Backpacking is an interesting beast. It’s highly addictive. It can hurt like crazy, and yet you want to keep going. And going. And going back.
After many decades (I’ve said too much) of backpacking, I think I’ve finally boiled down the reason why I love it so much and it’s rather simple: everything else melts away. There is no time and energy for anything other than what you’re doing right then, right at that moment. The never-ending conversation in my head combined with my actions go something like this:
“Where can I put my next step that won’t curse me with a twisted ankle?”
“Oh wow, look at that view!!!”
“No, no, no! Look at the trail! Sprained ankles suck at 12 miles from nowhere!”
“But that lake is gorgeous!”
“Where can I put my next step?”
“How long til I get there?”
“Don’t make me pull this backpack over!”
It can take a full day to get where we’re going sometimes. And through all that time, I’m constantly “in the moment” while hiking. Constantly paying attention to only my surroundings. My nearby surroundings for my safety and path selection. And my nearby larger surroundings for pure enjoyment of the beauty that I’ve been granted permission to walk through.
“Finally. At last.”
Collapse next to pack and try to fight it for control of the well strapped-in tent.
Set up tent.
Panic: “I should have gotten water first.”
Find water bottle.
Find water filter.
Filter water into bottle for 15 minutes.
Clean the filter.
Drink all the water I just filtered, because I’m that dehydrated.
“Man, look at that view!!!!”
“Pump the water, man, pump the water.”
Pump and filter even more water.
Find the pot.
Find the stove.
Heat the water.
“Man this mush tastes good!”
“Dang, look at that sunset!”
Shovel food into mouth.
Filter yet more water.
Boil yet more water.
Wash the dishes using as little water as possible because pumping water sucks.
“I wonder if there are bears in this area.”
“How can I protect the rest of my food from bears?”
[Side note: it really sucks when you fail to answer that last question properly; trust me, I know.]
Obfuscate food somehow.
Climb into tent.
Every day backpacking goes just like that. There is nothing but the simplicity of living, and somehow this simplicity takes all of your time and all of your energy. When I’m at work, in one of my four-ish jobs, my mind is constantly racing trying to predict the next immediate task that needs my attention before the world ceases to exist because I wasn’t quick enough. However, when I’m backpacking there simply is no future to worry about. Everything is about right then, right now. There is no room for any of that other silly stuff that seemed so important just a day or two ago. And what’s even better: if there ever is something important I should be concerned about somewhere else, I very quickly realize it’s impossible to be there to do it. Do you have any idea what mental freedom that concept gives you? It’s impossible to be there. Your house could be burning down, but if you’re 6 miles into the middle of nowhere, not only will you not know about it but you couldn’t possibly do anything about it even if you did. That realization is an important one: nothing beyond the 300 foot radius around you can affect you right now. So there is absolutely, positively, no point in worrying about it. Once you get over that mental realization (and it comes fast), your world is centered on simply foot placement, water, tents, food, and sleep. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Except with less rinsing and less lathering.
And then…. And then there is the scenery. It is always nothing short of amazing, and certainly nothing one can drive a car to. The area around you demands your attention and refuses to let you pass by without captivating you. Your desire to stare at an electronic device in your hand goes away. Plus, there is no point at looking at your smart phone anyway. Because it’s dead.
At the end of it all, I come home completely exhausted, sore and beat up. And I frequently haven’t slept well either [a bear sniffing around your tent in the middle of the night tends to keep you wide awake for awhile].
So, was it a vacation if I go home at the end of the journey so dead? Yes! It is a vacation for my mind. A vacation from the chaos. And complexity. Though I’m physically tired and sore, I’m mentally rejuvenated by the simplicity of “just” living.