A Simple Trek

As I grow older I become increasingly aware of a problem common to older people, that of feeling out of place in the modern world. It's as though the world is changing more rapidly than I can accommodate, as indeed it is. Stress generated by the increasing rate of change is a cause for concern among younger people, too, of course, but they are in general more mentally and psychologically flexible, better able to 'go with the flow' than we older types. Their turn will come.

I've always had frequent need to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern life, and I've always turned to the natural world as my refuge. Whenever things begin to pile up, I feel the urge to head for the woods, the open spaces. I've done many things in the past decades which accomplish what I need in that respect, hunting and fishing, mostly, but also backpacking, hiking, outdoor photography, flying old wood and cloth planes, sailing, wood fire cooking, archery, bird watching, the study of the natural history of wildlife.... well, the list is long, and they were and are fun activities. It has occurred to me, recently, though, that there is one thing which I do that is by far the best I've found at allowing me to disconnect, and that is trekking.

I got seriously involved with the sport of black powder shooting and hunting almost thirty-five years ago. Thirty years ago I gave up hunting with modern guns completely, and for the next almost twenty years the sport of black powder shooting *was* the sport of black powder hunting. Those were grand years, and I have a head full of memories from those times. But, with little fanfare and completely unbeknownst to me, about a dozen years ago I was infected with a pernicious bug, that of "living history", "re-enacting", "experimental archeology", whatever you choose to call it. I don't think I'll ever recover. I should be so lucky.

I made all my own clothes and gear as far as was possible for me, developed an insatiable appetite for information about the life style of my ancestors, 1770 era, and began to do some simple hiking and camping trips, in colonial clothes and using only the gear available to them in their time. Right from the first I knew this was something special for me, that I could really get into it. Because the guns and hunting were always a part of it, my black powder hunting quickly merged with my re-enacting, and what I call trekking emerged.

What is trekking? Depends upon whom you ask, of course, as does most everything. Many people wouldn't even call what I do trekking. For me, my definition is the only one which is important, and it's pretty simple. Time spent in the woods in colonial garb, using colonial gear and colonial skills appropriate to the time period. That's all. Travel through the woods may be part of it, but it may not. Hunting, likewise, may or may not be on the agenda. A simple day trip, an overnight, a squirrel hunt in colonial garb, a day spent practicing the skills, the list is endless. All are trekking, for me, and all accomplish what I need, disconnection.

Whatever activity I decide on, there is one hard and fast rule, no cheating. A vital aspect of my trekking is that of experiencing life as my ancestors did, and I can't do that if I take any shortcuts. I don't. If I can't start my fire with flint and steel or in some other primitive way, I go without it. No heat, no hot food and drink, no light, because I don't bring along any modern way of starting it. The same holds true of all aspects of the sport, whether it involves the food, shelter, clothing, guns and their gear, rainy weather, etc. I can't do this perfectly, because I'm a modern man in my head, but I eliminate all obvious anachronisms.

Most of my trekking has been and is done on my farm. It's in rolling country with scattered woods lots, some ponds and streams, and just over two hundred acres of land to roam over. It only produces hay, so there isn't much "farming" to bother me. It's large enough so that I can easily get out of the sight of all civilization, and a few mental illusions do the rest. A couple of recent trips illustrate what my treks consist of.

After the recent holidays, which were very pleasant, what with all the children and grandchildren visiting for several days, I felt the urge. I decided to spend the day out, maybe do some rabbit hunting, do some cooking, whatever struck me. The night before, I got all the clothes out and checked them, put together the supplies and gear I would need for both roundball and shot shooting, for fixing a bite to eat and something to drink. I didn't sleep well that night, from simple anticipation, even though I have done this many times before. It's that good for me.

I arrived at the farm at about 0930, all decked out in period garb and ready for a day afield. It was 38F, clear, bright, but windy, up to 20K at times. Because it had been quite some time since I had been out, and some serious water had passed under my bridge in the interval, I spent the first hour just hiking around and looking at things, enjoying the feel of the cold ground under my moccasins and of being back where I belonged, watching for critters, looking for a place to build my lunch fire. I picked a spot in a cedar thicket with little undergrowth, open and covered with needles and moss, with a lot of downed wood nearby and a small, gurgling stream to listen to. I collected some squaw wood and built a fire using my burning glass, char wood and tow for tinder, and it worked exceptionally well. Lunch of hot gunpowder tea, homemade bread toasted on a stick, homemade corned venison, also toasted on a stick just to warm it, and some cheddar cheese, toasted, melted and browned just a bit... gourmet fare.

An hour after lunch was spent just watching the fire and thinking, about this, that, and the other, all important stuff. From where I sat on a cedar log, I could see where two deer taken with my smoothbore had fallen, and those memories started me thinking about life, death and other non-trivial concepts. You know, "What's it all about, Alphie?"

