The Witchy Woman

This story was inspired by episode #130 - "Holdout" from the podcast 99% Invisible, which you can listen to hereand by my dear friend Alison, a true protector of the Wilderness. It is unfinished.

 
 

She lived in a tent, in a tree, in a Park, and they called her the witchy woman, and she was rarely seen by anyone these days. The Park was called Yosemite and it was beautiful. Oak stood next to pine and fir, along with the other last living bits of moss, mugwort, madrone. There were rocks there, and even a little waterfall that rotated the same 100 gallons of greenish water to the delight of tourists.  These remnants of a lost world stood in front of a spectactular 3D view of Half-Dome, the windows of the HalfDome Home made for an ever-changing 9,000 ft picture of where the monolith itself stood until it didn’t. 

Like the filling of the Grand Canyon with trash, and the oil rigs now dotting Yellowstone, this didn’t happen because people hated the Wilderness, it happened because it was necessary. What do you do when the population hits 14 billion and no one knows where to put 3 generations of unemployed Americans? God knows trying to stop people from having kids didn’t work, the media screamed “eugenics!” and demanded that we add government funding to the Mars colonization project, and then the Moon, but those places filled up, and people got tired of living with their entire extended families in the tiny cramped housing units that were stacked higher and higher, until they started crashing down. 

The first Apartment Collapse in China killed 3.7 million people when a building that had been designed to hold 250 floors was extended to nearly 700. It fell, as did 14 buildings it slammed into. Bystanders described it as a large scale game of dominos, and the wreckage was so impossible to manage that they just flattened it as best they could, drilled in new titanium foundations, and built on top of it. And so Half Dome was leveled, and the San Francisco bay was filled with bricks of compressed garbage, and Florida was connected to Mexico by an island build at its tail and then pushed into the gap of ocean it had been designed to fill like a puzzle piece. 

Hawaii is about the size of Texas now, and Australia was almost the size of Africa before a nuclear reactor blew and *poof* the last walkabout ended for good. 

I know, I know, this sounds like madness, but what do you do? Fire up the gas chambers? Build a planet out of old car tires and Pepsi cans? We tried, we really did, but no one ever wants to spend money on research when 75% of humans are living on Soylent bars and bartering synthetic tobacco extract for Tylenol. 

So people acclimated and called it “progress” and little by little trees were replaced with oxygen machines and beaches were replaced with skyscrapers and over time people mostly forgot what the world used to be like. But some didn’t. 

Which brings us to the Witchy Woman. 

 … to be continued. 

Ultralight Gear Won't Get You to Canada

I will be amending this post after my hike and I look forward to some head shaking at my own inexperience, but this isn’t a post about gear, it’s a post about perspective. I am not a doctor, nor an experienced long distance hiker, but I have lived in the Wilderness for the last 5 years, where I do a fair bit of hiking and watch 20 people juggle their own gear successes and failures every season. Without fail I have learned the same lesson: the stories we tell ourselves determine our future. 

Yuli. Klamath, 2012.

Yuli. Klamath, 2012.


Warren Doyle said, famously, “Your pack weight will be directly proportional to the sum of your fears,” and I tend to agree with a man with a 36,000 mile resume. But fear hides inside most of us, and it manifests itself in ways we don’t always notice. Some thru-hikers carry teddy bears or books, and others dehydrate toothpaste and spend $700 on 14 ounces of mesh and cuben fiber. I see fear in both these choices, and while reading thru-hiking blogs and counting the weight of my gear to the quarter ounce, I realized that I was shaving ounces because it’s the one thing I could control in a situation that's in many ways frightening. 

Fear of failure is what causes a lot of people to cut toothbrushes in half. I know it’s what motivated many of my gear choices, even when I know that adding $200 to drop 4 ounces won’t buy me a completed thru-hike. Good, expensive, comfortable gear will without question help you hike 2,659 miles, but so will tenacity, self-confidence, and the ability to tolerate suffering. I have lived in a tent in the Wilderness for 75% of the last 5 years. Good gear has saved my life, bad gear has made me miserable, and I have beaten the shit out of countless backpacks, hiking boots, tents, and sleeping bags, most of them midweight, some of them ultralight, and all of them subjected to months of constant use. I’ve never hiked more than 800 miles in 6 months, but I did once hike 800 miles in 6 months while swinging a pick and moving boulders for 40 hours of each week. 

 

Not all heroes wear capes, some wear huge packs filled with tools and trail trash. 

 

I was terrified entering my first traiI season and my gear was was my insurance policy. It was the thing I could obsess over to set myself up for the most success. I spent $2k on the best gear I could find, and amidst trips to REI to find the perfect stuff sacks to organize everything into my perfect, overstuffed pack, I realized that gear wasn’t going to save me. The realization that you are responsible for your own success and failure is a hard one, as is confronting your powerlessness to control the future. There will be sections of the trail this year that present incredible challenges that require expensive, life-saving gear, and no amount of moxie will make up for an ice axe or crampons when you need them. But no amount of money will buy you an express ticket to Canada, and a $300 bear canister is not going to save you from going crazy when the air is thick with mosquitos or when your feet are wet every single day for weeks. I have experienced both of those things working in the backcountry, and I was grateful then for the gear that served me well despite my general discomfort, but $300 wet boots are still wet boots. 

