Anna’s Camino: Compartmental Packing

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

Before leaving for the Camino, I spent possibly too much time researching, and was a member of several different Facebook groups where people talked about what to bring, what to see, how to get ready, etc. When the conversation about packing cubes came up, I read along eagerly. It’s a generally accepted rule that one doesn’t just throw everything into her pack indiscriminately – it’s much easier to find what you’re looking for if you use some sort of containers to pack things separately. It’s also handy to have containers that provide extra waterproofing for your items. Most people have pack covers, but the pack itself will still get a little damp in heavy downpour, meaning that the items inside are still liable to be damaged in wet situations. Plus, anyone who’s watched The Way can tell you that rain isn’t the only way a pack can get drenched (not that I met anyone else who dropped their bag off of a bridge, but hey, there’s always a possibility!). To provide extra waterproofing, some people use a trash bag as an inner liner, or have waterproof packing cubes. Other people, like me, use Ziploc bags to separate out their items.

Before deciding to use Ziploc bags rather than their more expensive packing cube counterparts, I read a few online conversations about how Ziploc users were terrible people for waking up the rest of the people in the dorm with their packing noise. I thought long and hard when making my decision. I knew that I didn’t want the hassle of a trash bag liner, but I still wanted to make sure my clothes and important papers stayed dry.

I thought about how I’d feel if people woke me up with loud, crinkly bags, and knew that I definitely didn’t want to be that person. Then I realized that there was NO WAY that I could ever be that person, anyway – I’m simply not an early riser. Case closed. I was on the Camino for 35 days, and I woke up before someone else maybe three times. Usually, by the time I finally struggled out of bed, the room lights were on and pilgrims were scurrying to and fro, making all sorts of other noise. As it turns out, sleeping bags and trash bags are far louder than Ziplocs, anyway.

I eventually realized that there are lots of noise makers you’ll come up against as a pilgrim, and either you’ll have to find a way to deal, or stay in a private room. If crinkling bags are a major problem for you, snoring, coughing, squeaking springs, showering, flip flop slapping, doors opening and closing all night, opera singing (not even kidding – this happened to me on several occasions), talking, alarms, and a host of other unforseeable-but-definitely-gonna-happen issues will quickly stack up to make you miserable. Don’t be afraid to ask other pilgrims to please be respectful, but also bring ear plugs, patience, and a sturdy sense of acceptance. You’re going to need it.

For those of you who have made it this far, and want to know exactly what kind of bag to buy – I fit all of my clothes that I wasn’t wearing into a large, travel Ziploc Space Bag. They’re different from your typical Ziploc bags in that they have tiny perforations at the bottom edge of the bag, so you can pack the bag, squeeze out extra air from the top, then start to roll the bag down (like rolling a tube of toothpaste), and the extra air escapes out of the bottom of the bag. In the end, it’s about the closest you’re going to get to a vacuum-sealed bag without attaching it to a vacuum, and you’d be surprised how well the bag packs down to save room. I was able to fit all of my clothes in the bottom compartment of my backpack, keeping the bulkiest item in the pack at around hip level to save my back. As I traveled, besides being glad of the extra waterproofing, I also was grateful to know I had one more level of protection against bedbugs. It was nice to know that if I accidentally ran into bugs and had to boil all of my belongings, I’d still have one set of clothes that they wouldn’t be able to get to. I also used a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to keep my various papers safe and dry, as well as a smaller baggie just for my passport. I also had a vinyl bag for my toiletries.

No matter whether what you decide to use, make sure to take the time to look into how you plan to segregate and waterproof the items in your pack. You will find it highly useful to include some sort of organizational compartments on your Camino packing checklist. Don’t wait until the last minute to find out what works best for your budget and needs.

Exploring the Kaibab

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Happy hikers! All five of our backpacking group (I’m on the far left) after successfully climbing up to the South Rim on Day 4. 

I know I’m still only 1/3 of the way into telling you guys about my 2015 Camino experience, but I’m still working on it, I promise. In the mean time, I wanted to tell you guys a little about my 2016 birthday trip: going on a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. Last November, I took a four-day backpacking tour starting on the North Rim, walking down the North Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, then up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. The tour was through Wildland Trekking, and I enthusiastically recommend it. Here’s a link to the exact tour I took, in case you’re interested.

