Walking In The Plum Rain 2

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Blue Iris 001 400X266

Iris failing in the evening light

The rainy season has opened its wings and descended upon the islands. Most people would gripe about the steamy air, constant overcast days, inability to hang clothes out to dry, and the blooming of white mold all over leather goods, but I’ve always loved this season. The air is cool enough to sleep and, perhaps because of the dampening effect of the sound of rain, somehow people seem more subdued and sleeping comes easier among these crowded apartment buildings. I also love the movement of the sky and the veiling of distances. In the mountains the next bend in the trail loses itself in the mists and trees emerge out of the grayness like watery shadow puppets. Mountain tops hide away in the clouds and only reveal themselves after the proper ablutions, and even then only reluctantly. This is the Plum Rain, when hydrangea bloom and the tree swallows fly low over the fields.

Next week the buses that take walkers to the mountains will finally start running again and the high peaks will call me. I’ve been doing my best to get in shape for this, but insomnia and work getting in the way, I’m not as well-conditioned as I had hoped. So I will have to take it slow and set my sights on the bigger peaks at the second half of the summer. Still, just knowing that the snow has largely passed and I can set foot on my favorite ridges makes the heart beat. All winter I have been preparing my pack for much lighter walks and now I get to try it out and see if I can walk without the pain in my knees over the last few years.

For anyone who doesn’t do much hiking the obsession with getting the weight of a pack down may seem a little kooky, but when you’ve schlepped huge bundles loaded down with every latest gadget up half vertical slopes for ten or eleven hours a day, when the ascent forces you to gasp and the descent brings the weight of the mountain crunching down upon your knees, there comes a time when you have to ask yourself what the whole point of the walk is. I’ve seen young men carry packs almost as tall as they are and their whole walk consisting of placing one foot in front of the other without ever looking up. Once one guy pulled out an entire watermelon and complained of its weight! Another time a father carried the entire selection of equipment for a family of five; while he labored under the load his wife and children loudly complained about how slow he was walking, the wife going so far as to accuse him of bringing them all on this uneventful waste of time…

If only he, and me, earlier, had known of ultralight walking. A craze among backpackers the world over now, when I started out only a few people knew of the exploits and philosophy of Ray Jardin, who is largely credited for starting the whole movement. Basically he suggested ways that people might reevaluate more severely what they put into their packs. He and his wife managed to hike the three most important long-distance trails of America, the Appalachian, the Continental Divide, and the Pacific Crest… known together as the Triple Crown… bearing packs of only 8 pounds each, minus food, water, and fuel. Instead of heavy tents they used tarps. Instead of sleeping bags, they used quilts. Instead of the new-fangled internal frame packs so popular among walkers around the world today, he used a simple, frameless sack. And with weight so reduced he walked in running shoes rather than boots.

Other people have taken his ideas further and even managed to get their base pack weights down to 2.5 kilos (5 pounds), which admittedly is on the fringe of comfort and safety. I haven’t been able to get close to this, but I am still working on it. The freedom of wandering the peaks carrying what you need for safety, but without being bogged down by unneeded equipment is an allure that keeps me giving all my belongings a critical eye.

One thing that trying new methods demands is equipment that perhaps no one has made before. Quite a few ultralight backpackers design and make their own equipment. I’ve taught myself to use the sewing machine and have made a number of tents, tarps, hammocks, bags, and rain gear. My next project will be a lightweight backpack and perhaps a new kind of backpacking umbrella. There is satisfaction in making something yourself and then getting out into the mountain conditions and seeing it actually work. What surprised me was just how simply most commercial products are made and how little technical knowledge you need to produce most products yourself. It’s hard for me now to look at a lot of the clothing made by Patagonia (though I’ve come to appreciate much more the ability to come up with all their ideas) and justify the absurd prices they ask.

There are certain things that I refuse to give up in order to lighten the load. I love photography and drawing and so require a proper camera for control over the kind of photos I want and always carry a sketchbook and art supplies. But I no longer carry a fat novel (though I will bring along a thinner book for longer trips) or a white gas stove or heavy gore-tex rain gear. My tent is a filmy tarp that can configured into a storm-proof shelter and my sleeping bag stuffs down to the size of a small loaf of bread (augmented by my fibrefill jacket when it gets cold). It just feels wonderful when I lift the pack now, everything inside pared down to the essentials.

