A few months ago I spent a day snowboarding. It did not go as I had hoped. The reversion to being a kid, and flailing on and off the lift and down the hill, was immediate. I slid into trees, off on slope angles to where I did not want to go, caught an edge and crashed off of tiny rocks, and had the liftie run over and ask if I was ok, twice. Whatever I’ve learned over the past 3 decades of mountain biking, climbing, skiing, boating, and backpacking blunted the fear of novelty and let me be aware of exactly how and why I was struggling in the moment, but it did not accelerate the learning process, at least not on day one. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Jeremy Jones movies. After a few days contemplation I made the decisive, and I think not hasty, call to retire from snowboarding after one day. It took me long enough to feel competent skiing, and I am not exactly swimming in free time. And for me, abundant time has always been requisite for learning any physical pursuit.
I made the snowboard into a lawn couch, using some skis, cedar 2x4s from an old fence, and some juniper logs. I’ve become especially enamored with the tight, kaleidoscopic grain of the Rocky Mountain Junipers which dot the ponderosa forests around here, and whose sandy, recalcitrant poise so easily echoes the same trees and their cousins, the Utah Juniper, down on the Colorado Plateau. For aesthetic reasons, and because I was short plain boards that were long enough, I split one particularly tall and straight juniper log in half and built it into a shelf which now sits in the renovated mudroom, and holds a stack of totes which in turn hold the vital parts of our gear arsenal: climbing hardwear, ropes, and cooking kit in three bins on the floor, then a bin each for tents, pads, drysuits and bags, and then two bins each crammed with backpacks, before a final row of larger backpacks up against the ceiling. It’s proved a expedient arrangement; get home from a trip, explode gear to dry and clean in the aisle between the shelves and the shoe bench, then put it all away without taking more than half a step.
I belabor this because, especially now as a family, we have a lot of interests, which means a lot of things which in the interest of efficiency need to stay separate but interlocking. Car camping requires much of the same stuff as a week long backpack hunt; an overnight float trip many of the same things as a chilly afternoon at the bike park. Flailing to find the right drybags is bad enough prepping for a solo trip. If the small people are reluctant enough to get out the door, spending 20 minutes to find that tiny pair of black rainpants is simply not acceptable. Time then isn’t just given over the skill building within the activity itself, the organization and logistics which make all of those activities possible requires a considerable, and ongoing, investment. In this world new things do not come cheap, and the money to buy the stuff is, measured over years, the least of the concerns.
My mom recently retired, in the conventional sense, from over 40 years of being a psychotherapist. They also recently closed on a house down the road, and are deep into conversations about what boat(s) will be required for this next phase of life. It has been quite a few years since this trip, and my postscript summary has not changed; given the combination of ideal scenery, challenge, and execution, I cannot expect to ever have a better backpacking trip. I could likely replicate the route, or the satisfaction, even the seamless experience on such all-encompassing terrain, and I have done all of those, quite a few times, but I don’t expect to outright exceed it. At the time I wondered, rather idly, if I might retire from backpacking with satisfaction. I’ve reached similar positions in climbing, mountain biking, and canyoneering, with a much reduced degree of mastery, and have been content to let them go. In outdoor pursuits knowledge and experience persist, but fitness and the sharp edge which comes with submersion do not remain.
Perhaps it is that backpacking is the ur skill for all backcountry disciplines. Perhaps it is that walking is so basic, and physically the area in which I am most gifted. Perhaps it is the gift of circumstance, that in the Northern Rockies backpacking is the best thing to do, particular when skiing or packrafting or hunting are spread on top. Most likely it is that backpacking is the most fun of all of these, not in the whoop adrenaline sense of gravity power, but in the less common, enduring sense of variation beyond human determination that, for this reason, is never subject to boredom. Having gone beyond mastery, and to a large degree beyond novelty, I find myself as much concerned with style and with monitoring the passage of time, revisiting old favorites, as I do with anything else. And of course I have people around who need to see certain things.
I can’t imagine retiring.