This is how all those other people experience backpacking.
A thought that echoed through my skull with each step, achilles and calves and quads miles beyond tender and enduring the powdery downhills, sprinked with edged loose running rocks only because of the trailhead and car and beer and fast way out waiting, 3 miles further.
This* is hard.
Something grating through my skin, less like cuticles dried and tight from a day and night of baking out under blue skies than the pinkish diaper rash growing, from sweat and waist deep creek crossings and unhardened skin and the fat, more than usual, sitting an inch either side of the base of my ass, rubbing with each step.
Maybe I should retire.
There are two sides to my backpacking future. One has to do with knowledge and instinct and the calm to put them together, day after day. With proper planning and implementation I’ve hauled myself and a big bag of gear across and through all sorts of places, with an efficiency subject to the continual pushback of a wild we know less and less by default. These are the things I’ll carry with my for the rest of my life, to be only slowly blunted by time, and which are already outstanding in other realms, calm and distance that make a 55 unit day of crisis not loom too large out at the office.
The other are my feet and legs and core and the muscles and tendons which move them, and these are things evidently already in decline. Another Dave, Millar, wrote about how the only vestiges of his professional life would be in his sons’ eyes tales and photos and video of what his body used to be able to do, before age and anything less than hours of practice each day allowed that strength and supplesse to drain, sink plug pulled and only the scum of nostalgia left behind. Floodwaters receded as the source dried out, the improbable logs of stories left in places increasingly remote and unlikely for each year gone past.
I shouldn’t be too dramatic here. I know the past well enough to clearly see the few flashes of my true hiking potential, know the volume of work it took to get there, and most especially how infrequently those two points have been connected. As much as I’ve loved being outside over the years I still am at best ambivalent to regular exercise, something obvious this year, as a literal handful of hiking days over 10 miles saw my body done in by 28 flat miles with a pack in the upper 20s. I’m not entirely sure how truly daunting it will or would be to maintain “decent” hiking fitness without taking too much energy away from the kids or work or working on our house, all things currently possessed of vastly more intellectual intrigue, but I do know it would require a heretofore unseen dispensing of lassitude and leisure, not something I’m sure I want, for both more concrete reasons and because the prospect of more immediate and comprehensive life accountability is scary.
A ritual like the Bob Open is important because of how objective and unhuman it is, which makes the level of feedback on intrapersonal matters very high. After the sheen of unknown is worn off any fear left in the days immediately preceeding is due less to ambiguity about life or death than about the quality of work done over the past 12 months. As we sat in Trixie’s and the tables pushed together filled to and beyond capacity I was less worried about my own preparation than that of others. As the stories filter in a week later it seems that 2 of 16 finished, that no one was injured, and that there were quite a few close shaves. Which is just what it should be.
My level of mourning at having left the Bob so early has, a week on, nothing to do with the decision itself. Back in 2012 my only regret at having flown out from the middle of the Wrangells, on what it still the heaviest route I’ve attempted, was not having had the wherewithall to recognize a month prior that my head wasn’t on straight, and stayed home entirely. My regret is not being in a place to experience any of the transcendence that only seems to come after 70 miles. Self-understanding, of an inscrutable, nearly pre-linguistic sort; being able to look back from a ridgeline and see where one peak flows into another, know which valley has lush pine and which stunted spruce, which fresh deer tracks and which flinted limestone chunks, where a clean spring trail might run, and when and why you might use it. An excess of distance within a concentrated time does not simply connect the dots, it leaves a psychic web tied to your brain all the way from your point of beginning, and though it gets dusty, once strung not even the car door will snap it.
This isn’t stoke. That more immediately chemical process is bound up with faster mastery/risk/reward cycles, and on a trip like you might take during the Bob Open you could go 3-4 days with only a few stokey moments. Throwing webs within the landscape has to do with the kind of understanding that is only voluntary in the conception. Once you’re out there conditions will surprise you, and plenty of folks have only continued to the end because all other options are less pleasant. Scale and distance conspire to show you how big the world can be, and you are left in a very objective place to find out your location within it.
I’ve never been especially fond of exercise itself, and while a few decades of practice have blunted the early reticence wrought by gym class and the purpose of health, endorphin allure has rarely been enough to get my out the door multiple times a week. I enjoy cold, wind, and rain in my face, but my most nature position remains what I’m doing right now; sitting in a fairly plush chair, reading or writing. Being able to see the world from a less civilized perspective requires effort, if you are too far towards mere survival and white noise will drown out the tinkling of the soul. It is a scary thought that love and fascination for other sides of the human experience might make the wild side far from my reach, at least for a little while.
*Having planned to float Danaher and the South Fork down to cross from Spotted Bear to the Middle Fork and up Granite Creek, and with the water too big for what my judgement could manage that day, I camped the first night at Basin Creek Cabin, then hiked the next day out to Benchmark and an easy ride home with a friend opting for a short trip. 45 straightforward miles had me pretty well cooked.