Each step of a journey enters and alters the person who makes it. Jane Hirshfield
I was nineteen years old when I acquired my first backpack. I was home from college over the Thanksgiving holiday, and on the day after the turkey feast (well before it was ever called Black Friday), my father drove me to Seattle to shop at a small store located downtown on Pike Street. Everyone just called it “the co-op” in those days. It consisted of a room about the size of a large living room, with a small loft on one side where a selection of packs was lined up against one wall. We were visiting the original REI.
I had hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier the preceding summer along with my friend, Kathy, and her mother, Bobbi, a way of celebrating our graduation from high school. On that trip I had used my brother’s old Boy Scout pack, a heavy frame made of molded plastic with a canvas knapsack attached. My father must have figured by then that I was serious about hiking and backpacking and thought that I should have good equipment. The old Boy Scout pack had served its purpose but was heavy and bulky with a small knapsack, so I was excited about getting a new nylon pack on an aluminum frame.
A couple of hours after our arrival at the store, we departed with a new pair of leather hiking boots, a two-and-a-half pound goose down sleeping bag, and a red Junior Cruiser backpack. I also had a new REI membership card, which I carry with me to this day. The check out clerks always comment on my low membership number, and I reply that I have been a member since 1968, and then add for good measure, “Since before you were born.”
Over fifty birthdays later, that one remains in my memory as the most precious one of all. After departing REI we had lunch in Chinatown. I was a young woman perched on the edge of adulthood in my first year of college. There would be a career, marriage, kids, challenges, but at that moment all I really wanted to do was to hike, and one other person, my father, knew that and knew me. When I think about the things I wish I had said to him before he died many years later, what always comes to mind is this: “Thank you for that day.”
The new pack was not very big, a child’s pack. I was small then, and I remain so, just five feet two and a little over a hundred pounds. The pack had no hip belt, not even padded shoulder straps, and certainly no straps for adjusting to my small frame, but it served me well for several years, going with me on another trip around the Wonderland Trail, most of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail, and on my early ventures as a solo hiker into the beautiful Olympic Mountains. It was the pack that eventually met its demise outside a trail shelter in those mountains, when a bear tore it to pieces (see Nameless Wildness).
The following Christmas I awoke in the morning to find a bright red Kelty under the tree, a gift from my husband. I was so excited that I wore it for the rest of the day as I prepared dinner, as I took the turkey out of the oven, and as I cleared the table and cleaned up when the celebration was coming to a close.
Kelty was considered state-of-the-art at the time, the best pack out there. Mine was once again small in order to accommodate my small frame but was still the biggest pack I’d ever carried. It also had a hip belt, padded shoulder straps, and outside zipper compartments that made it easy and convenient to find things. The brass zippers were sturdy and covered with another layer of rip-stop nylon so that the contents of the pockets did not get wet in a down pour. The best part of all was that the pack had substantially more room than the old Junior Cruiser. . .more room to fill with more stuff.
My hiking friend, Jan, still laughs when she tells the story of arriving in camp and watching me remove books from my pack. Like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, the books kept coming: my journal, a couple of novels (in case I finished the first one, which I always did), and a couple of field guides.
Over the years I added not just field guides but days. For the first few years I would go out for a week at a time, then because I felt more deeply connected to the mountains and their wonders the longer I was out there, I started adding one day per year. I discovered that by attaching a day pack on the outside of the Kelty, I could extend the room and the amount of food I was able to carry, so that by the end of this feat I was on the trail for two weeks at a time and carried a pack on that trip that weighed sixty-three pounds. It was so heavy that I couldn’t stop to rest unless I found a log or a rock situated at exactly the right height for my butt, then I would sit down, lean back, remove my pack, and strap it back on when I was ready to depart.
Many years later, with the benefit of age and wisdom on my side, I can look back and think, as you are most likely doing now, how foolish it was to carry such a heavy load. My life was complicated, filled with things I didn’t need, and at least some of the things I didn’t need went with me on the trail.
But age and wisdom also brings understanding and perspective. My most precious moments on the trail have not been on the trail at all but sitting in camp, cup of tea in hand, surrounded by wildflowers, carefully counting sepals and petals with a field guide in my lap. It was not enough for me to be in the wilderness. I wanted to immerse myself in it for days a time and to learn about it while I was there.
There was no ultra-lite gear in those days. Packs were built to be sturdy and to last. I carried my Kelty for about fifteen years, two to three hundred miles each summer, before it finally fell apart and was beyond repair. I felt as though I’d lost a good friend. However heavy it might have been, it was familiar and even comfortable. That pack and I had covered may miles together, and we both had many stories to tell.
There followed an internal frame pack. They were new at the time. I replaced it after one summer with a frameless pack, also something new, and consisting of little more than a duffle bag with straps. Both of those packs were uncomfortable and served as a reminder that new isn’t always better.
By this time I had moved to Wyoming and was hiking in the Bighorns and other Wyoming mountain ranges. I had also started taking yearly trips to the southwest to begin to explore the magnificent canyon country. I had a successful practice in northwestern Wyoming and was finally in a position to acquire that dream pack I had imagined for many years, the one that would fit my small frame but be big enough to accommodate all of the things I couldn’t live without on the trail. Hiking in the southwest always required carrying extra water, a heavy and bulky addition to any load.
On a weekend in spring I drove to Bozeman, Montana for a “fitting.” The length from shoulders to hip points was measured, the width of my back at various points. Even the precise arc of my lumbar curve was determined so that the support would be perfect. They told me it would be ready in a month, but it was early fall by the time I picked up the pack in Bozeman, and then I had to wait until the following summer before I could try it out on the trail.
Just as I had done many years earlier on Christmas day with my new Kelty, I wore the pack around the house. When spring came and the roads were finally clear of snow, I began to load it up in various different ways to try it out out as I took short walks near my home. This was the most expensive pack I had ever purchased, and I guess I expected nothing less than magic. If I loaded it “just right” it wouldn’t feel heavy. I wanted it to somehow sprout wings and lift the pack off my back and me along with it. I wanted it to make a hard thing easy.
This pack and I have stories to tell, just like the Junior Cruiser and the Kelty, though none of them involve sprouting wings and flying. They are mundane. . .like falling. That’s from mundain, a Middle French word meaning “earthly” or “of the earth,” and that’s the thing you meet most often when you fall. You can meet it on your face, on your back, or in a kind of tumbling motion, but you will definitely meet it eventually and far more likely if you are carrying a pack that is too heavy for your small body. The expensive, custom designed pack did not make a hard thing easy. Instead it sent me sprawling repeatedly.
More about that next week, but in the meantime thank you for reading my blog. It’s been a couple of months since I published the first post, and I am delighted by how many people from all over the world are taking the time to read them. Please feel free to contact me via this website, and happy trails to all.