By our second day on the trail, Jan and I recognized the importance of developing routines; by the end of our hike, we were discussing ways to implement similar routines at home.
ON THE TRAIL
With more backcountry experience than me, Jan had more camping routines down, and I learned a lot from her, from how to wash dishes with a minimum of soap and water, to how to stay relatively clean and comfortable myself. But other efficiencies, like getting out in a reasonable time, we learned as we walked.
Because I woke first, I started heating water for coffee; because Jan was recovering from plantar fasciitis, she stretched and exercised her feet. But things became more complicated after that. For instance, I’d find myself still wearing the zip-on legs of my hiking pants after I’d tied on my hiking shoes, meaning I had to take the shoes off, unzip the legs, unpack my clothing sack, repack, retie, and resume the process of getting on the trail. In the beginning, it took us up to three hours from waking to hiking. By the end of the trip, we could wake, stretch, breakfast, plot our short-term distance goals, plan lunch and snacks, break camp and get going in an hour and a half.
We were able to achieve this time-efficiency by creating a mental checklist.
We also took turns telling stories as we hiked. On Day Two, I told Jan about The Checklist an article by Atul Gawande I’d read in The New Yorker. Gawande writes about how simple checklists have improved complex medical care.
Packing a limited number of items into a backpack and resuming a long hike is not medical science. Nevertheless, checklists helped us develop efficiencies that made the tasks of making and breaking camp easier, faster, and more comfortable. Developing a checklist for setting up, cooking on, and breaking down our camp stove may have also saved us from burning dinner, the forest, and ourselves.
As Gawunde explains, checklists aid memory recall. As sixty-year olds, we could have spent as much time looking for the lighter we used to ignite the stove as we do looking for our keys in off-trail life, but by developing routines – always replacing the lighter in the stove bag – this didn’t happen even once.
Other routines made for small efficiencies throughout the trip and each day. Every six days after picking up our next week’s food, we struggled under the increased weight of our packs. We quickly learned to eat the meals that weighed the most first. Each morning, we placed the day’s snacks at the top of Jan’s pack, and the day’s lunch at the top of mine, so that we didn’t have to search for them while we were on the trail.
As soon as we arrived at our night’s shelter, we unrolled our sleep sacks, fetched water, and sponged off the day’s sweat before donning our camp clothes. Efficiencies aside, this made us feel good.
As days turned into weeks, we started talking about how all the lessons from the trail would translate into life back at home. Jan’s a retired attorney who for years reported to work every day; I’m self-employed and have more experience in planning my days.
A second effect of using a checklist, according to Gawunde, is to make explicit the minimum, necessary steps in a complex process, like planning a day during which one meets all her needs of self-care, work, and social- and civic-engagement. We agreed we wanted to schedule our days to be satisfying beyond simply getting things done.
Despite my years of experience, I still struggle with creating the perfect day, well, daily. Since returning from the trail, however, I’ve become clearer about what I need to do, beginning with morning meditation.
For years, I’ve started with a writing practice. This year, I’ve begun a sitting practice as well, which I now do before writing. I developed Patella-femoral syndrome on the trail, so I’ve added some physical therapy exercises; now that my knees are better, I follow writing practice with gentle yoga. By the time I’ve finished all this, Tim has brewed coffee, cared for the field birds, and shaved. We breakfast together, then go to work.
Work is easy: write. Long-term, long-form projects first; short-form essays and posts follow.
Daily exercise: either a walk with Leo after lunch (some days, a friend joins us) and yoga a few late afternoons.
Two new behaviors that have come home from the trail with me include 1) turning off the computer before dinner, and 2) planning the next day, especially what I’m going to work on, before reading and sleep.
Of course, not all days run smoothly. Even on the trail, we had to change course. I’ll tell that story next week.
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