This story was first published in The Bee on Aug. 6, 2006.
Eavesdropping isn't the noblest trait of reporters -- but it paid off for me with a wallop.
One morning while slouched in my newsroom chair, I overheard my colleague Mark Grossi ask another colleague whether she backpacks.
"No, " she said in a firm, "I'm-not-crazy" voice.
"I backpack, " I piped up from behind a gigantic pillar that blocks my cubicle off from most of my colleagues. "Why you asking?"
After maneuvering around the pillar, Mark described the wacky John Muir Trail scheme to me. I heard a few key things: Hike. Write. Get paid.
Suddenly, I found myself grappling with a visceral desire to crash their hiking party. Trying to keep desperation out of my voice, I said, "Well, I'd be happy to help you guys with that. You know, if you need help."
I should explain something here. Moderation doesn't come naturally to me. That includes hiking.
A few years ago, I signed up to climb Mount Whitney via a segment of the John Muir Trail. I volunteered in a moment of bravado, partly to avoid being outdone by a friend who'd signed up.
Underlying motivations also pushed me into the climb. As a barely sober alcoholic, I was desperate for distractions from the cravings keeping me up at night. Fear and shame dogged me. Peace seemed unreachable.
Forests and faith stood as cornerstones of my childhood in Appalachian Ohio, and I never shook the thrill of climbing trees or the awe of speaking to God in cathedrals of living wood.
And frankly? I wanted to be able to brag that I'd climbed the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.
The trip I embarked on that September wasn't the ego trip I'd expected. The JMT took me to Whitney's crest, but it also ripped away pretention and arrogance I didn't know I was carrying.
My steps got a little lighter after that.
But I'm no saint. I'm not above eavesdropping.
I managed to weasel my way onto the Bee's JMT hiking team, and I quickly turned my attention to the one addiction I allow myself these days: coffee.
Backpacking trips bring out the clipboard-carrying side of me. Before other hikes, I worked to reduce my pack weight, stay warmer at night and upgrade my water bottles. This time, I vowed to improve my caffeine-imbibing experience.
I've tried a few things. Tea. Coffee in a tea bag. Instant coffee. Those caffeine-delivery methods may work for normal people. They do not work for coffee fiends.
I decided to bring a device billed as a "camp espresso maker, " which is a bit of an exaggeration. The metal gadget weights way too much, is pesky to clean and barely fits on top of my tiny camp stove.
I may be cursing myself for lugging the thing around for 67 miles of my trek along the JMT. I keep wondering whether this is just a manifestation of addictive thinking.
Maybe. But that gadget makes a darn good cup of coffee.