by Marc Piane
When I opened my eyes the sun was already high in the sky. The light filtered through the canopy of leaves and I could feel the warmth on my cheeks. The air was thick with the smell of wet leaves and pine needles. Usually when I go backpacking I wake up with the first cracks of sunlight, but yesterday had been a long day of driving and hiking. I guess I needed the sleep. I had left all my technology at home including my watch. I’ve never been great at telling time from the position of the sun. Probably 10 am.
It was spring and not very cold, so I slept outside next to the camp fire that was still smoldering from the night before. Slowly I nursed it back to health and set a pot of water on top to boil for coffee and oatmeal. Solitary backpacking trips like this are always a bit of a spiritual experience for me, whatever that means. I can see the wisdom of the “vision quest.” Really it is just being alone with your thoughts as you walk in the woods. Very meditative. I also always feel like it forces me to experience things as they come. I have left myself no choice.
When the water started boiling I reached into my backpack and located a packet of oatmeal, maple and brown sugar, and some ‘coffee bags’ that I had made by packing grounds in a piece of filter and tying it with thread. I put water in my blue camping mug and put the bag in to steep. In my bowl I emptied the contents of the oatmeal packet and put in some water. The smell of coffee and the oatmeal reached my nose and filled me with a feeling much like being covered with a comfy blanket.
I leaned back against a tree and closed my eyes.
On these trips I never set a schedule for myself. That is really hard for me. Back in Chicago I am self employed, so I have gotten very good at making a schedule for myself, but as a result I always feel nervous at first being idle. Getting miles out in the woods you are forced to live at a different pace.
I took a sip of my coffee. Hot. Earthy. Almost chocolatey. I put a spoonful of the oatmeal in my mouth. It was sweet and thick and I could feel the warmth slide down my throat. After I finished both I started to pack my backpack. Everything has its place. It’s the only way it fits into the pack. I doused the embers with the remaining water. It was a very small fire. It didn’t take much water to render it dormant.
I sat on a fallen tree and looked at my map. Last night I had slept in a valley near a river that ran through the area. I decided that today’s hike would be up to the crest of the mountain. It was a smaller rolling mountain so no climbing necessary, but it meant an uphill walk all day with a 40 lb pack on my back. Just yesterday I had hike down the other side of this mountain. For a moment my mind wandered to thinking about how Sisyphus must have felt. The difference is that I was doing it by choice not as a punishment imposed by the gods which might make it even more absurd. The classic philosophical definition of the absurd is the place where the objective world and our perception of it meet. A backpacking trip was truly absurd and all about experiencing. In the immortal words of Camus, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Once I had my backpack packed, I hoisted it on my back. “Lift with the legs.” I fastened and tightened the waist belt and headed out down the trail. For now the trail followed along a small stream. It was spring and the forest was coming to life, but still with evidence of the carnage from the previous autumn and winter. This area is so alive in the spring. Almost a temperate rain forest.
Just then a light rain started to fall.
As raindrops hit the bare skin on my arms I could feel each drop like a little spike of cold. The feeling shot up my spine. I got goosebumps. I could almost imagine the jolt of electricity running through my nervous system. Because of some nerve damage I had sustained years ago the sensation was slightly different in my right arm. On my left arm the raindrops felt cold and wet, but drops felt almost like boiling water on my right. Each drop made we wince. My mind wandered to the thought of the difference in sensation due to damaged wiring and to the mechanical part of our perception of the world.
The rain began to fall a little harder. Hiking always generates body heat and the rain felt good, for now. I always find the sound of rain in the forest very soothing. The pitter-patter of thousands of droplets as they hit the leaves. The smell of rain always relaxes me too. Very smooth and calming.
As I hiked along, I could feel the grade of the trail gradually increase and my quadriceps started to burn. The only problem with rain is it makes the backpack a little heavier.
