I wrote this short story in the late spring of 2008 as I was reflecting on where I was in my life, and where I wanted to be. This process has been interrupted and restarted several times over the past nearly three years as life has (as it often does) taken a left turn here, a right turn there, and even a few U-turns and donuts along the path. The process has begun anew, and as I pulled up this story the other day and re-read it, it still has a lot to say for me where I am right now.
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“Ten years.” Tim muttered to himself, standing in the two-car garage turned gear room. “Ten years of obsession.”
Turning around, he surveyed all his outdoors gear in one place: backpacking gear, bicycles, rock and alpine climbing gear, kayaks and their assorted paraphernalia. With the garage doors rolled up, it could easily be mistaken for an outfitters shop. This was truly the domain of a gear head.
It hadn’t always been like this, and would not be for much longer. Ten years ago, the whole of Tim’s gear collection would fit in the back of his beat up old Subaru station wagon, with room to spare. Now, it would over-fill a U-Haul moving truck.
The rise of the obsession started at the end of his marriage. Tim had married while in college. It turned out that he and his wife were more opposite than can sustain a healthy relationship. Early on, she accepted his once every month or two trips into the mountains for some backpacking. It gave him time to escape the rat race and decompress. It certainly helped their marriage when he came back relaxed and would focus his attentions on her with less distraction. However, as time wore on and careers intervened, the trips became more needed, and more grudgingly granted.
Tim tried to schedule his trips when his wife already busy. He figured if she were out of town on business, she wouldn’t notice his being on the trail. Eventually, all of his wife’s weekends were spent at the office or travelling for business. Still, Tim kept to his one hike a month maximum.
After the divorce, Tim was determined to spend as much time on the trail as possible. He could come home from a weekend on the trail and no longer have the euphoria of the trip dampened immediately upon his homecoming. Often, not even the crises at work that inevitably arose over the weekend could do that until about midday on his return to the office.
Every Friday that he could, Tim drove his beat up old car to work instead of walking. In the back his pack was loaded with his gear for the weekend: tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, fuel, food, spare clothing a couple of water bottles and water treatment, first aid kit, flashlight and a book. He’d rush out of work after changing clothes and head for a trailhead and put a few miles in that night, even if it was dark.
The weekend would always be enjoyable, even if he spent the whole time stuck in his tent at the first camp due to intense rains. Nights in the tent in the mountains were always better than ones at home in the city.
More weekends on the trail, gave him more and more of a look at what others were carrying, and how they were doing things. The rapid rise through the ranks at work, and the accompanying salary adjustments, allowed him the cash to upgrade his gear. This was a cycle that continued until today. Tim never got rid of a single piece of gear, unless it completely failed on him. He kept it, reasoning that he could loan it out to hiking partners or friends. Not that he had many of either these days.
Somewhere along the lines of acquiring all the gear, and trying to spend as much time on the trail as possible, the quality of the trips got lost. It took a backseat to the numbers game. How can I shave weight from my pack? How many miles can I go in one day? What is the elevation gain for this section of trail? In and of themselves, these numbers questions aren’t bad. But Tim would drop a hundred dollars, or take dangerous risks in gear selection to drop half an ounce off his pack weight. Distances and elevation gains were tracked for bragging rights, rather than measures of his personal ability to reasonably complete a planned trip.
This attitude was not limited to hiking. Tim got involved in cycling, kayaking and climbing, and the attitude prevailed in these areas too. As a result of this change, people who once enjoyed Tim’s company, both on the trail and off found him hard to be around. When he didn’t have to talk about his work, Tim talked about the stats of his trips or his gear.
Tim found himself increasingly alone on his trips. He took to Internet discussion boards to fill the need for human interaction. He quickly became known as the source for information on trips and gear. Unfortunately, he also got another reputation, and jerk would be putting it kindly.
Two months ago, something started to change. It wasn’t because of anything major. At least not what most would consider major. But to Tim, it was huge.
Tim had struck out on a Friday for a mountain trail. It was mid-May, and the trail was quiet. About a half mile out from his first night’s camp, he passed a lone hiker with a huge pack plodding slowly along the trail. There was nothing remarkable about the man, or the event. In fact, the event was pretty normal for Tim. He’d gotten so used to it he paid no notice to the man as he blew past him in his rush to put some miles in that night.
Tim rolled into camp and set up his site. It didn’t take long. All he needed to do was find a good tree to which he could attach his tarp shelter. He’d long given up a tent for the much lighter tarp on all but mountaineering expeditions.
