I’m on my sabbatical. That means I get a month off from work to do whatever the heck I want. And what I wanted to do, was go hike. Go camp. Get out. Get off the grid. Turn off the gadgets and the internet and the netflix and the news, and just… detach.
So I did.
Folks may remember a couple years ago I took a backpacking trip to try and make it around the Pemigewasset wilderness on my own. It.. didn’t end as expected, but I came away with a lot of self-knowledge and experience. I was determined to do it again, and this sabbatical was a great time to go.
I’ve already spent time up in the White Mountains this year, hiking in Tuckerman’s Ravine and enjoying the wintery landscapes. For all those visits, I’d stay at Pinkham Notch in Joe Dodge Lodge. That’s awesome, and the AMC does a great job hosting, but I hadn’t actually ‘gone backpacking’. I wanted to get more out on my own, and do some ‘detach’ time.
I’ve read about High Cabin, on Cardigan Mountain in western New Hampshire, and even walked by a couple years ago, but I’ve never stayed there. The idea of being in a completely off grid, hike-in only, no power, no water cabin on a mountain, by myself, for a couple days sounded like just the ticket. After a couple phone calls with AMC, I booked the cabin for Monday through Friday. It would be just me. So things were set.
This trip, as mentioned, would be the most ‘committed’ out-back adventure I’ve done. While I wasn’t completely in the wasteland with just a buck knife and my wits, there were a lot of details I had to figure out. I set some guidelines for myself. First, I’d only take what I could carry in one backpack up. I wouldn’t depend on the lodge (a 1.5 mile hike downhill, and then back up on the return) for anything. Second, I’d minimize the ‘distraction’ aspect. I’m a nerd. I like gadgets and toys. But this trip wasn’t about the gadgets and toys. It was about detaching, taking care of myself, and getting as much outdoors time as I could. Which brings me to third: I needed to push myself physically. Vacations are wonderful, and travel and getaways are great. But they’re also recipes for just sitting around and getting fatter. I’m old enough now that I’m very aware of how my body is dealing with idleness. I need to stay physically active to stay healthy. So this trip wasn’t going to be sitting around basketweaving all day. I needed to get on the trails every day.
With these guidelines in place, I looked at what the cabin provides. The short version is – it’s a rustic cabin. It has windows, a roof, screens (yay), a wood stove, bunks, a propane stove, and a limited number of pots, pans, and dishes. Also a composting toilet. That’s… pretty much it. 200 feet from the cabin was a spring that intermittently went dry, so I had to make sure I drew water and kept it on hand in the cabin for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Everything else I had to bring with me.
Okay, right, this is the fun part. What did I bring? Backpackers / hikers LOVE talking about gear. And I’m sure there’ll be endless discussion about (“you have a WHAT? That’s Junk, you should have a…”), but screw it. This is what I brought:
- REI 40 liter internal frame backpack
- Generic ’45 degree’ mummy sleeping bag
- Hiking poles
- Sleeping bag liner
- Camping pillow (loaned by a friend, very lightweight)
- Camelback-style water system
- 2 1 liter plastic bottles (carried up empty, used for filtering water)
- Sawyer water filter
- Waterproof matches
- First aid kit
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- 100% Deet bug spray
- Leatherman tool and belt holder
- Food / water:
- 2x tubes Nuun electrolyte water tablets (one with caffeine, one without)
- 8 packets of Trader Joes Instant Coffee
- 4 Mountain House scrambled egg breakfastw
- 2 Backpackers Pantry Three Cheese Mac and Cheese
- 2 Backpackers Pantry Lasagna
- 3 Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets
- 4 Nutri-grain bars
- 4 Soylent Mocha packets
- Nylon long pants with zipoffs
- 2x hiking socks
- Hiking boots
- 1 lightweight flannel pajama bottoms
- 1 long sleeve tee shirt
- 1 fleece vest
- 1 long sleeve cotton sweatshirt (this was an absolute indulgence)
- 1 pair underwear
- Wide brimmed hat
- Lightweight flipflops (for wearing around the cabin)
- Emergency poncho
- Foul weather rain jacket
- Electronics / Gadgetry
- Garmin inReach GPS satellite receiver / messaging / SOS tracker
- Anker 25000 mAh battery
- LED flashlight + fire starter
- Canon TG-6 waterproof camera with 2 extra batteries
- Samsung cell phone
- Samsung watch and charger
- Kindle Paperwhite Reader
Total pack weight – around 32lbs. Considering this was my entire kit for 5 days, it was a pretty good weight. I was 100% OUT of storage space though. I may have been able to stuff in an extra napkin or two, but that was it. No room left.