My mind wandered back to the difference in perception between my arms. The human body as biological robot. So much of our perception of the world is based on our senses. I remember reading a book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio where he talks about our perception and associations with experiences being formed over our lifetime and each new experience being based on previous experience. Each of us has a different life experience, thus each of us perceives the world differently. Robert Anton Wilson calls it “reality tunnels.” Over a lifetime we build our tunnel. Philosophers like Camus call it the absurd. Subjective reality. Wilson talks about how it is surprising that our “reality tunnels” ever intersect with our life experiences all being unique and yet somehow they do.
The rain started to slow down to a very light drizzle. The rain was just enough to cool things down a bit and add a humidity to the air. The air became very still and a slight fog started to form. As I ascended the trail I noticed the change in the underbrush. Down in the valley there were ferns and moss on everything. As I headed up the mountain I saw it change to deciduous bushes. I wasn’t sure of the variety, but the change was noticeable.
I tried to take my mind off the fact that my pack felt increasing heavy as I walked uphill by focusing on my breath. I had been walking for about 2 hours or so and was starting to get a little tired and hungry. I decided it was time to take a break. I took off my pack and leaned it up against a tree. I opened the side pocket and fished around inside it for a granola bar. When I found one I grabbed my water bottle and sat down on a rock on the trail’s edge.
I began listen. As I listened, more and more sounds met my ears. It was like the forest was waiting for this moment to play me its symphony. In reality that symphony is always going. I had just stopped to listen.
Symphony of Sound
As I sat there the first thing that caught my ear was the sharp, distinct song of a cardinal. I looked around for him, but the tree cover where I sat was very thick. His song was so bright, so stark. I decided to close my eyes and let my ears drink it in.
That’s when it happened. The cardinal call was so prominent, like a melody of the forest song, but then another series of birth calls, more like chirps and squeaks, sneaked their way into my ear’s eye. Seemingly much less organized than the single line of the cardinal. At first I tried to identify the bird. I had heard it before. But it occurred to me that the instrument of the player was not important at this moment. The symphony continued.
I focused on my breath. The funny thing about actively attempting to enter a meditative state is that trying not to try is a paradox of sorts. I remember a meditation teacher telling me once that you need to give your mind something to do. Have it pay attention to your breathing. Sama vritti. Equal length breath. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1
As the cardinal song soared above the chirps of the multitude, I began to notice a slight thumping sound. At first it was a foreign sound to me and my mind tried to classify. Maybe it was drops hitting the leaves from the rain that had slowed. There was a moment of my mind starting to lose the fragile focus I had just started to find. Breathe. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1.
A wash of sound whispered steadily underneath the cardinal song, the cacophony of chirping, the thumping of dripping water hitting leaves. Wind. Wind in the leaves. Thousands of leaves all whispering as the air of a light breeze brushed them. Ancient trees responded with very quiet creaks and groans as the wind pushed their branches gently to and fro. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1.
I sat there in a moment of stillness. I felt a thought come over me. If these sounds are always there, why don’t I notice them? Layer upon layer. The mind is a powerful thing. We filter out so much surrounding experience. We have to or we’d never be able to have a conversation or complete a task. At that moment though, I saw the importance of slowing down, giving my mind a break, and letting experience flow. It all starts with breath.
Almost as though a conductor had cued a change something happened in the canopy of trees that disturbed the steady wash of sound. All at once the cardinal stopped. The cacophony of birds got quiet. Only the thumping and the wash of wind on leaves remained.
I sat there for a moment longer. Breathing. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1. Slowly I began to open my eyes. How long had I been there? It didn’t matter. This was exactly why I left my watch at home. The temptation to scrutinize fractional divisions of eternity.
I noticed that the sun was past high noon and I did want to make it to the crest of the rolling mountain before nightfall so I had a safe place to camp for the night. It gets very dark deep in the woods.
I put my water bottle and the wrapper from my granola bar back in my pack. I hoisted it on my back. “Lift with the legs.” The time I had taken to experience the symphony of sound all around me had rejuvenated me for the next leg of my hike.
I headed up the trail.
