An old stash of Backpacker magazines leads to an unfortunate hike down memory lane
“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
— “The Speech Song,” by Baz Luhrman
Pretty much since I was old enough to understand the concept, I have considered nostalgia to be akin to psychic cancer. The metaphoric sitting, sighing and reminiscing while thumbing through old yearbooks and photo albums has always been, in my opinion, an indication that the mud and muck of one’s highly fictionalized and reinterpreted past is sucking around one’s ankles, making it difficult to hike lightly, brightly and enthusiastically into one’s future.
I have this buddy, Joe Kramarsic, who puts beans on the table at least partially by procuring, through a variety of means (I usually don’t even ask) and purveying old outdoor magazines and books. Knowing my long and checkered history with Backpacker magazine, Joe one day asked if I would like to buy a complete set of Backpackers, beginning with Volume I, Issue I (Spring 1973) and running through the end of 1984.
Does the Pope have lips? Are chickens Catholic? I jumped at the chance, and, one bright day, Joe dropped the 12 bound volumes off at my office. Well, that was the end of THAT workday — and the beginning of a case of near-terminal nostalgia that is infecting, distracting and haunting me still. I toted those 12 bound volumes of old Backpackers into the dank darkness of one of my favorite watering holes, plopped them on a corner table, asked the bartender to keep my frosty mug filled and proceeded to make my way, page-by-page, article-by-article, ad-by-ad, through the first decade-plus of the magazine that has not only played an important role in my professional life, but an important (for better or worse) role in the evolution of mountain-based outdoor recreation as we all know it.
My journey through Backpacker’s early years lasted the rest of the afternoon, through happy hour, through a couple of televised basketball games and near-bouts till closing time, when the Missus finally tracked me down and made me come home. Even understanding that I had to endure the some semi-serious spousal wrath, I have rarely spent such an introspective 12-hour barroom stint.
And that stint gave me a knot in my stomach. I came West in 1976, about point-two nanoseconds after graduating (barely) from high school. My entire stash of possessions fit nicely into one trunk and a bright-orange Sears and Roebuck backpack. I moved to the Gila Country of southwest New Mexico specifically to hone backpacker-bum skills that have served me well on many levels for almost 40 years now.
I had not thought much lately of those heady, Ragg-sweater-and-leather-boots days of the mid-’70s until Joe laid those old Backpackers on me.
In the old days, the outdoor life seemed so much less complicated, contentious and acrimonious than it does now. There was far less mean-spiritedness and competitiveness out in the woods, at least partially because there were far fewer of us out in the woods. Those of us who lived to spend time out in the backcountry owned one pack and one pair of boots, which we wore everywhere, all the time. There weren’t mountain bikes, the ski industry was still centered around skiing, rather than development, most of the West was guidebook-free and we still were able to skinny-dip in little-known hot springs that have long since been developed and/or regulated and/or co-opted by glossy magazines and their goddamned “destination” stories.
I have found myself more and more since I got those old Backpackers thinking about the “good ol’ days,” about when the outdoor recreation craze that most of us are part of now was still fairly young and full of possibilities. And that journey through revisionist nostalgia has got me thinking about how much more pleasant things were when there weren’t two billion adrenaline-crazed, X-Games-addled snowmobilers zooming through the alpine meadows at 200 mph, how much more splendid the woods were for all concerned before mountain bikes came to outnumber all other uses combined on many trails, how much “better” it was when we all managed somehow to arrive at the trailhead in $200 vans instead of $20,000 SUVs (and I say that owning a $20,000 SUV).
There’s no doubt things weren’t as wonderful in the old days as I remember. I guess I’m getting ancient enough that the mud and muck of the past is starting to suck at my ankles and make me lose focus and clarity.
After one more read-through, I boxed those old Backpackers up and stashed them in the deepest recesses of my basement. I’m not going to look at them, or even think about them, again until I’m too old to ruminate about anything except things nostalgic. I’m tempted to get rid of them all together, but I can’t bring myself to go that far. That would be like throwing away those days in the ’70s when we all wore wool and blue jeans and you could hike for two weeks most anywhere in the Mountain Time Zone without seeing another soul, and I don’t want to discard those days entirely. I know I should, because the only thing really left from those days is the beauty of the Mountain Time Zone itself. Everything else has changed for good, and there’s no going back, except in our minds.
Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.