A few summers back, while walking along a section of the Colorado Trail near Denver, I had the opportunity to watch not one, not two, not three but — count ’em — four mountain bikers go posteriors-over-tea-kettles, all at the exact same spot, one right after the other. By the time the last rider tried, and failed miserably, to negotiate this particularly gnarly hunk o’ rock that was sitting smack-dab in the middle of the tread, there was a pile of writhing fat-tire aficionados pretty much stacked up at my feet. Can’t buy entertainment that good.
As there were no injuries more serious than the kind of minor bruises, abrasions and contusions that mountain bikers seem to go out of their way to acquire and wear as badges of honor, I just stood there and watched as these gentlemen picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. (It was interesting to note that all four checked their bikes for damage before they checked themselves out. Good priorities.)
Ended up it was a guided trip. The first man to crash was the guide, and the last three to crash were guests from somewhere back East. All four seemed happy as pigs in slop, despite, or perhaps because of, their mishaps.
“Man, I crash at the same spot every single time I go through here,” the guide effused, shaking his head and smiling. As far as I could tell, this man physically consisted of but two substances: bone and muscle, with some extra muscle on top of his extra muscle. His calves were the size of watermelons, his quads the size of Jeeps and his biceps the size of refrigerators. As we chatted there on the trail, I tried sans success to suck my early-season paunch in.
The man asked where I was hiking to, and when I told him Durango, his jaw dropped. When I further mentioned that I planned to be on the trail for six weeks, he just shook his head.
“Man, I tried backpacking for the first time a couple weekends ago, and I could not believe how hard it was. It kicked my ass so bad, I don’t think I’ll ever carry a pack again.”
Ended up that the trip he was describing was only 20 miles long. Yet, he went on and on about how sore his hips were, about how his back ached for days afterward, about how his shoulders felt like they’d been thrashed by a lead pipe.
“The really hard thing was that, after carrying that damned pack all day, even though I was too tired and sore to move, I had to set up camp, cook, eat nasty dehydrated food, do dishes, bathe in a freezing stream and sleep on the ground. You backpackers are the toughest people I know.”
Now, if this diatribe, this verbal ode to the difficulty of backpacking, had streamed from the mouth of some pudgy schlub from Cleveland, I would, of course, have taken it with a grain of salt. But the fact that the words were being uttered by a man who looked like he could bench press me while simultaneously riding his mountain bike up the side of 2,000-foot cliff face caused me, as I made my way up the trail, to scratch my noggin over the entire nature of backpacking.
This was not the first time I have given thought to backpacking in the context of “why, then, if it is so damned hard, do so many of us continue to do it?” The mountain biker I passed on the Colorado Trail is not the first person who I have heard talking about the sometimes horrible difficulty of backpacking. My wife, as but one random example, has mentioned on more than one occasion as she’s following me along yet another seemingly endless wilderness trail how demanding she considers the entire process of schlepping a pack up and down mountains all day. She considers it worth the effort, though, because she likes camping in the deepest backcountry. My spousal unit deals with the discomfort of carrying a pack through the woods because getting to remote locales is worth the physical effort.
To visit beauteous country is the most obvious answer to the question of why backpackers backpack. There are other fairly stock answers: We do it to get as far away from civilization as possible in a few days, to purge the foul stench of urban living from our bodies and souls, to re-connect with nature, to try to rid ourselves of our beer guts, etc.
But, for those of us who can lay claim to the dubious label of “backpacking devotees/aficionados/bums/junkies,” there’s even more to the equation.
Backpacking — especially of the long-distance, long-duration variety — is an activity that requires Zen-like, mind-over-matter-type discipline, the ability and desire to put one foot after another for mile after mile, day after day, no matter the conditions, the circumstances or how you feel. If you get up in the morning and it’s freezing, snowing and blowing and you’re running low on food and it’s 34 miles to the next supply drop, there’s no hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep. There’s no deciding to stay home today instead of hitting the trail, because the trail is home. No matter how poorly you slept, how many blisters you boast, how inflamed the tendons in your knees are, no matter that your hemorrhoids are acting up and that the only thing you’ve eaten for the last two days is plain instant rice, you’ve got to hoist that horrible thing known as your pack and make you way up the trail.
Then, 15 or 20 miles later, you’ve got to find a tent site in the rain, wash up in a frigid river, change into your least-disgusting clothing, eat yet another tantalizing bowl of plain instant rice, wash your dishes in the dark while the mosquitoes have their way with your hide and crawl into a wet tent that smells like 400 YMCA locker rooms condensed into one small nylon abode.
As I made my way along the trail after talking to that mountain biker, I realized why idiots like me backpack despite the hardships presented by backpacking: We do it BECAUSE of those hardships, because of the feeling we get from overcoming pain and discomfort, dealing with unfathomable filth and eating food your dog wouldn’t even look at.
Things that are hard are things that we ought to seek out with a vengeance — especially if the reward is finding yourself atop a distant mountain that can only be reached by carrying a heavy pack and walking along a long, hard trail.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride my mountain bike. There’s this one damned stretch of trail near where I live that, try though I might, I have never been able to negotiate without mishap. By god, this is the year!