The trail meandered slowly up the rolling mountain. I could feel the air getting less humid as I ascended the trail. This was welcome because the humid air in the valley was thick. The spotty clouds had broken and the sun shone brightly in the sky. My brief rest had energized me for the last leg of my hike, but also put me in the mood to ponder.
Change is the only constant. That adage kept rolling through my head as I made my way up the trail. It is an age old cliché and one that almost made me crack a smile at the cheese level, but those five short words have so much meaning. Spending time in nature always brings that thought to the surface. As a snapshot, nature is a noun. It is a generic smattering of trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, clouds, and an occasional animal. Experiencing nature is to see it as a verb. A constant act of doing. My brief time listening and noticing reminded me of that. For a time the observer and the observed were one.
I started to think about how this applies to life in general. In city life there is constant bustle and it is easy to see the change all around us. Maybe it is because of the head down approach to urban living, or maybe it can be seen as ego getting in the way, or maybe it is the comfort we get from sameness, but we don’t notice that change. In fact, we get frustrated by it. We take the exact train everyday and if it is late it is tantamount to the world crumbling around us. We go to our favorite restaurant and order the same thing. We even follow the exact same route if we are walking or driving somewhere. There is comfort in sameness.
In change there is an uncomfortable feeling. A feeling of flux, of not knowing. Change takes more energy. There is also an exhilaration. Like jumping out of a plane with only your experience as a parachute.
I had been so lost in thought that I did not notice that I had almost reached the top of the rolling mountain. There was a trail the followed the crest. From my vantage point just off the top I could also see that there was a small man-made shelter at the place where the trail I was on met the trail along the crest. The foliage had definitely changed as I hiked up the mountain. In the valley it was mostly deciduous trees. Up here it was mostly pine trees. The pine scent was refreshing.
I reached the top and came up to the shelter. It was modest but sturdy. Brick shithouse sturdy. It was a short building, maybe just over 6 feet at it’s highest. It was made of mortared together river rock and flag stone for three walls and a chain link fence for the fourth; to keep the bears out. The roof was wood shakes. It had a small chimney and fire pit and two wooden bunk beds.
It was definitely minimal but it would save me having to pitch my tent. The temperature had started to drop as the sun sat low in the sky. I knew sleeping outside would be cold. This would be perfect.
I opened the chain link door and walked in. I could see as I walked up that it was not occupied. If someone came along I’d gladly share with them.
I leaned my pack against the wall and went out for a short walk to find some fire wood.
I didn’t have to walk far from the shelter before I came upon a fallen branch. Pine makes good tinder for starting a fire but luckily this was a branch from a harder wood tree. Maybe an oak. Burns longer. It was too big to carry so I stepped hard on it. There was a sharp snapping sound as the branch broke. It was very dry and must have fallen some time ago so it would burn well. I grabbed the piece I had broken off and stood on it as I pulled up snapping it in two. I picked up those two pieces as well as a big handful of pine twigs and headed back to the shelter. It was getting near dusk and I wanted to get to fire started before dark.
When I got back to the shelter I dropped the sticks on the floor and dug around in my backpack for some fire starter sticks I had bought at the camping store. Basically sawdust and paraffin. I knew they were kind of cheating, but a quick and easy way to start a fire. I also grabbed the small waterproof box that contained the wooden matches. I put the starter stick in the fire pit and arranged the sticks in a loose lean to on top. One strike of the match and… fire. The sharp crackling sound cut through that still air that was now almost complete devoid of sunlight.
I fished around in my backpack again a found a flask. Whiskey. A nightcap. I knew I needed to cook dinner, but right now I just needed to relax and enjoy the fire. There was a chill in the air and the soreness in my muscles from my hike today was starting to burn. I leaned my backpack against the bunk which was maybe 5 feet from the fire pit and sat down with my back against the pack. I let out an audible sigh, unscrewed the cap from the flask, took a swig of whiskey, and felt the burn down my throat ending in a warm feeling in my stomach. “Smooth” I thought in a slightly sarcastic way.
