On the Backcountry, Danger and Finding Balance
It’s been two weeks since my friend Jeff and I walked out of the Colorado wilderness after our four-night and five-day backpacking adventure. It’s been two weeks since I’ve spent time each day looking at a blinking cursor, trying desperately to answer the most frequently asked question: How was your trip?
Like last year’s adventure, I find myself full of conflicted, mixed emotions. But unlike last year’s adventure, there weren’t any near death experiences. There wasn’t any snow. And, at no point did Jeff nor I think we were fucked. (Except maybe when the enormous Bull Moose wouldn’t stop staring at us.) Strangely, I think I have found this to be disappointing.
Yes, the trip was amazing, but (sadly?) we didn’t almost die. That has been the stock answer to anyone who asked.
I think this is why the cursor has blinked for two weeks without any keystrokes to show for it. I almost felt the trip wasn’t worthy of documentation – even by blog. We hiked. We slept. We ate. We (deleted by lawyers). We hiked some more. That kind of thinking, however, doesn’t do justice to what such adventures do for our mind and our soul. We don’t need to nearly die in order to find our meaning or tell a story. At some point in the last two weeks…I think I finally discovered that. So here’s the answer to that question. This is the story.
My flight landed in Denver around 1:00PM, we took our first steps on trail after 3:30 and we had to cover a minimum of six miles. We didn’t cover enough ground on the first day of our trip last year and we never recovered. We didn’t want to make that same mistake again. Getting to the first night’s campsite felt like a sprint. We were racing the sun. Neither one of us had any desire to find our way down the trail, set up camp, cook and eat in the dark. (Well, I didn’t, anyway. I suspect that Jeff was intrigued by the prospect of having to find our way by headlamp.)
Because of this “us against the sun” mentality, I missed the first day. I have pictures that document our participation in this race against time, including some beautiful shots of Sawtooth Peak, but I don’t remember being part of it. I was far too focused on the destination. Far too focused on what it meant to lose this battle with daylight. And, because in the days and weeks leading up to the trip, I was dreading this first day, I was far too focused on what could possibly go wrong. In doing so…I missed everything that was going right.
Turns out the sun beat us. It was down before we got to our camp. We did, however, beat the light. There was just enough to figure out where we would set up shop. Jeff had pre-prepared goat cheese and chiles stuffed chicken for dinner. Two of the biggest chicken breasts I’ve ever seen. And after the sprint to the site, it was the best chicken I’d ever eaten in my life. We had made it. The first day was over. The day I had dreaded for weeks and months was history. I was relieved, but I was also kind of lost. I completely missed that day. I know we hiked six miles. I know we gave up more than 2,000 feet of elevation (that we would more than make up for the following day). But I was so anxious about the sun and the dark and the this and the that…I missed it. I climbed into my bivy and thought about the next day, which was scheduled to be the longest day of the trip, including 7.5 miles, 3000 feet of elevation gain, one pass and climbing Sawtooth Peak. And despite having just missed the first day of my trip, as I fell asleep, I was mostly thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get to the next camp.
Last year’s trip was so moving, so inspiring, so difficult and such an incredible test of my ability to perform outside of my comfort zone that it gave me a kind of natural high. A rush of adrenaline. And, despite the fact that I publicly didn’t necessarily need to experience that again, I think privately, I wanted to. So, as I waited for some kind of danger along the trail, with each drama-free step, I continued to miss the beauty all around me. I was looking for something that wasn’t there. The metaphors crunching under my boots.
Believe it or not, prior to leaving for Colorado I spent measured, thoughtful time considering which earrings to bring. I didn’t want to take my favorite pair of hoops, as I couldn’t risk losing them. Same for the expensive studs. So, I settled on a pair of matching yin/yang studs. I figured that the proposed spirituality of the adventure and getting away for a “digital detox” meshed well with the balance message of the earrings. It wasn’t until we reached camp the second day that I realized that I had lost one of the earrings. The irony of this was not lost. I was out of balance. Don’t know if it was my yin or my yang, but I was definitely missing one of them.
While I didn’t miss the second day quite as badly as the first, I was still more or less head down in my pursuit of that day’s goal: Get to camp. I remember the highlights of the second day – getting over the pass, climbing Sawtooth Peak, dropping 3,000 feet and especially the best bagel and almond butter lunch I’ve ever had, but my focus was still very much on dropping the pack at our campsite. In discovering I’d lost one of these earrings, I realized I needed to get my act together. I needed to realize what was around me, not what was miles ahead. I needed to find the moment before the moment vanished behind me just like that earring did.
The next two days were filled with amazing sights, dramatic waterfalls (I have the pictures to prove it) and multiple trips off trail to take in spectacular views. I kept shifting my remaining earring from one ear to the other to remind myself to stay in balance. Jeff and I camped in ridiculously beautiful settings, managed our first campfire and continued to eat like kings. (Buffalo bratwurst with sautéed red peppers and onions. Really.)
Like the last trip, I trained like a madman to get ready for this one. I didn’t go on as many training hikes (in fact, there was only one) and I didn’t mountain bike, but I rowed more, paddled more, ran more and lifted more. I was in better shape and I was even more ready. It was the snow that made the last trip so challenging. Without the snow, I wouldn’t have been so ruined. I wouldn’t have found myself attracted to the danger. I would have learned how incredible the backcountry was. Because of the snow, I assumed every backpacking trip would feel death defying. The snow made me skeptical of each and every step. That uncertainty made the trip. It made the story. But without it? I needed to learn to just take it in. I needed to learn to just enjoy where I was. I needed to learn that each journey has its own rewards (and, perhaps, that the level of difficulty only counts when score is being kept).
It’s kind of amazing how expectations can ruin the journey. Fortunately, I caught myself before it was really too late. Had I missed the waterfalls…I can’t even imagine that. After I posted my pictures, a friend asked, “Did you see any waterfalls?” It was a joke, but without the context of what those waterfalls meant – it certainly just looked like I was obsessed by falling water. Possessed by falling water. Those waterfalls represented something far greater, however. They represented finding my balance. And my moment.
The last weather report Jeff and I saw before stepping onto the trail suggested that we should expect some wind, rain and maybe even snow on our last night. Our original plan was a long hike out the last day. Instead, we made more ground than originally planned on our fourth day, which included a glorious hike to a lake and then a breathtaking and mysterious trip over the pass. (Mysterious because even as we climbed ever higher, we had no idea where the trail was taking us.) We dropped our packs and climbed a peak, which topped out at just a few steps shy of 13,000 feet. And then we started down the mountain to find our final campsite. That night, as the wind whipped and the rain teased, I found myself thrilled to be out of danger. No anxiety. No fear.
We woke up in the morning under threatening skies and Jeff suggested that we pack up and leave. This could get ugly, he said. A far cry from, We’re fucked. I was okay with that. Finally…I was okay with that. Turns out that we not only got off the mountain before the rain, but also missed a major snowstorm up on the pass. As we drove to breakfast, I silently twisted the one earring and realized not what I missed, but what I didn’t miss.
And in that moment, I found a sense of balance.