Day 1 – Monday – Arrival
I had spent the weekend packing and repacking and making sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. This was one of those “get it right the first time” adventures that challenges my OMG SHINY THING brain to organize and plan down to the oz. I tossed my backpack into the Jeep and headed up the Cardigan Lodge. The drive was pretty straight-forward, about 2 hours or so. I had checked with AMC to make sure it was okay to leave the Jeep parked there for the week, and they were fine with it. I had one last sandwich and coffee from Dunkin Donuts on the way.
By 1:30 I had checked in, gotten the combination for the cabin, and gotten a briefing on Things To Do and Things Not To do. The woman at the checkin counter in the lodge was super nice, and almost apologetically gave me the list. “Don’t write on the furniture or walls. Don’t leave ANYTHING behind, even if you think it might be useful to the next person. Filter your water. No fires other than in the wood stove.” Seemed like pretty basic stuff to me, but they did have to go through the list. Avoiding the incredibly noisy 13 year olds there on a school trip, I filled my water reservoir, settled my pack on my hips, turned on my GPS tracker, and I was off.
It was pretty much perfect hiking weather. Cool, dry, breezy. But, the bugs were DEFINITELY there. I was glad I had my bug spray (I use it very sparingly, just on the back of my hands, and lightly wiped on my neck and forehead). My long sleeve shirt kept them off my arms, and my hat worked well to keep my head all set. I knew from a previous time up Cardigan that the ‘lower half’ of the trail system was relatively easy. I took my time and settled into my rhythm. It took about 45 minutes to reach ‘Grand Junction’, a point in the middle of the lower part of the mountain where a ton of trails come together.
I was amused at the sign warning against going up Holt Trail – I’ve heard that that route is very rough, and that sign definitely warned me off it. I turned to head up the ski trail, but another sign warned that it wasn’t a hiking trail, and we shouldn’t walk on it. Ooookkay fine, a slight adjustment and a consultation with GaiaGPS, and I was off on a slightly different route. This took me a little wider than I had planned, but the route looked smooth and steady, so I headed up.
I made it up to the cutoff for the cabin and definitely was feeling the pack weight by this time (about an hour and a half in). I was pacing myself carefully, I wanted to make sure everything was ‘working right’. Last thing I wanted to do was injure myself on the first day.
After 2 hours I was on the cabin porch, going into what would be my home for the week.
High Cabin is… well, a rustic cabin on a mountain. It’s been on the site for almost 100 years, and has gone through a lot of changes and upgrades and repairs, but it still remains a building with no plumbing, no electricity, and no insulation. The latter wasn’t a problem for this trip, but folks up there in the winter, I’ve heard, go through a prodigious amount of firewood. There was a big pile of wood just outside the porch (I was told later it was 3 cords of firewood that was delivered by helicopter). This is perfect fuel for the woodstove.
Inside, there’s 12 bunks, a big central table, some very well worn plastic/metal chairs, and a kitchen area that has 2 work surfaces, a dry sink, a cabinet with wild assortment of cookware and dishes, and an old-ish Coleman cooler. More about the cooler later
I spent an hour or two familiarizing myself with my new home, unpacking all my kitchen supplies, my bedding, etc. During this time I changed into what would be my ‘casual’ outfit – my flannel pajamas and my sweatshirt, with my flipflops. I’m really glad I brought these because they were a comfortable and a nice change from my backpacking outfit. Downtime wear.
