The Real Joy of Backpacking

 

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.

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The Serenity of Redwoods: Observations from My First Backpacking Trip

I didn’t even have an inkling that I could walk over 30 miles in just three days. While backpacking in Pescadero Creek County Park, I tested my body, mind and spirit among the Redwood giants and found I was fit for the trail. In addition to experiencing some new levels of self-awareness ranging from the subtle to the sublime, l learned to trust my heart and mind to keep me strong when walking in the wilderness—both literally and figuratively. Although I’ve known for a few years that an altered state of consciousness happens to people who go off into nature (I’ve witnessed my partner return battered yet transformed from his wilderness walks in solitude) until I ventured into this world for myself, I could not fathom the deep and lasting peace it can bring. This new self-knowing, of pushing my flesh with my heart and mind, is enough to hook me for life.

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Rare Flower

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Redwoods at Pescadero Creek

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Cresting Brook Trail

Walking in northern California has its many unique treasures, the greatest of which is easily the Redwood giants. To stand beneath one looking into the sky while never seeing the its highest branches reminds us to respect everything. One feels oneself to be small and sacred beside their enormity. Their canopy creates a perpetual twilight of cool air and many-hued greens that sustains countless life forms. To hug one is to be held in God’s hand. In contrast to their majesty, I saw that people  can be giants as well, clumsy and careless creatures whose every footfall could easily crush millipedes, slugs and wild flowers. One begins to guard every step with the care and sensitivity of reverent steward.

“This is precious. I must guard this life.” I constantly verbalized until my body harmonized with the environment and I felt that there was not an other and myself, but only that the snakes and the coyotes and the flowers were an extension of myself and the woods, each reaching into a purposeful existence by fulfilling our roles, I no longer worried and a silence embraced me from within.Nothing reduces stress like walking in fresh air for long stretches in silence. Petty concerns fell away with each mile as the sounds of my own heart filled my head. My breath became a gauge for my own attentiveness to my body’s rhythm. The usual running dialogue of my life became a monologue of endurance: “I can. I know I can. One more step. Just one more.” My shadow ceased to exist. My song was that of the nearest bird who I tried to reassure with my broken words that we would pass through quickly. In the creek, my red-hot feet smoldered as Hal’s big fish flipped out a performance for his eyes only. I discovered tiny mollusk that mimic rock clusters and spiders that don’t feel the need to hide and scurry. The air was so crisp and fresh that I didn’t want to wear layers and interfere with the physical sensations of being fully alive. Through all of this I found contentment in my body, aching though it was.

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Pomponio Trail

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Fish in Tarwater Creek
Water is the ultimate equalizer. We take so much for granted with our hot showers and bottled water. Purifying water is a humbling process. We take it for granted that water is a public service. We open the faucet a beautiful clear water flows out endlessly. We even have the audacity to buy water in bottles. But pulling non-potable water from a creek teaches humility. Suddenly I was in the company of millions of women around the world who have to haul drinking water.

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Tarwater Creek

In truth, I did not do the work of carrying the water. My gracious host hauled it up the steep embankment while I rested. He showed me how to pump it through a filter. The water was made drinkable in minutes, which is an amazing luxury. The second method is to boil the water, which only kills bacteria but leaves particles. Tarwater Creek is so named because of the deep well of petroleum that spirals into the creek, floating on the water’s surface where it thins out into a film of residue. The taste of this petroleum water is unpleasant. This reminds me of all the people and eco-systems that have been impacted by oil spills and contaminated water. Water is life. Everything works better when it’s fresh and clean. Knowing that I would leave little trace of myself was also a point of pride.

As a partial introvert, I know I need space, solitude and time away from people to feel clear, healthy and at my best. What I understand better after my trip is that the quality of that time, space and solitude matters. Nature can recharge my spirit like no other source. A deep connection to nature can yield a deeper connection to oneself. There’s no posing or pretending or self-consciousness in the woods. You just are. It’s the ultimate meditation. You don’t have to try, and there you are going step by step, surviving each moment, triumphing over yourself, over your doubtful inner critic. My internal climate cooled with every step in the lower canopy of the environment.

Endurance is a battle of the mind and spirit pushing to overcome physical limitations. When one punches through the layers of fear and pain, a clarity takes hold. I’ve heard many athletes speak about this experience. Even though I don’t think this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, nor was it the greatest pain I’ve endured, with every step we climbed along the steep gulch, my confidence grew. The feeling of mastering myself was a powerful motivator. I haven’t felt my shoulders that relaxed in a decade. I’m hungry for more. I’m eager to invite friends to experience the outdoors in this way. In nature, I don’t need to be or do anything special. I only need to walk my walk.