Behold Pack the Second!

This is Pack the First, the beloved. packpct
It was born in Bellingham, in my friend Rose’s living room, after a painful 3 month stitch-destich-restich marathon. It was my first home-made pack, and I thought I had made all the mistakes in the book with it. I was wrong!

The first pack had a “Bobcat Blue” body and a “Hawaiian Blue” collar, a ULA belt (purchased) and a set of Arc’terix shoulder straps (gifted) – I did make my own shoulder straps, but felt they were too narrow and likely to become uncomfortable after some-thousand miles.

This was the pack that traveled to Rishikesh, India, walked the PCT, slept on or just below several of the New Hampshire 4000ers, rolled in the dirt of the Shaman’s cave, found some ancient ruins up Sycamore Canyon, rose up to Valhalla in BC, Canada, meandered on the San Diego Trail, hitchhiked from Florida to San Diego and couldn’t believe its good luck to get to explore Cuba – not in this order. It also got to carry ice axes and ice tools, climbed Mt. Baker twice, and ElDorado once. Not bad for a mistake-ridden first-time home-made pack.

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This is it today. The shoulder straps started to fray in northern California on the PCT – I was pleased that the first seams to fail were Arc’terix’s, not mine. The thin silnylon (~0.3 oz/yard) collar ripped in Washington from too much pulling on it to stuff more food in the pack (hiker hunger). Mice bent on getting my nuts transformed the mesh pockets into partial Swiss cheese. I fixed it all with Nylon tape. Both ULA pocket zippers broke in New Hampshire, conveniently half way, so I could still use half of each pocket. All nylon repair tape melted away in the humidity of Cuba. I repaired the pack again, with white duct tape borrowed from a trimaran captain at the Hemingway marina. I think he used it to repair the sails. The bright white made it look like a hobo pack, and I had to hide it under a pack-cover during the Florida to San Diego hitchhiking adventure because we were not getting any rides.

I considered repairing it more fully, somehow, and continuing to trust it to carry me through my adventures but feared the fabric had become frail beyond trust. I asked it what it wanted to do. It said “Oh, please, let me rest!” So I hugged it thank you and sewed another one.

Pack the Second was born in two living rooms, Lucy’s and Chris’s, both in Sedona. It took only about a month and a lot less destiching-restitching than for the first one. I might have taken less time still, if I hadn’t moved twice in that time period. Right after the back panel was done, I packed my machine and all fabric in the truck and moved to Colorado for a job. Less than two weeks later, I packed everything again, and returned to Sedona for another job. Some have suggested I use my transience to get free going-away party dinners. I have no comment on that topic.

The pack wasn’t my brain-child. I used a Ray-Way pattern and 24-pages instruction booklet. I bought the instructions, fabric and all notions as a kit on Ray Jardine’s website, after desperately shuffling all items in my storage unit in vain looking for the instructions I used for the first pack. At $95 a kit, I hope to never lose them again. I imagine this won’t be the last pack I make. I can find the fabric for $20-$30, so really the bulk of the cost is this set of instructions.

The thing is, I’ve never been good at following instructions … even $95 instructions. The Ray-Way pack is nice, but with every seam my imagination gets to the trail and adds its own flavor … wouldn’t it be nice to have compression straps, or a secret pocket to put my credit card, or a set of elastic bands to hold my Camelback upright, or a rigid piece of foam right on my back (the original design is for a frameless pack). So I dedicated much of the month of sewing to scratching my chin and muttering to myself, studying other “professional” packs and figuring out how to construct new things. That’s really the most fun part of pack-making, I think.

The other thing is, I’ve never been good at following directions … so, when the instructions say to keep the wide part of the fabric at the bottom to accommodate the sleeping bag, they mean it, and if the wide part is at the top, then the pockets are upside down (exhibit A above). That threw me for a “now what?” loop for a few days. My friend Miles said “keep it upside down (wide part up), maybe you’ll end up liking it even better.” I was dubious, but the alternative was to get a triangular piece of Tyvek and extend the sides. But then I’d have had an extra set of potential weak seams, ya da ya … not worth it. I sewed it as it was.
I’ll be hiking the AT with an upside down pack and nobody will know.
That wasn’t the worse … I also had to contend with a back panel 10 inches too short (because, it turns out no matter how many times I measured 10+15 = 35 (exhibit D above), it never was long enough), a sleeping bag compartment out of proportion with the rest of the pack (another calculation issue), and the fact that Ray Jardine doesn’t believe in hip belts. I modified the shoulder strap to accommodate a hip belt (Exhibit C above). It worked out.

This is good. I read that Native artists always leave a flaw in their art project so that the Gods understand the artist is not trying to compete with them. I think we’re all clear on this, I am not competing with any Gods.

A few people have told me “You’ve made this? That’s impressive!” – No. What’s impressive is that the machine I used did it. I call it “The Brave Little Machine that Could” (BLMC for short). A small Singer Featherweight II – I think it’s designed as an entry level sewing machine, for kids to learn to make pillows cases and such. I have it go through straps, foam, triple-quadriple stitches across 5 layers of fabric, then delicate seams through whisper-thin silnylon. Sometimes I have to sew by hand with the machine, turning the nob one punch at a time with many “you got this, good job Machine”, often I have to pull on the fabric to make it go through, and other times I just hold my breath and trust it knows what it’s doing. I always thank it in the end. It complains often, but it keeps going. And, it doesn’t sew that straight or that regularly, and that’s okay. The Gods are pleased with all our imperfections.

This is Pack the Second, here filled with blankets just to see how it fits. Its main body is “Bobcat Blue” again, but the collar is “Spring in New Hampshire Green”. It seemed appropriate to make a greener pack for the AT. The compression straps are from the first pack, so you know the adventures they’ve been on. The ULA hip belt was a gift from my friend Critter. That belt has already hiked the AT once, Georgia to New Hampshire (where he gave it to me – he had lost so much weight that this belt no longer fit him). The sternum strap comes from my North Face day-pack, and I’m not even going to list all the adventures that pack has been on. It’s been with me since 1995 – France, Yemen, Namibia, Tunisia, Tahiti, … – That little pack is indestructible. The strap is only borrowed, because I’m out of strap material. It’ll return to the North Face pack soon. Pack the Second is narrow at the bottom, but still fits the sleeping bag comfortably, and wider at the top, which I actually like better than the tall skinny collar of Pack the First (see above) … better lower center of gravity on my back if I have to load it with extra food – Miles was right after all (don’t tell him).

So, that’s it. All that’s left now is make a hole for the Camelback tube and take it on adventures.

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I’m already planning the color scheme for Pack the third, my future CDT pack. 🙂

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