I loved the experience. Coming off of the Camino, I was looking for a somewhat similar experience, but this time I wanted to camp, carry more weight, and have less amenities at my disposal. I was also really interested in getting to be somewhere secluded, where I’d be able to get away from the Internet and too many people, and hopefully somewhere that I’d get to see the stars at night. All of my wishes came true. The hike was challenging, but doable. My fellow hikers were very respectful of my need to have quiet alone time, but were also friendly and accepting. I was paired up with a family of four, plus our guide, so I was the adopted family member, and we had a great time together. I loved our guide, Dakota – he was extremely knowledgeable about the history, geology, and flora/fauna of the area, as well as a great cook. I was especially appreciative of his patience with me as I asked a billion and one questions about the plants we passed. I normally don’t care too much about plants, but I found myself falling in love with all of the different cactus varieties we passed, and I grew to love others, like the agave, Mormon tea, and yucca plants.

I’m trying to think of my top memories from the trip. My time spent in Flagstaff before and after going into the Canyon were awesome – I really dug the vibe there. I’d like to spend more time in Flagstaff, and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t strongly considered making it my next port of call. I also met new friends from around the world at the hostel there, and that’s always a plus 🙂

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Having a beer at Phantom Ranch to celebrate turning 35!

As far as the hike, itself, I had a lot of fun exploring just a tiny piece of the Grand Canyon, but it only gave me a taste for a much larger exploration in the future. I’d have to say that having an icy cold birthday beer at Phantom Ranch at the end of the second day’s hike was lovely – maybe even more so because the mess hall reminded me of summer camp when I was a kid, so it gave the entire trip a kind of summer vacation vibe. I also really liked a little side trip we took earlier that morning to visit Ribbon Falls, which took us over one of the scariest sections of hiking (for me, anyway). The path narrowed down so much that you had to lean against the rock and put one foot straight in front of the other. I fell into an agave plant and punctured my arm, which was not fun. After that, three of us ended up dropping our packs before the detour, so we would be a little more steady on our feet to crawl around the rock that we needed to get past to see the falls. I stopped bleeding eventually, and the falls were gorgeous, so it was all worth it.

 

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Mule deer eating.

 

Another great memory is seeing mule deer on our next to last evening, at Indian Gardens. Then of course, there was the hike to and from Plateau Point. Weirdly, though the view out there was by far the most beautiful that we’d seen, the mile and a half walk through flat desert to get out to the point was my most favorite scenery of the entire trip. For that little bit of the hike, we were on Plateau Point Trail, which intersects the Tonto Trail, and I got it into my head that I’d like to hike the Tonto one day. Instead of running from one of the rims, it runs side-to-side for about 70 miles through the Canyon. We walked back from the Plateau after dark, and I felt at home there, walking down that moonlit path, past the cacti. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want more lights and phones and talking. I just wanted to keep walking like that forever, nice and quiet, letting the stars do all the talking.

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The view from Plateau Point.

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Walking home down Plateau Point Trail.

Most impactful, but hardest to explain, was the darkness. I really liked that Flagstaff was a Dark Sky Community, meaning they have taken pains to keep their light pollution down. Then, once you’re down in the Canyon, there really are no lights, and the sky is absolutely breathtaking. I was happy to have my sleep mask with me, because the moon would have made it too bright to sleep otherwise! Once I got back into Flagstaff, I went to the Lowell Observatory, which is one of the oldest observatories in the United States, dating back to 1894. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and when I went, I had the extreme pleasure of getting to look at the moon through one of their giant telescopes. It sounds pretty lame, since we’ve all seen the moon, right? But to see it so clearly made me literally gasp with delight. I wouldn’t mind getting to see it like that a few more times.

I’ve got a ton more photos that I’ll post after I’ve had a chance to go through and choose the best ones, and I’ll break down the trip a little better then. But for now, thought you’d at least like to hear a little bit about the trip!

Watch Out – He’s Got A Knife!

Gare du Nord

Back in the summer of 2005, I took a trip to Austria, Italy, France, and England. Towards the end of the trip, I had a couple of days in Paris. On my last day there, I spent almost all of my remaining money on going to visit Versailles with a new friend I’d met at my hostel. That night, I was supposed to catch a train out of Gare du Nord, but the train was delayed, and then cancelled. With almost no money, there was nowhere for me to go.

