I went backpacking a few weeks ago with a group of friends. We were in a remarkable place, the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming’s southern Wind River Range. By the end of the weekend, we’d accomplished everything you could hope for on a weekend backpacking trip: popping our eyes out at deep blue lakes and steep ridges, not getting blown over by 60-mile-an-hour winds, and encountering wildlife (a train of pack llamas).
Despite all these amazing things, as we hiked out I started to feel unsettled.
I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was back in my house, showered, my trail clothes (in all their sweaty, dusty glory) in the laundry pile, and sitting on the couch by 4:00pm on Sunday afternoon. The restlessness that I had gone to the mountains to assuage had crept back into my spine.
The restlessness that I had gone to the mountains to assuage had crept back into my spine.
As I snuggled deep into the couch cushions, it occurred to me: “Why the heck are we out of the mountains so early?”
I started to think over the hike out earlier that day. We’d left camp at dawn to get over the high pass that’s the gateway to the Cirque, packing up in the dark when we could see only the headlamps of the hardy climbers already halfway up the granite pillars around us. Ok fine, starting early for weather—a reasonable decision by any standard. No uneasiness there. But once over the pass, a few miles later the trail came to a lake, a spot where we paused briefly to refuel on dried fruit and peanut M&Ms and enjoy the calm of low-altitude windlessness. After this interlude, we went into cruise mode, tackling with determination the remaining 5-mile, gentle-downhill superhighway to the parking lot. That—there—is the part when the disease set in.
As we hiked, we’d barely stopped for water or snacks or to admire the aspens that, even at the beginning of September, were touched with gold. We became increasingly spread-out along the trail, so talking was impossible. We all gave in to a head-for-the-barn, oh-god-if we-just-get-there-then-my-feet will-stop-hurting, mentality. “Urgent” best describes our collective attitude.
We all gave in to a head-for-the-barn, oh-god-if we-just-get-there-then-my-feet will-stop-hurting, mentality.
But what was there to feel urgent about? We had hours before darkness set in, the weather was sunny and calm, we had plenty of food and water and no injuries. No one needed to get back for work, or pets, or other social engagements.
When I asked my hiking partners, most responded with the simple answer that they liked having their Sunday evenings to hang out, prepare for the week, and just let their minds relax.
But, although I nodded my head, honestly, I didn’t really get it.
What had we gone to the mountains for if not to recharge? I willingly admit that physically, I was pretty uncomfortable—my feet were darn tender by the end of the hike, and a long soak in a tub sounded like heaven—but mentally, I was in my place of serenity. As soon as I arrive in the backcountry and narrow my needs to the essentials, I reach a level of calm that’s hard for me to capture in the frontcountry. In the mountains, there’s no need to chase it, it’s simply there.
I don’t usually leave the mountains with regret, but this time I wish that we’d lingered by that halfway lake, watched people fish and felt our feet go numb in the water, enjoyed the sun and good company. Lingered until we had barely enough time to get back to the car and make it to town before sunset. Lingered even just another hour.
I wish that we’d lingered.
But when you’re traveling in a group, you’re responsible to the group. Folks have different expectations for the trip, different comfort levels being in the outdoors. And if someone needs that couch time on Sunday night to feel ready for their week, who am I to say they’re wrong, or they’re not “getting it”?
For my part, the time in the mountains is precious and fleeting. I want all of it, up to the last minute. We only get a few short months before we start planning next year’s trips, rather than next weekend’s. So, as the last warm days wind down, and before you start dreaming of snow, my word of advice is to linger. Make it last.
Time in the mountains is precious and fleeting. I want all of it, up to the last minute.
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