When I enrolled in the program for which I am about to teach as a student years ago, I did so on a shoestring budget. Actually, shoestrings were the least of my problems. I’d gone into a National Outdoor Leadership School training the year before grievously underweight from two years in the Peace Corps, with an ancient pair of boots, a pack that no amount of strap-winching could coax to fit my frame, and a broken watch (also too big). I hobbled away from that experience with boot soles that peeled off like dead skin on the first trek, several missing toenails, and serious contusions on my hipbones from bearing the weight of my pack.
I went into my Pacific Northwest expedition as a grad student physically stronger but still gear-poor. Desperate for privacy but unable to afford a personal tent, I threw a tarp over any picnic table I could find and slept on the ground underneath. A three-quarter length blue foam pad (“Mr. Blue”) was my cushion, and I lugged around a fifteen-pound sweater made of Himalayan wool in lieu of sporty packable layers for warmth. Each morning, I poured scalding hot water into a non-BPA-free Nalgene full of tea bags and gulped it greedily, with no thought to the carcinogens and endocrine disrupters flooding my system. I survived it all, of course. It was grad school, not Apocalypse Now, but still.
By now, I’ve upgraded some things (boots, backpack, etc.), but this week I confronted the gaps in my gear. Though I don’t necessarily have a bigger budget, I know a hell of a lot more about the difference between good gear and bad, and how that difference feels on Week 8 of a 12-week expedition. I know what materials contain carcinogens and estrogen disruptors, but I also know that an old school Columbia rain jacket from the Salvation Army costs $15, as opposed to the $100-$400 more breathable, less-deadly new ones.
The debate raged in my head for days and the loop went something like this: “This is what I can afford now, but if it doesn’t last, aren’t I just adding more waste to landfills? But I don’t want to be a victim of consumer culture, either. Then again, I spend so much time outside, isn’t it worth the investment, and shouldn’t I care for myself enough to make sure I’m comfortable? My body is my first environment, after all, and how can I model self-care for my students if I don’t practice it myself? BUT, if people like me who have more learn to make do with less, than those who have less can have more! Maybe I only think this high-priced stuff is necessary because THAT’S WHAT CORPORATE CULTURE WANTS ME TO THINK!
In the end, compromises were made and gear was got. I got the phthalate-free yoga mat (Mr. Purple), because I will be stretching, sprawling and sitting on it multiple times a day every day for weeks on end, but I also got the $15 rain jacket because it fits, it’s waterproof, and I didn’t have to go into debt to buy it. I went with the basic Black Diamond headlamp rather than the deer hunter’s model that was ten dollars less, because I don’t want to spend the semester looking and feeling as though I have something the size of an actual deer affixed to my forehead. The lessons of this little trial are complicated, as are issues of sustainability, consumerism, quality that lasts, simplicity, and privilege, and maybe that’s enough to know for now.
I might find myself wishing, during some temperate rainforest deluge or moonless mountaintop night, that I’d geared up instead of down during my final preparations, but I hope not. That spunky gal sleeping under a picnic table knew something important about simplicity and survival that I don’t want to forget. This solidified for me when I ran across a photo earlier today, of another spunky gal who knew a thing or two about simplicity and survival, and t worked out pretty well for her…