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With new gear, a backpacker is born

Serious backpackers know all 13 Essentials are necessary, no matter where they’re going hiking.
Serious backpackers know all 13 Essentials are necessary, no matter where they’re going hiking.

This is the second in a series of stories from a fledging backpacker’s perspective as he learns what it takes to be a mountaineer.

Two days after breaking the bank at three different stores, I decided to break in my new backpacking gear.

Then I broke almost every rule in the backpacking bible, which trumps the 10 Commandments with its own 13 Essentials, the pack-’em-or-perish items that no self-respecting backpacker can do without: map, compass, flashlight, knife, matches, fire starter, extra clothing, extra food, water, sunblock and sunglasses, first-aid kit, emergency shelter and signaling device.

Out of 13, I had exactly three – including the sunglasses, which made me look pretty cool on a recent Tuesday morning as I embarked on a 4-mile solo trek through the wilds of Qualchan.

Make that 3 ½ Essentials: In a pinch, my shades could double as a mirror and scare off any intruders. Pamphlets at the Spokane Mountaineers Backpack School had warned us about how the dangers of wild animals, but I didn’t even find a late-rising squirrel as I descended into the maw of Mother Nature.

The path was well-marked, but I trek to the tune of a different drummer. I blazed my own trail, down the hill to the roughest terrain I could find: the Qualchan driving range, which was chock-full of balls.

My 20-pound backpack got a lot heavier on the way up. Three layers of clothing gave way to just a T-shirt as I sweated my way back to my car, gazed back at my conquest and drove to the nearest Starbucks.

Thirty-six hours later, my wife and I joined three dozen other enthusiasts for a short-but-steep hike at Stevens Creek, just off the Palouse Highway.

Most of them carried heavy packs, surely stuffed with the 13 Essentials and common sense that I still lacked. The parking lot chatter was as friendly as a college party: “What’s your name?” … “Where are you from?”… “Do you have your 13 Essentials?”

Really? Would they kick us off the trail if I didn’t pack my space blanket in case of a freak April forest fire?

Was this just a Spokane thing? In “The Sound of Music,” the Von Trapps managed to traipse into Switzerland without even a knapsack. Or did I miss the sequel, where they almost freeze to death in the Alps?

No worries. The hike was moderate, the company excellent and the scenery spectacular as we overlooked the Palouse to the south.

The following Sunday, my wife and I drove to the next group hike at Iller Creek in Spokane Valley.

That’s Iller Creek Trail, not the Conservation Area, where I misdirected us to a hike that never happened.

That’s right: I got lost before I even found the trail. Twenty minutes later, I picked up my pine-needle rake and blazed a trail through my back yard.

A week later, we returned to REI to buy those last few Essentials. I marveled at the choices: six different matches and twice that many fire-starters. Our eyes glazed over until a helpful salesperson lit a fire under us and sent us home with some waterproof matches that would work “in all but the worst storms.”

What that meant, I didn’t want to know.

Essentials in hand, I unwrapped some of them and dumped them in my backpack – hey, at least I had them.

Three days later, we joined two dozen others at Dishman Hills, at the new Nimbus Knob/Eagle Peak trailhead, begging for someone to check our backpacks for the precious Essentials. No such luck.

At the first fork in the trail, a guide used his boot to carve an arrow into the dirt, in case someone got lost and needed to backtrack.

Then it hit me: Nimbus Knob? For me, this was Numbskull Knob, the same place where 15 years earlier I managed to lose myself in Mother Nature. I also get thoroughly lost, along with my two young sons, dragging them over rocks and timber to the sound of the traffic on Sprague Avenue.

Never again, I thought, and I quickened my pace.

And carved a few extra arrows in the dirt along the way.

Next: Longer and steeper