Of all the exercises in human futility, backpacking offers perhaps the most tangible rewards: you pack your bag with shelter and food, pick a destination to walk toward, and then you walk. When you have traveled the distance in its entirety- you have attained your reward. A destination.
I caught on to this profound revelation early on in my life. Despite being born and raised in the flattest place imaginable- Kansas- my father would take me and my brothers on over-night backpacking trips in Colorado during the summer.
Later, I lived in Africa, in the remote corner of the Chinko Basin in the Central African Republic. There, I backpacked with local woodsmen, across endless savanna woodlands and rainforests. To quote my own words from my upcoming memoir: “Our foot travel could have been described as “ultra-minimalist”; not because the Africans were into the latest trends running the online outdoor forums, or because we had the newest gear from Backpacker magazine’s gear list- but simply, because we had no other choice. I had no proper backpack or let alone a sleeping bag, and although not far south from the Sahara, in the middle of December the nights get very cold indeed. I had no tarp for shelter, no rain jacket, or lightweight stove and cookset. I merely had a tattered day pack, fresh change of underwear and socks, a GPS unit with map, toothbrush and a bit of toothpaste, a space blanket, a cooking pot- plus food for a week between us, and not much else. After seeing the locals living on the fringes of one of the greatest wilderness’s left in sub-Saharan Africa, where they hunted elephant many weeks from home, propelled by no more than plastic flip-flops under backbreaking loads- it put things in perspective for me; my small collection of gear was more than enough.”
The simplicity of being able to move wherever I wanted, and to have a new sky over my head every night was life-changing. When I needed to quite smoking, I packed my belongings in my backpack and trekked deep into the Selway-Bitterrroot Wilderness, and did not emerge until the ruthless cravings had subsided a week later. On my drive home to Kansas, I stopped in Bozeman, Montana- and decided right then to stay and make a new home there. The streamlined life of backpacking crossed into my personal life, and I found an intolerance for excess. Life is so much simpler while hauling only barest of necessities.
First, I lived out of my car, and all my life’s belongings fit inside neatly organized Tupperware containers. Then, when I moved into an apartment with a couple other guys while taking college classes, the Tupperware pile was transferred to my room. I even slept on a foam camping mat in place of a bed; since most weekends were sleeping on the trail, i felt no need in weighing myself down with objects I could not haul on my car at a moments notice.
Things have changed since then. I am married now, and have three children, which doesn’t quite allow me to live as simplistic as I once did. But even still, one only has to look at our small apartment to understand, the backpacker’s philosophy still guides my everyday life; we only keep the essentials in our home- all excess or replacements go to Thrift stores or Goodwill donations. Nothing is wasted; Everything has a purpose.
“I’ve slept under hundreds of roofs, and shall know others yet. I’ve carved a way for myself, turned hostile strangers into staunch friends, swaggered and sung through surplus of delight where nothing and no one cared whether I lived or died… …Around me stretches illimitable desert, and far off and near by are the outposts of suffering, struggling, greedy, grumbling humanity. But I don’t choose to join on that footing.”
-Everett Ruess, famous vagabond artist who lived (and vanished) on the trail
For anyone who has not yet tried backpacking, I highly recommend it- even if only an item on the bucket-list. Keep an eye out for a future post How-To Guide to Backpacking….