Why I Backpack
“Is that fun?” my mother had asked some years ago.
“Is putting a 30-lb backpack on and hiking 10 miles fun?” I answered with a question, perhaps asking myself. “Not exactly, but going amazing places most other people won’t get to is.”
I could end this piece right here; that is reason enough. But there is more to it.
I’ve just returned from my seventh backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. It is a place whose magic keeps calling to me—in its sheer beauty, in the geologic story it tells, in its sure-footed big horn sheep, its scurrying lizards, and iridescent and intelligent ravens. And still there’s more.
In those five days, I lived more in the moment than I probably have in the past five months. Mindfulness, so often a struggle in day-to-day life, simply happens (okay, except for when I unwittingly squirt myself and half the crew with sun-brewed jasmine tea, and oh yes, that clomp on the head with a very low branch as I scrambled to get the fly on my tent ahead of fast-approaching rain).
On the trail, I placed my feet and hiking poles with intention. I felt the cool swallows of water slide down my throat. When I paused, wonder at the beauty and enormity of the landscape washed over me. In camp, freeze-dried food tasted savory. Tiny sips of Grand Marnier before bed were pure elixir. If nothing hurt, life was good. And if something did, my only job was to adjust it, stretch it, or bandage it. If my tent kept me dry in a squall and my sleeping bag was cozy on a cold, clear, moonlit night, then I was happy.
That would be more than enough, but I’m not quite finished.
No longer the road-racing runner I was at 29 (whose legs were strong enough to throw on a 40-lb pack and go for miles and miles without thinking much about it), like I was when I took my very first backpacking trip on a long-ago rainy weekend in the Virginia mountains; at 60, I prepare—wearing a hunky brace on my seriously-compromised left knee (a life of playing hard comes with costs) and training for ten weeks. I carried increasing amounts of weight in my pack and went on progressively longer hikes in order to be ready for the longest, most challenging route I had yet taken in the canyon. My reward? The journey of the hiking itself, not only getting to the destination, became part of the fun (though I won’t lie, arriving at camp and setting my pack down at the end of each day’s trek felt darn good too).
Home less than a day, I’m in wilderness withdrawal, feeling melancholy that this particular adventure is now past. Perched upon a boulder in an arroyo, I’m writing longhand in a tiny notebook, because I’m not ready to power up my computer and return to on-screen life. It will take a few days for hiking to become a part of my day again, instead of my day, period. I already miss the shared laughter and accomplishment, and I’m noticing the contrasts of feeling both strong and spent, empowered and humbled. That’s why I backpack.
A note of thanks to our COVID-safe crew, who quarantined and tested, so we could safely take this trip together. Here’s to you, and our next adventure!