Yesterday I returned from a couple of days in reality. Really, it was three days and two nights, but only from 9AM on Wednesday until 5PM on Friday. Nah. That was how long I was away from work and home. From 6PM on Wednesday until 6AM on Friday I was at a lake in the mountains purposely cut off from most of civilization. Ah. I needed that, a re-introduction to reality – and ibuprofen.
Okay, ibuprofen is civilization, just like the trail built by the National Park Service, the facilities they installed there, the road that got me to the trailhead, the gear I wore and carried in my backpack, and the infrastructure that got me there, including my truck. It was a long way to go to get past the more persistent and pernicious parts of the modern world. It was worth it.
If you want to read about what it’s like to hike into wilderness there are plenty of books in the library. I wrote three of them. Become one of the rare individuals on the planet by buying one and reading it. You won’t be one in a billion, but you’ll be rarer than one in a million.
For decades, I hiked and backpacked for the exercise and because I enjoy climbing mountains. Nature was a special playground and an opportunity to relax and return to basics. This time was different.
My goals were echoes of those previous trips, and were the excuse I gave to get away. The reason was to get away, and that’s a good way to do it.
As I said in one of those books (probably the one about Barclay Lake), some people go to the hills to get away from their world as it is, others go there to enjoy the world as it was. The reason for this trip was getting away by returning to a place that is as real as I could reasonably reach in a narrow window of my life.
Look at those feet pointing out at the lake. Sit by a lake and don’t worry about the tide forcing you to move. Settle in and watch the fish make ripples or the breeze make ruffles. It was Grand Lake in Olympic National Park, a site that’s limited to seven campsites but only had two other people at it. It would be easy to say that the steep climb down kept people out (the trail is flipped and starts high on a ridge and leads down into the valley), but every campsite at the next lake up was filled. I almost had the place to myself. (My trail report is online, in case you want some of those details.)
Such a trip creates memories, tests physical fitness, and reinforces minimalism and frugality. This trip taught me things that won’t show up in photos.
There’s a bit of a rush getting to a campsite, especially when a backpacker arrives at dusk. It’s almost like an exercise in Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, backpacker style. Find a place to set up the tent. Set up shelter first as a protection against weather, which can shift suddenly, and as a place to store all the stuff that was stuffed into the backpack. Get water. Don’t expect a faucet. Expect to find a stream or lake to pump and filter from. Work for your water. Depending on the local critters, protect that food. If they’re aggressive enough, skip the water and go hang the food out of their reach. If you’ve got to go, go, as in finding a facility for the sanitary disposal of your internal waste. Grand Lake has a double luxury, composting toilets and a bear wire. Very nice. It is only after those basics are covered that it’s time to do things like eating, changing clothes, and arranging the gear around the camp and in the tent.
Your experiences will vary. Some photographers will immediately take photos if the light is right. They’ll do the rest in the dark, if necessary. Fisherfolk won’t just watch those ripples. Ultra-minimalists may have so little to do that they begin exploring because they are so unburdened. Whatever. I know what works for me.
What really worked for me was what worked on me. I arrived as the sunshine left the lake. I knew my main activities after setting up would be eating, imbibing (a bit), and making a comfy place to alternately read a book and watch the world. The surprise didn’t arrive until the next morning.
I purposely didn’t have a watch, well, purposely because they all need work. Sometime mid-morning I was looking at the lake and realized how little I had to do to get through the rest of the day. First revelation: my life has become hectic enough that I think of days as something to get through. Second revelation: most of what I spend my time on is speculative, based on hope. At least for now, there’s an enormous gap between meeting my bare needs and meeting my needs in modern society. Until my work is sufficiently compensated, my desires are only for consideration when buying lottery tickets.
I relaxed. In that moment, the muscles in my forehead and jaw noticeably relaxed. I became aware of how tight my body has been, not just from the prior evening’s shaky leg descent into the valley, but from the long hours typical of people in the Gig Economy trying to build and sustain a business. My sore quadriceps basically enforced the notion that I should sit around, nap, and read for the day. It was glorious.
The fish weren’t as entertaining as the fawn. Evidently, no one had convinced it that it wasn’t a dog. The little speckled deer bounced around the lakeside meadow for no apparent reason. Then, it would nibble for a bit, then dash off as if it was chasing something, and then dash back. The doe watched, ate, and let the kid play. Thank you, natural role models.
The day took forever. My throttle is set so high that I kept thinking there was something to do; but a nap and a snack later and the Sun hadn’t move much. Nap, snack, repeat and marvel at the wealth of time I lived within. At work, days go by in an unfulfilled rush. In nature, time lingers and saunters on by. Forget the ads, that’s still the greatest luxury, the ability and opportunity to be still.
So many people, whether jokingly or seriously, made sure I knew all the ways the trip could go bad. No need to tell me, I’ve helped call in a helicopter to recover a body, and I’ve carried out an injured person’s backpack. Their help, however, set a tone I had a tough time quieting. I’ve enjoyed climbing, but my shaky legs worried me, the first approaching storm of the season did the same, and I was already anticipating the rattly drive out that rattled me on the way in. Anxiety returned before dawn.
I’ll save you the internal struggle and skip straight to the angels. My plan was to climb slowly, taking all day if necessary. I was taking one of my breaks when I saw a couple coming up from below, slowly and steadily. I’m almost sixty. They were in their seventies. We chatted for a bit, as hikers will, and they let me fall in behind them. Their simple attitude, not feeding my anxieties and not trivializing them either, released much of the tension in my body (or my mind, more likely.) Without knowing they were doing it, they pulled me up the mountain. Simple things, simply said can be more powerful than energetic pleas. I bow to them.
My anxieties haven’t gone away because my situation hasn’t gone away. The truck shook during the trip out (where shaking was expected) as well as when it got onto pavement (where shaking is not expected.) I took advantage of Les Schwab’s offer to check out vehicles. They nicely confirmed that any persistent rattling was in me, not the truck. That helped me get home a lot easier.
Nature is reality. We are distanced from it and are mostly fighting battles that we create either personally or societally. The rains are back, and are welcome; so I don’t know if I’ll manage another hike or two this year. I certainly hope so. Nature is one of the best medicines I know, in addition to good friends and good luck. Let’s see if I can go for a walk tomorrow without having to rely on the ibuprofen, though.