Someone mentioned backpacking in their last email, and now it’s really on my mind all the time. When I was a kid, my parents took us backpacking up in the Colorado Rockies all the time. It was so free, and so wide open, and relaxed. Those are some of my best childhood memories.
There was this one place we always went, called Abyss Lake. You had to hike up this trail through the wooded valley forever, until you finally got to a cold, clear, clean, babbling stream. Then you followed that stream on up higher until the valley opened up into alpine meadows full of aspen trees and beaver ponds. There were big rocky peaks towering over head, and the sky somehow felt closer than usual. If you followed the trail all the way to its highest point, you came to Abyss Lake. It was this deep cobalt blue lake, set in a circ of snow capped peaks with grassy saddles between them. Though we tried many times, we could not make it all the way to the lake. It was just too far and too hard, and us kids were all under 12 years old. That lake was an unreachable mystery that loomed over my childhood. Even the name sounds ominous. “ABYSS LAKE.” It’s almost spooky.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, my brothers and I went back there on our own, determined to make it to the fabled lake one way or another. We were no longer little boys. We were grown, and strong, and fast. We made it to the lake before lunch on the 2nd day! It was so easy we couldn’t even believe it. This was the point at which we realized that all those years, we had been coming to this place because our parents knew it was an easy trip that kids could handle. What seemed so big, now seemed so small. All we could do was smile and chuckle at our now precious childhood memories. I found at that point an unquenchable longing to go discover bigger mountains, to go fide a new abyss to reach for. And I did. Alaska was one such place. McKinley was one such mountain. Within a few years I’d be leading expeditions to it’s desolate, oxygen starved summit. And on one of those expeditions, I took my father. The roles were reversed. He taught me how to backpack when I was a child. Then, when I was a mountain guide, I taught him extreme high-altitude mountaineering. After all these years, and all these miles, those early memories of being helped as a child in the wilderness are still deeply imprinted on me.
My father’s brother, Uncle David, would come out from Washington D.C. to go backpacking with us all the time in Colorado. He was this giant lumbering 6′ 3″ guy. I remember one time I was trudging up the trail, weak and faltering under the unbearable weight of my 7 pound little kid’s backpack. Uncle David came up behind me, put two fingers through the top loop of my pack, and lifted it right up off my back. I was astounded! I felt as light as a feather. I could walk again. To me, Uncle David seemed like Hercules, as I watched him hike down the trail carrying my pack in his hand like it was nothing at all. I must have been about 7 years old.
Once we got to the high meadows, we’d set up camp and tend to camp chores like gathering firewood, filtering water, cooking, catching fish, and gathering berries and mushrooms. I think what makes backpacking so relaxing is that there is no schedule, or goals, or thought of the future or past. There is only the environment. It decides what you do. You just have to be skilled enough to gracefully obey. When it rains, you go in your tent and listen to the soothing pitter-patter. When the rain stops, you crawl out of your tent and tip-toe through the damp sparkling grass. When the sun goes down, you sit close by the fire. When the stars come out, you lay in the hammock and stare into space. When the fish are biting, you take your fly rod down to the stream and catch the little brook trout. When the afternoon sun is strong, you stand still in the cold mountain air, and soak in the soothing heat. There is something deeply reassuring about simply following the rhythm and cycle of the natural world.
When I get out, I’d love to go backpacking right away. And we should take a good sized group. It’s easier and more fun that way. With only one or two people, you have to carry more weight, and do more work. But if you have 6 to 10 people, then the essential weight like tents, cooking stuff, and water filters is spread out so everyone’s pack weight goes down. Also, the camp chores are spread out. So everything from foraging food and gathering firewood, to setting up camp and cooking seems to just sort of effortlessly happen. This creates an atmosphere of leisurely social interaction. It really brings out the best in people. It’s the good life, in it’s raw natural form. So yes, let’s all go backpacking when I get out. And when my little nieces or nephews falter under their little token load, I will lift it from their shoulders and tell them it’s not much further.
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