 

Another day in paradise.

 

I often ask myself how much an ounce is worth. There is a price on every ounce of gear in your pack, both literally and figuratively, and it is tempting to spend $200 to cut a few ounces of weight when you’re in the process of spending thousands. Some people pay a premium for ultralight gear and still end up weighed down with kindles and cameras and travel pillows. It’s obviously easier and cheaper to cut weight by removing the number of items in your pack than it is to buy the lightest gear available, but that's a much less satisfying solution. I say this as someone who appreciates the sheer joy of owning an expensive, well-designed piece of gear, and as someone who is packing a camera and tripod and cigarettes. We all want the best that life has to offer, even when it comes to the trowels we use to dig our cat holes, but sometimes the best is what you can comfortably afford. 

 
I am paying for my gear with a season of backcountry cooking, and with crumbled dollar bills from nights spent watching ravers on white drugs dance to music I hate. 

I am paying for my gear with a season of backcountry cooking, and with crumbled dollar bills from nights spent watching ravers on white drugs dance to music I hate. 

 

You can’t buy success, but you can improve your odds. The human body is a resilient, magical bag of bones, and carrying lots of weight makes it function less effectively. If you are reading this you have probably already read horror stories about carrying too much weight for too many miles. Shin splints, sprained ankles, torn ACLs, and pinched nerves can end a thru-hike, and long term stress on your body will eventually come back to haunt you. Ask a trail worker, their backs and knees creak with stories of the many things they have carried. You are more apt to be injured the more weight that you carry. This is irrefutable fact and no amount of positive thinking will change it, but it's just one part of a long story about the human race and the human body.

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Human beings evolved to survive in the Wilderness. We did it with loincloths and wooden spears, and then canvas tents and leather boots, and more recently with external frame packs and heavy Gor-Tex jackets. Your body was carefully crafted from the best attributes of your long dead ancestors, and your DNA tells the story of the human capacity to thrive in the wild. You are born of the best runners, fighters, hunters, and survivors of the human race, and your blood runs thick with potential. 

Our soldiers haul 100 pound packs across the desert while wearing full uniforms and clunky armor, and they pay for this with hours spent training to be strong enough to cope. You can lighten your load by cutting weight, but you can also "lighten" it by being strong, flexible, and fit enough to wield weight more comfortably. If ultralight gear isn’t something you can afford, consider spending more time training with the gear you can afford. My pack always feels lighter after a season of adjusting to its weight, and all the pizza I ate this winter will hurt me more this summer than the 2 pounds of weight I’m trying to eliminate from my pack. 

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Do not let having “bad" gear ruin a good hike. I know that when I started researching the PCT it seemed like I had to spend $600 on a Zpacks Hexamid Solo and $500 on a down quilt because that’s what people who hike the PCT do. I compiled a list of what makes up a thru-hiker uniform, and I thought that I needed that uniform to succeed. I without question wanted to fit in and be taken seriously by other hikers, and thru-hiker culture puts a huge emphasis on carrying a light pack. Your base weight speaks to your knowledge and dedication, and I very much wanted to convince myself that I had the knowledge and dedication to thru-hike successfully. 

 
This is what a dwindling bank account looks like.

This is what a dwindling bank account looks like.

 

Every single American is a public lands owner with the right to access our collective backyard, and there is joy and pride in inviting over our foreign friends so that they too can appreciate the wonders of the American wild. Do not confuse owning things with belonging to a community or with being capable, and do not sacrifice your financial security to conform to a standard set by other hikers. Hike your own hike, even before your feet touch trail, and do not let other people spend your money for you. Remember that no one needs to own anything to belong in the Wilderness, besides a body and a good measure of desire. Your body was designed to climb mountains and cross rivers, and it’s been restless as you’ve trained it to sit in front of a computer and wait in line at the bank. The potential to hike 2,659 miles lies inside of you, and no amount of money will replace the spark of courage that brought you to the decision to hike, or the incredible, completely free, irreplaceable piece of gear which is your own body. Enjoy its utility, treat it with kindness, and thank it for helping you.

I will be hiking with about 15 pounds of gear, some ultralight and carefully chosen, some cheap or already paid for. I have no doubt I will spend miles hating each and every last quarter ounce. I am meticulous and curious, and so I have weighed each item in my pack, but I no longer doubt my ability to hike 2,659 miles because of things like the weight of my socks or headlamp, and you shouldn’t either. For those of you hiking on the cheap with less than ideal gear, I salute you. You and I are hiking the same trail, but your hike will be more difficult in some ways, and your ability to transform your experience will be greater. I hope your hardship is not so much that it subtracts from your experience, and I hope you finish proud of everything you accomplished. Thru-hiking with a heavy pack says a lot about the strength of your mind and body, and I hope you take good care of both. 

