“The more civilized man becomes, the more he needs and craves a great background of forest wildness, to which he may return like a contrite prodigal from the husks of an artificial life.” —Ellen Burns Sherman
This summer I did three backpacking trips in five weeks. I keep wondering what it is that propels me back into the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think it’s the instant coffee and freeze-dried dinners. I’m pretty sure it’s not the restless tossing and turning on my too-thin Therm-a-Rest every night. It can’t be the peeing in the woods or worrying about bears. It’s definitely not the wrenching pain in my right knee when I’m hiking downhill with a full pack. What is it that I seek?
I ask myself a version of this question each time I round the corner of another switchback or trudge ever-so-slowly up a steep rock and root-laced trail. But I know the answer before the question is even fully formed. I lug 35 pounds of gear, food, and water miles and hours into the wilderness because it’s so damn beautiful, and because the physicalness, the exertion, the immediacy of what I’m doing calms my turbulent mind more than anything else I’ve ever done.
According to former Wilderness Society council member Sigurd Olson, wilderness is “an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”
I don’t work in a high pressure office, but a typical day for me involves responding to hundreds of bids for attention from my two young children, planning and cooking meals, exercising, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, making appointments, reading the news, responding to e-mails, gardening, feeding the animals, working on a writing project, grocery shopping, buying gifts, driving to our homeschool community or the YMCA or the library, teaching my daughter to read, purging outgrown clothing, arranging childcare, connecting with friends, and more that I don’t even think to notice or remember, and all before my husband walks in the door and asks what I did all day.
I love my life, but is it any wonder that the simplicity and physical demands, the sense of accomplishment and the astounding beauty of the wilderness call to me? All I have to do, literally, is put one foot in front of the other. When I get to camp, I take off my boots, set up the tent and bed, pump water, cook, eat, and clean up dinner, brush my teeth, and go to bed. That’s it. And I do this amidst stunning scenery inaccessible by car.
In a National Geographic article titled This Is Your Brain on Nature, the author spent time in the wild with a backpacking cognitive psychologist who asserted that three days in nature serves as a sort of mental reboot. Our modern lives are so fatiguing to our brains that we desperately need breaks. The article goes on to cite many studies that show access to and time spent in nature significantly decrease stress and improve cognitive function. I would argue that spending time in wild places is vital to a healthy, fully human existence.
In the words of Wilderness Society co-founder Robert Marshall, “In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure, and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity.”
At the end of a four-day hike in the North Cascades, my friend and I, both mothers of young children, met a 23-year-old Australian on his last couple weeks of the Pacific Crest Trail. He praised us for getting out to backpack when we had responsibilities at home. Before I even thought about what I was saying, I answered that it was completely necessary. At that point I had only backpacked three times in my life, but it had already become an unthinkable prospect to attempt to thrive in this manic world without it.
The hard part, then, is re-entry. I don’t have the luxury of hours of silence, all-encompassing physical exertion, and the mental space to notice the mushrooms and bird calls when there are dishes to wash and lunches to make and hugs to be given. And now I’m adding homework to my list of daily activities as I enter a new season as a theology student. When I received my syllabus and saw the list of books to read and essays to write before the first class even began, I started to panic. How do I take what I experience on the trail—the simplicity, the one-step-at-a-timeness—and apply it to the multi-tasking mania of the everyday? After a day of paralysis, I was able to order my thoughts and prioritize tasks, sort of like setting up camp or packing my pack in order of when I’ll need things: rain gear on top, sleeping bag on the bottom. As Glennon Doyle Melton is fond of saying, I just did the Next Right Thing.
Certainly backpacking is not the only way to break from the stresses of modern life, but for me it’s a way to experience pockets of Sabbath rest surrounded by breathtaking beauty, to quiet my mind to the rhythmic task of moving my feet or pumping water through a filter, and to swell my heart with gratitude. This last might be the most profound, for as Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, canning, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She reads constantly, and can’t live without coffee, flowers, and classic mystery stories.