Shelter set up, Tim sat down to his dinner of energy bars and water. While he was eating, the hiker he’d passed strolled into camp. He looked at Tim’s site, and then picked a site right next to it.
This bothered Tim. He had gotten used to being totally alone out of course, but he didn’t say anything. After all, he’d be in bed shortly, and probably miles down the trail before the newcomer was even up.
Tim watched the man as he set his pack down. He was somewhere in his mid-50s. His pack probably weighed one pound for each year the man had been alive. He looked out of condition, with a fair sized midsection hanging over the waist of his cut-off sweat pants. In defiance of all common sense this man hiked in all cotton except for his wool socks.
The man fiddled in his pack and withdrew a quart poly bottle, the likes of which Tim hadn’t seen since he was in high school. He walked over to Tim, held out the bottle. “You’re making some pretty good time there, friend. My name is Walter. Have a bit of whiskey?” he said, all in one breath.
Alcohol on a hike?! Tim was incredulous. He was known to take chances, but alcohol on a hike was not one of them. That was reserved for bragging about his distances and climbs in the bar over a couple of beers to whomever would listen when he got home.
Tim declined and moved to adjust his tarp, hoping that Walter would move on to setting up his own camp and leave him alone. But no such luck. Walter took a sip out of his bottle and followed him to the tarp.
“Nice little shelter you got there.” Walter said. “I couldn’t do it, but to each his own, right? There’s nothing in the world on the trail for me like a nice dry tent. I can pull my gear inside and it stays nice and dry.”
“I like to go light.” Tim replied dumbly, trying not to be rude, but wanting to bring the conversation to an end.
“I’ve heard of guys like that. Crazy sort of folks, if you ask me. No offense intended, you know. Things like that just don’t float my boat. I’ve heard of guys cutting the handles down on their toothbrushes, removing tags from gear, and doing all sorts of other things to shave fractions of an ounce from their overall pack weight. What’s it really gain them?”
Tim saw that the conversation was not going to end, but was entering into his area of expertise, so he took the hook and continued the conversation. “Well, the less weight you have to carry, the easier it is on your body. You know, each pound on your back is like 10 on your feet. You can go longer distances faster with lighter loads. You don’t have to wear such heavy-duty boots, and can move along easier. Kind of like a pro cyclist with a minimalist bike, or a runner without all the extra clothing running in just a pair or running splits and a tank top. Less stuff means you go faster.”
“So, but dropping all that weight, you enjoy the hike more?” Walter asked.
“Well I can go farther and do it faster and more comfortably.”
“But is that more enjoyable?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“You guess?! You sound just like my kids! Listen um…by the way, what’s your name?”
“Listen Tim, being more comfortable under your pack is a decent goal. So is being able to go longer and faster. But what are you out here for?”
“I enjoy hiking and the outdoors.” Tim replied.
“Good. Now, tell me about your last hike. What was it like?” Walter queried.
“Well, I hit the trail on Friday night, probably around 8:00. I hiked about 5 miles by headlamp before I made camp. The next morning, I did 20 miles with a total elevation change of around 3500 feet. On Sunday, I backtracked the whole 25 miles back to the car and headed home.”
Walter whistled. “Those are some impressive numbers. Pack weight, I assume was around 20 pounds, right?”
“So, you got a long hike in, big elevation and a light pack. What did you enjoy about the trip? See some good views? Any interesting wildlife or plants along the way?”
“Not really. It was cloudy and wet. I didn’t notice any plants or animals. Well, except for the pesky chipmunks that are always trying to eat my energy bars.”
“You didn’t notice any plants or animals and you had no views. Are all your trips like this?”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you? Your hike isn’t about the journey, or even about the destination. You’re a numbers hiker.”
“A numbers hiker?”
“Yes, you hike by the numbers: pack weight, distance and elevation change. I suppose you keep some sort of spreadsheet which logs all of this stuff and displays it on a nice graph too, don’t you?”
“Well, as a matter of fact…” Tim began, but Walter wasn’t done with his monologue yet.
“Now, I’m not normally one to criticize another’s hiking style. Goodness knows mine isn’t for everyone. I have two pack weights: too heavy and I can carry it, distances are measured in too far, and I can make it, same with elevation. I get out here to escape the rat race, collect my thoughts, reflect on life and just have a general good time. You know why I couldn’t hike your way? Well, I can, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t because it’s not fun. Bust your backside to put up big numbers and at the end of the day have an uncomfortable, spartan camp to call home for the night. Do you eat cold food or hot food?”
