I’m lately outfitting for a trip. I was given a generous gift a couple years ago with the stipulation it be used for a trip to Ireland, which I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was wee mite. This will be my first visit; I’m renting a car and spending a month wandering and mainly camping. I haven’t been this excited to go somewhere probably since I went to Australia for college. While looking for travel guides for that trip, I came across Lonely Planet’s “Trekking in New Zealand.” This was about 1990. Trekking in New Zealand meant backpacking, I learned. The hook sunk deep.
Despite growing up in Colorado, I’d never once backpacked. I don’t actually remember ever putting on a pack at all – not even for school, though I seem to remember some flimsy canvas jobs from Sears that mainly just carried toys to your friend’s house: GI Joes, silver six shooters, firecrackers, a lego spaceship you’d designed that week, artfully painted metal toy soldiers from England you bought with your lawnmowing money at Southglen Mall, walkie talkies so you could coordinate your defense from the enemy, with your friend hiding in a bush in the back yard, you in the front.
My family camped regularly, but not even every year. You’d go with a friend’s family sometimes, a church group, or to Chief Ouray, the YMCA summer camp. You’d pitch the tent in the yard in the summer as a kid, and later camp at the reservoir with your girlfriend, first learning how mostly terrible camping sex is. I hunted, but that didn’t involve overnights in the field.
My dad was a skilled hunter, who’d fed his family as a young kid during World War II by hunting in the woods that surrounded their rural Massachusetts farmhouse. He was restless, a purpose-driven person. Camp life didn’t suit him. If you were in nature, you had to be trying to kill something to eat, so we fished but he was a terrible fisherman. His antsy vibrations spooked them through the line, so calm-ish kid that I was, I caught most of the fish, which cooked on a Coleman stove I generally found disgusting as food. Later in life he went on hunts but didn’t take ammo. He’d grown tired of killing, but had to have that pretense of purpose. He’d track and draw a bead on a beast, gently pull the trigger, then, click. He was such an impeccable marksman he’d know if he’d bagged it. I wished for him that, like my uncle who’s also a great hunter, he could find a similar joy in photography, maybe. Something. All the guns! Jesus.
So I read about trekking, and this obsession came to surpass my anticipation for college down under, itself. Which ended up being amazing. I backpacked all over that continent, too, after weeks up and down in New Zealand, and a month in New Guinea at the tale end of my stint in Oz. But you start by gearing up, and entering that cascade of problem solving and logistics. I needed a bag to carry everything to live for a year, that could withstand baggage handlers, yet allow me to strap it to my back so I could climb volcanoes, cross deserts, and walk remote beaches for weeks at a time.
I made every mistake you could make. Bad bag (an early internal frame job that you could zip up the straps), bad K-Mart tent, bad Army surplus cook gear, too much everything (like enough miso ramen packets to survive for a month). I’d recently begun a shortish stint as a vegetarian and had dropped 30 pounds, 20 of which I probably still needed. So I hauled this ridiculous bag around all over New Zealand on my skinny vegetarian art student legs in some kind of self-imposed collegiate boot camp. One of the most formative experiences of my life, come to think of it.
Later, every chance I got away from whatever job or semester or entanglement, I’d head to the mountains, walk for a week, and man, would I feel better when I came out. I didn’t ever go full fanatic and build my life around it. I continued to mostly live and work in cities, pursue Zen study, a nominal career in “the arts,” women, family. But when the bullshit got thick, I went to the mountains. I kept doing what I could, when I lived away, to somehow get back, living more by intention than strategy. I didn’t as much want to live in the mountains as nearer to them, just to be able to get there for a day twice a month rather than have to coordinate a week once or twice a year. I am happy enough often times with a two hour walk (a better word than ‘hike’) in the afternoon, then back home to cook dinner and watch a show. Best of all would be the ability to walk out your backdoor onto a trail, but we make do.
All my gear on that first trip was shit. Total garbage. In intervening years I’ve tried a lot of gear, on tight budgets and with an aesthetic (and ethic) of “just make do, imagine was Gary Snyder was dealing with in 1956”. Until fairly recently my main backpacking tent remained a North Face 2-person tent from 1992. It probably ran about $350, pricey now much less back then, when that was like $800 today. That was a serious expense. It was a gift too, actually, or I probably wouldn’t have had it. I’d have gone for some cheaper option, because the point was to just get out there for as long as you could afford, not to be totally comfortable. I used that tent way past its sell-by date, but it never broke down. But I couldn’t sit up straight in it either, and it was leaden by today’s weight standards.
Eventually I had a good rig and set up. I ended up loving an external frame pack, despite all the wonders of the internal frame revolution. I got as light as I could, while never going so far as to cut the end off my toothbrush – 30 lbs. for a week out, maybe. I took things to study, note and sketch books. I was nearly always alone. I never took bear spray. Never had a gun. I must have thought, “the old Zen monks didn’t carry swords, did they?” But I just felt I’d be ok. And I was, thank god.
Today, I can’t believe how incredible the gear is, and how affordable. Many features that I wished gear had and tried to jerry-rig myself, are there now on the cheapest Walmart tent. The high-end brands show you often get what you pay for. I really praise and admire all these gear heads out there designing this stuff, making time in the woods and on the road more available to more people. It’d be better if it all wasn’t made in Chinese factories with mysterious environmental standards, and I hope we figure out what to do with all this plastic. But it might be the ultimate religion, the one that saves our collective bacon: walking with purpose, wandering in curiosity, sleeping just a little bit rough once in awhile.