Going ultralight has affected other aspects of my life. Recently I’ve begun to whittle away all the non-nessential belongings in the apartment. If I can apply the same logic to my lifestyle I figure that I will edge myself closer to what really matters in life, and to come harder up against the real world using more of my wits and ingenuity rather than tools of convenience. The simplicity of the traditional Japanese lifestyle.

And with so much cleared away an unobstructed view out of the window at the Plum Rain, falling amidst the green proliferation and the settled pool in my mind.

14 Responses

  1. Great photo again.

    I’m not a big fan of the rainy season myself, but I can see why you might like it. Misty mountains contain their own atmosphere but I’d always choose clear days and sun, even just for comfort (ease of camping, dry clothes and the rest).

    Patagonia…I have them down as a hiking fashion shop for people who never leave the city. I may be wrong on that, but whatever the case, their prices are off the wall.

    Completely understand what you’re saying about the quest for lightening the load in the mountains extending into a trimming away of non-essentials and clutter in everyday life. I’ve had the same experience. Like you, I’ll never get the weight down to 2.5 kilos though.

    And while we’re on the topic, wasn’t it supposed to rain today? 70%, the forecast said. I cancelled a trip to Tanzawa.

  2. And while we’re on the topic, wasn’t it supposed to rain today? 70%, the forecast said. I cancelled a trip to Tanzawa.

    Had to laugh at this. I woke up at four this morning, pack ready, planning to walk from the very west end of Tanzawa inward to Nishi-Tanzawa, and if I had enough time left over, right over to central Tanzawa and up north (avoiding the stair-hell of the area south of Tanzawa-dake). As I was munching on breakfast I watched the news and saw the forecast for a typhoon! (what the hell is wrong with Japan’s weather these days? Typhoons in June?) So, I, too, cancelled my trip and have been spending the whole day poring over maps and guidebooks. As the afternoon wore on and the clouds kept opening and closing, but no sign even of rain, let alone wind, all I could do was snort. Bummer. Guess I’ll just have to content myself with a day walk tomorrow.

  3. I suppose making the load lighter for me begins in the head and heart. My bag like yours always has a pad and mark making tools in it plus a camera though mine is less than proper when held in these hands:0)

    Hiking is probably in truth beyond me physically these days but maps amd charts still get poured over regularly. Lightweight hiking is not for someone who needs to carry a whole catorgary of contents that the more robust hiker would blanche at.

    Designing bag and other equipment that fits me for the task is something I enjoy as it focusses the mind on what is and isn’t needed and what makes life/hike more an excercise of being and seeing than of toiling and counting the steps.

    Even if one may never set actual foot on a trail prparing, packing and walking can be activities that inform the way of living one approaches. From armchair or bed consideration of the weight of a pack and the equipment needed for the journey is something I seem to go through daily.

  4. As someone also addicted to being outdoors in the mountains (though less so in the last two years) I finally had to let go of trying to predict what I would find. An alipine skier, I became convinced that meteorologists were trying to torment me and started studying and using the hierologlyphics of meteograms, this one especially. It’s from the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire (about 6300′). This was about 1100′ above where I was, but I got pretty good at telling what I could expect to find from it. Right now the picture it paints is rather tropical, but even in summer conditions there can be knarly.

    But I finally got myself to where I could ignore the whole thing, because I found that some of the best times were under the worst conditions, and there was just simply to way to tell when those would be.

    I also struggle with the weight problem, since I’m always lugging around a camera and a few lenses, even a small tripod. People grimace when they lift my pack but I’m always amazed how light it is, knowing what it holds inside. I still marvel, however, at the small camera that C. has, which makes a cheerful chirp everytime you turn it on.

  5. I love your photos, your slow, reflective texts. May we also see your sketches?

    Katrien

  6. butuki,
    I love the iris
    it’s a bearded one though
    not Japanese, yes?

    I love both kind
    and it’s Japanese ones
    that have just come into bloom
    in my yard

    and the scent is one
    of the best sweet scents
    there is

  7. I’ll be out for two days so cannot reply properly to everyone’s comments until I get back. But don’t let that keep you from carrying on! See you in two…

  8. Well I’m wondering where you are at this moment and hoping you are well and serene and enjoying your surrounds. Walking can be such a calming thing to do. I must get out more because Triks has developed a spine problem and needs shorter flat walks. Reading your posts is like going for a walk too.

  9. Maybe I could learn a thing or two from your approach, butuki. I still tend to carry far too much “just-in-case”. Things like rope and bits of gear if we’re likely to go scrambling. But one extra load I’m looking forward to trying out is the pair of walking poles I bought after suffering worse than usual knee problems last time I was out in the hills. Do you use them? Any good?

