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Amid the wedding-planning mayhem this summer we took a long July 4 weekend to camp in the Catskills — specifically, Devil’s Tombstone. It wasn’t easy to find a relatively last-minute place to pitch a tent on a holiday weekend.

Getting there was an adventure. M. got stuck in Albany for work — with the car. I was in Brooklyn — with all the gear. So I overstuffed my pack and, leaning precariously on Subway train walls and poles, made my way to Grand Central to catch the Metro North to Poughkeepsie. Me with hiking clothes, crazy stuffed Osprey with boots and sleeping bags dangling off, and a train full of Manhattanites with lap-dogs bound for Catskill summer homes.

M. borrowed from friends in Albany what I couldn’t carry on the train, and picked me up at the station.

We rolled into the campground right at 9 p.m., right when the park office closes.
But the duo who run the campground stay open an extra 15 minutes on summer weekends just in case city-folk like us get stuck in traffic, or some such.

The guy running the place was rugged and muscular, with about 20 years on us and looking like he could still out-outdoors us in every way. Our campsite was on a small clearing overlooking the road, surrounded by trees — and no light. Knowing we’d have to set-up in the dark, he came to check on us. He couldn’t have been nicer. The tent couldn’t have been more uncooperative. (A lesson we know well, but clearly needed to relearn — kids, never attempt to set up a new tent for the first time in the dark.)

We gave up and slept in the car. Our Mountain Man friend was clearly disappointed in us, but we were far too tired to care. We know from experience that us plus dog fit very comfortably with the seats down.

Day dawned, and we explored. Devil’s Tombstone is a small, primitive campground, with a bathroom and not much else. But it was quit, blissfully so. No electricity meant no RVs, or radios, or much other noise but the occasional (very, very occasional) car on the road below.

Because it’s so small, state parks and rec granted us access to the massive North-South Lake Campground — as noisy and packed as our campground was serene. We strolled around the lakes on the Loop trail. Sirus, lured by a passel of ducks, actually swam.

A map of the area from the NSL office showed a more rugged route starting just before the formal park entrance, and so we had a second-day adventure along the Catskill Escarpment above Kaaterskill Clove.

(We thought about hiking up to the popular Kaaterskill Falls — I had never been. But the weekend crowds dodging traffic to the trail entrance quickly dissuaded us. On the escarpment trail, we met perhaps a handful of people.)

The trail took us up up up, around the backside of a small peak, and to the front again. Rain had come hard that week, so while the sun broke for us, the footing remained muddy. This isn’t a trail for the unsure of foot, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d tackle it again with the dog. On the far side, the trail narrowed precipitously with a steep drop to our right, nothing but a few scant inches of grass between my right pinky toe and things I’d rather not think about.  Sirus kept wanted to pass to our right. I yelled at her more than I should have, out of nervousness.

Our payoff — two overlooks, slightly cleared openings around granite outcroppings, with views to Connecticut and down the Hudson Valley.

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National Geographic Adventure rated the Gregory Triconi 60 number one for long-haul packs in their just-out May summer travel issue (so new I can’t even link to it on the Web site yet). Gregory packs are highly rated industry-wide: Outside, for one, and Backpacker magazine.

But here’s the rub, quite literally – they don’t fit me.

Packs should fit a back like good shoes fit feet. I have funny feet, and I have an unusually flat back. That means the small of my back doesn’t curve as much as the average woman. I sorely wanted a Gregory Deva – until I tried it, and quickly realized I would be just plain sore. The Deva’s comfortably padded back was too much padding for my back, the pack sat too high and pushed in the wrong lower-back places, and it just wasn’t comfortable. So I went with the equally stellar Osprey (see: previous post), which had the ever-important benefit of being comfortable.

All of this is to not to discourage anyone from buying a Gregory pack, but to say that gear rankings aren’t one-size-fits all. It’s good to have an idea of two or three packs you might like, and then try them all. And it’s not just about the money, but about a healthy back and shoulders – the kind that don’t want to give up after the first mile.

I have a new baby. She’s an Osprey, Ariel 75. Oh so pretty.

I hadn’t planned on getting a new pack. Too cost-prohibitive for a grad student researcher salary. But this summer I worked part time at Eastern Mountain Sports. I couldn’t resist.

My old pack, a workhorse Kelty, dates to 1996. My mom bought it for me, in honor of my pending semester in Jerusalem. We went to the only outdoor shop in our little town. The place had a tiny backyard on a major street where a rickety fence tried to hold up a host of kayaks and canoes, which looked like they might topple onto cars at any minute. The shop itself looked like a glorified shack from the outside. Inside, all I remember is my Kelty, a purply-blue and black. It was one of the first packs made to fit a woman. The straps hugged my shoulders, the hip-belt my waist, like the other packs didn’t.

The pack has weathered Patagonia and Lapland, the Alps, the Negev, the Adirondacks, Gibraltar and Machu Picchu, to name a few. The fabric has held up brilliantly. A few years ago I lost a screw thingy that kept a stay in place. Sometime before Peru a couple of plastic brackets fell off, so I had to tie some straps together to keep everything in place. I ditched the chest staps years ago, before I knew what they were for. All those little things added up to big annoyances – and possible safety hazards. In the Adirondacks last summer, the top of my pack refused to stay on straight. In a thunderstorm, on slick rocks, I fell and reinjured my bad shoulder. My fault and the weathers’, but an unbalanced pack didn’t help.

And then I started selling packs. The new versions are so lightweight, they shed pounds from my Kelty. I slipped on an Osprey and knew I had to have it. Could my Kelty have sufficed? Sure. But the Osprey’s high-tech features sang a siren’s song. Like the ventilated back. The differently-size hip belts that can be heated and molded to my frame. The light construction that felt like carrying air.

Working at EMS gave me a mad discount, so here I am – with my my new baby. See the extra thick plastic clasp on the chest strap? That’s an emergency whistle. Clever. Totally freaks out the dog.

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