These were my first hiking boots. Not the best brand, but they made my feet look smaller than the better kind, and it took a bit of serious hiking to find out that I didn’t care as much about looks as about my feet and ankles getting me where I wanted to go.
I see cars with bumper stickers saying, “My other car is a pair of hiking boots“, and I wish I could have one on my own car. It doesn’t apply anymore, though, and when it did, I didn’t have a car yet. But I can always reminisce, right?
I started off with cycling vacations. I was a student with very little money, so I bought a cheep nylon bicycle pack that I made so sturdy it lasted for many, incredibly intensive vacations, just by hand-sewing fabric over all the seams on the inside. I had a 10-pound two-person tent, and I thought I was traveling light.
Our bikes in front of my parents’ house in Eemnes, 1983. Mine is the back one, with the orange dish-washing tub on top of the pack. It proved useful for transporting peaches without bruising them. My friend had the humongous cooking pan on top of her pack.
A few years later, when I was on a road trip with a friend in England, we were taking a walk in the Dartmoor. These two guys were just settling down by a stream, and as we walked by, they offered us a cup of tea. We laughed, politely refused and kept on walking, convinced they were joking. On our way back, they were still there, actually drinking tea, and again they offered us a cup.
So we sat down in the grass, by the stream, and had billy tea and McVities biscuits with cream cheese from a little can. It turned out the men were staying at the same campsite we were that night, or maybe they just decided that on the spot at the sight of my drop-dead gorgeous friend. Either way, that night they made a fire and the four of us sat in the shelter of a stone wall talking for hours and drinking Earl Grey billy tea and eating burnt toast.
I have never had better-tasting tea or toast in my life. And coming from me, that’s unusual. I always ask for the tea bag on the side because I steep the bag just long enough to create a nice urine color. For those of you unfamiliar with billy tea: it’s the process of boiling water and loose-leaf tea together in a pot or a can for a while, until the tea is so black and strong you could pave a road with it.
It was such a romantic experience. No, not in that sense. The tall, handsome guy had eyes for my friend only (which became apparent in the picture), and his brother suffered from what I later learned was Korsakov syndrome–early onset dementia caused by excessive alcoholism. He was a dear; he invited me to come visit him about every two minutes as if it was the first time. He told me in detail how to get to their house and where the key could be found if he happened to be out when I came.
To me, it was romantic because I never realized you could travel even lighter than by bike; that you could have all you needed on your back and walk in any direction, making tea and cooking food using water from a stream and setting up your tent wherever you wanted. It seemed so incredibly free. I picked their brain and found out what kind of backpacks they had, how they knew where they were going, etc.
That autumn my friend and I took an orienteering course and the next summer we hitchhiked to the Dartmoor, me with a brand-new 4-pound two-person tent. My dad had bought me a backpack, but it was one with an exterior frame to which the pack was attached, and I found out quickly that it was hard to keep my balance when crossing streams because the whole pack would hang to one side the moment I leaned a bit.
We were eager to use our orienteering skills, so as soon as we arrived on the Dartmoor, we went off the path and spent about an hour descending a pretty steep hill covered in waist-high ferns. My ankles were probably exhausted from this first walk ever on such a steep hill, off the path and without seeing where I was going, so when we got to level ground, where sheep had eaten the grass down to golf-course length, one misstep made me twist my ankle, and because my backpack immediately lurched, I tore a ligament.
So that was pretty much the end of that vacation. I got X-rayed and taped up at a little hospital, they loaned me a pair of crutches, and we hitchhiked back to Dover. (The treatment cost nothing and the doctor just gave me the hospital’s address so I could send the crutches back when I didn’t need them anymore.)
Hitch-hiking to our destination of choice and back to Dover or Hull was always a big part of the adventure. That trip back was special because we got a lift from a semi and I was comfortably stretched out on my side on the bed behind the driver’s and passenger’s seats, with the best view ever.
In my next post I’ll go over my gear as I perfected it over the years. I haven’t kept up much with newer products because it’s just too depressing knowing I won’t be needing them anymore, so by now some of my gear’s probably interesting in a vintage kind of way!