By this time it was into evening, and I started thinking about dinner. The cabin has no water, so I took one of the big soup pots the couple hundred feet over to the spring and filled it. The times of drinking ‘pure unfiltered spring water’ are long past, so my plan was to use the big soup pot as my inside ‘water tank’, and filter water from it as needed for cooking or drinking. The process I settled on was fill one of the 1L plastic bottles with water from the pot, screw the filter onto it, and squeeze the bottle to push water out into whatever I was going to use, be it the other plastic bottle (so I could mix up the Nuun tablets), or into a cup for Soylent, or into the tea kettle to be boiled for dinner or coffee (TECHNICALLY I didn’t need to do this last, as the filter’s main goal is to make sure I don’t get giardia or other nasties into my stomach. Those things would be eliminated in boiling water, but I was also slightly concerned about sediment and other muck in the water, so I filtered the stuff I was going to boil just to be safe.
Once I had water ready to boil, I had to light the propane stove. I absolutely love my littler plasma lighter / flashlight gizmo. It’s like having a rechargeable set of matches. But as I was trying to get the stove started, I realized the propane tank was empty. There was a second tank, so I swapped out the gas line for the new tank (this was behind the building), turned on the valve and… immediately smelled propane. This is why the old tank was empty – there’s a slight leak on the feed line by the valve. This wasn’t bad enough to prevent me from using the tank, but it DID mean I had to turn off the valve after every use. Okay, I could do that. I tightened down the line as best I could, turned it on, rushed back inside, and held my lighter to the burner while turning the inside valve on… hisss… hisss… VOOMPH. It lit. Right. One drawback of the plasma lighter is you have to be VERY CLOSE to what you’re lighting. I figured out a good angle to set the lighter so the lit flame on the burner woulnd’t get close to my hands, but it was dramatic.
I boiled up my water (yay whistling kettles!), and poured it into my vegetarian lasgna packet from Backpackers Pantry. It takes about 10 minutes of a combination of stirring and waiting for it to get ready, but it smelled great from the start.
In what was to become basic ritual, I sat down at the big table, turned on my Kindle, and just… ate and relaxed. The area was incredibly quiet, and I found myself settling into what I’d come to think of as ‘downtime’. No internet, no distractions, it was basically just ‘sit, eat, and read’.
By the time I was done, it was pretty dark. One of OTHER challenges for this trip was I only brought one backup battery. I could recharge my devices from it a few times, but after that, I had no other way of making power. I had considered bringing along some solar panels, but I just didn’t have the pack space (or the money for that matter) to indulge. Given that, I couldn’t just leave my lights on all the time. So I got used to sitting in the dark and turning on my flashlight only when I needed it. I got very comfortable with the Kindle backlighting (which was giving every indication of being able to run the entire week without recharging), but when it got dark there, it got DARK.
I cleaned up from dinner (tricky again because no running water. Used an open flat bottomed dish basin to wash everything up in, then drained it into an outside sort of sump like thing that’s used for dishwater. It drains water into an underground rock field, I believe, so the animals don’t dig around where they smell the food.
I did take a little bit to start the woodstove. It’s been a while since I set a fire, but after only a little bit of fumbling, I got it going. That stove became one of my best friends, because when it gets rolling, it turned the cabin into the tropics. I had to modulate it with the front vent to keep it from melting the furniture. But I was warm and cozy. It continued radiating heat until about 3 in the morning (after I had let it burn down on its own), so while the morning wasn’t that warm, I was able to go to sleep in a warm room, and as it cooled off overnight, I just snuggled further down into my sleeping bag.
I read for another hour or so, then started to settle into bed. The bunks were functional, if not luxurious, but with the little pillow I had brought, and rolling up my sweatshirt and my vest, I was comfy.
A note about the cooler in the kitchen. I came to really appreciate it when I realized late at night that… there’s quite the family of mice living in the cabin. It really gave me pause, as there’s nothing relaxing about going to sleep listening to mice scrabbling / chewing around the walls, and wondering if one is going to scamper across you in the night. But mice are mostly interested in food, and I’m not very tasty (I’m also a big carnivore, so they mostly avoided me). HOWEVER, they absolutely will go after anything that remotely smells like food. I made the mistake of leaving out a couple of my cocoa packets the first night, and lo! One had a hole chewed in it when I went to see what the noise was. From then on, I stored all my food inside the Coleman cooler, with a heavy pot on top of it. The mice lost interest in the kitchen after that, and my food was safe.
