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.
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.
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.
What do leggings and a fourteenth century Dominican have to do with each other? Perhaps not much—unless you go camping with a Meister Eckhart sermon.
Those of you who follow the blog may have noticed I’m becoming an Eckhart fan. That’s because he says things like, “The everlasting and paternal wisdom saith, ‘Whoso heareth Me is not ashamed.’” Meaning, for me, that if you really hear the word of God—who may or may not be paternal for you—any sense of shame you have will evaporate because you hear your own divine nature.
It’s always fun when the universe gives you an immediate opportunity to practice what you think you learned. And by fun I mean deeply humiliating.
Later in the day, I went hiking and discovered I had not gotten the new deep woods fashion memo. With two or three exceptions, every other woman on the trail was wearing leggings. I was wearing bulky hiking pants that had sap on the butt to boot. So, yeah, instant shame.
But shame isn’t always easy to recognize. Especially when it presents itself as “Why are all these idiots wearing these stupid leggings? Don’t they know they’re in a state park not at yoga class?” That’s some pretty impressive and rapid externalization right there.
Luckily I was hiking really slowly, stopping to look at trees and ferns and such, so I heard myself thinking this a lot and realized that these were not happy thoughts. Don’t get me wrong—no instant enlightenment ensued. I internally commented on and hated, at least a little bit, every single pair of leggings, but I saw what I was doing most of the time and tried to let it go.
That recognizing and letting go often seems insufficient to me, but I’m gradually learning that it’s more than it seems. The next morning I woke up and actually saw the exact shape and color of the leaves on the trees in my campsite for the first time, the texture of their bark—what creation heard when God spoke those trees into existence.
Planning is a strange thing—delusional and necessary at the same time. I recently spent a day at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. To quote the monument’s website, “The primeval black basalt terrain of El Malpais [which means the badlands] was created by volcanic forces over the past million years. Molten lava spread out over the high desert from dozens of eruptions to create cinder cones, shield volcanos, collapses, trenches, caves, and other eerie formations.”
Because the ground is solid rock, there’s no way to make a trail other than to mark it with cairns. As a directionally-challenged person, I felt somewhat unnerved heading out into this place where I was one cairn away from being lost. In reality, an always visible sandstone ridge indicated the direction of the road, but when I looked ahead and didn’t see the next cairn immediately, my mind started creating stories of being lost in the lava wilderness. “Unprepared hiker dies half mile from the road,” the headlines read.
The next cairn often wasn’t visible until I’d reached the one immediately preceding it. It reminded me of that E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I think all of life is like this. We can plan all we want, but we usually can’t see the next cairn when we’re making the plan. The trail rarely follows the course we prescribe in advance.
But without a plan, without some sense of our eventual destination, we don’t know what direction to set out in, and we might not recognize our cairns along the way. We might even forget to look for them all together.