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  • I started with too much weight in my pack. I was barely able to lift the pack out of the car on the first day. My dad, who dropped me off, asked if I needed help getting it on. "No," I said. If I could't lift it by myself in the first seconds of the hike, I was doomed.

    On the next page is a picture of everything that went into my pack before I started. Doesn't it look great? It's so neat, all spread out on the floor like that. So colorful! And, considering it's everything I'll own for the next five months, it's barely anything at all!
  • That barely-anything-at-all weighs 28 pounds before food and water. Food and water weigh roughly an additional 20 pounds, so my out-of-shape pathetic piece of shit body was carrying somewhere between 45 and 50 pounds on my back for the first four days. After months and months of obsessive research, shouldn't I know better? Apparently not.
  • On the fourth day, I dragged myself uphill through a freezing rain cloud into Mt. Laguna. I was shivering, in pain, miserable, and crying. Crying has turned out to be a repeating theme in this hike.

    Out of the clouds, I crawled into the little California mountain town of Mount Laguna. In the town is the park service building, a cafe, a lodge/post office/grocery store, and an outfitter's.

    I wish I had taken a picture of the inside of Laguna Mountain Sports and Supply. It's as if someone crammed the entire inventory of a large REI into a tiny shack. Double rows of clothing wracks reach the ceiling, walls are stacked with shoe boxes, backpacks hang from racks from the ceiling, and there is a wood burning stove in the corner making the place a fire hazard nighmare. It is also a refuge for poor, inexperienced saps like me. They are famous on the PCT for The Shakedown*.

    A text I sent my dad:

    "I'm at mount laguna now, staying at the campground with a couple guys. Got a shakedown and sending a box home."

    His reply:

    "A shakedown is where you get gypped."

    A little later:

    "It's also where the mafia comes and demands payback."

    A shakedown, Dad, is where a kind but firm outfitter expert (and, yes, salesperson) goes through all your stuff and tells you everything you brought that you don't need and everything you bought at REI that is too heavy and needs to get returned by your mother.

    Aaron (my shakedown guru), told me to lay everything in my pack down on a tarp in front of the store.

    "Start by telling me what you absolutely want to keep."

    "Um... well I can't afford to replace my pack and I like my sleeping pad a lot, I guess." I have a great sleeping pad. It's filled with down and is intensely warm. It also weights 24 ounces which is a red flag in the ultralight world. It's my luxury item.

    "Ok, and what about this sleeping bag?"

    "Well, I can't really return that to the store I bought it from."

    "Why not?"

    "They have a 30 day return policy. I know, I'm an idiot."

    "No, that's ok. The bag can stay. What about your tent?"

    "The tent is a pain to set up and I know now it's way too heavy" (it weighs in at 4.5 pounds, an atrocity to a thru-hiker)

    "Did you buy it at REI within the last year?"


    "Have someone return it for you."

    It went on like this for over an hour. I upgraded from my tent with luxurious and heavy built-in Christmas lights, to a 24-ounce tarp tent (this is my new tarp tent: . I sent home my useless solar charger and got a battery pack. I set home stuff sacks, extra batteries, a pour-over coffee maker, the entire top part of my pack (called the "brain", I learned), extra clothes, a ground cloth, 3-pound sandals, and who knows what else. I gained a wool long sleeve and a better, lighter water filter.

    The box I sent home: 13 pounds.The shakedown was a catharsis. I had been broken and I left reborn.


    * My friend, Silent Bob, is quick to remind me that Laguna Mountain Sports and Supply did not invent the shakedown. Mountain Crossings on the Appalachian Trail invented the shakedown, apparently, and is better although he used to work there so I think he is probably biased. A lot of people (see: feel like the shakedown is a money making scheme to pull the wool over novice hikers eyes and take them for everything they're worth. I disagree, but keep reading.
  • There is an epilogue to this story:

    I have not had a back spasm since I dropped my base weight from 28 to 15 pounds. I have since acquired a pair of Crocs (dear God help me) for camp and town shoes. A hiking buddy and I got in a tiff in a Dick's Sporting Goods over how much Crocs actually weigh. We stood there in the middle of the store, Crocs in hand, arguing over a 3 ounce difference. We asked the store clerk how much she thought they weighed. I'm sure she went home that night complaining about crazy, smelly, obsessed-with-ounces thru-hikers. These are conversations we have all the time. It goes something like "Oh, nice [insert item of gear]. How much does it weigh?"

    I hiked with someone who I consider to be an ultralight expert who has an 8-pound base-weight. He doesn't use a stove, sawed both his spoon and his toothbrush in half to save on weight, and sleeps on a half-sized sleeping pad that covers only his torso. He obviously does not sleep with a pillow. It seems like you would have to sacrifice so many comforts to get down to that weight, but to watch him hike with such ease up and down mountains day after day is like watching an artist at work. I am envious.
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