I am part of an eclectic tribe: Those who need the wilderness like they need air, the ruggedness of the backcountry trails and the unpredictability of the mountains.
Backpacking, and specifically backpacking the AT, is never far from my mind. During the winter months, I think about the excitement hikers are enjoying as they prepare for their hikes. They’re researching, evaluating and purchasing or making their gear. They’re reading blogs and websites, learning as much as they can from other hikers’ experiences. They’re lining up renters for their apartments and figuring out storage for their belongings, or better, selling it or giving it away. It’s all preparation for their soon-to-be minimalist life on the trail.
In the spring and summer, I’m often thinking about the hikers that are on the trail, immersed in a temporary livelihood they will never forget, and, for many of them, will impact their future lifestyle choices. The friendships that form in the midst of a self-imposed, arduous, multi-month trek can be some of the most intense and unique of a person’s life.
In the fall, hikers are moving into the final weeks on the trail, and I empathize with their elation and despondency of finishing their journey. Some will be more than ready to be done and will believe, down to the bottom of their worn out soles (and souls), that they will never again step foot on such a path. But within weeks, the siren song of the trail beckons and the planning begins again.
Thru-hikers are often asked why they do this. Financial, professional and relational sacrifices are made. It’s hard. It’s dirty. You’re dirty. You sleep on the ground in your tiny tent or in a three-sided shelter with a bunch of other dirty, stinky, snoring hikers. You get rained on. You get hot. It’s buggy. You hike up steep trails and straight down the other side. Your pack is heavy. (It doesn’t have to be, but most traditional backpackers carry 30-40 pound packs.) And you chose this. Against everything that makes sense about a comfortable existence, you signed up. And if you’re like me, you’d sign up again. Thru-hikers get this.
Franconia Ridge, N.H.
But most normal people don’t get it and they’re the sensible ones. If asked by someone who has no experience with the trail, it’s difficult to explain the insistent call of the trail. But I’m going to try.
All that uncomfortable stuff I just mentioned, doesn’t really bother me anymore. On my first few backpacking trips it did. But I adapted and grew to love it. I learned how to prepare better, what to expect and how to get tough. When you’re hiking in the rain and there’s nowhere to go, you learn to accept it and continue on because you have no other choice.
And it will not last forever. There will be a reprieve and you’ll regroup, make adjustments and go again. Somewhere along the way, you realize you’re persevering in fine fashion, and you actually like it. Something in your core being is changing.
I accept all of this as part of the adventure and I welcome it. I adore it.
Engagement has happened.
September in Maine.
I’m never bored on the trail. Every action requires my complete attention. Every step I take is important and can be the difference between a successful trek, an uncomfortable hobble to an access road or an evacuation. I have to be aware of my surroundings and movements in the woods. I have to make sure I have enough water and know where the next source will be.
When I make camp I have to judge my location: Is it level? Am I in a low-lying area that might flood if it rains or is too close to the stream?
Am I still on the right trail? Where was the last blaze or signpost? Is my mileage accurate? What is the weather doing? Are storm clouds blowing in? Can I get to a good place to set up camp if necessary?
I have to budget my food and fuel to last until I can resupply. I have to be responsive to pain and sensations in and on my body. Too often I’ve ignored hot spots that turned into blisters. Am I dehydrated or overly tired? Am I eating at regular intervals and not waiting until I feel hungry?
Awareness of our environment is imperative in “regular” life as well, but routine and predictability make it easy to lose focus and operate on autopilot. We rely on the assumption that if something goes awry, we usually have easy access to help.
On the trail, everything is ramped up a few notches and convenience is nonexistent. Paying attention is vital, not just a good idea.
I love this necessary engagement on the trail. My senses are alert and everything that is, is even more. I’m more attentive to the play of light and shadows on the land as the sun moves across the sky, changes in wind and temperature, and the minor adjustments my body has to make as I negotiate ascents and descents.
Nothing else so captivates me as life on the trail, in the mountains.
The call of the wilderness is profound. It requires my best and most focused work. It makes no promises but the rewards are the severe and ageless beauty of the deep mountain country.
* * * *
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
– John Muir
View from Killington Peak, VT.