Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A long meditation on the backcountry

I've been too long in civilization. Too long smelling of laundry detergent and soap, and too long coddled by conveniences. My muscles and body are soft from relative disuse, and my fingernails are too clean.

Almost everyone I know has places they long for at certain times. When the midwestern winter gray lingers just a hair too long, my brother's thoughts turn to sunsets on Mallory Square and conch chowder by the docks. One friend thinks of Venice; another pines for skiing in the Andes.

This time of year I think of a trail, and carrying the necessaries on my back. I enjoy the exertion, the heat, and the sweat. I take a perverse pleasure in the barely perceptible slide into personal squalor. I feel vaguely grubby the first and second days. After that, I know I smell like a dung heap, but I don't care, because I can't smell myself or my partners, and they cannot smell me. It's a happy arrangement in every way.

I enjoy how a trail unfolds with every step. What's ahead? Where will we camp tonight? Will it be a stream or a lake? Or perhaps by the ocean? I relish the way every muscle hurts after a proper day of hiking, so much that lying down on a sleeping pad on the ground feels like a gift. I love it all. I love the smell of the bagels I pack on each trip, the whish of the nylon as I cinch the stuff sack, and the fuzziness of hiking socks as they hug my feet.

Almost exactly six years ago (before my son was born), my husband, my sister and I were suffering just this kind of post-winter discontent. So we packed up our dogs and drove to Southern Indiana, right up to the border. Indiana is not all flatness -- the southern part of the state boasts some hills. We arrived at the trailhead on a Friday evening, and hiked a mile or so to a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. We camped there at a shelter with a guy and his two kids. We made a fire and enjoyed the kind of easy merriment that occurs when you meet someone on a trail.

We hiked together for the next two days among the blooming redbuds. We did nine miles the second day, and four the day after. We were soft, just emerging from a slothful winter, and so that was enough -- at least with full packs. That weekend we were all able to feed our urge to follow a path with the people we loved best. Tonight is much lonelier. We're all scattered away from each other; Mr. T is half a world away in south China, I am here at my laptop in Portland, and my sister is asleep in Indianapolis. Both the dogs that went on that trip have passed on.

I've never been able to do enough of this -- at least, not with my favorite partner. At first I was kept from it by a demanding job; for the last four years parenting duties have made it difficult to get away together. But the kid is almost five now, and frequently demands to be taken to a "hiking place." It's astonishingly easy here to get out in relatively short, kid-appropriate distances. There's a cobalt blue lake nestled in the shadow of Mt. Rainier that feels like the end of the earth. It is, in fact, a mile and a half off the road up to Paradise -- perfect for a quick overnight trip. After that come multi-day excursions. It's almost here.

I still ache to do the long-distance, six-month journeys. I won't get to do that for many years yet, I know. I wonder whether I'll still be in good enough physical condition when that time comes. My mother is 64 and needs both knees replaced. Will I be able to do a long trip in my early 50s? I don't know.

But for now, all I can do is get short snatches of time on wilderness trails. And I've learned that the truth is simple and immutable: the more I get, the happier I am.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I like to hike & camp too, but my husband would rather hike all day, then come back home and sleep. Lazy bugger!

When do you have a hike planned in Central Oregon?

kris said...

Loved your post. You're very good at describing things so the reader feels a part of the story - and feels the emotions you express. You are lucky to live in a place where you can easily start hiking with your child - both in Portland and at your ranch, I'd guess. I would guess you'll have many, many years of great hiking in your future!

Trailhead said...

Jennifer: I'm tentatively planning a trip on the PCT through the Sky Lakes Wilderness in August. (Of course, that trip will go bye-bye if one of my cases scheduled for trial at the same time actually goes.) One of my backpacking buddies is my husband's college roommate. We tried to arrange a month-long trip to complete the Oregon PCT last summer but couldn't get it done. So we're trying to do it in pieces. Though I suppose that's southern central, really. So good question! I'll have to plan a trip in central Oregon...

Kris: thanks so much. It's nice to know that. My feelings about backpacking, trails and the outdoors are so strong I often give up trying to write non-humorously about them because I tend to become annoyingly sentimental. So it's good to hear words like yours.

And you're right, I'm quite lucky to live where I do. Living in Indiana was hard in that way, because the places to get out were FAR fewer. Most of the real wilderness was ten to twelve hours away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, New York's Adirondacks or the Smoky Mountains to the south. In Montana it's literally in my backyard, and here in Oregon it's only a hop or two farther.

wyldthang said...

Hello! I'm glad to find another Oregonian(saw your blog on Festival of the Trees blog page). My sons are teens, and they want to go backpacking. We've been camping all along. My hubby likes his trailer ;0). The boys and I sleep outside most of the summer here at home. Oops, I forgot to say I'm in McMinnville, in the hills to the west, the sticks, the boonies. Hope you get your hiking in! BTW Marion Lake is a great backpack for kids, just three miles in. It's on the way to Bend.
Have a great day!!

Trailhead said...

Hi Wyldthang, thanks for stopping by!

One of the best trips I ever took was one in the Adirondack mountains in New York when I introduced my then-teenage nephews to backpacking. They were 17 and 13 at the time. We had an absolute blast. They're now 23 and 19, but they still go backpacking several times a year. The only problem I had with hiking with teenage boys was that they frequently left me in the dust!