Summer is synonymous with backpacking in my house. The long days mean it’s time to pull the gear bin out of the garage, and air out the tent and sleeping bag, musty from winter storage. I bang the dust off the hiking shoes, get the food dehydrater whirring, and un-crinkle the maps. In the mountains it means the snow is melted, the wildflowers are blooming, the bears stumble sleepily about, and the mosquitos (unfortunately) proliferate. On a 4 day walk about in Yosemite with girlfriends last week, we didn’t actually stumble into any bears but encountered more than our fair share of mosquitos. And one Yellow Bellied Marmot, that fat furry scurrier of the high mountain passes. We expected a well-known park like Yosemite to be a veritable zoo of weekend warriors on the 4th of July weekend but in truth went for 8 hours at a time without seeing a soul.
We hiked for four days, making a loop that started and ended at Tuolumne Meadows. The wildflowers were in full bloom and the vistas, breathtaking. I wondered why everyone in the world wasn’t out there to see it.
I was reminded of a backpacking trip in Maui where I was doing volunteer work in Haleakala National Park. A young woman from the mid-west was astounded by the scenery and commented to me, “Can you imagine living in a place where you could just go do something like this for the weekend?” It was my turn to be astounded. I had never lived in a place where you couldn’t just go do something like this for the weekend. I hadn’t considered that there were places thus. Of course, she was right. It was a wake up call for me to be more aware and to be truly grateful for what is right under my nose.
I woke up in the middle of the night needing to heed nature’s call. I unzipped the tent and rolled sleepily out of my bag. I stood slowly, un-stiffening my back and looked blearily around in the dark. I did a double take when the mountains we had camped under came into my field of view. When we went to bed it was bare granite. Now they appeared to be covered in pure, white snow. I looked at the sky. It was velvet-black, sprinkled with the cold glitter of stars. No storm clouds. The ground wasn’t wet so it hadn’t stormed while we slept. I stared and stared and just couldn’t figure it out so I gave up and went back to bed. In the morning it was bare granite again. The same thing happened the second night under a different mountain. The others had noticed it too. It was a full moon and we decided that the granite must be reflecting the moonlight in such a way to create the illusion of snow. It was just SO white, it was very convincing!
While we saw very few people, we did see several mule trains. We had paused after one of innumerable river crossings, to dry off our feet and put our shoes back on when a mule train appeared around the bend. We couldn’t hear it coming over the roar of the river. The lead rider looked at us morosely and swayed by followed by 7 or 8 mules loaded down with packs, long ears bobbing, tails switching at the mosquitos. If people are like their pets, mule train drivers are like their mules. Long faced and grumpy. You’d think it would be a joy to be out surrounded by all that beauty, going to stock the High Sierra Camps for the season, but what do I know? I work in a windowless Radiology department so maybe the grass is always greener.
We learned that marmots eat mule poo. Eww. Why eat mule poo when you are surrounded by fresh grass and flowers? Dogs eat cat poo. Maybe there’s some secret we don’t know…ha ha.
While backpacking has its challenges, there is something so deeply satisfying about it. It’s so primal to be moving through a landscape with your little tribe, focused solely on food, water, and shelter. It brings you back, for a moment, to how we spent our lives for thousands of years. There’s a forgotten memory that hides deep in our bones. It resurfaces when you backpack and says, “Yes. I remember.” Even if you don’t live in a place where you have easy access to a Haleakala or a Yosemite, you can go outside and sit in the shade of a tree. Sit, look, and listen. You’ll be surprised at what it does for the soul.
Ps. Thanks John Muir, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Indigo Girls for the quotes.