I could feel my body get heavier from fatigue and whiskey. Time seemed to slow down. I could hear the chorus off cricket and the crackling of the fire. I could feel the cool night air interspersed with wafts of warm air from the fire. My mind wandered to the Flow theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He theorized that there is a finite amount of information our brain can process, so when we are occupied with a task we lose our ability to monitor time. This moment was the opposite of that. My head was clear and I was just watching the licks of flame in the fire. It felt like time had stopped.
My mind then wandered to the great book by Alan Lightman called Einstein’s Dreams. In the book each chapter provides a short vignette with one perspective on time. One particular chapter came to mind. The world with no time. Only images. I took another sip from the flask, put on the cap, and closed my eyes. Time had stood still and only the warmth of the fire, the sounds of the crickets, the smell of the burning wood, and the lingering taste of whiskey on my tongue remained.
I leaned deeper into my backpack and drifted off to sleep.
The bite of the cold air on my cheeks woke me up. The fire had died down to just glowing embers. There was a chill in the air. Since one wall of the shelter was just a chain link fence, the cold breeze came right in. I was feeling cold and some slight pangs of hunger so I fished around in my backpack for some jerky and crackers I had brought. I sunk back into my backpack to eat and thought of the man I had met in the parking lot that had sold me the jerky.
* * * * *
The parking lot at the trail head was pretty secluded. There were no other cars in the lot. Parking lot is generous. It was really just a dirt clearing at the end of a gravel road. Very dusty. I had a guide book that gave me directions to this spot. At one end of the “parking lot” was the mouth of the trail. There was a small sign next to the trail that just said, “be aware of bears.” In this area you had to either sleep in a shelter or run your food up a tree at night.
Just then, a man came walking down the trail toward the lot. He was not tall, maybe 5’5”. I’m 6’. He was older and had an unkempt white beard. I chuckled to myself because he had exactly the look of the prototypical prospector. He was almost a cartoon character.
“Well, hello there,” he said. He had a slight southern accent and a bit of a scratchy voice.
“Hi. Pretty beautiful day today, huh?”
“Can’t beat a day on the trail. I was just getting a little stroll in before I get to my chores.” He started fishing around in the tattered canvas satchel he had at this side. From it he produced a small plastic bag with some dark brown chunks in it.
“Whatcha got there?” I said.
“Jerky. Made it myself from a deer I shot earlier this season.”
“Nice. Jerky always makes a nice treat on the trail. Have you got any extra you can sell me?”
“Sure thing. $3 and this bag is yours.” He pointed to the plastic bag.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. I never carried much money when I backpack, but I had a few singles in my wallet.
“Here you go,” I said.
“Well, thank you kindly. Enjoy and have a nice hike. I best get home. Enough dilly-dallying.”
And with that, he headed off on foot down the dirt road.
* * * * *
As I sat there in the shelter, the nip of the cold air sent a small shiver up my spine. I decided that a nice walk might get the blood flowing a bit. I couldn’t quite see the moon from my vantage point inside the shelter, but I could tell from the glow of the brush outside that it was up and bright. I reached into a special padded pocket in my backpack and pulled out my camera. I also grabbed the small portable tripod I had brought. I love taking pictures of the moon, but a tripod is almost a necessity to get clear shots. I also pulled out a shell windbreaker to put over my fleece. It was not very cold, but my guess is it was right around freezing.
I opened the chain link gate that acted as the door to the shelter and stepped out. There was some tree cover right overhead, but I could see that the moon was up and almost full. There was a little clearing just up the trail that ran along the crest of the mountain. I had been concerned about it being dark, but with the moon up and full the area was illuminated with a soft glow.
I walked up the trail a bit and the full view of the sky opened up above me. It was almost dizzying. Being from the city, even on clear nights, the sky never looked Ike this. There were more stars than the mind could comprehend and the faint shadow of the Milky Way set a backdrop for the moon that was high in the sky. I’m not sure if it was full, but it was damn near if it was not.
