Describing the Indescribable

Wed, 09/03/2008

This is my third draft of my response to a question a friend posed to me. After this draft I will be posting it on my main website:

Before I left on a four day backpacking trip I was asked why I would do something so disconnected from my normal life. Wouldn't I be bored? I know those of us who backpack and hike might scoff at the question but if you think about it, how would you answer it? The answer was not obvious to me; I copped out and just said it is an indescribable experience. I asked Mark the same question while on trail. Even Mark "Survivorman" Buckner wasn't sure what to say. After a second he decided to go with the standard reasons: exercise, peace and quiet.

There are plenty of those types of answers and, as with any trip, I discovered them again. Some reasons are more memorable than others but all are still worth describing. The one that most people can probably relate to is the feeling of accomplishment after a long hard day. Out on the trail going step after step with shoulders strained under the pack and legs wobbling from steep grades, there are times when I wondered why I chose this "god-damn" trail. I think about how it sucks that I have to watch my feet more than look at the forest around me. The feeling soon passes when I stagger into a meadow filled with blooming wildflowers that simply state, "everything is just fine." At the end of the day with dinner in hand and the sunset shining on Mt. Hood, I am reminded how spectacular moments can erase a day of pain. It's an awesome feeling; everyone who backpacks feels it. It's the experience of being able to sit back and relax thinking, "yeah I made it. I actually did it with my two legs." That's the type of thing that keeps me moving day-to-day, the sense of making out ahead and coming out stronger and smarter.

It isn't just the physical feats that make the journey worthwhile. There is a clarity that culminates as each step becomes harder and all focus hones in on keeping the body flowing. Zen through the art of exhaustion. The mental drain leads to clarity and solitude. I was hiking with Mark but definitely there were times when we were "alone" and we wanted it to be that way. Not due to any negativity or tension between us but out of the desire to escape from everyone for a short period. The practice of being solo really gets me to appreciate my own thoughts and the company I normally keep.

That is not to say I don't enjoy the bonding that occurs on a group backpacking trip or, hell, even on a car camping trip. You only go out on these trips with people you trust if things go horribly wrong. People that you can count on for entertainment when there is no other source. These are the same people who will make jokes about the biting flies while trying to do a #2 and the same people who I take a picture of knowing it will be worthy of a frame when I get back at home.

I also have to mention, well the ego-centric leo in me has to mention, it is a show-and-tell experience to do a backpacking trip. I can take a bunch of photos and make people envious. The ability to say I have gone where not many others go and physically make strides few choose to make. These reasons are not meant to be snooty but as a way to be proud that I went all the way. There are residual effects on city life from being off-the-beaten path too -- the taste of a root beer (or a dark microbrew, depending on mood) and chicken sandwich have never been so good.

All those reasons are great, all of them true and honest, all of them pretty surface level. I did not realize the real deep down reason I am out there until the last day of the trip. Now that I think about it more, there were two occurrences, both of which require a little trip report.

At about 1:30 in the morning on Sunday a couple raindrops hit Mark and I as we slept. With thoughts of being drenched on our minds we immediately we got up to put on the rain-fly. The fear was intermingled with awe as we looked at the valley below where we could see Portland area lights being pounded with a massive lightning storm. We were camped on an exposed hill so we decided to move camp to a lower position under a group of trees just in case a storm formed over us. Afterward we sat to watch the light show. Lightning storms in Oregon are uncommon and they usually do not last too long. This was an exception. We both sat out under the clouds and moon for a while. As my mind started to zone out and wander into a trance state, the clouds broke around the nearly full moon. I stared up at it and felt as if the people I love and care about were reflecting their thoughts right back at me. Every hiking trip has at least one moment like this at night. A moment when my dreams become clear again.

The following day Mark and I took a side trip (sans packs, whoo!) up a hill to get as close to Mt. Hood as possible. Along the way we ran into a couple who were taking a break; they were in their mid to late 50s and we chatted a bit about how Paradise Park lives up to its name. Mark and I proceeded onwards to an incredible viewpoint and took our time before heading back down. As we raced down the hill we ran into the husband who was heading up without his wife. He asked us how much further and we told him he was only half way as the hill was a trickster -- every time the end seemed near another hill grew out of the background. We joked about it but I told him that it is worth the climb. We parted ways and I continued downward back to where his wife was still hanging out.

Mark and I went up to her to ask how close the mama bear and cubs that jaunted across the meadow got to her. She said they looked like they wanted to get out of there more than anything. She asked how far up her husband was and, after my response that he looked determined to make it up, she told us that he would keep chugging along for two reasons -- this is when the question finally got answered in my head -- the lady said he probably will go as far as he can, driven by more than just the male gravitas but also because her husband has terminal cancer and this is his last chance up that hill. That man that passed us earlier is a backpacker to the core; that's how he'll live and die. The couple lived and breathed the woods and mountains and meadows. Mark could relate, his dad won a five mile race while terminally ill. Wonderful people with incredible lives and amazing stories; that is direct to the core of why we backpackers go out. As much as the trail is scattered with down trees, the trek is as littered with inspiration.

The inspiration does not end at that conversation though. We all start talking about thru-hikers as this is the time they trickle into the Mt. Hood area on their way to Canada. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) goes from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. It takes four to six months with a very specific window during the year to get the best weather. The PCT along with the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail are the crowns of backpacking achievement in the United States. The woman tells us how she sewed her own ultralight pack and did the PCT back in 2000. She was inspired herself by others who wrote about doing the trail in their 40s and 50s. She then goes on to tell us something that definitely will stick to both Mark's mind and mine for many years. She explains to us how the trail starts in the desert and for 600 miles it's an intense struggle to do 15 to 20 miles a day to keep pace. Those 600 miles are nearly waterless as well, so you have to carry a gallon of water while the heat is bearing down. She then said, "but you hit the mountains and just go skipping and hopping up the side." After those hard earned 600 miles the body and mind go into a zone -- a state that can only be achieved with such a rough physical and mental strain. She pointed out that thru-hikers can be seen a mile away because of their stride. They just fly on the trail by the time Washington State comes around.

That little piece of experience really got to me -- pivotal events that happen on the trail. It's the story that reminds me that if I ever feel like I am 300 miles into the desert that in the end the mountains ahead will be nothing more than upward jaunts... that those who refuse to let exhaustion become the better of them will be able to make it past the hardest of times. It also gave me another way of explaining my outlook on life. The people who know me say I have a "you-nique" perspective. I am neither a glass is half empty or glass is half full guy but a "it's sweet to have a kick ass glass" type person. To put it in context of backpacking: I always try to be grateful that I am lucky enough to be walking 300 miles in the desert and never ever had to worry about water.

In the end, all any of us look for (in the woods or elsewhere) as we move along in life is the inspirational moments that provide us hope that everything is always getting better. Finally, to answer the question -- I do what I do to be inspired, to remember who I am, to find faith in people and to make my own stories so that someday I may inspire others. That is how I'd like to describe the indescribable experience.

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