s campground, it was sunny and dry. We set up our tent, prepared for the next day, and set out to explore our home for the week. We quickly saw a red 1971 VW bus, and immediately made some friends. They were on a family adventure, reuniting from Washington, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They arrived just a day before we did, and we asked about their hikes earlier that day. “Well, we didn’t go too far, but in the first mile we saw two grizzly bears.”

“What?!?” I asked incredulously. Yeah, they saw a bear. Not just a bear. A GRIZZLY, and then another one, mere miles from our tent.


20009_YBtfg_St_Mary_Campground_mdWhen we checked in with our local park ranger, they informed us that there had also been multiple brown bear sightings IN our campground. We were camping in loop B, and loop A was closed due to recent flooding. Loop C is the one where most of the RV campers were, and that is where the bear sightings have been spotted. Bethany and I had spent weeks researching how to hike in the woods to avoid bear encounters. We were reassured that it wasn’t really going to be an issue near our tent, as long as we put away our food, and they even provided bear boxes in the campground to make it easier. Knowing that there had been bear sightings brought all of those initial fears boiling to the surface.


“So, when we go to sleep,” I asked our new friends, “if we have to get up in the middle of the night to go pee, what do we do to keep the bears away?” Do we clap our hands and make noise, and wake up all the neighboring campers? Do we shine bright lights? Will the bear think he’s about to be abducted by aliens, or think the food train is coming? Nobody knew the right answer.

This was our worst nightmare!

This was our worst nightmare!


That first night we slept a little uneasy. There was only a thin layer of fabric between us and the bears. What if they smelled the bug spray on our tent and thought it was a flower? What if I got up in the middle of the night, unzipped my side of the tent, and found myself face-to-face with a bear? Bethany and I made a pact to wake each other up and go to the bathrooms as a pair. Better safe than sorry.


The stars were amazing. The sky was dark with a new moon, and the regular set of city stars were set against a backdrop of thousands of dimly lit backup singers.I barely paused to stare at them, cold from the 45 degree chill, and mostly too afraid of bears to linger. By the morning, I regretted not staring up at the sky a little longer. The sun rose before 6am. We pulled out our jetboil, made some hot tea, grabbed a few bars, and were on our way by 7:30am.


wildflowers on trailOur first day of hiking was intended as an acclimation hike. We planned for a waterfall loop, pretty easy terrain with rich rewards. We first hiked down 0.3 miles from the road to Baring Falls, then headed out along a path that rims St. Mary’s Lake. The path was quiet, but densely packed with wildflowers in every color. They were in full bloom, and I stopped frequently to take macro photos of each unique blossom. The mountains in the background kept changing as we hiked, and our vista of the lake below was lovely. We practiced our rhythmic shouting of, “Hey Bear!” as we were told.falls victoria2


bear printLess than an hour out, Bethany stopped dead in her tracks. “Kelly, I think this is a bear print,” she said in a calm but scared voice. I looked down, and, sure enough, she was right. A brown bear, I think. We paused for a moment and debated what we should do. Do we turn back? Continue? How fresh was it’s muddy path?


We resolved to continue on, but to ensure that there were no unexpected bear surprises, I began to sing. I sang every song that I could think of. It’s surprising, at that altitude, how difficult a time your brain has remembering those thousands of songs that you used to know word for word. I struggled to simply remember the choruses of golden oldies. We quickly settled in on a fun pattern of parodies. I took the song, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, and we changed the lyrics to reflect our current situation. Through the entire 7 hours of hiking we did that day, the lyrics continued to evolve.


Hey, Bear,k river falls

Go over there.

Take a sad walk, and get on going.

Remember, we’re only here for the view,

We don’t want to see you,

Hey, Bear,

Hey Bear.

It must have worked. Either the bears heard us coming, or they were so offended by our singing that they ran the other direction and warned the others. Either way, we slept a whole lot better that night, realizing how close we had come, and that we succeeded in warding off the bears.wildflowers river below yellow flower cluster white flower cone closed-because-the-bear-ate-the-sign-perhaps IMG_3806

The Secrets of Travel Grrrls

5 07 2014

This is the grass hut we stayed at while living on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand

Today we hosted a Meetup group of vegetarians for a potluck lunch (called a pitch-in here in Indiana). We had just flown in the day before from Montana, and were excitedly sharing stories about our trip to hike Glacier National Park. Meanwhile, one of our guests was looking through our photo album from Thailand, and we started sharing stories about staying at the elephant sanctuary, and the sound of elephants purring. After a few minutes of talking about all the places we have traveled, one guy in the room looked at me incredulously and said, “what do you DO?”