“Cold, cook gear adds weight…”
“Adds weight! What a pound or two for a hot meal on a cold day? You’d really sacrifice comfort for the numbers wouldn’t you?”
“Is this why you started hiking? I’m not trying to judge, really. I just want to understand. I started hiking when I was a teenager. My first pack was a canvas rucksack made according to a pattern laid out in my Boy Scout Field Book. It was heavy, but functional. I’ve moved up from there, albeit slowly. My packs may always be heavy, but my camp is always a comfortable place to call home for the night. I promise, no psychoanalyzing or anything. Just help me to understand where you are coming from.”
“No, I started hiking when I was a kid. I didn’t mind carrying a bit of extra weight. I kept on hiking through high school and into college. I even managed to get out on a fairly regular basis, not as much as I would have liked, after I got married. Once I got divorced, I wanted more time outside. So every chance I had I was out. I followed popular principles for lowering pack weight, and I just keep looking for the best gear I can find with the lowest weight.”
“Ok, I have to ask. Don’t you miss it? The way a hike used to make you feel?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean. I still feel the same after a trip.”
“Mentally? I am sure you feel about the same physically; maybe better if your condition has improved. But how do you feel mentally now as opposed to when you were hiking years ago?”
“I don’t know; it’s been so long since I’ve done a hike like that.”
“I’ll tell you what. Travel with me tomorrow. My pace, I’ll share my food with you. My wife always sends me with too much, and is convinced I starve myself with the amount I bring back with me on Sundays. Maybe she’ll think I finally got hungry!”
“No, I don’t think so. I really plan to make the lake over the pass this weekend, and I have important meetings on Monday. I have to push to the lake tomorrow. That’s 23 miles away.”
“OK, suit yourself.” And with that, Walter went about setting up his camp.
Since that weekend, Tim saw “Walters” everywhere. Riding his bike, he’d see older, grey-bearded men riding old lugged steel frame bikes plodding along in complete oblivion to the pacelines and rush around them. Kayaking, they’d be paddling their beat-up aluminum canoes with equally battered wooden paddles down slower rapids or on local lakes and bays having the time of their lives. On the trail, he’d see them everywhere. All of them, seeming to be at peace with the pace at which they were moving and eschewing much of the modern gear for the comfort of their older well-worn gear.
Unable to shake the image of Walter, Tim caved in. He didn’t know how to contact Walter, and he didn’t really want to. He knew the spirit of how Walter traveled, and he went for it.
Tim decided to hike the same trail on which he’d met Walter. From his selection of packs, he grabbed the old pack he bought with money from his first job in high school. He also took his oldest tent, sleeping bag, the heavy old Coleman backpacker stove, and a myriad of old gear. Testing it all out, his anal-rententive tendencies with respect to gear care were validated. All functioned properly right away. Tim shunned his high-tech gear for old wool and his heavy old hiking boots. In a nod to Walter, he filled a pint water bottle with sipping whiskey. To top it all off, for the first time in about 8 years, he threw a paperback novel into the pack.
Taking Friday off, Tim drove to the trailhead. He parked and hit the trail before lunch. The pack was heavy, but he found hiking with the old pack was like hiking with an old friend. He was deliberately slow on the trail; stopping at overlooks and viewpoints, admiring the tall firs and maples in the mixed forest. Each step found him looking increasingly up ahead, rather than at his wrist for the GPS/altimeter watch he left on the dresser at home.
At the campsite where he met Walter, Tim opened the water bottle, said a silent toast to him, and took a sip. Putting the bottle back, he set about making camp and settling down to a hot meal. It was a first for the summer on the trail in years.
Tim spent the next day rambling the hillside from his campsite. He had no plans to camp anywhere else. He could do a few day hikes. He wanted to see the view from ridges around the area he was camped. In camp he found enjoyment in sitting around waiting for water to boil for tea, food to cook and reading his book. The joy of his early days had returned. It was there that he made is decision. Everything (almost) must go.
On his way home, Tim made a mental inventory of all his gear, several of many different items, most of which have given way to ever newer ones. What he didn’t need would all go up on e-bay when he got back. Maybe he’d even e-bay the Range Rover and buy a cheap old beat up Subaru station wagon again. He only needed room for his pack and a roof rack for the old dusty touring bike and touring kayak. Well, hopefully room for those of friends too, but those would have to come in time.
Photo: Rob Putnam, 1985