The most disappointing aspect of my spring break backpacking trip was not that it got cut short.
It wasn't the winter storm that hit the east coast with more bluster and fury than expected, leaving us with a thick layer of ice on our tent and a backcountry trail erased by a fresh coat of snow. It wasn't that we were forced to bail and, to get back to our car, had to embark on a frosty six-mile trudge along the frozen tundra that once was Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive. It wasn't the embarrassing call to the National Park Emergency Service to inform them that we had been stranded in the park and needed the code to the exit gate in order to get out. It wasn't even the fact that what was planned as a four-day, 31-mile introductory trek for Lilly ended up sending us back to Miami on Tuesday night, leaving us cooped up in an eerily empty Oxford for the remainder of the week.
No, the worst part of my spring break was that -- despite never having taken her on a hike longer than five miles before, despite buying her her own backpack and forcing her to haul her own weight up and down mountains, despite being an experienced backpacker myself for more years than she's been on the planet -- I still got my ass kicked by my dog out on that trail.
As I've touched on in my previous columns, Lilly is -- to put it lightly -- an exasperating well of endless energy. I've tried everything I can think of to try and tire her out. I've taken her on arduous hikes along Oxford's trails, let her off the leash so she can zoom through the trees to her heart's content, allowed her to chase other pups at the dog park for hours, made her sit through an afternoon marathon of "The Big Bang Theory" on TBS -- but even though those things all exhaust me, nothing will seem to put her to sleep.
Granted, once she's inside, Lilly's able to neglect her perpetual zoomies and curl up on the couch. But as long as she's out in the fresh air, the wind whipping her floppy ears around, it doesn't matter how long she's already been at it -- she's always nose to the ground, pulling her leash taut, dragging me to whatever destination is next on her itinerary.
Which is partly why I was so excited for this spring break.
Ever since I first thought about adopting a dog, part of the appeal was the prospect of a loyal hiking companion. Having grown up exploring the forested mountain country of northern New England, I've always felt at home in the woods. I get my best rest when I'm snuggled in a sleeping bag on the uneven floor of a tent, the howl of the winds and distant hooting of owls lulling me to sleep.
Whenever I'm feeling lost amid the chaotic schedule of college life, I crave the simplicity of the trail, when the only items on the to-do list are to wake up, brew some instant coffee, break down camp and start hiking again.
The only thing that could make that all better, in my opinion, was a furry friend to walk alongside me.
I knew Lilly would love camping as much as I do. The fact that it was going to tire her out was only an added bonus. Backpacking is not just walking; it's grueling work. Lugging heavy packs over uneven terrain eight hours a day makes one want to collapse the moment they reach camp. Thinking of all the times Lilly had maniacally continued to tug on the leash after two-hour jaunts along Oxford's trails, I developed a borderline sadistic joy imagining how much this trek would sap her energy, how much the trail would finally make her little muscles ache and force her to sleep when we stopped for the day. I might have even cackled like a Bond villain when I ordered her a doggy backpack so she could carry her own weight.
When we reached camp at the end of the first day, a 10-mile haul that brought us up and over the highest point in the park, I helped Lilly take her backpack off, unclipped her from her leash ... and proceeded to watch, slack-jawed, as she took off and started sprinting in broad circles, becoming a blur of black fur whizzing around our spot for the night. I, the experienced outdoorsman I think I am, was itching to get my sleeping pad out and rest for a moment. Lilly, the newbie, was ready for 10 more miles.
Twelve hours later, we woke to the click-click-clack of hail hitting the frozen sides of our tent. It wasn't completely unexpected, but following the previous day of clear skies and 50-degree weather, waking up amidst a winter storm of this magnitude was surprising to say the least. My roommate punched the inside of the tent, causing a crack and thud as a sheet of the ice that had been glued to the fly broke off and hit the frozen ground.
As the two of us shivered and slipped into our damp socks inside the tent while miserably discussing our options moving forward, Lilly squeezed under the fly so she could roll around in the newfound winter wonderland outside. I realized that, this being her first trip, she probably had no idea this wasn't part of the schedule. She was loving and appreciating every moment of the blizzard as if this was simply what a camping trip looks like. One day of sun and warmth, one day stranded in the park fighting sub-zero temperatures. She had no idea that this weather was going to force us to embark for home early.
And even if she did, I don't think she would have let that ruin the fun.
So no, getting the trip cut short didn't ruin it, as you might be thinking. If anything, it made it more exhilarating. Why embark on an adventure if you're not going to embrace every curveball mother nature throws your way? I'm glad Lilly was there to experience it, and I'm glad she had so much fun amidst what others might have seen as a misfortune. I'm glad that she enjoys backpacking as much as I do.
I'm just mad she was so much better at it than me.