Wednesday, July 10, 2019

I Wonder About Magic


Yesterday I saw a YouTube video about hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington State (NordAmerika, US-of-A).

It was about a three-day hike of the 93-mile (150km) trail. But what it really was about was stuff: how light the guy's stuff was. That started me thinking. About stuff.

A long time ago in hamster years I accidentally found out about ultralight backpacking. It started with seeing a guy cooking for two on a Trangia alcohol stove. After that I went loping across the interwebs tracking down information and found more than I'd imagined. Before long I became frantic, ever more obsessed by ever less weight and the stuff that could make it happen. I spent a few years buying things, trying them out, discarding them, making my own things, and so on.

It seems like it should be over now but it isn't. That's the trouble with being one person. You don't realize that even if you've done it and recovered, not everyone else has. People are still tripping over the same door sill that I did, falling flat into Wonderland, and seeing stars.

I can understand that, but I don't care anymore.

I can understand the focus of the video I watched. I've been there. The geography is familiar. I can understand how a person gets swept up. I can understand going out and pulling down mile after mile, simply because you can. I understand watching the landscape unwind as you walk it, how you make it obey.



But you know, I had to feel sorry for the narrator. He hiked the Wonderland Trail in three days. It was sad to hear that. Sometimes you do things because you can, and if you're a backpacker newly escaped from the universe where every trip is a black hole of infinite mass, then you cut loose and run wild for a time.

But I still feel sorry for him. I hope he's been there before and has already seen it, or goes back later and moves more slowly. The trail deserves it, and so does he. The Wonderland Trail is an entirely complete world and is worthy of one's dedicated attention. Three days are not enough.

And a focus on toys isn't really the point of backpacking, I think.

One of my most vivid images since I began backpacking was of someone I saw on that Wonderland Trail. I was tripping lightly down a modest slope, in dappled shade, and came across a party going up. Well, going up is more work, granted, but they were making it really hard for themselves. One guy in particular. His pack — well I'm not sure what make and model it was, but it was huge. Huge and black, the size of a small refrigerator. And then he had another sub-pack on his front side, and auxiliary pouches strapped on. All black, everything. And a towel so he could mop sweat.

Poor guy.

Meanwhile, I had to be careful not to bounce too much as I walked past, or I would have risked floating away on a random puff of air.



But in a way we both had it wrong. He was burdened by I know not what, a huge and dark evil weight, and I was burdened by whiffs of smugness. That memory is really all about stuff after all.

I don't think that backpacking is about stuff. Whether it's quantity or quality, how big, how small, how shiny, how useful, how clever, how new, how old. It's only stuff after all. The fun is in realizing that you went out one day and someone else came home in your place, someone new and enriched.

Let me tell you something, a thing or two that happened to me.

A while ago, long after leaving North Dakota, I went back to visit the Badlands. They had put in a long trail right through the middle, north to south. I'd been there before, but if you live there you sort of drive up to something and look at it, and then drive home. By 2004 I was a different person, so I wanted to walk into it and touch it.

But that isn't the point. That wasn't the real experience. It was more like this...

At the end of my first day on the trail I needed to find a camp. So I went off the trail and paused, looking around. After a bit I thought I'd move on a few feet but looked down, and there was a rattlesnake. Its tail anyway.

The two of us were in a shallow, flat dry wash, bordered by sage. While I had stood there with my tongue hanging out, mind in neutral, the snake had made a break for it, but once its head got into the shade under a bush it forgot about its tail and left that hanging out.

This was a little startling, but that isn't the point either.

The point also isn't that I didn't see this happen, though I wish I had.

And just to be clear, the point isn't about fear of a fangy death.

The point is that it happened and I was there.



This was a blessed magic moment, and I have the memory. I wanted to touch the snake, to say hello, to shake its hand, but that would have been rude, so instead, after admiring the situation, I moved on. Respectfully. Quietly. Uninvited guests should mind their manners. Anyway, snakes don't have hands.

Another time, in the Olympic Mountains of western Washington I crossed a stream narrow enough to toss a cotton ball across. It was summer.

Wading is always a nuisance, but it makes a person stop, so I stopped, and sat, and waited to dry. And then the stream's surface suddenly erupted. Right in front of me. A small dark thing splashed on the surface for an instant, dancing crazily. Dancing upstream, right there. And then it vanished, beneath the surface I thought. I was not sure. What. What it was.

So I waited.