PCTKelly Kate Warrenpct, gear
A Bit of Sacrifice
 

No one dies anymore. Immortality has been available since the mid-2000s, legal since 3112, and was only controversial until around 4000. The first rejuvenation center was burned 3 times by Far Left, pro-death protestors. The Media called them anarchists, savages, and a threat to progress, and they died dull deaths on parole in WellsFargo ReHab Communities™.  Today Immortality, or a semblance of, is far more common than dying.

One of the great inconveniences of humanity has been the problem of true Immortality, which is to say, life that transcends the necessity of physical form. Life that is not dependent on remaining fed or warm or safe from disease. Life that doesn’t need anything but time to continue to exist. We are close now, they say. It’s hard to tell when Alternative Facts emerge faster than they can be censored, and those in charge of the Media are voted in and out of office every season.

It turns out that Immortality requires quite a bit of sacrifice, but most people no longer see it that way. There was a time, remember, when most of the human race sacrificed health and happiness just to look underfed, and another time when they built over the last forests and jungles of earth to host the refugees of an over-polluted Mars. Children’s lives were saved and you can still explore the high alpine lakes of Yosemite and the humid buzzing of the Amazon via sensory tapes recorded before construction projects transformed them into stacks upon stacks of housing units and factory use spaces and social purchasing depots.

A lot has happened in the last few thousand years, and you can easily read and watch and feel any of it from the comfort of your Home™. But it's Social Commentary Sunday, and although there are trillions of performance pieces, graphic novels, podcasts, and pornographic renderings trending, I will share my perspectiveTRIGGER WARNING. TRIGGER WARNING.

TRIGGER WARNING.
FALSE NEWS: CITATION: [HUMAN FORM BIAS, UNNECESSARY NOSTALGIA], PLEASE SELECT CURRENT EMOTIONAL STATE AND REQUESTED ALTERATION TO STATUS.

ALL PERSPECTIVES MATTER.

DO NOT FALL VICTIM TO

                   UNNECESSARY

DURESS DUE TO HOSTILE MEDIAsome just live in a game of Tetris, the program that runs their dopamine levels linked up to the game so that 1,000 years passes in orgasmic pleasure over fitting little pixels together. It's not a bad life when you consider the alternatives.

There is no outside anymore. The City sprawls from horizon to horizon, but the horizon has largely been forgotten by those who now live mostly in small Home™ capsules stacked by the thousands in life support columns. Some just live as bits of data, conversing with other bits of data inhuman in origin, but there are still vaguely human forms, bound loosely in cages of wires, soft and pallid with curled spines and weak, spongy bones. Small implanted computers do away with any pain, and it turns out regret is a symptom of mortality. 

You live your days in flits of data now. And the freedom! You have all the time in the world to pursue every happiness in the world. Summer in Rio de Janeiro in 1967. Winters in Hawaii decades before man ever found her floating fat and lazy in the Pacific ocean. And there is no pain. And no fear. And none unwanted. No children are brought screaming into the world amidst blood and shit and the sobbing of a woman ripped apart. It's true that some still sample the old, barbaric habits of a dead humanity with the vague, entitled interest of collectors, but it isn't real, really. 

Some say there are still people out there, bound for Alpha Centuri and a gamma ray signal picked up in the year 3457. It was Mozart somehow, only garbled a bit, but it screamed of sentience. They say we sent out ships, hunkering old vehicles that use to carry people away from Earth to the stars. We haven't left Earth in a very long time now. Some say 10,000 years. Some say a million and would only be a little wrong

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scifiKelly Kate Warrenscifi
Why SciFi?
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Perspective is everything. I read science fiction because it reminds me to look at humans objectively and consider long timelines. I started writing science fiction because humanity spends too much time thinking in terms of years and decades and it's much more fun to think about what we'll be like centuries. 

Science fiction writers have warned us about ourselves for a century. They showed us the potential of gluttony and pride and greed and they told us stories about our ingenuity and compassion and ability to create art. It's a genre that allows for social and political criticism and absurdist humor. It's my favorite genre, and I genuinely believe that the world would be a better place if people read more science fiction and thought more about the obligations and responsibilities of being human. 

I have been playing around with writing scifi for the last few years while living in the backcountry, which is not the most obvious setting for writing about technology and the future of the human race, but it's the one that chose me. I'm no Asimov or Bradbury, but we all start somewhere, so please be patient with me as I share bits and pieces of stories I'm in the process of weaving together. I read mostly Golden Era short stories and I love it when a character on a spaceship types in a question on a keyboard and then waits for the spaceship to print out a response. And that's the kind of scifi I feel qualified to write without a PhD or regular access to the internet.

Ultimately I hope to complete a collection of short stories about a trail crew living in the Wilderness of a terraformed Mars. Ursula K. Le Guin recently called for a dystopia novel from the AltNatParksService crowd, and that is rattling around my head as well. 

You can read the beginnings of a story called "A Bit of Sacrifice" here.

 

 

 

scifiKelly Kate Warrenscifi