The Unbearable Lightness of Walking
You have to test your own mettle to become who you really are.
Backpacking was my first foray into the realm of going beyond a life of comfort and ease in order to reap rewards that otherwise were not available to me.
Even today it is hard for me to explain to an average person why you would want to go backpacking. For one thing, it is hard, it hurts, it is uncomfortable, and at the end of the day you are going to sleep on the ground. For another ,you are vulnerable to bear attacks, mouse raids, and footrot, all of which you are easily avoidable at home.
At home we are comfortable. Regardless of where or how we live, our entire home world is created to provide us with as much comfort as possible. Our extra funds go to comfort and recreation. Weirdly enough, Americans have an insatiable appetite for recreational gear, and relaxation is a weekend goal for many, but there is quite an obvious lack of peace and harmony within the soul of your average vacationer.
Instead of inner tranquility, we fight with boats and cabins and flat tires and whining kids and hangovers and food poisoning and sunburn and snake bites on our vacations, which is ostensibly the time when we are indulging in intense relaxation, and then we go home and wonder why we are more tense and stressed out then when we began our trip.
Many European countries have the right idea. Workers take 3 to 6 week off, because everyone knows that the more relaxation time that a worker has, the better they will perform, not only for the business, but at home, in the community, and with their families. The US thinks, or perhaps really Wall Street thinks, that the best thing is for workers to function like robots, with only a two week stretch to get an oil change and tuneup.
Well, that just doesn’t cut it.
And I’m speaking now as a farmer, who rarely takes longer vacations, meaning it is hard for me to take more than a day off at time. I’m fully self-employed and everything on my farm relies on me.
But I do know the importance of relaxation and de-stressing time. I learned that lesson while walking a hundred miles at a time with a 50 pound pack on my back.
As soon as I could walk, I began to hike for recreation. As a young boy, I would wander off into the woods, fields, and down the streams in order to explore the wonderful mystery of wherever I was at. When I look back at my life it seems like that has been my primary activity. Regardless of what I have done for a living, I have always put on a pair of hiking boots or shoes and walked fort miles at a time in order to stay sane, to relax, and to burn off some extra energy and to quiet my brain.
I’ve tried mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, and cross-country skiing, and they are all fun and enjoyable. But in the end I always rely on my own two feet to provide me all the exercise and therapy that I need on a day to day basis. I don’t know what it is about simply walking for a few miles in the countryside, but it clears my mind and tones my soul regardless of what sorry state I am in.
My love affair with walking was cemented in stone when I began to hike the Superior Hiking Trail near Duluth, MN. An ex-girlfriend was adamant that we try it out for a week, and she helped push us to stock up on the essential gear that we would need. I was excited about the adventure of it all, but terrified of bears, and worried about being so far from the comfort of a civilized campsite, not to mention the comforts of home.
On my first backpacking trip I packed like a fool. A few pairs of jeans and books went into my already full pack, and cotton clothes ruled the roost. When we finally hit the trailhead, I was already huffing and puffing before we even left the parking lot. My boots were stiff, heavy, and new, and before long my blisters had blisters.
That is what is called a “trial by fire”.
It fucking hurt. It just hurt, but as I gritted my teeth and made my way through the pain I found strength inside of myself that helped me push through the worst of it. There is a terrible clarity in the pain, and everything around you becomes vivid and clear as you navigate its treacherous waters. My life was reduced to the push forward, and I could only take one step at a time. That was as far as I could plan.
Backpacking has intense highs and lows. The pain of the journey is offset by the beauty and solitude of your surroundings. And after awhile, you begin to adjust to the pain, in fact to come to relish it in some perverted way, because it tells you that you are alive, that you are doing something worthwhile.
Running a business is not that different than backpacking. Farming is not entirely unlike backpacking. Sometimes relationships are similar to a long trek up steep mountains, and through treacherous swamps.
The one main thing that I learned on my first backpacking trip was that life itself was a journey, and nothing more. There is nothing that we can hold onto other than what is inside of us. We are our own biggest and most important competitor, and life itself is the game.
On the trail I became happy in the midst of my own undeniable pain and suffering, surrounded by the indifferent beauty of nature. There I was, with nothing to shelter me from the elements and predators other than a thin piece of nylon ripstop fabric and my knife. But all that didn’t really matter, what really mattered was inside of me.
In time I’ve learned that lesson is applicable on and off the trail.
It’s been a long while since I went on a backpacking trip. Life has gotten in the way. But recently I dusted off my old backpack, loaded it up with some books for weight, and took off down a country road to test my mettle and see how it felt. Surprisingly, it felt great. I am actually in far better shape then I was when I began to backpack. I don’t smoke anymore for one thing, and I have over a decade of physical labor to thank for not falling into the trap of obesity.
But here I am. It’s been almost 40 year since I took my first breath as a human being, and just like that middle part of a wonderful backpacking trip, that sweet spot when you can set up camp unconsciously and everything works like clockwork, I don’t ever want it to end, I’m in my groove and I’ve figured out how to keep my feet dry and focus on that next torturous step up that rocky crag, so that I can get to that stunning overlook
There is one thing to remember, though. The journey won’t last forever, and at some point all of this beauty that surrounds me will fade away. Taking one step at a time is the only way to make my way through it, and treasuring each and every beautiful moment is really the only way to enjoy it.
Regardless of the hurdles in front of me, whether it be a mountain or mole hill, I know, through my practice of backpacking, that they can all be overcome by putting one step in front of the other.