After a bit this thing leapt back into the world of air and light, skimming the water, splashing small splashes. The thing, it was, whatever it was, skittered another foot or two before plunking back. Into. The water.

How could this be? What sort of magic? Was. It?

And again. It happened. This thing. Like a mouse. Moving so fast I could see only a thing. Flash. Splash. Gone. My world was not behaving. But it was my fault.



See, I was on a long loop hike that had gotten too complex and dangerous and so I was headed back the way I had come. Because it was prudent. And now this mystery. I should have been tens of miles from there, but wasn't. I should have been tramping out long days but wasn't. I was there for the miracle because I had failed, and turned back, and crossed into a different story where they weren't expecting visitors.

If I had made other choices I wouldn't have been a backpacker at all. Nor would I have been there that day to see a water shrew impossibly running atop that stream. That was a blessing. Miles did not matter. Gear does not matter. Blessings do not comprehend scales or dollar signs.

I used to know someone who unashamedly confessed to a steep delight on entering an outdoor shop, where all the shiny things were displayed in long aisles of tidy shelves in a clean and well-lit order. I understand that. It can be fun, fun like doing an impossible number of miles in one day, because you suddenly find that you can, even though before, you couldn't. Fun like looking at things and thinking "What if?" Fun like knowing that you have money to throw, at whatever.

We all have those feelings.

An uncle of mine bought a cheap little exercise thingy. A stand with a bent metal bar running through it, like bicycle pedals. He bought it so he could exercise while sitting in his soft chair, watching TV, and smoking. He tried it once.

I heard about someone else like that. Who fanatically loved the Home Shopping Channel. Enough to buy two stationary exercise bicycles and not use either, and then to buy a third because it folded for easy storage in even the smallest closet.



That's the thing.

It's the difference between reality and imagination, between a mathematically perfect plan and the dangerous wet kiss of serendipity.

You can look at things and imagine yourself among the gods. You can decide to crown yourself a newly minted god and plan a mega-hike. And complete it, on schedule. And that's fine.

There is nothing so fine, though, as being awakened in the dead of night, hanging all trussed and helpless in your backpacking hammock, by a barking elk suddenly mad with fear, only a few hand's breadths away, when it walks into your scent.

As watching a solitary bee-fly hover endlessly over a nondescript flower, attacking anything and everything that comes near, except you.

As realizing that a herd of deer has coalesced around your shelter, to fight over your urine.

As noticing that, through a gap in the shrubbery across a small meadow, a bear is quietly watching, to see if you behave.



It is easy to want things and to buy things, but wanting them and buying them, and even using them don't always change you, and I think it might be more important to change, even in random, unpredictable ways, than to always be in control. It might not always be good to be strong and drive those arrows right into the center of that target. After all, that bullseye is a very small and soulless thing to be obsessed with.

So if you go to Mt. Rainier, take time to enjoy it.

Many people plan two weeks. A lot don't finish the hike. Knees. There is some up and down, but if you are in reasonable shape, and don't carry too much weight, then you shouldn't have a problem. The biggest problem is making reservations.

The good news is that you can to do this by long distance, but then you can't be sure of the weather and all that. The worst part though is having to commit to specific camp sites on specific days. Some of these places have the trail running through them, and none offer privacy. You are registered, and have a tag, and are expected to be somewhere, on time.

But if you are somewhere that you can do it, are mildly devious and yet responsible (as in taking responsibility for your own actions), especially if you camp lightly, as in using a backpacking hammock, you can do a thing.

You can hide.

Assuming that where you are going has enough campsites open in approximately the right places, on roughly the right dates, you can register appropriately. Then each day you stop near to where you should be, in case you meet anyone who wants to check your tag. And then, and then, you disappear.

The next day you quietly return from inivisibility.

This is called stealth camping, and is more fun than a titanium cook pot. But you need to be clean and careful. Careful to not make a mess, to clean up exactly everything, to be quiet and respectful, and never to set the place on fire. And also, if you get arrested, hey. Them's the rules. Federal offense and all, if you are in a place like a national park. Which is why I prefer traveling through national forests to national parks.

But there is room out there, lots.

In Mount Rainier National Park alone you have 368 square miles (950 square km) to roam in, and aside from the tall pointy glacier-covered part in the middle, most of it is comfy, spacious forest. So when you're moseying along, it's magic no matter what.

No need to rush.


You can't rush magic.

Especially if you try.




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Me? Leaving behind only failures, carrying away only regrets.