Out in It

Before I left for a recent backpacking trip in Colorado, someone asked me what I liked about hiking in the wilderness. The seemingly easy question stumped me. The phrase that came immediately to mind—“It’s great to be out in it”— makes perfect sense to me but is less than understandable to someone who’s never been.

Vista of mountain peaks
The view from the Continental Divide near Williams Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

The key lies in the prepositions “out” and “in.” The “in” speaks for itself: in a meadow bursting with purple and yellow wildflowers, in the presence of a bald eagle soaring over the shore of a lake tucked against the flank of a mountain, in the midst of an endless panorama of peaks stretching away in every direction.

It seems the “in” would be enough, but you can get most of that on a day hike. The “out” is equally important: out of daily routines and obligations, out of a habitat created by humans, out of the endless string of decisions we think are so important. Once you’ve packed your bag and hiked a few miles, the number and type of choices you have is dramatically reduced: where to sleep, how to cross a stream, whether to eat freeze-dried lasagna or chicken teriyaki for dinner. The things you do are equally basic: walk, pitch a shelter, cook food, sterilize water.

Columbine and Indian paintbrush
Columbine and Indian paintbrush. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

I feel free when backpacking, unencumbered despite the heavy pack. Perhaps this feeling comes from letting go of some control and focusing for a while not so much on what or how well I am doing as on simply existing.

It would be misleading to say that it was an idyllic trip. We argued. I worried about whether the route I had chosen would work. I packed too much trail mix. I fell in the mud.

But something about the beauty of the place and the simplicity of the way of living made it so much easier to see how small those things were. The important things were clear: the fragile beauty of the columbine, the joy of one of my companions who jumped up and down with her 35 pound pack on when she got her first glimpse of the vista from the atop the Continental Divide.

It’s great to be out in it.

I Like It Here

When I was growing up, the promotional video for my hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, featured a bunch of guys sporting Magnum P.I. mustaches sitting in a hot tub singing, “Steamboat, Steamboat, I like it here.” Though the video has been updated several times since then, I still agree with the lyrics.

horse pulling a child on skis down a street in front of a crowd
Ski joring down Lincoln Avenue in Steamboat. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Boeke.

Steamboat recently celebrated its 100th Winter Carnival, and I attended along with my family and a number of friends from high school. Here are a few of the reasons why it was so much fun.

One: carnival buttons, which get you into all the weekend events and are often seen pinned to ski hats, still cost only $10. I bought mine off a woman on the bus who had an extra.

Two: the carnival is a liability nightmare. Put skis on small children, give them a rope to hold, tie the other end of the rope to a horse and tell the rider to go as fast as possible down a street covered in a couple feet of snow. Just for fun, add a jump in the middle. Or start with a 50 meter ski jump. Wait until dark. Add a flaming hoop and have people jump through it. Just for fun, let one of them pull a toboggan that is on fire.

Three: though the population of the town has more than doubled since I was a kid (to a whopping 12,000), everyone still puts on four layers of clothing and stands around in the snow for six hours cheering for the kids and the horses. Occasionally a kid lets go of the rope before she crosses the finish line and then has to ski half a block or so on her own. Everyone cheers the loudest for these kids, and every single kid who let go of the rope crossed the finish line even though she knew she wouldn’t win.

Four: nowhere else in the world will you see a rugby team, a refrigerator, and a running gas grill on skis. There was sauerkraut for the hotdogs.

Five: keeping the local ranchers at the center of the festivities as riders and parade participants somehow ties the different parts of the community together in a way that doesn’t happen in many places.

Six: the lighted man. Yes, he is shooting fireworks out of his backpack. Yes, it is the coolest thing ever.

Plan to buy your buttons for the 101st.

Homeward Bound

After a nine-year trial period, California’s Central Coast recently began to feel like home. Then I went and confused myself by going back to my hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for Christmas.

The week before leaving, I caught myself driving down the street enjoying this place I live, not judging it or categorizing it—a better or worse part of town, these attractive features, those not-so-desirable features. And oddly, after resisting it for so long, feeling at home didn’t scare me.

Barn in front of the Steamboat ski mountain
Steamboat Springs in all its glory.

Home is a potpourri. It includes a sense of belonging and acceptance—both of oneself and of the place—but also a familiarity, a sense that here, things are as they should be. It takes time for a spot of earth to transform into a home, and the process is somewhat mysterious.

After graduating from college and before moving to the Central Coast, I never lived anywhere more than two years. I never intended to stay, but at some point the prospect of finding the grocery store and post office all over again in a new town overwhelmed me.

During that itinerant period Steamboat held unqualified home status. It probably helped that I lived in the same house from preschool through my senior year and generally enjoyed childhood.

A good part of our self-concept is wrapped up in the corner of the world we choose to call home. For several years, I had a dual identity. In California, I’d say, “I’m going home for Christmas,” and when I was leaving Steamboat, I’d say, “I’m going home Sunday.” Even this year, I refused to raise my hand in church when the lector asked who was visiting from out of town.

I have yet to figure out what you lose and what you gain when your hometown is no longer your home. I do know Steamboat’s beauty makes my breath catch in a way it didn’t when I lived there. I also know I have lost the Coloradan’s conviction that you are not really living unless you have to contend with snow nine months of the year.

Driving to the airport in Denver on one of the only truly cold days during my trip, I saw an underdressed woman hitchhiking on the side of the road. She looked as if she were leaving somewhere rather than going to somewhere. The look on her face reminded me that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to do both.