About the Author: Joscelyn Tueller is an avid hiking enthusiast who likes to describe herself as “extremely adequate.” She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband Landon and their adventure cat in training, Tonks. She is a psychiatric nurse and loves what she does, but will be quitting her job to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020. This year, she will be hiking to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon and doing the Tahoe Rim Trail. She avoids bugs at any and all costs, and her dream is to become a Triple Crowner and to live in a van as she travels and hikes around the US. Follow her on Instagram @josfacetueller.
Backpacking, that is.Whether it happens to you when we’re 3 or 53, your first trip is bound to be one that you remember for a long time. My first trip was no exception.
I was introduced to many of my outdoor passions via my husband, Landon. He grew up in a family of avid outdoor enthusiasts, who spent their weekends and summers in the mountains; hiking, camping, backpacking, canoeing, river rafting, and rock climbing. My family, by comparison, had been on a few random camping trips over the years, most of which had been stressful and didn’t lead to many happy memories. Despite this fact, I was always very curious about the outdoors, and yearned for more adventure. I just wasn’t quite sure where to find it.
Enter Landon. Four years ago, we started dating and he slowly introduced me to his enthusiasm for outdoor adventure. I loved each new activity that I was shown, and was eager to have more experiences. One of the things that I desperately wanted to try was backpacking. I had read “Wild” and had been inspired by the book to start backpacking and maybe one day, hike the Pacific Crest Trail myself.
In 2016, Landon’s little sister Jazlyn was going to be leaving for an extended period of time, so it was decided that his family would try to fit in one last backpacking trip before she left. This was my chance! I was ecstatic to finally get to try something that seemed so hard and foreign to me. Despite knowing nothing about backpacking, Landon promised that he would help me get all of the gear that I would need.
I literally brought the heaviest, bulkiest coat I possibly could
The trip was a three-day, 16 mile loop called Little Death Hollow, located in Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. I remember thinking that 16 miles didn’t seem like that far to go. The miles themselves are never daunting until you actually put one foot in front of the other. I was using an old, beaten up red backpack that looked like it had been in Landon’s family since the dawn of time. I remember being jealous of Jazlyn’s beautiful new looking white and black backpack. “You have to pay your dues before you get to use the nice gear” I told myself. Despite the fact that Landon told me multiple times that I did not need a new pair of clothing and underwear for each day that we were out, a hardback book, soap, and other ditties that I had packed, I absolutely insisted that I needed everything and that I would be fine. I suppose some lessons can be learned from other people warning you. Other lessons can only be learned after you’ve put yourself through hell due to your own stubbornness. I chose the latter, and came to regret it later.
The four of us (Landon, his dad, his little sister and I), arrived at the trailhead after dark the night before the hiking actually began. As we set up camp, I had to pee and took the bag of TP and hand sanitizer out into the sagebrush away from everyone to do my business. “Headlamps are magical!” I remember thinking as I walked in the dark without having to deal with a flashlight in my hands. Needless to say, I was not the experienced wilderness pee-er that I consider myself now, and ended up peeing all over myself. “This is why I need the extra clothes!” I rationalized. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the toilet paper, but I knew I shouldn’t just leave it there. I carried it back to camp and asked Landon what to do. He gave me a lighter and told me I could burn it in the sand. I went to bed that night warm and happy and excited for what the next 3 days would bring.
The next morning, I was the last one to be woken up at about 7 AM. Normally, anything before 9 feels like death to me, but that morning I felt like a kid waking up on the first day of school, eager and excited for the journey ahead. We quickly packed up and ate Costco muffins, fruit and juice. As we were eating, another group of about 10 backpackers rolled in. They had been hiking for about six days and we offered them the rest of our muffins and fruit, which they eagerly split among themselves and devoured like ravenous wolves. “Why are they so excited about that food?” I asked Landon’s dad, Shawn. He just laughed and told me that they had probably been eating the same things for many days in a row. I couldn’t understand it until I had been in their shoes.
