They who have been traveling long on the steppes of Tartary say, “On reentering cultivated lands, the agitation, perplexity and turmoil of civilization oppressed and suffocated us; the air seemed to fail us, and we felt every moment as if about to die of asphyxia.” (Thoreau)
My wife and I are taking advantage of temporary homelessness by meandering through northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We’ve lounged around and sampled the excellent local fare, but mainly we’ve spent time in the woods.
The focus of our trip was the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 266 km loop through the backcountry surrounding Lake Tahoe. The TRT is a good little backcountry experience: stunning scenery, as strenuous as you want to make it by pushing/limiting the daily distances, and resupply options every three days or so as you come down out of the high country to cross highways. I describe the TRT as a “little hike” because for 80 km it runs concurrently with the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve never heard of the PCT, prepare to be awed: it’s one of America’s great “scenic trails”, running 4,286 km from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border. To through-hike the PCT in one season, hikers typically start in mid-April and try to finish before snow falls on the Cascades in late September. 20-40 km per day, with everything you need on your back, for 4-5 months. We came across several “PCT’ers” during our hike: they were uniformly ragged, thin, of few words, and happy. They had a serious Escapological air to them.
As always, the backcountry allowed me to think…about priorities more than anything. Here are my three big “take-aways”:
First, a nod and some polite applause for those who enable our outdoor leisure. You, the reader, could probably go outside right now and easily find a patch of green space to enjoy. A forest, a national wilderness reserve, or an urban park. But do you ever think about how that space came to be, how it continues to be? To be honest, I seldom do. It occurred to me as I hiked that I tend to take green spaces for granted…I use them because it’s “my right”. If there is a token fee, I pay it gladly…the cost of (not) doing business. But it takes effort, dedication, and political will to preserve our public spaces. In other words, it takes people, who often donate their time and skills. The next time you’re out for a hike, perhaps take a moment to acknowledge and give thanks to those people. Or, if you are so inclined, get involved in your local park or trail organization.
My second observation is one of personal priorities. We saw people of all stripes, abilities, and ages on the trail. Some were clearly trail veterans, fleet of foot and traveling light. Others were novices struggling under awkward loads. But they all had one thing in common: they had made a decision to get out there. They could have easily chosen to sit at home and watch TV, but they didn’t. What struck me most were the “older” hikers, gutting it out on the trail and camping in the wilderness in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Proving that there are no excuses, now and into the future.
Finally, a few thoughts on minimalism. In the backcountry, less is more. Some hikers go to “saw-the-handle-off-your-toothbrush” extremes; we opt for a bit more comfort by taking a bowl to eat from and a cup to drink from. Bliss occurs at the intersection of 2 sets of underwear, 3 pairs of socks, 2 t-shirts (one long-sleeve), a pair of shorts, a pair of trousers, a light jacket, and a raincoat. You don’t need soap, just a lake or a stream and a deep breath before entering. A tent, a sleeping bag, a thin mattress. Wet wipes, because toilet paper is for fools. Food is just fuel: dehydrated or instant high-energy stuff to which water is added (boiling optional). You carry enough to get you through with a slight calorie deficit, and when you get to a resupply point you eat like you’re anticipating the zombie apocalypse. On the trail, you don’t see or hear the news, and you are not bombarded by advertising. You get up at dawn, you go to sleep at dusk. You live like this – happily, with everything you really need – for a dozen days (or for 5 months if you’re on the PCT), then you come back to civilization. At which point you realize how much of our material and mental cargo is superfluous, expensive, and pointless.
Happy trails. Get out there.