Lessons from the Backcountry

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On a recent trip to the southwestern regions of the USA, my hunnie and I explored these regions through a familiar routine of: rent a car, drive to National Park(s), day hike, and stay at lodge. But, this time we spiced things up a bit by adding a pinch of camping and a dash of backpacking into the mix. While I am eager to share funny stories and rave about the geology and the trees of the American Southwest I feel more inclined to share a bit about the thoughts and feelings that came to me during time spent in the backcountry.  This is the first order of business, as I am afraid I will suddenly become unenlightened tomorrow morning.

As we shouldered our heavy packs and began our decent into the Grand Canyon I couldn’t remember why I’d want to spend my days dragging around a giant backpack and my nights waking up to unfamiliar sounds, while pretending that my bladder isn’t begging to be relieved. Was it the obscenely beautiful scenery? Surely, one can attain that without enduring all the hardships by taking a day hike or even scenic drive? Why do we do it? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe it’s a combination of simplicity, physical challenge, self-reliance, the longing for a greater connection with the natural world, and a deeper appreciation for the things we tend to take for granted. In a way, backpacking is like being a track runner; it looks like punishment, but the high you get from it is well worth the discomfort. Here are some lessons I may have revisited on this brief sojourn into the backcountry:

Appreciation

Many Native American tales have a common theme, which is the importance of appreciation and thanksgiving. The Lenape people have a story about a great corn spirit, which took away all the corn from the Lenape people once they stopped giving thanks and began to take the gift of corn for granted. Life in the backcountry makes you appreciate modern conveniences like food in the fridge, flush toilets, and a nice warm heated home. Out there, it takes effort just to boil water to make tea, but it’s also the best bag of Lipton tea you’ll ever have. The backcountry makes Ramen Noodles taste like a gourmet meal and PB&J taste like Ben and Jerry’s. It’s the ultimate lesson in appreciation and thanksgiving.

Humility (well I tried)

Not all backcountry excursions allow for immersion in solitude, especially not the South Kaibab to Bright Angel route in the Grand Canyon. There were many different kinds of folks on the trail and at the campsites doing many different kinds of interesting things. For instance, there was a fellow that believed that hiking out of the canyon was a race to the top. I have no issue with making way for those who are stronger and quicker on trail, but this particular fellow lacked the physical ability to stay ahead, and as a result he kept falling behind, and then passing again with a sudden burst of desperate energy over and over again. Here was a lesson in humility. It took a lot of effort to avoid judgment and negative reactions, and I admit that I soon failed that attempt.

Simplicity

My favorite thing about backpacking is the element of simplicity that comes along with it. No need to pick out an outfit; It’s the same shirt every day. And, there are only three simple things on my mind: 1) what/when to eat, 2) Hey look at that pretty bird, and 3) Where to poop. This type of itinerary allows one to “live deliberately”, as Henry Thoreau once put it. I am not talking on the phone, while reading an email, while making hand signals, while picking my ear. There is no “multitasking” and I am focused on one of the three important things mentioned above. Unless of course, I am distracted by the pretty bird while eating or pooping.

When we reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon we were awestruck by the sight of the rushing mud colored water of the mighty Colorado River. I’ve always imagined the Colorado River to be an emerald green color, which it can be depending on the circumstances and time of year. A great feeling of peace washed over me and I tried to remember that other apathetic and unsettled state of mind we tend to fall into, where all relaxation techniques or the strongest of substances aren’t capable of bringing the kind of peace I felt standing near the river. A few days in the backcountry is the best physical and mental medicine that I know of. We resurfaced at the rim of the canyon a few days later, grinning from ear to ear, and we were downright giddy. These types of feelings don’t come along too often and I’d go as far as calling it “true happiness”. Now I remember why we lug around that giant backpack :)!

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Backcountry

  1. This strikes a chord for me, and the stuff you wrote about appreciation reminds me a lot of my own experiences, so I really couldn’t agree any more.

    I’ve wanted to go kayak camping for years on any of a few glacial lakes in the North Cascades, and I tried to make that happen this year. When I showed up for my permit, the ranger told me there was already a group camping on the island I had in mind, and I’d have to share it with them. Then she smiled and told me that another camp, the most popular on the lake, May Creek, was empty; it has room for only one, there’s a waterfall in the camp, and access to the trail system. But it’s farther than you can get in a day of paddling. So I took the water taxi, and made arrangements for them to pick me up three days later. As I watched the tiny boat disappear into the big wilderness, I realized the next camps were all several miles away, and that I had the place to myself (although the illusion of solitude was shattered by a small boat going by later). It’s almost everything people go backpacking for, but it was only a mile’s hike to the water taxi. What was missing was the work of carrying the backpack to camp, the happy exhaustion of arriving and having worked for my stay here.

    I enjoy the simplicity and self reliance, too, but I do think the struggle helps a great deal to appreciate the experience, and also the return home to a hot shower, clean clothes, and good food.

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