The culminating project of my Environmental Interpretation class was to prepare and present a 20 minute “campfire talk.” So, below I’m sharing my script for it, although when delivered it, I spoke it somewhat differently than I wrote it.
“I just got back from my first backcountry hiking trip a few hours ago, and I’d like to tell you all about it. Actually, I would like to take you with me through the memory. So I need to set the stage in your mind’s eye in order to begin…
You are standing at a trailhead at about 5,000 ft elevation. It is 0600 but you feel wide awake with excitement of a journey to come. The sun hasn’t been up that long, so the combination of coolness and lower oxygenation makes the air crisp, almost minty-like to inhale.
You have your pack on, and have just snapped the buckled at your hips and across your chest into place. The pack feels heavier than you had hoped, but surely you’ll grow used to it in time. Still, you are feeling a bit unbalanced with this self-affixed turtle shell on your back.
The sun is filtering as molten amber through patches of pine needles in the tree canopy above you. The smell of sap and mist-dampened earth is intoxicating. And at this moment you are not thinking about what hiking in the backcountry will teach you about yourself, you are just excited to hit the trail. But the truth is, that when you look back at this moment you will realize that you were about to learn three important lessons about life:: first, that the long way is often the best way, second, that struggling gives you faith in yourself, and third, that simplicity brings abundance.
We meet our first instructor of life lessons within the first mile of our backcountry hike: Sir Switchback (he wears a ball cap).
Our first impression of him, however, is seeing him as little more than an obstacle to our direct route to the finish line: the pass above us. In fact, from where we stand now, we can see the pass. It is straight up a steep slope, but steepness matters less to us than quickness. If we were just to climb directly up, we’d be there within minutes, a half hour at most. It looks safe enough…but more importantly it looks direct, it looks fast. So let’s just bypass Sir Switchback all together.
But, as we take a few steps that way, we see that the trajectory is unwise, unsafe, and made treacherous by the temptation of speed over terrain overgrown with dense shrubs and made unstable with a layer of gravel.
So, we are forced to take the longer way Sir Switchback guides us on. And at each turn we think “at last! Now I can reach the top!” but are met with yet another, seemingly endless, switchback. As we grow tired and frustrated, we begin to look around us, thirsty for a distraction. On the one turn, Sir Switchback takes us by a hillside full of wildflowers we would have trampled had we gone straight up the slope. On another long switchback a marmot walks along with us, acting as trail guide. A few switchbacks later we even see a couple of deer that frolic through the trees: an unexpected delight we would have missed had we not taken this longer road.
And then, almost without expecting it any longer, we are at the top, the long trail behind us. And the sight from the top of the pass is so piercingly beautiful that we forget all the pain of the elongated climb, or at least weigh it as worth it for the reward of this incredible view.
More importantly, our view of ourselves has been altered in the process. We just came a long, hard way. We didn’t cheat the path, and we made it many miles to this amazing height. We find ourselves suddenly capable of things that seemed impossible when we began.
Our path in life is full of switchbacks. Each of us has looked back at our life and thought “if only I could go back, I could have gotten to this present point sooner.” We lament the wasted years, wasted efforts, and for how we went the long way around. “If only” we could go back in time and change our choices so we could get to where we are today so much sooner.
But, have you ever asked yourself if sooner is actually best? Because, here again, the Sir Switchback teaches us something. It is the things we come across on the switchbacks in the trail that make our hike memorable (think about those wildflowers and that marmot guide), and it is those switchbacks that shape us into hikers. So, too do the things we come across during the switchbacks in our life journey make our life memorable and shape us into who we are. And we would simply not value ourselves as much if the road had been short, or easy to get there.
So we say goodbye to Sir Switchback and are introduced to our second teacher: Sir Suffer (he wears a beanie).
Sir Suffer wants us to take a quick survey, so let’s be honest here with a raise of hands… who here prefers discomfort over comfort? Difficulty over easy? More work over less work? If we are being honest, each of us most often defaults to seeking that which is easy and requires less work. It is engrained in us somehow, a natural reflex to avoid exertion. We live in a culture of instant satisfaction and in a world that is quickly forgetting the rewards of, well, struggling.
With backcountry hiking, you sign up for struggling. This type of hiking is most often done via steadily increasing your elevation by trekking onward and upward along a, as we’ve seen, switchbacking trail. Increased elevation means thinner air, and thinner air means more effort is required for breathing. Yes – breathing. That very basic function of life you never thought much about before, but now realize you took wholly for granted. Breathing becomes part of the struggle, not to mention a series of other discomforts: with each step, the weight of your pack seems to grow. The hip and shoulder straps begin to rub your skin raw in places you didn’t even know existed on your body. You sweat everywhere, most especially your back, and dirt gets into every pore of your skin, even between your blistered toes in your boots. You are, definitionally, uncomfortable. You reach points in which you think you could not possibly take another step and you question your sanity, question when you thought this could be classified as “fun” let alone as “vacation.”