Jazlyn, Joscelyn and Landon avoid cold muddy water at all costs
We started hiking around 8 AM and everything was great. The beauty of the desert landscape around me was breathtaking. The majestic red rocks, the colorful desert flowers and the aromatic sage were incredible and I felt a sense of awe and wonder being where I was. But after an hour or so, my pack started to become pretty uncomfortable, and I had to stop to adjust it. No matter how many times I stopped to adjust it throughout the day, I could never get a comfortable fit. Landon said it was probably the wrong size for me. I sort of had to accept that I would probably just be somewhat uncomfortable no matter what I did. It didn’t take long for me to regret the weight of my pack as well. Everyone else seemed to be managing just fine, and I pushed on for as long as I could because I really didn’t want to be the first one to ask for a break. But I finally caved, and everyone stopped and took off their packs. Taking off my pack was heaven! I could already feel my hips and shoulders being rubbed raw. Did I even want to know how far we had gone? But my curiosity got the better of me, and Shawn estimated that we had hiked about 3 miles. I was sure we had gone at least 10. “Well” I thought, “Just keep swimming I guess.”
Where the trail had been open and expansive before, it got narrower and narrower as we descended into the canyon, until it eventually became a slot canyon. I became more and more fatigued as the day went on, much more so than anyone else. Once we were in the slot canyon, the hiking seemed to take twice as long, and my mood was quickly souring. I didn’t want to complain though, so I reconciled my discontent by repeating some of my favorite curse words over and over in my mind. I had not prepared for the mental toll that backpacking would take on me, and desperately wished that I had something to listen to to take my mind off of my misery.
I think the pinnacle of despair was realized when we came to a section in the slot canyon where the only way forward was by walking through a chest deep pool of water. It being March, the water was absolutely freezing, and I was freaking out on the inside as I watched everyone else take off their packs and lift them over their heads as they descended down into it. Gritting my teeth, I followed suit and was overwhelmed by how cold the water was. I went as quickly as I could, shivering and chattering my teeth by the time I climbed out. I couldn’t feel my lower half and had to change into warm clothes afterwards. We took a small break to eat, and I remember burying my face between my knees and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. But, with daylight and miles ahead of us, I had no choice but to continue.
Again, at ALL costs
We hiked until about 4 PM that day, having gone 8 slow, grueling miles. I collapsed down with my pack and just sat still for a good 10 minutes, unsure that I could ever move again. I couldn’t remember ever having been so sore. Shawn pulled out some salami, cheese, crackers and apples. I devoured my food as fast as I could, remembering the hikers we had come across that morning and feeling like I finally understood them to a certain extent. It was my first experience with “hiker hunger” as I’d heard it termed.
I felt a little better after eating lunch and really enjoyed the rest of that day with Landon and his family. “Getting to camp is the best part of this whole ordeal,” I thought to myself as I laid on top of my pad and played a card game with Landon. The evening passed quickly as we set up our cowboy camp, ate dinner, and spent time telling stories and hanging out. Landon had even packed in a small Bluetooth speaker, which was ok since we hadn’t seen any other hikers around and were pretty sure that we were alone. He played some trashy pop music from the speaker and we ended up having an impromptu dance party in the middle of nowhere. I felt happy and relaxed again as the difficulties of the day seemed to melt away. I was so tired that I went to bed early and slept like a rock. There were more stars out than I’d ever seen before.
The next day, we all decided to take a rest day and not to do any hiking. I knew that it was for me, as I was pretty sure that everyone else could have hiked more and been just fine. But my shoulder and hips felt like somebody had taken a cheese grater to them and I was grateful for the rest. Shawn and Jazlyn did a day hike down to the river, while Landon and I explored some the canyon and climbed onto the rock faces. There was a little streambed running through the canyon where we filtered water from, though I never did any of the actual filtering. I remember asking what we were eating for lunch, and Landon pulled out a bag of trail mix. I was bewildered by this and thought that surely he must be joking. He assured me that he was not.
