‘Born Again’ Backpacker

22 07 2014

Today I read an article predicting the “Death of Backpacking.” I started through the eulogy, my eyes flowing past phrases like, “I find that almost no one I know who is 40 or younger goes backpacking.” I guffawed audibly, but only my dog lifted his head to see what was so funny.


It was ironic to me because, literally, just yesterday, I was hiking the undulating forested terrain of Brown County State Park, saying the exact opposite. My wife and I passed two young men, 21 at best, who were fully loaded, hiking poles in each hand, navigating the occasional, fern-lined switch back along our 10 mile trail.brown county tree roots kelly

“Practicing?” I asked.

“Yeah, we are headin out  for a big hike soon.” One of the wiry, turtle-topped boys replied.

“Oh? Where to?”

“A place called the Appalachian Trail.”

I smiled and tried not to laugh. Yeah, I have heard of that one. “Awesome! Good luck!” I wished them as we passed by. Not only were these young men doing one of the ultimate hikes in the Unite States of America, but they were actually dedicated enough to PRACTICE, instead of just showing up like idiots with brand new gear and a smart phone. I was impressed that they were into backpacking at their age.


Later down that same path, we passed another couple, replete with two dogs carrying backpacks as well. We had passed them on our way out to Ogle Lake, and when we saw them again, I thought to ask them if they were also conditioning. “Heading to the A.T.,” they responded.


brown county bethany boardwalkHuh. Bethany and I kept hiking. Our loads were light, since we were just over an hour from home and doing a nice Sunday day hike before driving back. All we had was the essentials: water, camera, emergency first aid supplies. Oh, and the couple of bars of food that we almost forgot, but thankfully remembered before we got too far from our campsite. And, to be completely honest, I was carrying nothing but a smile. My wife carried all the gear and water for our 10 mile trek, as she often does for easy day hikes. I’m kind of spoiled.


As we hiked, I reflected on our recent trip to Glacier National Park, earlier this month. I was thinking about how lovely it was to be able to hike here and NOT talk. There are no bears in Indiana. No mountain lions. Not even prairie dogs to disturb our peace. Instead, we could calm our thoughts and walk in silence. It didn’t last for too long, but every so often we fell silent and just drank in the beauty of the forest. I watched the dappled sunlight filter onto my love’s beautiful face. I listened to the soft crunch of leaves and sticks, and my rubber soles rubbing against tree roots. There was nothing breathtaking. There were no vast expanses of mountains, no fields of wildflowers in every color imaginable. There were a few spots of scat, but mostly just deer, and an occasional butterfly that happened to flutter past.brown county ogle lake


It is a very different sense of beauty here in Indiana, but it is natural beauty, nonetheless. It quiets all the chatter in your mind. It wipes away the tenseness from your muscles that walk in the city, ready for fight or flight at any moment, be it from car or human assault. Don’t get me wrong, I love my urban lifestyle, and I feel very safe, but even my dog relaxes noticeably when we are in the wilderness surrounded by only the swishing of a breeze in the treetops. Nature is just… soothing. Wherever you are.


turtle brown county alien head flower brown county orange snapdragon like flowerIt amazes me that I took this long to come to hiking. I grew up enjoying nature, but always on the smallest scale. I lived on 7 acres, and spent time getting lost in my woods, using fallen tree trunks as balance beams and pretending that I was Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. I used to trespass onto nearby monastery land, blazing trails to get to the highest point in Oakland County. One time I stumbled onto a spot in the woods where a monk was sitting. Terrified I would get in trouble, I ran home. Now I laugh. Clearly, they got it. It took me a while to catch up.


On family vacations, we did the whole, ‘drive to lookout, get out of car and walk down paved path 0.63 miles, get back to car and drive more,’ kind of family vacation. I did not know anyone who hiked, and I never camped until I could drive myself. Once I was old enough, I was curious about hiking, but there was all this gear, and tools, and knowledge, that neither I, nor my friends, possessed. I wanted to go hiking, but I didn’t know how.


k river fallsWhen I was 26, I decided that it was now or never. I invested a few hundred dollars and bought a high-end, ultra-lightweight tent that I could assemble by myself in 2.4 minutes. I got a sleeping bag that, unlike my $20 Meijer’s cotton bag, compressed down to the size of my head, and weighed mere ounces! Oh, the joy I had researching and selecting this gear!! Even in the city, I had felt that rare connection to nature. That moment when your body feels electrified by the pure energy of trees and LIFE! I set a goal to camp as much as possible, and a long-term plan to make friends who through hiked, so they could teach me how to do it.


It wasn’t until I was preparing to turn 30, that I finally took the plunge and bought a full hiking pack. I went to REI and got fitted, though I had no clue what all I was supposed to fit in it. I knew that as long as I did not have the right gear, it would be my crutch and my excuse. I wanted so badly to get out there, that I was willing to take the financial risk that this could be a total waste of money that I would never use.


The first summer I knew my wife, we went on our first backpacking camping trip. We researched a park down in Hocking Hills, Ohio. We booked a walk-in site. We spend WEEKS packing, tweaking, and repacking our gear. We weighed our packs, lightened our loads, and figured out where we had duplication between us. When we first got down to those beautiful rolling hills, we were SO excited! We parked the car, threw our packs on our backs, and headed down the trail… all of about 300 feet, to where our campsite was. Oh. Well, that wasn’t quite what we expected when we booked the site. Nevertheless, it was a trial run, and we had a blast. And there has not been a trip since that we have not continued to refine our packing list and keep seeing how else we can shave a few ounces to lighten our loads.
trail 3 moss rock - CopyBackpacking is the ultimate experience. There is nothing quite as enthralling as hauling your ass up 1,670 feet to see countless vistas, waterfalls, and wildlife, only to land on top of the world! When you reach your destination, wherever it may be, you know that all those thousands of other people were satisfied just parking their cars and walking 0.63 miles, only to get back to their car and drive more. This place you hiked to? This is SPECIAL. This is something you EARNED. Nobody can take that away from you. Not even the bear that stole your camera.




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