Last week I unexpectedly came by a few days off, with no work and no kids. So we headed into the wilderness in upstate New York, which is one of my favorite places to be absolutely nowhere. I always find the first day on a trail to be difficult, and last Friday conformed to that general rule.
Sometimes when I’m backpacking I wonder why I put myself through it. I had one of those times on this trip. It was hot, I was sticky, the bugs were draining me of blood – I ended up with three mosquito bites on my nose, for crying out loud – and the trails were muddy. I bonked shortly before we reached our destination the first day, and I flopped down amid the cloud of bugs that had been following me like a crowd of Deadheads since we left the car. I felt wobbly and bitchy. I pulled my bag of dried mango slices out of the stuff sack and crammed a couple of the orange pieces into my mouth. The sweetness lit up my tongue like neon. While I gnawed, Thomas, my dog, whined and bit at mosquitoes. A few minutes was all it took for the sugar to make its way to my bloodstream and lift my mood. I pulled myself up with a groan and waddled clumsily down the trail. But I felt immeasurably better, and a few stumbling steps later I looked through the trees at Middle Branch Lake.
Ten years ago, doing this was at least a little bit about proving something: I am tough, I can take it, look how many miles I did on this trip with a full pack.
I don’t give the tiniest crap about that anymore. No one cares, and anyway, there’s always someone who does it better, and faster, with less gear or more, in more interesting places, under more dire conditions. I came to joy somewhat late in life, and only after I realized that it wasn’t a competition.
The healthy kernel of that former pathology that remains is the quiet need to remind myself that I can tolerate discomfort, and that it ends, and often with a reward – like this night by a pristine wilderness lake, alone except for a pair of loons or perhaps a water-seeking deer.
I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that there is never joy in the process itself. That depends mostly on the trail, and my condition while hiking it. Five years ago I hiked a trail on Larch Mountain on the Oregon Coast. It was a mere three miles, but it was intensely steep, full of unstable scree, and I had about forty pounds on my body that I don’t have today. It was a painfully difficult hike, but how could I notice that, when I had 360 degree views of the Pacific Ocean and four volcanoes to distract me?
So even though it’s not all drudgery, it is that deeply meaningful life cycle of pain, growth and renewal, played out on a much smaller scale. Other people do the same thing. They run, or do triathlons. Or practice a piece of music until they master it. Or, like my old neighbor in Montana, work advanced math problems for months until solved.
Couple this sort of impulse with an unshakable attraction to the natural world, and you may have a backpacker.