What My First Backpacking Trip Taught Me About Myself
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved being out in nature. I’d spend hours upon hours in the woods around my neighborhood just building forts and following streams while pretending I was on some mystical quest or an adventure in some make believe land. The best was turning over rocks and logs and getting grossed out over all the weird and squirmy bugs underneath.
Being out there filled me with a feeling of peace because it was so easy to image that I was completely separate from the “real” world. It was the type of quiet where you almost couldn’t believe that there was a traffic jam only a couple of miles away, or that you could easily get to a 7-11 chili dog in less than 20 min if you really wanted one. Not that you’d want one of course…
When I moved to Southern California, it was like a whole new world opened up. From the beautiful starkness of the desert around Joshua Tree National park to the humbling, pine covered peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. There were suddenly so many new wonderful things to explore, and discovering these new environments made my little wooded hideaway back home seem even smaller than it did back then.
My First Big Hike in California. San Bernardino Peak, Nov 3rd 2012
No matter how many weekend camping trips or day hikes I went on, however, I never felt that same intense immersion that I did as a kid. Whenever a chance to get outside came around, there was always a constant, overhanging feeling of anxiousness. The work-week always left me drained. So, over the weekend, I’d feel rushed to fill up my “gas tank” as much as possible before I’d have to go back to work on Monday.
“Hey dingus, why not go on a backpacking trip?” Good question! I actually gave it some thought in the past, but the lack of equipment, experience, and limited vacation days always made it feel a little too daunting.
But… Army and I are leaving soon to become perpetual travelers. VERY soon, in fact.
NOW really is the time to tick things off my list, so I decided that I wasn’t going to live by those restrictions anymore. After some wonderful encouragement from Army, I started to plan my first backpacking trip.
Originally, my eyes were a bit too big for my stomach, because I wanted to do something really epic and tackle the entire John Muir trail (which requires 2-3 weeks and over 200 miles). But getting that much time off from work? Not gonna happen.
So, I opted to do the Rae Lakes Loop in Sequoia National Park. It is one of the most scenic and highly traveled trails I’ve ever heard of. It’s a beautiful 40+ mile loop that passes towering rocky peaks, skirts incredible waterfalls, and cuts through mountain pastures so picturesque that you can’t help but stop and exclaim, “c’MON. This isn’t real!”
There were a few caveats in my way though. Rae Lakes Loop is so popular that you actually need to obtain a permit, and there is also a limited amount of permits they issue each year. Adding to the fact that you only have a few months where you can safely do it (given the altitude), it was harder than I thought to get a slot.
Luck was on my side though, because the ranger that I spoke to on the phone had ONE permit left for the timeframe that I could do it! Now it really felt like this was meant to be.
The one downside, however, was that doing the full loop was impossible during this particular time. The Sierras were pummeled with snow this past winter, and the rivers became so intense that a key bridge actually washed away. I’m talking about a steel and concrete walking bridge, too, not a dinky foot bridge.
I had originally planned on doing a review of the full trail, but seeing how I was only able to hike out to a certain point and then come back down the same path, I wouldn’t feel right judging the entire loop.
Now, I’m sure if you go on a three month long trip up the Pacific Coast trail from Mexico to Canada, you come back changed in some way (even if it’s just that you never want to walk again). But I’m not going to wax poetic and claim that I’m forever altered because I went out into the woods for four days. I will, however, tell you about what spoke to me the most.
It’s no secret that whenever you partake in an activity that requires a certain amount of investment and sacrifice on your part, it has to be worth it for you. The return needs to outweigh the cost. I won’t lie, of all the activities I’ve tried, backpacking was truly the most balanced transaction. Although I absolutely do not regret going, it took more out of me than I predicted.
Exhausted, filthy, in pain, and super hungry… but still smiling!
I’m sure there are people who take this journey to see wildlife, some who enjoy the views, and some who probably just don’t want to shower for a week. What surprised me most was that of all the reasons why I thought I was doing it, the one that eventually came to light was the complete absorption.
I know that sounds weird, but hear me out.
If you go for a day hike, you find a trail, get a map, pick a time, pack food and go. This was so much more than that. Immediately upon setting out, my mind just started racing with calculations. There are so many things that go into this that you don’t think about at first. You’re never just hiking, you’re keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes (of which I had two fun encounters!) and bears. You never just take a drink of water, you ration and map out distances between streams and find one that has acceptable water to filter. You’re never just enjoying your dinner at camp, you’re cooking and washing your utensils far enough from your tent so a bear doesn’t come sniffing for leftovers.
Perhaps it was because this was my first trip, or maybe because I was alone, but I was deeply involved in every thought process. Maybe calculating all of these details come as second nature to veteran backpackers so they don’t even realize that it’s happening… but it was so palpable for me that this was what I loved most about backpacking.
While I’m judging what time to leave camp when the sun comes up so the snow at the pass is soft enough to cross, I’m not thinking about how I have to renew my car registration before the bill is due. While I’m scouring around my campsite for just enough firewood to give me light until I fall sleep, I’m not worrying about how my 401K might be doing. Constant rationing of my bug spray to hold the legions of mosquitoes at bay kept my mind off how I REALLY needed to tackle all of the grease buildup that has collected on the hood of our oven.
All of my mundane, everyday worries were instantly muted.
I’ve never done anything that has kept me so completely involved in the moment for such an extended period of time. It felt like I was taking a secret glimpse into a more primitive nature of how we used to live. Where so much of your brain power is devoted to the “here and now.”
I finally found that state of “total immersion” that I felt as a carefree kid. I guess it’s just funny the great lengths I had to go to in order to achieve it.
At the top of Glen Pass (11,926 ft), looking south:
…and looking north:
If that kind of personal response is something that YOU look for in the activities you pursue, go on a backpacking trip. It was by far the most invested I’ve ever been for more than just a few minutes at a time.
So although I didn’t suddenly gain a profound epiphany about my love of nature (I’ve always loved being outdoors and I always will), it was nice to learn a little something about myself.
Really, what more could you possibly ask for?
Perhaps that. What you can’t see is the guy collecting water just out of the shot.
…He wasn’t as amused.
Plus, I was able to donate to the mosquito population. I believe that my contributions helped create generations of little “Ryan faced” buggers.
As they say, “take only pictures, leave only foot prints…and blood.”