I then loaded my 20 gauge Jackie Brown Carolina smoothbore, my constant companion on all these outings, with shot for some rabbit hunting, doused the fire, collected all my gear and set off to find my supper. Three hours later I was still looking, but was not in the least disappointed. Few things, damned few things, please me as much as strolling around looking for rabbits in good cover while dressed in clothes I made and carrying a flintlock shotgun. After more than 10 years of this kind of abuse, my clothes, moccasins, leggings, breeches, etc., are still sturdy and sound, showing wear, but still more than serviceable. Much like myself.

I finally did bounce a rabbit which I could get off a shot at and rolled it cleanly at 30 yards, hoo boy, hoo boy, I'm a kid again! I am a simple man, and I like the simple things. I've hunted many things in many places with many guns over the last half century, but nothing will ever be better than beating a flushing bunny to the draw and rolling it with a flintlock smoothbore. I cleaned the rabbit, stuffed it in my tin kettle and hung it in a tree to cool while I went off for some roundball shooting. I found a dead tree with a conspicuous white mark and shot at it for the next hour, trying patched ball and unpatched, offhand and from a rest, 25 and 40 yards. The gun functioned flawlessly, the shooter didn't do badly, and the tree died again, several times.

Threw the tomahawk a few times, cleaned my gun using a gun worm, tow and water from the stream, then headed back toward town. It's good to practice the skills from time to time, and to remind myself how very important this little game we play has become to me.

That outing was so much fun, I decided to repeat a few days later. I had been hoping for some colder weather, because I wanted to test out some winter gear I had made but which had seen very little use. The next day's high was predicted to be 25F and with little wind, which seemed tailor made. My old bones don't tolerate a cold wind like they used to.

I added some longjohns to my outfit, but the only other significant change was that I wore a pair of moose hide shoe pacs I had made a couple of years ago. They have two soles of thick leather, they are worn with wool liners which have three soles, and they are large enough for a couple of pairs of wool socks inside, so they should be better than my summer elk hide moccasins which are single layer and have room for only one pair of wool socks. I tried putting the lower ends of my buckskin leggings inside the liners, then tying the tops of both the liners and the pacs over them, and that worked very well. I then tied on wool leg wraps up to the knees, and my legs and feet were ready for some cold.

I arrived early, while the temperature was still below 20F, and saw right away that my gear would be just fine. Once again I hiked for an hour, just soaking in all the sights, sounds and sensations, becoming part of the scene. I decided to go to the back of the farm, this time, where the boundary stream and woods make it seem less like a farm, more like the colonial woods. The ground was frozen hard all day, and was crunching and popping with every step. The shoe pacs were great, my feet never felt even cool.

On a little plateau in the woods there is a grove of cedars which create an open area in the woods, and it has always been one of my favorite spots to camp. I chose it again, today. I've slept many a night in that grove, but my old bones don't fit the ground very well, these days, especially the cold ground. I was not unhappy this was a day trip.

Collecting some small wood, I set about building a fire. I had no plans to cook on this trip, but I dearly love something hot to drink in such situations, and I never miss an opportunity to practice my primitive fire-building skills. Today I elected to use the lock on my smoothbore, since the sun wasn't bright enough for the burning glass. I didn't plug the touch-hole, but made certain the char cloth covered and blocked it completely as I dropped the cock. The gun didn't fire, never has. Good spark and a glowing spot on the cloth first try, and I nestled it inside a ball of shredded cedar bark and flax tow I had prepared, held it up to keep the smoke out of my eyes and blew it into flame easily. In short order my noon drink, Mexican chocolate sweetened with maple sugar, was brewing. I sat and tended it, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the inner glow of accomplishment. Warmed me twice, or three times if you count the chocolate.

I've been thinking of getting a matchcoat, so I had brought along an old blanket cut to proper size, just to give it a try, see what the advantages and problems might be, see if it would fit into my gear. I stayed so warm without it that I never broke it out. That is a perfectly good excuse for another outing, don't you agree?

A session of tomahawk throwing, a stroll along the creek just shooting at stumps and such, collecting a few black walnuts and cracking them to find two or three worth eating, trailing a large buck that had walked through the mud before it froze, sitting on a streamside rock listening to the music of rushing water... as I said before, disconnected. I sat by the fire as the western sky turned a brilliant orange and the temperature dropped along with the sun, as snug as could be in my homemade winter garb and as happy as If I had good sense. I like spending time alone. I can do it for days at a time. It recharges my mental batteries, soothes the savage breast, and done like this it is a damned fine way to spend a cold January day.

So, trekking is indeed simple, as I do it. The physical act of it, that is. When I analyse it a bit deeper, though, it seems more complex. Sitting there dreaming the fire, I was aware of all the gear I had made, skills I had learned, history I had absorbed, colonial lifestyles I had studied and "experienced". Without all that, I wouldn't be here in the woods today, trekking. I have put a lot into it, but I've received far more in return. No, it doesn't seem simple in all ways. It seems very good, though. Nothing I've ever experienced does such an excellent job of disconnecting me from the parts of the modern world I admire so very little. If I could package and sell it, I'd be a rich man. I can't, of course, because the magic only really happens inside your head, but I believe that makes me wealthier still. Out there trekking, I feel not the least bit out of place in the world, because the world is all mine.

Copyright © B. E. Spencer 2003 All rights reserved.

Back to The Notebook