But fear not! Sir Suffer is here to teach us that there are great gifts gained by hard work that would not be there in equal measure if this activity were easy. Getting to alpine heights is not easy: it is a battle with your will. It is a battle with your denied avoidance of hard work. It is an even bigger battle with your denied fear of failure. You fear and often avoid this suffering because you don’t want to know that you’ll fail to reach the summit. But, if you were able to simply drive to the top and see the view, a guaranteed success, you would not have grown any greater faith in your own abilities. But, when you take the hard road, and suffer to arrive, when you return home, to lower elevations, the abundance of oxygen feels intoxicating. You feel invisible with that much rich air to breathe that you feel capable of anything.
So too with our life. The hard parts of our life are high altitude training. When we struggle and have to work hard in different chapters of our life, we quite often feel we are breathing thin air, and basic existence, all the things that came effortlessly to us before, now feel laborious and even painful to endure. But then, the struggling season comes to an end, as we slowly descend into a phase of life of richer air, and since we now know how much we can do in thin air, we have greater faith in our own abilities to do that and more when life is easier, when life has a richer air supply.
And speaking of richness, here we meet our last life lesson teacher: Sir Simplify (he doesn’t wear any hat), and he quickly teaches us that part of the struggling of backpacking is dictated by the weight you carry on your back. Everything you bring with you will have a weight and will become a weight you have to carry on your back inside your pack. So you learn fast that simplification is important because less is more…as in more freedom from weight. This forces you to better distinguish between your wants and needs. You may want to bathe yourself on this multi-day hiking trip, but you don’t really need to, so you can leave that towel at home. You may want to have a fresh change of clothes for each day of the trip, but you don’t really need one, so you bring two: the one you are wearing and a backup set should this one get wet.
More importantly, having less with you out of necessity in the backcountry reveals to you the abundance of blessings you have been unaware of if you would have been weighted down by too many distractions. Without television and smart phones, we discover that the world is alive with hidden details and spectacular beauty. We simply don’t take the time to study leaf margins and the way water dances over stones because we are hardly looking up and out from artificial media to do so. We discover that there is a sound to silence that can be found when we are freed from ear buds and the buzz of the city, and the sound of our own voice speaking. Song birds, harmonizes with the sound of a creek close to trail, to the melody of the breeze gently shifting conifer branches. The earth is alive in conversation that we did not have ears to hear before. In the backcountry, you leave behind your routine, your worries of work, and your sense of time. And you become fully present. Our heart feels full of richness when we have less piled on top of it.
This need not only be something that happens with a pack on your back and at high elevations – because everything in our lives at home has weight we carry on backs too. Our busy schedules have a weight. We have a tendency to fill every hole in our schedule with some activity. We tell ourselves this is a need because we need to be productive with our time. Our working hours have a weight. We have a tendency to work to live rather to live to work, and form our identity almost exclusively with that which we are paid to do. We tell ourselves this is a need because we need to make a living. Our bombardment with media has a weight. We spend so much time on our computers, smart phones, and with our televisions that these things become the eyes we interpret the world through.
Now, Sir Simplify doesn’t tell us to discard of these thing entirely, just as he doesn’t tell us to embark on a backcountry hiking trip with nothing in our packs. Rather, he advises that we set some limits. If we were able to leave an occasional afternoon open in your schedules to spend time with a friend, we would discover the rich abundance of relationships we have in our lives and our hearts need to spend time deepening them. If we were able to work less hours or just work overtime less often, we would discover in those hours away from the office some time to explore a new hobby and realize our identities are so much more richly defined. If we were able to turn off our smart phone for even just an hour every so often, we would discover the rich conversation we are able to have with ourselves and our soul’s need for introspection.
So, we say goodbye to Sir Simplify and find ourselves at trails end.: legs tired, back sweaty, and full of elation from time spent in the woods. And as we look back at the trail we’ve come on, we think back to the moment at the trailhead when we began and how we did not realize we were about to learn three important lessons about life. First, Sir Switchback taught us that the long way is often the best way. Second, Sir Suffer taught us that suffering gives us faith in ourselves. And Third, Sir Simplify taught us that simplification brings abundance.
So, when you go home, take these lessons with you and encourage others to join you on your next backcountry trek so they can learn the same.”