Lessons from the Backcountry

Hike of the Week, Life Balance, Outdoor Adventure


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:


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.


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 :)!

A Great Year for (car) Camping

Life Balance, Outdoor Adventure

The two week immersion into the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington State did nothing to curb my appetite for exploration and adventure. The trip only made matters worse, leaving me hungry for more portions of delicious wilderness. I learned a lot on that NOLS (national outdoor leadership school) backpacking course and I was eager to put newly acquired skills to use. And off I went, but as much as I enjoy the company of my own thoughts I felt lonely at times. So, I dragged a few friends along for a couple of short backpacking trips. Later, it occurred to me that lugging a heavy pack for days, smelling like ass, and eating dehydrated peppers wasn’t everyone’s idea of a grand old time.

Looks like I wasn’t going to have my wilderness cake and eat it too. There was only one way to play the hand I was dealt and combine the company of my bros with being outdoors. I would have to embrace a particular kind of camping…..car camping. Oh yes, everyone loves car camping. Fans include bikers, hippies, birders, and beauty pageant winners. No heavy lifting, no need to emulate the diet of a goat, and best of all; no need to dig a hole after a sip of coffee. The bathroom is close and the car is even closer. So close, I often walk right smack into the car, usually after my 3rd specialty beer. It would be quite a challenge to backpack with a six pack of Boulder Beer’s “Hazed and Infused”.

After a strong night of partying in the woods, it was time to pass out on king-size air mattresses waiting inside tents that Andre The Giant must have loaned out. But, I still had the stars, the fresh mountain air, the eerie sounds of owls growing louder and nearer, and best of all; the company of my bros. My cynicism for car camping was replaced with a feeling of content, as I reflected on a terrific night of classic shenanigans. Same old jokes, same old impressions and comedy skits, for well over a decade now. There are trips where nights like this make the trip and trips where it’s all about summiting that peak, but I wouldn’t trade one for the other.