Day 2 – Tuesday – Let’s go hiking!
Tuesday I slept in longer than I expected to. I remembered from previous trips it’s common to… go to sleep when the sun goes down, get up when it’s light out again. I somehow missed this memo, and even though sunrise around this time is about 5:30am, I didn’t get up until almost 8. I powered up the Garmin and sent a message to Mrs. Geek saying good morning (turns out the Garmin needs to be out on the porch to be able to reach the satellites, so when I was in the cabin and it was on, I left it on the railing outside. I could hear if it beeped with a new message).
I started the meal ritual, but this morning would be scrambled eggs with bacon and coffee. Everything went fine, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good the Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee Packet thingies were. They include cream, sugar, and instant coffee, an two of them in a decent sized coffee mug was JUUUUUUUST right. Those morning cups ended up being the highlight of the day. I could only haver one cup each day, unfortunately, but it was SO good.
My friends Dave and Perley had said they were going to come up on Thursday for my last night in cabin, so I knew there’d probably be a summit hike with them. I wasn’t in a mad rush to get up on top, so I planned out a route for the day that would take up to the Cardigan South peak, the Cardigan Rim Rock, and then if I was up for it, out to Mount Gilman – about 3-4 miles total, with not much ups and downs.
I changed into my hiking gear, put on bug spray, reconfigured my backpack into ‘day hike’ mode (water, first aid kit, emergency stuff), enabled tracking on the InReach, sent a message to Mrs. Geek that I was heading out, and… headed out.
Of course, it can never go perfectly. I realized halfway up to the South Peak that I had forgotten my camera. Well, the trip was all about covering a lot of ground, so I trudged back to the cabin, picked up the camera, and headed out again. I didn’t want to rely on my cell phone for photography this trip — mostly because it was needed for mapping and communication if needed. Running down the battery on the camera isn’t a problem. Running out my phone is.
The views from South Peak were glorious as expected, and I could clearly see the summit of Cardigan (and darnit, those kids on the school trip were swarming all over it. Even though it was a good 3/4 mile away over open air, I could hear them whopping it up. I was glad I was over on my own). I did chat with a nice couple sitting at the South Peak, they were super polite and enjoying the views.
After that I decided to go down to Rim Rock, and then continued on to Gilman. The Gilman hike was really enjoyable, as it was a lightly travelled trail and wound through some beautiful woods and trees. It was quite the hoof, and took about an hour and a half to reach, but was worth the alone-thinky time. The bugs were definitely active when down in the trees, as there wasn’t enough of a breeze to keep them at bay. Hooray for bugspray.
At Gilman I paused for a quick snack (just a bar), and headed back. Eventually I made it back to the cabin, having been on the trail for 4-5 hours. A good first full day on the trails. Once back at the cabin, I changed, rested a bit, and pretty much repeated the previous night’s pattern.
One thing this did start to underline though, and something I was worried about. Boredom.
This cabin is remote and quite primitive. I can’t hike 10 hours a day, so there’s going to be downtime. How do you fill that time?
I preloaded a Kindle Paperwhite with a bunch of books as recommended from friends, and that really covered my ‘downtime’ entertainment. I kind of wished I had enough capacity (carrying, whatever) to have something else for fun. For instance, I didn’t have a way to listen to music (long term battery usage was a problem), and the quiet times would have been nice with some quiet tunes. I did end up using my phone to listen to some Spotify playlists I had downloaded, but only mid-week after I knew my batteries would hold out for the entire week.
Day 3 – Wednesday – In which Dave screws up
Wednesday I decided to go ahead and summit Cardigan, and extend the hike to a ‘full loop’ – basically going all the way around the ‘valley’ that was the mountain approach, with Cardigan Mountain at one end, and the lodge at the other. Mapping it out, it should have taken 5 hours or so, which is what I was hoping to be my average days hike
I headed out around 10am as usually, and after an hour or so, was on top, admiring the views as always. It really is a spectacular area, with the summit 100% open granite, with a fire tower jutting up. The day was clear and sunny, with a light breeze. The bugs on top were a little busy, but if you stayed in the breeze, it was okay. I got to get my face licked by a very cute puppy who had excitedly made the journey up top and they splashed happily in the rain puddle in the rocks.
