I may not have much money, but at least I have a long list of frugal activities – until I added up the costs. The best things in life are free, and enjoying nature sounds like it should be one of the most affordable things. Add up the costs, and even hiking can be surprisingly expensive. Fortunately, it is remarkably valuable.
How did I ever do it? Back when I was thirty I managed to hike three weekends out of every four, with about half of those being overnights on the trail. Somehow I did that while working more than forty hours a week, bike commuting, and owning a home. I’d bought as much house as I could, and backpacked because it was cheap and because I liked it. I lived within two hours of probably hundreds of trails, including getting to the north side of Mt. Rainier – as long as the Carbon River road wasn’t washed out.
I was able to do it because I was young, wasn’t aware enough of home ownership to know what to worry about, and had more discretionary cash than I realized. I also spent so much time on the trail that I didn’t date much, wasn’t interested in hanging out in bars, and knew that the gear I bought would probably last a long while. My apologies to that house. My regrets to my social life. But at least I was right about the gear. I also created a long list of memories that I value more the older I get.
As many of you know, I’ve been working seven days a week since my Triple Whammy. That’s not a euphemism. There aren’t a lot of caveats. Every day is almost the same set of tasks. I’m glad to do them because I know too many who aren’t fortunate enough to have steady work, even if it is fractured into a half dozen projects with another half dozen trying to build into something substantial.
Without going into the details of my personal life beyond what you can read about in previous posts, I was due for a break or a breakdown. Through some unintended consequences I had worked to quota on a job or two, could put the others off for a while, and manage not one but two, count them, two days off. Give me two days in a row and I’ll head to the mountains if I can. Weather abated, and yet I hesitated. My guess was that I needed the serenity I’d find in the mountains, but I’d have to pay a real cost to do so.
Every entrepreneur knows that a day off is a day without wages. I’ve known business owners who’ve laughed at the audacity of being paid to take time off, even though others call it ‘vacation’; and then shake their heads at people who don’t take their companies up on the offer. A day off is a day that costs in opportunities, backlogs, and momentum. And yet, humans aren’t machines and need to stop working so they can continue to work.
One of the inspirations behind my Twelve Month nature series was the simple concept of returning to familiar places to see them from unfamiliar perspectives. A Saturday in August is very different from a Wednesday in March. Making sure each trip was to someplace new becomes a burden when so many places have already been visited. In thirty years of hiking, I’ve visited a lot of places in Washington, and seen fewer than a quarter of the classic destinations. But, I needed a break more than I needed to bag another trail or peak.
I decided to return to one of my favorites, Lake Valhalla, a lake along the crest of Washington’s Cascade Range, therefore along the Pacific Crest Trail, and therefore high and cold enough to spend more time frozen than thawed.
The trout probably think ice is normal and blue skies are associated with being caught and eaten.
The short version of the trip is that I hit the peak of autumn colors. The vine maples and berry bushes were in prime yellows, oranges, and reds; and the bugs were done for the year. It was already autumn, so I expected few people, but managed to hit the season for through-hikers, those dozens or hundreds of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, or the reverse. I met the ones heading north, the ones hoping to step across the border before dozens or hundreds of inches of snow hide the trail for another winter. The longer version of the trip was uploaded to a very good trails site, wta.org, but as has happened before, the words and photos were lost between my computer and their web site. (Look below for the text if the link hasn’t gone live by the time I publish this post.)
The frugal version of the trip is not just about the money, but considering my finances and my desire to spend more time in the mountains, I decided to quantify how much it cost for an overnight trip. Nature may be free, but hiking costs money. As anyone who has tried applying accounting to their personal life knows, it can become complicated to figure out indirect costs. How much of the cost of new underwear goes to the time my socks spent on the trail? I concentrated on the direct costs because they are easy: food, fuel, and in my case, ferries. Living on an island has its consequences. Most days that is a slower pace of life, nature nearby, and a bit of isolation from modern day pressures. Getting on and off the island costs; in my case, about $20.60 because my 4WD truck is long enough to get a bump in the fee. The fuel is a variable, but Lake Valhalla is at the crest of the mountains, so it’s also a good intermediate spot for the calculation. I let the pumps do the work, and it cost me about $27.50 for the fuel. The food, ah yes, the food, cost about $38; largely because I cold camp, which means nothing spent or carried for heating anything, but also means buying processed meats, cheese, energy bars, and a snack or two for the drive. Oh yes, the wine cost about a quarter of that. Rounded and totaled and the cost of spending two days in the mountains was $86, less than some couples spend on dinner, more than I spend staying home, and enough for more than a week’s food.
Frugality is not just about costs. Frugality is also about benefits.
Serenity sounds trite. How about natural silence? No earplugs, acoustic tiles, sound-canceling headphones; just a natural silence that isn’t completely quiet. Wind through trees. Water meandering through a meadow. Birds singing for mates, territory, or because they are birds. Chipmunks and squirrels (Squirrel!) chattering because I was invading their space or because I wasn’t feeding them or both. How much do some people spend on meditation sessions, sensory deprivation tanks, quiet counselors? For about 24 hours (because a two day hike really reduces to 24 hours past the trailhead), I had as much serenity as nature could provide, and it provided it naturally. From the time I parked the truck (after lucking out and not having to pay a parking fee, and yes, trailhead parking fees exist), until I climbed back in sore, wet from frost, dew, and sweat, my greatest cares were making sure I didn’t trip, and finding a place to stay for the night. Everything else faded away. I had my happiest dream in years. Yes, I remember it. No, I won’t bore you with it.
The feeling was far more valuable than the $86 I spent getting it; but in today’s society, that feeling doesn’t pay any bills that the spent $86 could have. I could create great value for myself going back to my old routine of hiking three weekends out of every four, but that would mean not paying my health insurance premium (assuming I’m paying it instead of my income taxes, which are about the same.) And yet, I might try to find a way to go on an overnight hike once a month. Four years of only taking off one day every two months is not sustainable. This hike was day off #4 & #5 for 2015 (I think.) The main reason I was able to do so was because I bought good equipment twenty and thirty years ago, gear which is understandably showing its age, just as I am. Amortize depreciation into the cost and the $86 rises. Replacement costs are high enough that I’d just have to forego the trips until finances improve or serendipity provides.
The best things in life are free, and yet, accessing them isn’t without cost – and undeniable benefits.