Finding commonality in the wilderness
I became intrigued with the idea of backpacking because of my love of Bojangles. Someone told me that, on average, a person can burn up to 4,000 calories a day while backpacking. “4,000?” I thought. “Imagine all the egg and cheese biscuits I could eat — I’d never feel bad.” That, of course, was a carefully crafted lie.
By the time I realized that it was impossible for a person to feel good after sticking to a strict Bojangles-to-backpacking ratio, food didn’t matter anymore. I began thinking of backpacking as more than just a way to eat whatever I wanted. Like all good hobbies, though, that doesn’t mean to say backpacking has been without its challenges.
My first weekend backpacking trip took place in late April along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was supposed to rain, but I was convinced I could handle a bit of drizzle. It turns out that it doesn’t just drizzle in the Smokies in April. It rains — hard. And Mother Nature sometimes decides to throw in a bit of hail for good measure.
So there I was, completely soaked, trying to make it to my designated shelter for the night while hauling 30 pounds on my back. After more than 10 miles of walking in a torrential downpour in 40-degree weather, the trail was a river, and I couldn’t really feel anything anymore.
“This is fun,” I remember thinking. “I’m so cold that I can’t feel the weight on my back, or the blisters forming on my heels and toes.”
When I began hoping that I’d encounter a bear while hiking, I knew something was wrong.
I left the Smokies that weekend having learned that quality rain gear is a good investment if one wants to avoid hypothermia. Like anyone who is prideful of a sense of adventure, though, I couldn’t wait to get back out there — with a rain suit, just in case.
I spent the next couple of months trying to convince everyone around me that backpacking was the ultimate adventure — that it was this union of mental, physical and spiritual self that surpassed all other types of activities. I called it an exercise in being “miserably happy.” Why would one choose to spend days or weeks with no shower, no bathrooms and food like ramen noodles to sustain you, all while resembling a pack mule? I couldn’t really explain it. Luckily, I didn’t need to, because three of my friends took the bait.
In early August, Kim Perry, graphics manager at The Mountaineer, and I, along with two other friends, decided to go to New Hampshire to tackle the notorious White Mountains. I knew it was going to be hard. Last year, my dad and I climbed Mt. Washington, a 6,288-foot peak that is known for its erratic weather, and I had nightmares of climbing over boulders for weeks after. Yet I longed to go back and complete the Presidential Traverse, a 23-mile trek over 11 different summits, including Washington. And I dragged my unsuspecting friends along.
It can be difficult to describe the terrain to someone who hasn’t hiked in the New Hampshire mountains before. The trail is not a nice, idyllic path — it is nothing like what the title of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” brings to mind. The trail is a boulder field; or, as Kim and another companion put it, the trail is made up of “rocksies,” as in rock-seas. And that’s as close to a perfect description as I can think of.
Just as it is difficult to describe the New Hampshire mountains themselves, it is hard to sum up our backpacking experience in a few short sentences — combinations of 26 letters just don’t do it justice. Perhaps that’s the magic of backpacking, though. It’s a feeling, one that can only be had by strapping on all that is necessary to survival (it isn’t much, by the way) and setting out on a trail that meanders through the unknown.
While in New Hampshire, I remember standing on the summit of Mt. Clay. I was a bit ahead of my friends, and I thought I was alone.
“I feel so small,” I yelled to the sky.
I jumped when I heard a voice to my right. “It does tend to make you feel that way,” a male hiker, scrambling over a boulder, said. I eyed his day pack with jealousy as he apologized for scaring me. “It’s hard to see sometimes over —“
“These rocks,” I finished. “They’re terrible.”
And they were. Yet as tired as I was and as heavy as my backpack felt, I was standing on a mountain summit with unspoiled wilderness around me. And I did not know this fellow hiker I was speaking to, but I was finishing his sentences. We were out there for the same reasons — to feel something that the woods allowed.