I continued down the other side of the valley – it was a sharp descent, and involved some scrabbling and clambering, but all in all wasn’t too bad. I decided I was going to make the cross down one of the ski trails (which are marked “NOT FOR HIKING”, but it was going in the right direction and seemed okay. The trail actually wasn’t bad. It was open vegetation with a narrow path through the middle, but was definitely in ‘deep forest’ for most of the time. BUG CITY. About a third of the way down the ski trail (now about 3 hours into the hike), I started… not feeling great. Remembering back to the Pemi hike I did, I began to worry I had blown out my electrolytes again, but that didn’t seem quite right. I had half a bottle of the Nuun water before I left, so that shouldn’t be it. As I continued, I was feeling worse and worse. Fatigued, slightly nauseous, weak. The problem was I had to climb back up to the cabin after crossing the bottom of the trails, and I was NOT looking forward to that. Stopping to rest was problematic because of al the bugs – I really wanted nothing more than to just curl up in a ball on the side of the trail and hide.
The rest of the hike up to the cabin was horrible. I was tired, weak, worried my water was going to run out (It didn’t. But you can’t tell how much is in the reservoir without pulling it out of the backpack. When I got in, turns out I had about half a cup left). I remembered this feeling from other hikes. I do not recommend it. All you want to do is crawl into a corner somewhere and hide. “Why am I doing this? This is dreadful. I hurt, I’m uncomfortable, I’m tired, I’m hungry, ahhhhh!”). I was worried I had hit my strength limit, but that didn’t seem right as I’d been doing a couple days of hiking already… I didn’t know what was wrong.
Eventually I made it back to the cabin, and the relief of being out of the elements and away from the bugs was immense. I dropped my pack, drank some Nuun water and had a bite of a cereal bar, and laid down for an hour of absolute black-out sleep. I was vaguely worried about killing my sleeping schedule, but screw it, I was WIPED.
After I woke up, changed into my casual clothes, and settled in, I tried to figure out what went wrong. I was feeling slightly better, but still weak, and my appetite was GONE. I made dinner but only ate half of it. Considering I planned to eat about 1200-1400 calories a day (which is far less than I was burning), I should have been starving. But I couldn’t finish dinner. Just had no appetite. I was thirsty though, so I was drinking a fair amount… hmmm.
It took until bed time before I started having a clue what was wrong. When I hiked on Monday and Tuesday, I wore my long sleeve t-shirt, and my fleece vest. The fleece vest has… a collar. And that collar and the vest covered my neck and shoulders. On Wednesday I didn’t wear the vest because it was so warm. So my shoulders and neck were exposed. And on top of a mountain, that means sunburn.
I had burned a stretch of my shoulders quite bright red. That explained the fatigue, the nasea, and the lack of appetite. Fortunately, the burn didn’t seem to get beyond “turn my shoulder bright red” in terms of skin damage, but it did affect my entire state. It didn’t sting so badly I couldn’t sleep or anything, so thank goodness for that, but what an error on my part. It’s made slightly more embarrassing because Mrs. Geek had warned me to bring sunscreen. Sigh. Oops.
That night I turned my cell phone off ‘airplane mode’ for the first time on the trip. I’ve been deliberately staying offline, only using the InReach to stay in touch. Perley was planning on coming up Thursday, but Dave said he had to bail. I wanted to check in with Mrs. Geek just have a quick phone call. It was nice talking with someone close for a little bit.
Day 4 – Thursday – Company’s coming!
Hey, I’m going to have visitors!
Today Perley was going to come visit and stay over Thursday night. We had coordinated a bit over messages, and he said he’d make it up around 2pm. No problem, I’ll take a casual morning. I was still a bit wobbly from Wednesday, so I had a late breakfast and read for the morning. At one point he messaged me and asked if I needed anything… and asked if a vanilla shake is worth dragging up… I tried to dissuade him, but…
Friends, he did in fact put the milkshake in a Nalgene bottle and hauled it up the mountain for me.
