Why the Hell We Do It

the Wilderness

The fashion show is over.  It is not about how killer awesome the latest gadget performs, how you’ve managed to shave the last ounce off your pack, or how pretty the synthetic fabric shirt is, or what kind of bargain you got when you purchased it.  It is about the fact that if you don’t wear this synthetic fabric, you could be inviting disaster (but this is so much of the backpacking life that you don’t even think about that any more.)  It’s about whether your stove ignites when the ambient temperature is 15°, it’s about whether your tent leaks in the 50 mile-per-hour rainstorm.

It’s also about finding comfort in what those who don’t do it call “roughing it.”

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.  We get it rough enough in towns and cities.

— George W Sears, who called himself Nessmuk

This is why we do it.  The gear, the clothing, the boots, all that contributes to why we do it but it is not why we do it.  We do it to hear “Who cooks for you?”  We do it to slip on a slick root and bruise our hip, and then get up and keep doing it.  We do it to see the ten thousand stars when we sleep on the ground and not in our tent.  We do it because when we do it right, the only people we communicate with are right here with us, in person.  We do it for the dancing light show performed by the fireflies (or maybe they are sprites) and the foxfire, the gently glowing bitter oyster mushroom.

It is the grand valley that literally makes us forget to breathe, the fiery sunrise that colors everything in ruddy bursts, the dense clouds that change the shape of mountains, the music of the endless streams, the rhythm of a thunderstorm, the sssh of the wind in the branches, the bite of the cold water stream-crossing, the patience of the caterpillar or the schizophrenia of the butterfly…

It’s the pair of glowing gems that are the eyes of some critter in the woods watching you as you crawl into your tent…

it’s the crackle and sparkle of the wood fire…

it’s the six indentations, two large, four smaller, formed by the water striders as they skate in spurts on the surface of the water, and the alien shadows they cast on the shallow bottom, shadows you can see better than the bugs themselves…

it’s when the well-blazed trail gradually peters out and the view in every direction gives no indication of which way to go…

it’s when someone in your group brought a bottle of Jägermeister (!) and your hiking companion gets up in the middle of the night and is so shitfaced she pees on her own tent…

it’s when you find some privacy and squat in the woods to do what the bears do, and just as you get positioned, you hear a growl from the nearby brush…

This is why we are here.  The powerful, clean smell of the sassafras, the sting of the nettle, the patient, undulating crawl of the mantleslug, the heart-jumping takeoff of the grouse from the brush, the sheer 2000-foot drop two feet away from the edge of the trail, the fresh boot-sucking mud, the relentless mosquitos, the relentless black flies, the dangerous deer ticks, the swarming yellowjackets, the gnats.

A steep uphill climb that sucks your breath, just as inviting as the thigh-flaying of the downhill.  This is how a crashing storm at the edge of a tornado scares you so much you never knew you could be so alive.

And when you step off the trail, you know you must do it all again.

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