All the Way Back to Nature
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Sigmund Freud wrote a famous book called Civilization and Its Discontents in which he said people could never be happy: not with civilization and not without it. Sure enough, most folks will tell you they're pretty discontent with civilization. They claim they've had it with restless freeways and tall glass buildings.
Still, most only try to escape in the summertime. This week, I've gone to the High Sierra. Really: backpacking and everything. Tall pines. Clear lakes. Nights under the stars. You wouldn't recognize the sunbleached look in my eye, or the booted amble of my gait. Dust has gathered beneath my fingernails, and sweat stains the brim of the Urban Man's hat.
When you backpack, you're supposed to achieve minimum necessity: water from clean streams, trail mix from Trader Joe's. And it's true that when I crouch in the dirt, balancing a battered aluminum pot over a tiny stove, that first bite of freeze-dried Pad Thai is a near-religious experience.
One night, staring into the fire, we wondered how little civilization a person could get away with if, you know, he really tried. A friend said he'd read a book about a guy who went into the woods completely naked except for two handkerchiefs and a knife. "Of course," snorted my friend, "if the guy had really wanted to go natural, he'd have made do with only one handkerchief."
Me, I'm carrying a 40-pound pack. An $80 filtration pump. Hi-tech boots. Two BPA-free Nalgene Bottles. A sleeping bag rated at 15°. Not to mention SPF-50 sunscreen, polarizing sunglasses, an LED headlamp, fleece underlayer, nylon shell, orange poncho, many packets of emergency antibiotics, and of course a wicked cool folding knife that doubles as a saw.
In short, though I have escaped civilization, much of it has escaped with me.
This is my own fault, of course. Before the trip, I hiked through a cathedral-like backpacking store on the west side of L.A., where I move with reverence among the shiny primitivist gear laid out on rough pine shelving: things foldable, nestable, and telescoping—inventions clever within an inch of all our lives. The clerks, lean and cheerful, sized me up as worthy or unworthy of their small titanium cookpots. "I will help you escape civilization," said that look, "for a price."
Which explains why, despite sweating over 10,000-ft passes, I have been haunted by the fear that I'm faking it. For example, the trails are well-marked and I carry a valid "Wilderness Pass." I wonder, "Is it really the wilderness if you have a pass?"
Even the peacefulness of nature seems elusive. I notice we modern backpackers tend to be a restless lot who make a game of covering a lot of ground fast. You rarely find us, say, lounging by beautiful meadows. Always, it's time to pack up those lightweight tents and press on. I imagine the aerial, Google Earth view, the Marauder's Map of the whole High Sierra packed with backpackers moving ceaselessly along its trails, eager for the next ridge, the big fallen log, the more perfect lake.
It's not quite life on the freeway. But still. Well...
On the last night, I insist we camp early enough to spend some serious time communing with a lake located at 9000 feet. And later, when my watch shows 2 a.m., I crawl out of the warm cocoon of my high-tech bag, quietly unzip the double door of our windproof ripstop nylon shelter, and walk out to see the lake all alight beneath a nearly full moon. It's about 36 degrees out, but I recall the guy who went out only with the handkerchiefs and the knife, and thinking to do him one better, I strip off all my clothes and stand naked to take a moonbath beside the silver waters. Just for three minutes. Okay two. Still, for that short time I do not shiver, and I am not an urban man.
Copyright © 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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