He got there around 2:15, and… the milkshake was delicious (and appreciated), but… it was really rich. After 4 days of dehydrated food, this was.. maybe a bit much. But it sure did taste good!
After a lunch of (MILK SHAKE) and other snacks, we headed out for an afternoon of hiking and exploring. I took super-extra care to cover up my shoulders and neck (put the vest back on, and put a handkerchief around my beck),
to keep the sun off the sunburn. I never felt any more ‘burn’, so I guess it covered it up fine. It was a good, breezy, cool day, and we had a lovely hike.
That night I had my normal meals, showed Perley around the cabin and how to prepare stuff, as well as warning him about leaving food out, and we turned in around 10:30.
Day 5 – Friday – Time to go home
End of the week. Time to go home.
To be honest, I was READY. I wanted a shower, I wanted to sit on a comfortable chair, I wanted to see my wife, I wanted a cheeseburger in the worst way. I was ready to go home.
Packup and cleanup was super-easy. We followed the posted procedure and swept out the cabin, cleaned all the surfaces, cleaned out the wood stove, and locked up on the way out. Our packs were back up to ‘full weight’, though for me I had eaten through all my food, so that lightened things up a bit (I think I weighed it out – something like 6lbs was food).
The hike down and out was uneventful and remarkably quick (“Wow this seems shorter than when we went up.”). We had a lovely conversation with the staff at Cardigan Lodge where I let them know of any of the small problems I found (like the mice and the possibly leaking propane line). The fellow there was super nice and he told us some stories about previous visitors and stuff left at the cabin.
After that, it was a matter of climbing into the Jeep, reveling in the feel of a comfortable chair and air conditioning, and driving home.
For the record, I didn’t get a cheeseburger, I got a chicken parm sandwich at the Hooksett rest area, and that was just as magical.
Coming home was great. We had a sleepover scheduled for the (now) 14yo and his friends, so that was a bit busy in the house, but not as bad as you’d think. The kids were great, and it was just awesome to be HOME.
So how do I feel about the trip? Mostly good, but also a lot of thinky stuff.
Wednesday was awful. It reminded me that there are times on the trail that are just despair and sadness. It left me with the constant “Why am i doing this? This isn’t fun. This is just a way of making myself uncomfortable. Why do this?”
On the other hand, I did detach. My very busy brain… stopped being busy. For those 3-4 days I was alone, I slowed down, like an engine going to idle. It was VERY good for me to get that in at the beginning of my sabbatical.
Does it make me want to do more backpacking? I honestly don’t know. I need to think on this. I think the strongest feeling / experience I got from it was those 4-5 days my entire… experience was based on me and me alone. I took care of myself, I took care of my food, my living space, my body, my gear. The success of that time was based solely on me, my planning, and my execution of the plan. And it WORKED. I didn’t forget anything, I didn’t miss anything, I was fed, healthy, and comfortable the entire time (save aforementioned sunburn). That’s huge. I like that feeling. I wonder if I can do it again, but maybe just be a little more comfortable, and a little less bored? To be honest, the ‘boredom’ thing may be fixable with the ‘comfort’ thing. I didn’t have a comfortable place to sit or relax (just the hard chairs or my bunk), so spending 3 hours reading a book wasn’t the best. I had considered packing one of those tiny nylon hammocks so I had a bit of recreational ‘furniture’, but space in the pack ended up being too tight. Maybe if I do this again, I’ll add that to the list.
Conclusion and Thanks
I have to thank a few people for helping make this trip possible
- My awesome wife, who makes it all worthwhile. She enables me, supports me, and keeps me going. Thank you.
- Zachary, my awesome kid. They were invaluable for support, advice, and just being a sounding board when I wasn’t sure if this whole hiking thing would work, and if I was going down the wrong path. Thanks Z for listening.
- My friends Perley and Dave, who were enthusiastic and supportive and wanted to be In On It. Thanks guys.
- The Appalachian Mountain Club, who maintain the trails and the cabin (among other lodges and huts all through the White Mountains).