I tend to hold on to the hiking gear I have long beyond its prime. My pack has been rubbed ragged on the sides by branches, brush and boulders. My water bottles are scratched and dented. My trail maps are tissue thin.
Most of the time, my gear problems can be solved with tape. Duct tape covers the rough spots on my pack just fine, and scotch tape is keeping my maps from falling apart.
There is, however, one piece of gear I’m being forced to give up, and it’s breaking my heart.
For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve worn the same shirt on almost every one of my hikes. Look back at my hiking photos and you’ll see it — a gray REI Sahara Tech short-sleeved shirt.
It’s not easy for a big guy to find comfortable hiking clothes. Most super-sized stuff is made of cotton, which, as we all know, kills. And I’m not one of those people who tries to squeeze into a size that’s too small — it makes me feel constrained and claustrophobic, like taking the subway at rush hour. I have seriously considered hiking in a kilt, if only for the range of motion — and the opportunity to horrify my son.
And as a fat man, warmth isn’t an issue. My belly is my base layer; I need shirts that breathe.
The Sahara Tech was the perfect shirt. It came in the right size. It wicked moisture away from my skin and dried quickly. The gray color hid the sweat stains formed during warm-weather hikes (the light green Sahara Tech shirt I own does not) so I would always look fashionable in summit photos. (This is not an ad for REI, by the way. I have plenty of great gear from plenty of brands.)
Everything was fine the first year, when the shirt and I summited peaks ranging from Chocorua to Tecumseh. We teamed again the next summer to cross Franconia Ridge, the southern Presidentials, the Willey Range and Monadnock and Moosilauke. I sweat like Charlie Sheen in front of a whorehouse, so the Sahara Tech dealt with a lot of moisture.
Unfortunately, even a great piece of gear can only handle so much abuse.
This past summer, I noticed the old girl was slowing down. She wasn’t bouncing back from a hike the way she used to. A wash or two, even with BaseWash, wasn’t doing the job. To be blunt, I couldn’t get the funk out.
My son noticed it first. Whenever we stopped during our climb of Mt. Carrigain this summer, he made sure to stand several feet away, and downwind. When I asked him why, he said, “Dad, it’s your shirt. It stinks.”
I’ve often wondered why we didn’t see more wildlife on the trails. Now I’m convinced its because the local fauna caught the shirt’s scent and thought there was a bull moose in the woods. After hiking, I’d have to stuff the shirt deep in the trunk of the car so the smell wouldn’t seep into the passenger cabin.
At first, I didn’t mind so much. We were in the woods, after all, and there weren’t many other people around. If anyone asked, I could always pretend I was a thru-hiker. And it’s not like everyone else on the trails smells of lavender water and cinnamon rolls. Most importantly, I couldn’t smell it.
And the shirt remained remarkably comfortable. I tried hiking in other shirts, but it wasn’t the same. No matter how many times I tried to find a replacement (it’s out of stock at REI), I always came back to the old gray Sahara Tech (now featuring paint spots from an ill-fated weekend of housework). Sometimes I would start out hiking in a new shirt, only to stop halfway up the trail to change into my old friend.
I began to accept reality earlier this fall. The boy threatened — jokingly, I think — to stop hiking with me if I didn’t buy a new shirt. Then I realized I was washing the shirt by itself so it wouldn’t spread its scent to the other clothes in the machine. It’s one thing to offend your favorite hiking partner, but when the odor from your hiking shirt starts to infect your other clothes, it’s time for a change.
So a few weeks ago, on a surprisingly warm November Saturday, the Sahara Tech and I took one last hike, a short spin up Pack Monadnock. I didn’t put her through the indignity of one last solo wash. Instead, after briefly considering raising her to the basement rafters in some sort of gear Hall of Fame ceremony, I stuffed her at the bottom of the trash can.
Ashes to ashes, musk to musk.