Recently two young women from Chicago, students at our college, approached me surreptitiously about going backpacking. The situation was comical and unexpected. When Lulu pulled me aside at that dinner, I didn’t know what to expect, but was amazed to learn she and her friend want to go on a camping trip with us. While she had my attention, she hastened to add with a firm look into my eyes and a hand on my forearm, a real one. While this made me laugh, I knew exactly what she meant. You want to go backpacking—with us? Yes, she said.
Lulu doesn’t want to drive in the car for two hours, park and walk ten feet to a campsite. She wants to feel challenged. She wants to hurt and experience something she never dreamed of in her city life. She wants to answer the call of the wild with aching feet, a sore back and weathered skin. I recognized the look when I stepped back to take her in fully. She nodded.
The word is slowly getting around that we are crunchy folks, perhaps because we tell stories about nature and our garden during check ins. It could also be the odd photos and posts on Facebook or Instagram that tell a story we can’t control. What is clear is that the more we do it, the more the people in our community want to join in. Even our eight-year-old friend told us she wants to go camping with us when we got back from our most recent trip. People are beginning to sense what we know: that something magical happens when we hit the outdoors.
Among the many benefits of backpacking, conquering oneself while facing down obstacles is the greatest. For the most part backpacking is not a dangerous endeavor, not like a trip to the Himalayas. Of course, nature commands respect and discipline, but we can mostly coexist for a few days. Out there, the wild creatures are in charge. They take over the demands of the day with their songs and rituals. One learns to fall into step and quiet the body and the mind. It’s amazing just how much noise we make: tin clanking or a zipper flapping and the swish-swish sound of synthetic clothes. I sound like a 200-pound elephant out there. The real conquering is letting the rain hit your face for hours; eating only what you can carry; and, leaving as little trace of yourself behind as possible. In a world of large egos, this is a test in humility. If I want the luxury of a wet wipe, well I’m going to pack that around for three days and 32 miles or for however long it may be. There are few toilets and trashcans in the wild. We even accumulate the odd lip balm or lost strap left behind by some other hikers. As you slip the found object into your pocket, you wonder, How much does this weigh? The answer is, it doesn’t matter, because unlike in the city, there’s no way to casually step over it without a pang of shame. It’s all a test.
The last few miles of a long trip are powerful portholes into one’s interior workings. You begin to see more people as you get closer to base. Personality becomes the focus. In contrast, there are generally less creatures of the wild. Your mind begins to wander, thinking of to-do lists or something you missed. Your heart may quicken while your pace slackens because you are finally returning home. We have a rich infrastructure in our country, with running fresh water, sewage that also flushes clean water, unfortunately, and heating that does not require chopping and hauling. These comforts, so often taken for granted are the very details that become illuminated in the return. The basics seem more precious than ever: a soft bed, soap and a shower; the telephone, Internet and mail; comfy chairs and lunch dates. For most of us, when we’re home again, life is pretty sweet.