I started to raise the camera to my eye. All at once I was struck by the picture that was before me and stopped. The moon… the bright stars in the foreground… the glow of the Milky Way behind it… the light of the moon reflecting off the tree tops… Not even the best camera could do this magnificence justice. The only thing that could really capture this image was my memory. I lowered the camera and just gazed at the sky.
As I stood there, I once again had the feeling I had when listening to the symphony of the forest. The observer and observed as one. Of itself so.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, but it wasn’t until the cold started to nip my cheeks that I was aware of myself again. For a moment, inside and outside were one. The world beyond my skin as an extension of my own body. As I became aware of the cold on my cheeks, I quickly was transported back inside my meat sack and I started to become slightly self conscious. I felt a little silly about this whole “connected to the universe” thing. I became keenly aware of the absurd; the place where reality, and my perception of reality, meet.
I let that feeling pass and started back down the trail to the shelter. Before I did, I raised the camera to my eye and took one snapshot of the sky. It might not capture the grandeur, but at least it might excite my memory when I looked at the photo.
When I got back the shelter, I lifted the latch on the chain link door and walked in. The sound of the metal on metal of the gate cut through the still night air. The fire had all but died, but it had been a long day of hiking and I could hear the call of my sleeping bag. I walked over to my backpack and picked it up to move it over to one of the bunks. As I lifted it, I saw several small things scurry away. “Probably field mice,” I thought. It was pretty dark, but they were about the right size and shape for the guess to be fairly likely. This shelter probably gets pretty regular use, and it only takes a crumb or two to be a meal for a creature that small. This place is probably a pretty good place to live if you are a mouse.
The bunks basically consisted of two levels of wooden platforms that ran the length of the shelter. Each level was probably big enough for 3 sleeping bags, so the shelter could comfortably sleep 6. I threw my backpack down on the bottom platform and unzipped the zipper to the part of my pack that held my sleeping bag. The sleeping bag itself was in a compression sack. When I pulled out the sack it was a little larger than a basketball. I undid the straps on the sides of the compression sack and pulled open the drawstring at the top of the sack. With the commotion that nylon makes when friction is applied to it, I pulled the sleeping bag out of the sack and fluffed it out on the top bunk.
I had brought toothpaste and a toothbrush, but I always let oral hygiene go a bit when I backpack. There was no one around to complain about my breath. Plus, I was very tired. I decided to just slip into my sleeping bag. It was pretty cold, so I decided to leave my clothes on for the time being. There was another cacophony of nylon as I slipped into the sleeping bag. Soon, I settled into a stillness and set to listening.
As a city dweller there is always an uneasiness to how quiet it is out here. There is no traffic noise, no sirens, not even the hum of the refrigerator. Upon initially laying down it felt silent. The birds I heard earlier had called it a day. As my mind slowed, different sounds started to catch my ear. A cricket in the distance, maybe the faint howl of a coyote, a light breeze in the leaves, the creaking of the branches as the trees swayed lightly. Different players in the symphony. They were all very soothing sounds. For a second it felt like my own private nature sounds machine, then the enormity and diversity of it all started to hit me in the gut. I was a player in that symphony, too. Me and my noisy sleeping bag.
It was also getting pretty dark. The moon was getting low in the sky. Earlier it had been directly overhead. Now it was behind the trees and its light was very diffuse. There is something eerie about diffuse moonlight. It might be because it is the standard lighting for horror movies. It might be the faint yet glowing elongated images of the branches on the forest floor. Experience always casts its shadow on everything we see.
I was just starting to drift off when I felt a little nudge.
I felt the little nudge down by my knee. It was outside of my sleeping bag and it was something small, or at least attached to something small. I opened my eyes and peeked down the side of my sleeping bag. I couldn’t see anything. Just then I felt another little nudge that was now more behind my knee and saw a slight rumple in the fabric of the bag. For a second I froze and I started to have slightly paranoid thoughts about what it could be. A snake? A scorpion? A fairy or leprechaun? All pretty unlikely in this location. My mind then went back to my field mouse friends. It was cold and I was a warm body. This place had everything they needed; food, heat, shelter from the elements, and protection from predators thanks to the chain link fence wall.
