When There’s Only Good to Say
Sometimes I just like to talk, which I suppose is odd for a quiet person. Maybe it comes from spending a lot of time in the woods alone. I know that in Siberia one of the old bits of practical advice was to talk all the time. Talk to the birds, talk to the trees, talk to the sky — otherwise you’ll lose the ability when you get back to people again. So, sometimes I just like to talk, and maybe like the old Elders of earlier times I will say something occasionally entertaining or important. That’s what this section is about. Nothing too practical, just how I think.
While I was pondering about what to write just now for fun — taking a break from some of the money-making writing I do — I thought back over the many hiking trips I’ve taken over the years and discovered that I really can’t think of any bad ones. I remember some that didn’t go as expected — a few where I was if not lost then terribly confused for awhile, some major injuries and some falls that could have killed me but didn’t, but all of it fun in a bizarre way. Weather that turned worse than I’d expected, hypothermia, hunger — on an ultralight outing I did wind up eating the garbage I was packing out because it was all I had left — but I’d have to say, in looking back, that I’ve never had a backpacking trip I didn’t enjoy. The closest I’ve come to that is taking along some irritating companions who weren’t prepared for trail life.
There aren’t many parts of my life I can look back upon with that type of positive overlook. Nearly every job I’ve ever had has absolutely sucked and most of them were the kind of experience you have to drag yourself to and then drag yourself from, daily. My urban vacations, all of which I’ve been forced into by friends or family, have all been excruciatingly terrible. But the wilderness has never treated me badly — the wilderness never had my car towed away while I was eating supper, never sold me plane tickets that left me stranded in an Asian airport trying to explain myself to impassive ticket agents, never suspected me of smuggling drugs because my suitcase lining was torn.
Some people don’t feel that way about the back country. To some the wild parts of the world are unimportant places you just wander through quickly for exercise. Some treat remote places as hostile zones to be conquered, places where survival depends on following orders and abiding by rules. I’ve never looked at a wilderness area that way. The longer I’m out, the more comfortable I get. The farther I walk, the fewer things I have that I actually need. By the time I’ve been hiking for a week I’m a very friendly fellow, saying hello to everyone I meet and greeting each day with joy. That usually lasts about half an hour this side of the trailhead — civilization quickly puts a halt to those notions.
But I do understand that it works the other way for some, that not everyone will find blistered feet and aching shoulders a sign of good times. I recall passing a fellow years ago on the Pacific Crest Trail, a few miles from Snow Lake near Snoqualmie Pass. It was a busy section of the trail and up ahead he was stopping everyone he met to ask a question I couldn’t hear. He looked pretty much done in, outfitted with expensive gear that looked about a week old — face and hands and legs all smeared with dirt of several suspicious colors and hair greasy and wild under his REI floppy hat. As he walked toward me he was weaving from side to side, maybe as much from uncertainty as fatigue.
Face to face with me, he stopped and with a pleading voice asked, “Is it much farther? Am I going the right way?”
I thought he probably meant Snoqualmie Pass and the Alpental trailhead, because we weren’t even remotely close to anywhere else, so I told him, “Sure. You’re almost there.”
“But how far? How far is it?”
“Not far,” I said. “Maybe five, maybe seven miles.”
He gasped and pulled himself straight as though all hope was gone. As he slipped past me and staggered on towards the elusive parking lot, I think he was actually shedding some tears. Sad to think about, in retrospect, because that was a rough seven mile stretch he had left. He must have come a long way, and I’ve always envied him the trip.