Back when I thought hiking in jeans was acceptable
I found a few cacti that looked like the cactuses that I had eaten when I was in Mexico the year before. I decided that I was going to try and clean them and fry them up on our little stove. This was a terrible idea. Picking the cactus was an ordeal in and of itself, and I got poked more than once. Cleaning it with the little pocketknife I carried was nearly impossible, and despite the amount of times and pricked myself and cursed out loud, I was determined to clean the damn thing. After all of my hard work, I threw the chunks into the little pot and they looked like green beans. I cooked them for a while and excitedly pulled out a chunk to eat, offering some to the rest of the group, who were wisely hesitant. I popped it in my mouth and it was all I could do to not immediately spit it out. It was disgusting! It didn’t taste at all like the cactus I had eaten in Mexico! Everyone started laughing and I had to laugh too, not exactly sure what I had been thinking. “Oh well” I said.
The next morning, I woke up and felt much better and less sore than the day before, thankful for the rest day we had taken. We ate and packed up early, needing to hike the rest of the 8 miles out that day. Though definitely not as difficult as the first day had been for me, we ended up walking through a lot more loose sand, which immediately moved into my shoes and did not leave for the rest of the day, no matter how much my shoes were shaken out. Hiking on the sand greatly irritated me and slowed me down. Shawn and Jazlyn ended up hiking ahead of Landon and I for most of the day. Around midday, I REALLY had to poop, but there were no good places to go. Landon suggested that I lift up a rock and use that as a hole, since digging an adequate hole in the sand was pretty tough. I was so proud of myself when I was finished. “My first Wilderpoop!” I thought to myself. Not nearly as bad as I had expected. There is much satisfaction to be gained from a successful wilderpoop!
It was incredibly hot and I started to feel the black cloud that had followed me the first day come back over me. Landon is a very quiet guy, which generally is fine since I talk enough for the both of us. But I really needed the distraction, and ended up getting mad at him for being so quiet. “Can’t you see that I’m struggling here!” I yelled at him. “Can’t you make some sort of effort to talk to me!” I have since come to accept that there are only so many words inside of Landon, and that we can hike separately and not talk sometimes, and have conversations at other times. I always bring music and podcasts on my trips now, in case I am feeling discouraged or just really need a distraction. Landon unnecessarily apologized to me, telling me that he was just in his own head admiring the beauty of the desert, looking at the different plants and rock formations and letting his mind wander. I asked if he wanted to switch minds for a while and he was nice enough to agree.
Pretty much sums up how I felt on the inside for most of this trip
Once we started talking again, everything got easier for me. I just needed to get out of my own head for a while I suppose. We passed by all sorts of juniper trees, and Landon picked a juniper berry up off the ground and told me that once they had hardened, they were called Ghost Beads. He told me that his Dad had first proposed to his mom with a ghost bead ring. Landon’s parents met in the 80’s working for the same wilderness therapy company. They had raised their family with the same love of the outdoors that they had, and now they were sharing it with me. Landon’s Mom had passed away from breast cancer less than a year before, and my heart softened as he told me this. For the rest of the day, I tried hard to have a better attitude and enjoy the hiking.
When we arrived back at the car around 2 PM, I felt so exhausted and yet so proud of myself at the same time. I had just accomplished a really hard thing, and it felt amazing. My sore muscles were like a trophy to me. “I just did that!” I told myself. “I am such a badass.”
Looking back at this experience, it makes me laugh. I laugh at how I packed my pack, and at how much I silently fumed to myself. That first trip was definitely the hardest. Backpacking since then has become easier and more enjoyable, as most things are once you have a little more experience. It has since become my absolute favorite thing to do. It can be so hard and yet so rewarding. You get to see these amazing, beautiful remote places that you would never have seen otherwise. And you get to eat whatever you want because you burn so many calories! That’s the true pleasure of it. New things are always hard, but you can’t quit on a bad day. Always give it another try, the next day is bound to be better. And as one of my favorite hikers Darwin says, “Embrace the Suck.”