I can try rationalize it all I want, but I can’t say that I wasn’t a little creeped out by the whole situation. Nobody sets out to snuggle with wild field mice. I knew, though, that it posed no danger to me. I also knew that it was a losing battle because if I shooed it away, it’d be back as soon as I was asleep. As I drifted off to sleep, my mind started to ponder the things necessary to survive. Food, warmth, shelter, and protection from predators. I guess we were just a couple of souls out here in the woods trying to get a warm night’s sleep. Or maybe I was too tired to care.
Morning came more quickly than I had expected. The shelter must have faced east because sunlight streamed through the chain link fence and hit the opposite wall. Even filtered through the trees it was a stark brightness. My little buddy from the night before had found his way back to wherever mice go during the day. The sun must have smacked him awake too. I was awake but groggy and I needed the sun glasses in my backpack. The sun was piercing enough that I wanted to snuggle down in my sleeping bag. I knew that I needed to get moving if I was going to make it to the next campsite.
As I said before, I try not to have a plan on these trips. Unfortunately, trying not to trying is, in itself, trying. I was thinking I would hike along the crest for a while until I ran into a trail that headed back down into the valley I had been in on my first night. I was planning to stay one more night and then hitting the road early the next day for the long drive back.
I was on the top bunk and my pack was on the bottom. The sun streaming in was intense. I summoned my resolve and slid out of my bag, all while shielding my eyes. I swung my feet over the edge of the bunk and almost fell headlong off the platform. Fortunately, I was able to right myself. The sun was so bright that I was essentially doing all this blind. The song lyric “blinded by the light” kept running though my head. I smiled.
I slid off the bunk and opened the top pocket of my backpack that contained my sunglasses. I removed them for the case they were in and slid them on. Much better.
I looked out of the chain link that looked down on the valley and saw the it was thick with fog. Up here was above the fog. The forest looked really beautiful bathed in the white light of the morning. Green leaves on the trees, the reflection of chlorophyll. The sun was really glorious and joyous, but I was taken by how you can have too much of a good thing. I felt assaulted by the sunrise.
The thing that I always find fascinating is that our eyes are evolved for the specific purpose of detecting the range of light waves that come from the sun. That specific frequency range. We can’t see X-rays. We can’t see gamma rays. All we can see is the very specific range of light produced by our sun. The thing that makes the sun bright is our eyes. Our experience of light is a neurological phenomenon. Too much and our brains and eyes are overwhelmed. Too little and there is not enough information to construct a picture. Imagine all the information that is out there that is outside of the range that our cells and nervous system have evolved to perceive.
I walked back over and pulled a homemade coffee bag and a granola bar from my backpack. The stove and small pot were still out from the night before. I opened my water bottle and put some water in the pot and turned it on. While I was waitIng I walked back over to the chain link fence and stepped out through the gate.
I went out of the gate and softly closed it behind me. I stretched by arms high overhead and took a deep breath. The air was slightly musty, but the overwhelming pine sent made it very refreshing. The temperature of the air was crisp, but had warmed up significantly with the sun.
After a few minutes of taking in my surroundings now that it was daylight, I headed back to the shelter to see if the water was boiling. As I opened the chain link gate I could already see the to pot was at a rolling boil. I turned off the stove and poured the water in my cup, which I had put the coffee bag in before I went out for my little stretch.
As it steeped I packed up my small backpacker’s stove and shoved my sleeping bag back in the compression bag. I then started to put everything back in the pack. Everything had its place. A special section at the bottom for the sleeping bag. A side pocket for the stove. Cookware in the main pocket. Miscellaneous wrappers and trash went in the a small plastic bag in the top pocket to be packed out.
Once everything was packed up, I scanned the area for any remaining stuff. Idiot check. Seeing nothing I hoisted the pack on my back. “Lift with the legs.” Then I grabbed my coffee and I headed up the trail that followed the crest of the mountain.