A mentor of mine says, “A piece of exercise equipment is valuable in inverse proportion to its cost.” Meaning that if you spend $5000 on a Bowflex machine, you will receive no benefit from it, but an implement you make for $1 will be almost invaluable.
By that measure, this is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
With a few days before The Great Ruck-Off to rehab dinged up joints, I reached into my disused bag of powerlifting tricks and pulled out the grand old Tire Sled. The most important tool for powerlifters after a barbell, the sled mends broken bodies by pumping blood and synovial fluid through overstressed joints with moderate work and light poundages. And just like yoga, it wakes up the stabilizing muscles of the thorax, elbows and knees, and shoulder and hip girdles and teaches them to coordinate in funky, unaccustomed combinations.
To accomplish that, you just pull the sled up and down the block in every conceivable way: forward, back, sidestepping, cross-stepping, bent over double, one-handed or two-, hands overhead or thrust out front or behind your back or between your legs, rowing, pressing, extending, curling, whatever. The sled is to the horizontal plane what the kettlebell is to the vertical plane: endlessly versatile and wonderfully therapeutic. To paraphrase what powerlifting great Donny Thompson says about kettlebells, the sled works the tissues without killing them.
There is nothing to count here: no sets, reps, or poundages. This is just active recovery. You pull it, work up a lather, get pleasantly tired, and then go happily about the rest of your day.
I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.
When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.
And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.
I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of humankindpersonkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.
It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.
Maybe I’ll just never wear pants again. That’s how awesome it is to ditch hiking in 2-lb. pants and a pinchy belt for the sublime freedom of the Silly Yoga Shorts.
I took advantage of cold weather today to simulate the much lower temperatures at GoRuck (55-60°F), and I learned a couple things. First, nothing beats short shorts! Second, not only won’t I mind a heavy, long-sleeved military shirt in cold weather, I will positively need one (and a hat, and gloves) so I don’t get scratched up by log carries.
This was such a fine, fine, fine morning to be alive and healthy.
A mind is a terrible thing. If you are lucky enough not to have one, I counsel you to keep it that way.
If you do acquire a mind, you may end up like me. I have gone far, far down the rabbit hole in preparing for the all-night ruck, and it has led me into a monstrous, Faustian quest for Science.
Why? I’ve been warned that we will end up soaking wet whenever the race directors can arrange it, so I decided to find out what happens when I get my equipment in water. It has been a big eye-opener.
I found that some clothes get much heavier than others when soaked, and/or they dry very slowly. An over-eager mind with an excess of intellectualism, I broke out the scale and the lab notebook. I weighed everything dry, wet, and partially dry, and aside from having a more fun lab experience than anything in high school chemistry, I discovered surprising things.
Chiefly, my awesome, comfortable German shirt and pants turn to lead when wet. My favorite hiking shorts also hold more water than a llama, and those big pockets I like so much will stay damp and heavy all night.
What emerged in the lab as the hands-down winner? I am almost too embarrassed to tell you. My goofy yoga shorts. Yes, they belong on Steve Gutenberg in Can’t Stop the Music, but they weigh just 440g soaking wet. Almost everything else is two or three times as heavy.
That is not the truth I wanted. So I did what educated people always do with an unwelcome finding and tried to rationalize it away. Maybe the 1970s gigolo shorts would chafe, or allow my backpack to chafe. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to manage without cargo pockets. After all, these things can’t hold anything more than a few stripper singles.
So today I conducted field trials: I put on the Goofy Yoga Shorts and a British DPM button-down shirt, jumped in a swimming pool, and then humped a pack up the Rock of Faeries, on the clock and with a notebook. Then I repeated the trial with the long pants that did the best in the lab, also British DPM.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts crushed the pants. I bopped up and down the hills with spritely steps like Steve Gutenberg on roller skates. Their only drawback was that they dribbled water down my legs into my boots. The pants could avoid that—I just wore the cuffs outside my boot tops—but in every other way they sucked by comparison. They bound my strides just enough to annoy me, and it only got worse if I tried to put something as paltry as a pair of gloves into the pockets. My conclusion was, my legs have enough work to do, they don’t also need to lift wet layers of cotton/poly weave. Whatever I need to carry in a pocket, I’ll put it in a shirt pocket or even hang it from my shoulder straps.
