One’s Outer Journey Must Mirror One’s Inner Quest
“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed and without anxiety.”
—Henry David Thoreau
The old blue backpack now rests on the floor of my closet, beneath rows of shirts, beside a stack of El Ojo magazines. With age, it sags a bit. It is wrinkled and stained from treks across swamplands, deserts, high altitude peaks, and Midwestern woodlands. I first purchased the backpack in 1993 after suffering a six-mile hike across North Manitou Island in Lake Michigan beneath my friend Eric Mayer’s old military K Pack one steaming August afternoon. That fall, I selected all new gear from a Campmor catalog. The pack was the first item.
At the time, I had been deprived of wilderness for too many years, a state of affairs inimical to the wellbeing of my spirit. I had been inspired by the companionship of animal friends over those years—Belle, the golden retriever; Dusty, the yellow Lab; Zooie, the Arabian horse—but I have always been much like the ancient Greek character Antaeus, son of the earth goddess Gaea, whose strength was renewed each time he touched the earth but who was strangled by Hercules when lifted from the ground. I need wilderness as fervently as I do other of life’s basics. When suspended from the earth, like Antaeus, my spirit withers. I returned to the wilderness in 1993 with no discernible agenda, no goal other than to reconnect with nature and nature’s God, to speak with bears and hawks and wolves and the wind among the treetops and to learn what wisdom they had to share. As I was to say in my memoir of that time, a thin volume entitled Trails of Laughter/Trails of Tears, “One’s outer journey must mirror one’s inner quest.”
My plan was for the pack to contain all the essentials for weeks on end out back of beyond. All too often, our spiritual backpacks are burdened with too many burdensome items; car payments and mortgages, insurance and taxes, most of all the presumption that one is required to live down to the expectations of others rather than up to one’s own expectations.
The first item to include in one’s backpack is housing. I selected a lightweight Eureka tent which takes only minutes to set up once one gets the hang of it. For sleeping gear I chose a lightweight sleeping bag, one that nevertheless was comfortable when the temperature drops below freezing. I have actually found myself too warm on occasions when the thermometer dropped to zero.
Colin Fletcher, the dean of American backpacking, shares with us in The Man Who Walked Through Time, his memoir of hiking solo the length of the Grand Canyon: “The simple life can lead to insight.” But he warns, “The toys you have chosen for solitude and simplicity—at first build new walls. For the trivia can take over.”
Avoid trivia at all costs. Choose wisely. Even the smallest object can weigh many pounds after a long trek on a wilderness trail. Many important items fit easily into various pockets and compartments of my pack. A stainless steel pot for boiling water. One steel spoon because, as every backpacker knows, anything that can be eaten can be eaten with a spoon. Also, a trowel for digging latrines. Wet wipes instead of toilet paper. Nothing more discouraging than water logged toilet paper. A whisk broom for sweeping sand and twigs out of the tent. My old faithful Swiss Army Knife with only the tools that I know I will really need. No nonessentials like scissors and corkscrews. One does not need a two-foot-long Bowie knife to defend oneself from fox squirrels and cottontail rabbits. A Leatherman tool can also come in handy for things like picking up a hot cook pot off the fire.
One needs to possess fire-making capabilities even in forested areas where fires are wisely prohibited. For this purpose, one modern contrivance that has served me well is the Bic lighter. I always carry more than one. Early on, I purchased a simple propane backpacker’s stove. It is lightweight and screws easily into any propane canister. Depending upon the length of one’s sojourn, I always tried to get by with a single canister.
A canteen can be valuable, and it is advisable to purchase a water purifier pump. It takes a while to filter sufficient drinking and cooking water, but it is better than suffering from giardiasis, sometimes referred to as screaming diarrhea, or other waterborne abominations.
I always made room for a lined windbreaker. I included a plastic rainfly, which I tied to the outside of the pack. Far better than packing up a wet tent when preparing to trek back to civilization. A ball of strong cord can also come in handy, as may a roll of duct tape, which can serve many purposes. I included a small brass candle lantern to provide light for reading and writing inside the tent at night. For that purpose, a ballpoint pen and writing pad is necessary. It is wise to include a small first aid kit. Again, just the essentials. One need not equip oneself to supply a MASH unit.
As any veteran backpacker will tell you, one’s heaviest item is always food. Ignore those articles that explain how to prepare a twelve-course meal over a wilderness campfire. People who do that sort of thing defeat the entire purpose of being out in the natural world in the first place. They are like the person who sets out to hike a wilderness trail in record time, experiencing nothing of any significance along the way. Egotism exacts a terrible price. They get in their own way. As Thoreau insists, “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!”
There are numerous MRE’s and other wilderness foods available now in most sporting goods stores. I have only used them a few times. Most of us burn up a lot of calories on the trail, so carb consumption is essential. I always tucked whole-grain bagels or pita bread in every nook and cranny of my pack. For protein, I carried pepperoni sticks or hard salami and a huge chunk of Swiss cheese. Simple and easy to pack. I found that microwave meals, things like beef stew, macaroni and cheese, or scalloped potatoes and ham provided a hot meal at the end of the day. After being submerged in a pot of boiling water for a few moments they were ready to go. I never cared for stereotypical things like grope and trail mix, so I carried salted mixed nuts in a large Ziploc bag. And, don’t forget tea. I have found that Earl Gray seems to rehydrate the best, probably because of the bergamot flavoring.
The old backpack is a repository of memories. It was with me on the day an angry mother grizzly charged me on a remote alpine trail in Montana. It once rode in the wing compartment of a small puddle jumper plane as it carried me across Florida Bay from Naples to Key West. The old pack took me into God’s own wilderness in Montana, Colorado, Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia, the swamplands of southern Florida, the Canadian province of Alberta, and countless times into Ohio’s Mohican State Forest. It rode on my back the day that my daughter Hope, her friend Jeremy and I consumed fourteen bottles of water as we huffed and chuffed along switchbacks to Fern Lake high in the mountains of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park where we spent the night in the ranger patrol cabin that had been the setting for one of Nevada Barr’s park service mysteries. The pack was nearby on a star-spangled night when deep in the Minnesota wilderness my wife LaVon and I called in two wild wolf packs, and I was wearing it the time I found myself lost and injured, having fallen and fractured some ribs, in West Virginia’s Dolly Sods wilderness area.
Where next? One never knows, and way leads onto way. I harbor dreams—perhaps delusions, now that I am in my 80s—of meeting one of British Columbia’s fabled spirit bears, of encountering a wild jaguar somewhere in the Arizona desert.
The old backpack holds only dreams and memories for now. But I take comfort in the realization that when the city lies at the feet of the monster, whether in the form of nuclear winter, a yet undiscovered world girdling microbe or the schemes of an authoritarian generalissimo wannabe, everything I need is in my backpack.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com