I figured I’d spend the night at the rail station, then catch my train in the morning. Unfortunately, the station closes after the last trains of the night, and everyone is required to leave. After learning this from a friendly African man who helped translate what was being said over the loudspeakers, I began to panic. The neighborhood didn’t look particularly safe, and I don’t speak any French, both of which put me in a dangerous spot.

In the end I flagged down a passing railroad employee to ask him for for help figuring out what to do. He spoke only the tiniest bit of English, but he understood my problem and found a few more stranded travelers for me to hang out with that night. There were two Swedish girls, backpackers like me, and a French guy who said he had missed his regular train that night. The four of us had to leave the station, so we made a plan to sit nearby on a bench for the few hours until the station reopened.

At first everything was fine. None of us had full control of the others’ primary languages, but we managed to share our basic stories. I immediately liked the Swedish girls, who had been traveling for a month and had a month left to go. They were childhood friends, and both seemed particularly capable and streetwise. They knew a little French and a little English, and were much more prepared to be camping out in Paris for the night than I was. The French guy seemed a little odd, but to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide, mostly harmless. We sat on a bench in a residential neighborhood not that far away from the train station and chit chatted for a bit. About an hour into our time together, the guy started to get a little weirder.

It started when two drunk guys stumbled down the street past us on their way home. One of them asked if we were all American, and when he found out that I was, he said that he’d heard American girls would have sex with anyone who asked. I told him definitely not, and to get lost, and the other girls stood with me in solidarity. “Our” French guy stood up to the two guys and started yelling at them to leave us alone. Later I found out from the Swedish girls that he’d called us all his girlfriends, and said that we belonged to him. The two drunk guys acted tough and tried to start a fight for a bit, then went away.

After that, things degraded pretty quickly. We told the French guy thank you for rescuing us, and he immediately asked me for “payment,” saying that he’d like to kiss me. I said no, as nicely but firmly as I could. Then he asked each of the other girls if he could kiss them. Both of them turned him down, too. After that, he got angry and told us all off in broken English, calling us whores. Eventually he calmed down, but this was the first time in the evening that I got the feeling that he was not completely sane. He seemed in some ways to be a bit slower, mentally, but also all over the place with his thought pattern. He seethed silently at the end of the bench. For reasons I’m still not sure of, I still wasn’t completely worried, so I decided to take a little cat nap on the bench, wedged between the girls and the guy.

I awoke to one of the girls tapping my arm. “Wake up, get up!” She whispered urgently in my ear, “he has a knife!” The fear in her voice woke me right up. Too afraid to turn completely toward the end of the bench, I slowly sat up as naturally as I could, then turned until I could see him out of the corner of my eye. He had a huge hunting knife – where had he been hiding it? Muttering to himself under his breath, he periodically stabbed at the air. I almost peed myself right then and there, as I realized I’d gotten myself into one of those situations they always recount on crime TV, where the stupid young girl trusts all the wrong people, then ends up dismembered in an alley somewhere.

Trying to remain calm, I slowly stretched and stood up. The other girls did the same. We all strapped on our packs. The guy kept muttering to himself, lost in his thoughts, as we started to back away. We had covered about 100 feet of sidewalk before he realized what we were doing. He started to scream, this raw, primal bellow, yelling what the girls later told me was “Come back! You’re MINE!”

With that, the spell was broken and we sprinted back towards the train station. All three of us were loaded with 50 lb packs, but we ran like gazelles. I’ve never covered that much ground in so little time before or since; it’s true what they say about adrenaline rushes giving you unknown strength. For a while, the sound of his footsteps followed, almost catching up, and then finally falling behind. We were safe, but to make sure we ducked into a garish little motor cafe that catered to cab drivers, and ordered coffees. The very last money of my grand European vacation was spent caffeinating myself in the back booth of a harshly lit Parisian greasy spoon. The girls and I took turns peering out the window into the dark street, examining passersby to make sure they weren’t our psycho killer in disguise. He wandered by once, but didn’t look in, and didn’t go back to the train station – just kept walking.

I’ve always wondered what happened to those two amazing ladies who quite possibly saved my life that night. Likewise, I wonder if our would-be attacker ever got help, or if, when he finished chasing us that night, he used his knife on someone else. At any rate, I shook with fear for hours after the encounter, and didn’t start feeling safe until I made it back to London that afternoon. For years after that, I swore I’d never go back to Paris. But I think I’m ready to see the Eiffel Tower again. Just no Gare du Nord, please.