Last week I backpacked in the Hoover Wilderness with eleven friends. One of these friends is a guy who can identify just about all the plants you’ll come across. Every time we hike together he educates me on the flora of the Sierras. He has to do that every time, because between hikes I forget what he told me the last time. I can’t remember how many needles are in each cluster of a Jeffrey Pine, or if the cones of a Spruce are elongated or round, or what’s characteristic about the bark of a Lodgepole. He teaches well, but I don’t learn. I might temporarily remember, but I forget as soon as I’m off the trail. My friend really learned.
I hope I really learned my lessons from last week’s trip. Here are some of them.
1. “If you’ve got a scalpel, you’d better have somebody who knows how to use it.” I brought along a first aid kit that was too massive for me to carry. The two nurses in our group culled through it before we set out, separating out what we needed from what we didn’t, and what would have been downright dangerous in the hands of a novice. The scalpel was the best example, and the quote above is from one of the nurses, who was pointing out that I would do more harm than good if I tried to use it. We left the scalpel behind, along with a bunch of other stuff that would have weighed me down and provided no benefit. I ended up carrying a zipper-bag half-full of really useful gear instead of a kit the size of a cinder block and nearly as heavy.
2. A person can do things they don’t think they’re capable of. One of our hikers was a first-time backpacker. She had plenty of experience hiking, but not as much carrying a backpack, and on day one, when we’d scheduled nearly 8 miles while gaining 2,300 vertical feet, several times she didn’t believe she could go on. Only the knowledge that she’d gone too far to turn back kept her going. But nobody carried her, and nobody carried her pack for her, and she made it to camp at the end of the day. Not only that, she kept up on the succeeding days too. We stuck to our itinerary and on some days even went farther than we planned. She proved to be a stronger backpacker than she thought—even though at the end of the first day’s hike she said, “Just let the bear eat me.” (There was no bear nearby. You get the point.)
3. But sometimes it’s wiser to turn back than to plunge ahead. Another hiker wisely decided to turn back on the first day after a few miles. She correctly estimated that she and her gear weren’t prepared for the rigors of the trail ahead. She turned back and stayed in the campground near the trailhead. Over the succeeding days while she hiked in the area, she found that her boots were defective. One of the soles detached. If she’d been fifteen miles into the wilderness with only one good boot, we would have had a huge problem. She’s now determined to gear up better and join us on another trip, and we’ll be delighted to have her.
4. Going slow can be beneficial. This is especially true if you’re ascending to significant altitude, to give your body time to adjust. And it has other benefits too. I’m usually one of those guys who wants to cover as much ground as possible. But when I slow down not only do I gain the physical benefit of allowing my body to adjust to the altitude, I also get to enjoy the scenery instead of doing the head-down trail chase. On this trip there was a lot of scenery to enjoy. Going slow, for me, turned a clock-beating exercise into a pleasure trip. When I dawdled intentionally, I even saw wildlife that others missed.
5. God’s love reaches to the heavens. Every evening after eating whatever dehydrated packets we’d lugged in and reconstituted for dinner, one of our hikers led a discussion on a Biblical topic. One evening a hiker told us how he’d been trying to learn more about God’s love, and he made a connection to the vastness of the starry sky so visible on a clear night at altitude, and to the majesty of the mountains. We talked about how among all of God’s extravagant gifts, Jesus is the ultimate.
6. Awesome places of peace still exist. Like many of you, I live and work in the city. I like it. I like the convenience, the hustle, the ambitions, and competition. But nature fuels me and fortifies me. In the Sierras I look up to see huge ramparts of granite carved by pounding wind, snow, and rain over millennia. I pass snow that lingers through the summer because it’s deposited in a cubby secluded from the elements. I reach the height of a pass between mountains and stop to rest when the wind is still, listening to the clarity of an insect’s buzz a stone’s throw away over a lake. I feel the blistering press of cold, dry wind combing through my beard. And at the end of the day as the sun descends I watch boulders’ shadows lengthen against meadow grasses and the shadows cast by hillsides climb the opposing hills. All this fills me with awe and peace. And it reminds me that these places still exist, and they will long after all convenience and hustle and ambition and competition have become ashes. It’s humbling, and right.
7. It really matters where you pitch your tent. Looking down at it, I thought I’d picked the perfect, level spot. I had the brook nearby to serenade me to sleep, a view of the lake out my door, even a little willow as a houseplant in my vestibule. But when I laid down that night, I found I was on a slope. And not just any slope. I was lying down on the side of a dome. Whichever end of my tent I laid my head, it was lower than my hips, and my tent’s side sloped downward as well. Have you ever tried to fall asleep while balancing? I learned that it’s better to test out a spot before you put down your stakes instead of just scanning over it, and once you’ve put stakes down in the wrong place the only real solution is to uproot yourself and find the right place.
8. There are always new friends to be made. Doing something I love and inviting others along, I made new friends last week and renewed friendships with others I’ve known for years. Solitude is good at times, but what a joy to experience awesome places of peace with friends, to share God’s love, to laugh with others about your own mistakes, and to build bonds through the difficulties and achievements that come with putting miles behind you.
If any of this resonates with you, I’d like to hear about it. Do you spend quality time outdoors, and if so, are your experiences different from mine? Or is the only wilderness experience you want on the television screen? (I love the Discovery channel too.)