Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.Bonnie Raitt
A couple of days ago I grabbed my pack and set out on a trail I hiked many years ago. My pack weighed twenty-eight pounds. I was not intending to do an overnight but instead was doing a test run. My hiking this summer was set back first by an injury and then by smoke from nearby fires, so I wanted to be sure I could carry that pack up the trail and not be wallowing on it, impeding the progress of other hikers by having to step over me.
I was not disappointed. I made the eight mile round trip to Sunny Pass without difficulty and woke up the next morning with only a slight back ache, something I have learned to live with.
Of course I thought back to that first trip twenty-seven years ago. I cannot be certain about the years, but one thing I do remember quite clearly is that it was the longest trip I ever took, a full two weeks alone in the Pasayten Wilderness without a resupply. My journey took me west along the Boundary Trail, all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail, south a ways, and then east to Thirty Mile, to complete the loop on the Windy Peak Trail, a distance of well over one hundred miles along with some side trips.
A trip that long requires a very heavy pack, again memorable and the heaviest one I ever carried, weighing sixty-three pounds. Since I am petite, that was no small accomplishment. I accommodated that heavy pack by planning short days at the beginning of the trip, but the load was still difficult. I remember that I could not lift the pack with my upper body to put it on. Instead I had to find a rock or a hillside at just the right height so that I could simply slip my arms into the shoulder straps without having to lift it up. This meant that stopping to rest required just the right place.
When no suitable prop was available I had another strategy. I would set the pack on its side, then lie down next to it, slipping my arms into the shoulder straps. From that unlikely position I would roll onto my belly and then lift up onto my hands and knees. From there I could push against the ground and stand up using my much stronger legs and core to bear the weight.
It all sounds ridiculous now, especially when I lift my ultra-lite pack with ease and swing it onto my back. Perhaps that aching back in the morning has something to do with those heavy packs I used to carry. (See my post Heavy, Heavier, Heaviest, March 21st of this year.)
But when I stood at the pass next to the old sign and looked west, tracing my route from many years ago, I admit I felt some nostalgia for those days of long treks with a younger body and stronger back. I did not need bifocals then, nor did I have aching joints, reason enough to feel nostalgic, but there was more to it than that.
Something changes in me when I am alone in the wilderness for a very long time. My senses are heightened, and after awhile it seems that even my skin can sense the changes, the sounds, the smells. I pick up on visual cues without trying. I can feel the vibration the deer makes with its delicate hooves on the ground through my own feet. I become an animal. I have always been an animal, but suddenly I become good at it.
Whatever worries and problems I have left behind in that other world cease to exist. I obviously carried no cell phone in those days. I was just alone on a mountain trail with my steps, my breath, the breeze, a world in which I was now totally present, an experience that I have tried to achieve through meditation for many years but which comes easily on a mountain trail when I have been out there long enough.
So it was that I sat next to the sign at Sunny Pass, bifocals sliding down my sweating nose and a back that ached. I have always loved those old trail signs. Each one tells a story, buried in snow through the winter, witness to storms, glaring sun, wind and rain and hikers like me, resting their aching backs, snacking on jerky and peanuts. I thought it was probably the very same sign I had sat next to twenty-seven years ago, only this time information about trail closures and fires was nailed to the post. The pass was flat, and I reasoned that this would have been a place where I had rolled on the ground to get my pack back on. I imagined the sign telling this story as well. I stood and faced the sign, two weathered old faces looking at each other and laughing.