  10. i am training and preparing physically for a backcountry photography trip right now. it is different at my current age than it was when i was younger – if i’d known, i’d have done more of it at twenty :) – regardless, it is interesting how much thought i have been giving to lightening my load…perhaps it is related to the fact that we have so many possessions and think we cannot manage our lives without taking all of our toys along. i always feel mentally refreshed when i lighten the load – as if there is extra breath in the emptied spaces. like you i must have the camera and my journal – all of the rest is up for review. loved reading this!

  11. beautiful photo, as usual

  12. Wonderful post. I’ve been increasingly tempted by the ultralight approach, as I’ve fallen out of shape to a depressing degree, but there is that countervailing tendency to bring everything including a package sink. But it’s a useful exercise, winnowing out the extras to the bare essentials; it helps you remember what your priorities really are.

    And the implications for one’s noncamping life are, as you suggest, potentially huge. This year I’ve been living with literally half of my total belongings (the rest are in storage, and are mostly books and appliances) and for the most part I’ve not missed them at all. Since I’m now faced with the task of packing up to move (again, sigh), it’s disturbing to reacquaint myself with all my possessions in a great mass.

    I love the minimalist life — but I’m a sentimentalist and a packrat, alas.

  13. Last weekend I set out for a walk, but I ended u turning back due to my body swelling up while I was on the train. Have no idea what caused it, though I’m wondering if it was lack of sleep. It was for the best anyway; the monsoon rains were pretty strong and camping would have been pretty miserable.

    Coup, since I was a boy I have always, from my guts, avoided cars if possible. Getting round on my own steam has always appealed most to me and so walking, bicycling, and kayaking (and when I get the chance, sailing) became my favored modes of getting about. If Japan was a more bicycle friendly country I would be using it every day to go to work and enjoy the weekends, but with the proliferation of cars and changes to the grades of the roads that makes life difficult for bicyclists I just don’t enjoy bicycling here any more. Walking really attracts me with its simplicity. It doesn’t cost anything and once you’ve gotten yourself in shape you realize just how well our bodies are designed to do it, much more than running. Walking in the mountains is sheer heaven.

    Andy, when you’re up there amongst the crags any bit of unneeded weight you have to lug around becomes another piece of evidence of hell. When I was younger I used to carry these huge loads where just the pack itself weighed 3.5 kg (7 lbs)! (the Dana Designs Terraplane… beautiful pack, but who needs the weight?). When the pack was heavy I spent quite a lot of time staring at my feet and wondering where the next rest stop was. Four years ago, when I discovered that you can actually get out there with, at the least, half that weight it was like revelation. Suddenly I was actually able to enjoy those steep climbs!

    yllstonewolf, I guess there is never enough time to do something you love to do, or else you don’t know of something as early as you would have liked. I regret not spending more time wandering around Oregon during the ten years I lived there, a place I still think is the most beautiful I have ever lived in. I also regret not having spent more time walking the mountains and taking photos over the last ten years, when instead I spent more time and energy arguing with my wife over all sots of silly things. I look back now and recognize the monumental waste of time and spirit that it all entailed. But over the last year a sea change has shifted inside me and my old peace with myself is slowly returning. For some reason all that anger has dissipated and I’m finding lots of reasons to get out there to walk again, especially with my camera. I can say for sure that in this regard going digital has made a big difference in my life.

    Susurra, it’s great to see you around again. I’ve missed you.

    Rana, I’m continually surprised by just how many things you and I have in common. Every time you speak it is as if my words, to my ears at least, are spilling out of your mouth. And vice versa, when I say something, it might very well be you. (I, too, was a gangly, shy, kid with braces) Even the knowledge we have seems so similar. The other day I was out for a run and I passed those grass seeds that you wrote about in your blog. I picked a few of them and put them in my palm as you did. I could just imagine us standing together in a field somewhere and together being amazed by all the living things around us. I think a field trip with you would be just thrilling! So it’s an added delight to know that you like hiking, too… As I’ve said before, so many of the people who visit here or whom I visit in other blogs are exactly the type of friends I wish I had around here.

  14. I am SO behind on my blogreading but can always count on you, Butuki, to have a) published a breathtakingly gorgeous photo; b) written something wonderful; c) given it space to breathe.

    Thank you.

    (I haven’t forgotten about your Sundance sketch pads but the friend who was ordering the paper has been away so I’m hoping it will all happen soon!)

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