Farewell British Army, namaste Lululemon. Let Science reign.
Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.
But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)
Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.
I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.
So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.
I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”
So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”
And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.
When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.
The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.
In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.
A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.
As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).
What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.
That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)
Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots ofwrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.
This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.
On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.
In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.
To prep for the all-night ruck, I’m going out for a couple of days again in the Marijuana Highlands to conduct Official Scientific Inquiry.
Here are today’s dumb experiments Highly Dignified Research Questions.
1) How little food can I get away with? When I’m ketotic, I can go a long time comfortably without eating. This is really liberating, because it frees up time in my day, and space in my rucksack too.
On my last trip, I relied on an ad hoc mixture of peanut butter, berries, and a little protein powder, all blended into a paste. Sounds awesome, right? Surprise! It was disgusting, especially served warm. I brought 3500 calories’ worth of the stuff, but I could only make myself eat about half of it. Whoever said “Hunger is the best sauce” definitely had a good insight, but that doesn’t mean it makes anything palatable. At least not after only one day.
But I didn’t feel hungry at all, and when I got home my Tanita scale seemed to think that I’d tapped right into stored bodyfat to make up the difference. On this trip I’ll try to repeat the trick and make note of my “before” and “after” bodyfat %. Instead of the peanut butter mixture—sorry, my friends, not even for Science—I’ve got sardines and jerky (1700 cal, 575g).
2) Am I dressing right? The event is two weeks away, and I’ve been warned to road-test every single piece of equipment I’ll bring, from boots and socks on up. On this trip, I’ll “interview” the Big Black Boots, my wool socks and sock-liners, and my best candidates for shirt and pants.
Quiv the Gear Sage has told me of an advanced phase of gearwhoredom in which one has tried everything possible and dialed in one’s preferences. I’m still far from that, but I’m showing a clear pattern: so far the stuff I like best is often German. Maybe they just happen to cut their trousers right for my Stumpy Wrestler Body, which is half Alsatian. (D-Zazzle, you opened my eyes about trousers with a nice, high waist.) And maybe the Germans really understand my northern European genes, because I’ve tried every kind of shirt I own for carrying heavy stuff through hot weather and I’ve found nothing that protects me from a killer sun as well as the Bundeswehr’s tropical shirt. So these days, my starting hypothesis is always “Bundeswehr.”
This time I’m trying to pack more judiciously and save weight, but it’s hard to get persnickety about 2 oz. here or there when I’m bringing 8L of water. That’s almost 18 pounds, amigos! However, after last time I resolved to always bring enough that I wouldn’t have to consider, comment disez, “recycling” water.
It’s a trick question! The answer is, “Whatever it may be, you know damn well that now Jason will insist on trying it!”
Today it’s portyanki, the traditional Russian foot wrap that some hunters still prefer with heavy boots instead of socks. In fact, the Russian army only phased out foot wraps in 2008. Even though portyanki are notoriously stinky–“traditional Russian chemical weapons,” according to the old joke–loyalists insist they are better for foot health than socks because they dry very quickly.
Of course, I think the army was actually more impressed that portyanki obeyed what I take to be the Prime Directive of Soviet equipment: Unburden the supply chain. Soviet industry scarcely needed to “manufacture” foot wraps–all they are is strips of cloth, and most any kind of cloth will do. The wraps bulk up the foot, so they make it less important to have boots that fit well. And they last nearly forever, unlike socks, but even if you do damage them, you can make do by wrapping them a little differently, or you can just make yourself a new pair with some discarded cloth.
Or that’s what they tell me, anyway. I aim to find out for myself. I have sacrificed an old flannel pillowcase on the altar of Soviet Gear Science and will report back. You may send any concerns about cultural appropriation to your local Communist Party branch office, where you will be sent to the gulag for re-education.