Having just returned from a few days backpacking in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness in Arizona, please forgive me for waxing lyrical about the unlikely connection between backpacking and wealth.
The primary goal of backpacking is to survive a trip to places that are often difficult or impossible to get to by any other means than walking, climbing or scrambling. The focus on survival compels backpackers to make difficult choices, jettisoning anything that does not contribute to their survival, and ensuring a rigorous cost benefit analysis between utility and the additional weight that must be carried. This distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ is a familiar one to most of us but the wilderness is a great teacher, and backpackers quickly learn what is really important i.e. water, shelter and food, often in that order. Everything else is secondary. Please don’t pity the backpacker. Drinking water is certainly not the same as drinking wine but collecting water to drink from a mountain stream or a desert spring or even from a natural rain tank, is a profound experience reminding us of where our water comes from and how precious it is. The backpacker’s shelter may seem primitive but he or she is waking up to views not matched by the finest hotels. Similarly, the food is not rich but it is usually wholesome and nutritious, and after a day humping a 40 pound pack with very little else to eat, dinner al fresco somehow tastes better than food from San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants.
Frequent backpackers have usually rediscovered the art of enjoying the simple pleasures in life that are so often ignored in today’s overstimulated world – staring at a clear and beautiful night sky, listening to the sound of the leaves of a cottonwood tree rustling in the wind, watching an Elf owl makes its home in a Saguaro cactus or seeing a diamond backed rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail. I realize that these are not necessarily substitutes for reading a good novel, watching Hunger Games or visiting Las Vegas but they are a reminder that riches are all around us if we would only open our eyes.
Backpackers are not usually asocial types but rather people who have discovered a need in themselves to occasionally seek solitude to recharge their spiritual batteries and find whatever it is they are looking for. Think about solitude a while and you realize how difficult it is to find real solitude for anything longer than a few minutes. Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it and can’t imagine why it might be worth having. Technology seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude. However, think of the prophet, the hermit and the yogi and you realize that the act of being alone has always been an essential part of religious experience. More important, for those of us who are not prophets, hermits or yogis, is the fact that, in losing solitude, we lose the propensity for introspection, that examination of self that Socrates placed at the center of a life well-lived. Solitude enables us to explore our own depths so that we can come together with other people confident of who we are and not just as another identical member of the herd.
“We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home, in towns and cities.” G.W. Sears
“My meals were easily made, for they were all alike and simple, only a cupful of tea and bread.” John Muir
“Be a half-assed crusader, a part-time fanatic. Don’t worry too much about the fate of the world. Saving the world is only a hobby. Get out there and enjoy the world, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, husbands, wives; climb mountains, run rivers, get drunk, do whatever you want to do while you can, before it’s too late.” Edward Abbey