I laughed, and briefly explained that we don’t come from rich families, or make six figures (in fact my wife just graduated and we are a single income family right now). We are just travel lovers who have found a way to travel as much as possible on the cheap. We camp, we use mass transit when we can, we bring our own snacks, and the most expensive part is really just getting there. I’m pretty sure he still thinks we are filthy rich and that’s the only way you could see the world like we do. Here’s our little secret…


About a year and a half ago, my wife and I started exploring this new hobby. We collect air miles. we had heard about it from others but were suspicious at first. “Surely, this ruins their credit score,” I presumed, since it involves repeatedly opening up new credit cards that award you bonus miles when you sign up. As it turns out, it’s legit. And after reaping the benefits for over a year, I can honestly say it is too legit to quit.


Hiking Kauai's version of the Grand Canyon in Hawaii

Hiking Kauai’s version of the Grand Canyon in Hawaii

What changed my mind was when we met another older couple who was already doing this. We were staying in an AirBnB (peer-to-peer room rental) on the island of Kauai. We were there for just 3 days, on our way back home from our epic honeymoon in southeast Asia. The place we were staying was a large home with 5 bedrooms, a large shared kitchen and dining area, and an outdoor pool and hot tub. And it cost half as much as a boring hotel on the beach, while giving us a view to Hidden Falls out the back door. Another couple staying there was telling us about how they flew there for free. FREE. Really? We were doubtful.


After talking with them (and basically grilling the husband), I was finally convinced enough to give it a try. He explained that there was this website, MillionMileSecrets, run by another couple who does this way more intensely, and makes money telling other people their methods and the latest deals. Once you find the right deal for your goal (maybe with a particular airline, or hotel versus flight points), you apply, and then you must spend a certain amount of money on that card in a given time in order to earn the bonus miles. When we first started, the goal was relatively easy. We would have to spend $1000 on a card within 3 months, and then earn 30,000 bonus miles (which is enough for a free domestic flight!). Of course, these cards also award you points or miles for every dollar you spend on that card from there on out. But the big money is in the bonuses.


THE CREDIT DING?Credit-Scale-pic1

Every time you apply for a credit card, you get a hard inquiry into your credit report. This shows up as a ding, usually about 5 points or less. The drop in your credit score is temporary and it goes back up in a few months. If you start out with a good credit score, like my score of 815, 5 points is pretty minimal and does not impact my ability to do things like, say, get a mortgage for a house. Over the past year or so we’ve been doing this, we have actually applied for and received a new mortgage with no problem, and a great rate with no points, so we can personally vouch for this being a true statement.



Credit-cardThis only works if you PAY OFF your credit cards in full every month. If you can’t afford to spend your target goal (like $1000) without risking exceeding your budget, then you should not be looking into this right now. The trick is to funnel all of your expenses onto that one card that you are working on hitting a goal for bonus miles, and you need to be pretty organized and diligent in keeping track of all of this. We have an online spreadsheet that logs which cards we have used in the past, how long ago we closed it, and then we enter in the new card goal and deadline, so we know whether or not we are going to be able to spend enough to earn the bonus miles. If you are unable to devote some time to this hobby, you’re likely to end up wasting your time with little reward.



Believe it or not, it’s not that hard to hit some of the target spend goals. You just have to get a little creative, and sometimes decide if it’s worth it. We are always looking for things we can pay for with credit card. Besides the obvious stuff like gas and groceries, there may be other places that you already are spending that much each month, and it could be earning you miles. Utility bills? Laundromat? Restaurants? Home improvement projects?1601579_592594560823172_69793799_n


Some cards have been easy for us, and others we have had to work hard and plan ahead. For example, we knew we were going to need to buy a new washer and dryer when we moved, so we planned to open a new card around the same time, so we could use that big-ticket purchase to count towards a card with a much larger goal. We also had to have our house insulated, so we found a contractor who would let us pay for the materials ourselves with our credit card, and we just paid him for the labor. We’ve even found some contractors who were willing to accept partial payment in the form of Home Depot gift cards (which we bought with credit card) instead of a check. And if you are getting close to your deadline but still haven’t made your spend goal, you can pay ahead for some things by buying gift cards for yourself to places like gas stations and grocery stores.



bk grinell hikeAfter playing this card game for over a year, we have had a total of 6 credit cards, earned over 200,000 miles, and also received other perks like free checked bags, sky club membership, and discounts on other items via our card membership. This year alone we have used these free Delta miles to get one free ticket to Croatia, one free ticket to Montana to hike Glacier National Park, A free ticket to have my wife join me on a business trip to Raleigh, NC, and two free tickets to fly to Las Vegas for a road trip through Zion National Park in Utah and the Havasu Falls in northern Arizona. And we just got an email yesterday stating that we have earned another free Delta Companion Fare to use anytime in the next year. In January we are planning to fly to Florida to celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, and roll in a trip to the Everglades and the Florida Keys, all using stockpiled miles. With 175,000 miles sitting in my American Airlines account, I’m not even sure where we will go next!cambodia thailand 455

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