“Your life: both meaningless in the grand scale of all that nothingness, and somehow meaningful again; which is to say, it’s nice, real nice,” (Bourdain, 36:40).
Backpacking is the activity of greatest self-reflection that one can engage in. It’s you, maybe a few others, on the trail, carrying all of your food and equipment, for days at a time. Each day is a routine: get up when the sun or the birds wake you up, pack your tent, cook some breakfast, shove everything in your backpack, and set out on the trail for the better part of the day. There is no real complexity to it, no emails, no text messages, generally no access to the outside world, or anything to stress you out. It’s sublime, though of course, this is my opinion.
Two years ago, with the summer drawing to a close, my friend and I planned a trip. It was just a short jaunt out, up and around our state’s highest peak, something to grasp onto those last warm days of the season, before fall and school swept in to ruin it. A two-day, 15-mile round trip, nothing to get too excited about. In comparison to various 40-milers and one 80-miler I had been on previously, this was really nothing. Just a taster to get the feeling of quiet and solitude on the trail, nothing much.
We set off late in the afternoon at the trailhead, carrying what was quite minimal luggage for backpacking, only food, water, rain gear, sleeping rolls, and some clothes. By the time we got halfway up the well-beaten state-park track, the sun was already setting. The cool, woody smell of autumn wafted its way through the forest, carried by a cool wind. We soon arrived at our destination for the night, a minimalist, though quite large, wooden lodge maintained by the Green Mountain Club. These lodges, completely bare on the inside besides the occasional wooden bunk, chair, or table, are havens for backpackers all over our state, as well as up and down the Appalachian Trail. With no insulation and only a rusted wire mesh in the windows, they are only to protect you from the rain, though at the same time they are the most comforting locale you could desire when tired and introspective at the end of a day of hiking.
The sun was breaking the horizon, casting us in a rosy light as we collapsed on the front steps of the lodge, setting our backpacks down with a crash and unlacing our boots. An evening mist was beginning to settle across the broad vista before us, and it was utterly silent. We moved our equipment inside, setting it next to the uninhabited caretaker’s quarters, and began lighting our tiny jet boil stove to cook some dehydrated beef stew, before being interrupted by a knock on the side of the lodge.
It was a friend of ours, Steven, who had been spending his summers home from college as a trail manager for the Green Mountain Club, trekking up and down the trails looking out for stranded hikers or downed trees. He joined us for dinner, and we chatted as the sky turned from red to black and the stars came out. After a while, he waved goodbye and set off down the trail, and we retreated into the empty lodge, arranging our bedrolls in the attic.
We awoke to a misty, dim morning. A thick, grey fog coated the mountainside, such that when looking out the front of the lodge the view from the night before was completely obscured. While going out to use the restroom I stumbled around, unable to see four feet in front of me. My friend and I packed up, apart from a small handheld radio I had, and then sat and ate a minimal breakfast of granola and protein bars. We listened to the radio crackle and play slightly mistuned classic rock while staring out at that shifting, morphing wall of fog before us. While I could hardly see a thing beyond the small rocky clearing before us, it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen.
After we finished eating and upon sitting a little while longer we set out, backpacks strapped and ready, shivering from the cold, wet morning air, on the move again. Looking back now, this was one of the most worthwhile trips I have gone on, far more than I could have expected.