When I first started doing serious backpacking, my grandparents couldn’t understand the appeal. My grandmother was constantly worried that I would be eaten by a bear, and my grandfather thought all of my stories sounded like too much work. And over the years since then, I have struggled to explain to others why I would subject myself to thunderstorms and freezing temperatures and steep ascents and wild predators and raging rivers and weeks without a shower. I mean, yeah, if you think about backpacking in those terms, it does sound like a lot of work and unpleasant challenges.
But I don’t venture into the wilderness because I’m a thrill junky or a masochist. Yeah, there are dangers, and, yeah, it can be tough sometimes, but that is just the price of admittance to the rewards that can be found in the backcountry.
When I try to explain all of the great things I’ve experienced in the wilderness to people who have never spent a week struggling through trail-less alpine majesty, my eyes glaze over and stare to an unseen horizon, I struggle to find the right words, and I usually just trail off and shrug my shoulders. And I know that I don’t have the words to describe the magical moments I have found in the backcountry.
But I’d like to give it a shot right now. I know that my words won’t do justice to the experiences, but at least maybe I can help you explain to your grandmother why you want to disappear into the mountains. Or maybe I can inspire you to have faith that backpacking is worth the effort.
So, here’s my list of the most magical moments I have experienced in the backcountry:
- It was my first winter backpacking trip in the Rockies. The snow was deep, it was crazy cold, and the night lasted a whole lot longer than the day. There were a lot of challenges that day: I got stuck in a deep snow drift while wearing my snowshoes, and it took 20 minutes to yank myself out of the snow; it was terribly hard trying to dig out a spot for the tent; it was so cold that the moisture from our breathing condensed on the inside of the tent and turned to snow, causing it to snow inside of the tent; and by 10 pm, we had already been asleep for five hours, with nine more hours before sunrise.
But these challenges were just the gatekeepers of the magic awaiting us. Sometime around midnight we decided we had slept enough and we didn’t want to spend seven more hours cooped up in the cold tent. So we packed up and started snowshoeing back to the truck. On the way, as we navigated without lights in the moonlit snow, I stopped at one point and turned to say something to Tracy. When I turned, I saw the view behind her: craggy, rocky peaks, speckled with snow, rose high above the meadows, and a blindingly bright full moon hung in the sky above the mountains, lighting the peaks in the darkness. Darkness makes everything seem bigger, and the moonlight bouncing off the snow-covered mountains made it feel like I could reach out and touch the peaks. It seemed like I could see every rock and crevice and chute on the mountain. It felt like I was standing inches away from a ginormous painting of a moonlit mountain range, and all I had to do was stretch out my hand to feel the artist’s work. In the solitude of the midnight moon, the scene truly felt like it was a show put on just for us, and was something that no one else on the planet would ever see. The silence of winter hung over the meadow, and I just stood there in awe of the view in front of me.
There was no way I could take a picture that would have captured the experience, and I know that my words are falling woefully shy, but even now, decades later, I can still see the majesty of that magical moment.
- Tracy and I were on our honeymoon. We had dated for several years in college, so she knew what she was in for. Which is why she wasn’t surprised that our honeymoon consisted of a multi-day canoe trip through the Okefenokee Swamp. Again, there were lots of challenges: on the first day, we endured a nasty thunderstorm with lightning crashing all around us, thunder rumbling through the swamp, and torrential rain filling up our canoe. We had to carry the very heavy aluminum canoe we had rented several hundred yards over a portage, which led to plenty of unpleasant words from Tracy. And we had to paddle down a very narrow, mud-choked channel that was completely blocked by an alligator lying on top of the mud. This problem required me to paddle very fast while Tracy stood ready to fight the alligator with her paddle.
But again, these challenges were just the gatekeepers for the majesty this swamp was waiting to show us. It was getting dark, and we were exhausted from the challenges of the day. We stood outside on the island where we were camped and enjoyed the sounds of the swamp as the darkness deepened. And, boy, did the darkness deepen. Soon, we were in awe of the total and complete darkness that enveloped us in this remote swamp. We didn’t think we had ever experienced such total darkness above ground. It was amazing. And the sounds of the invisible crickets and frogs and birds were just incredible.
But that was just the opening act. As we stood there enjoying the darkness, the air just above the ground began to sparkle with light. At first it was just a flash here and another flash there, but soon the air was saturated with the glow of thousands of fireflies. Surrounded by the inky blackness of total darkness, the fireflies seemed like a dream. It was hard to understand what we were even seeing. There were thousands of fireflies randomly flashing on and off and on and off, and it seemed like it was magic. It seemed like we were covered in a black sheet, and someone was constantly poking holes in the fabric, allowing light from the outside to pierce through. It was magical. And it was so unreal that we both found ourselves laughing as we struggled to grasp the sheer beauty of what we were seeing.
- It was early spring in Utah, and I wanted to hike in the desert. Winter in the Rockies is always a challenge for backpackers, so the desert often beckons, and we would drive to the red rock canyons every weekend we could. But this day the urge struck me in the middle of the week, so I took off work and headed down to southern Utah by myself. This was our first Spring since we had moved to Utah, and I was still learning the seasons and the good places to hike. The only real challenge I had on this trip was a flat tire, but that was easily remedied, and I headed into a narrow slot canyon.
The hike in the canyon was fairly straight-forward, with just some minor obstacles, and I soon exited the canyon into the desert of the San Rafael Swell. It was the middle of the week in early spring, I was alone, and the weather was perfect. So I stopped at the exit of the canyon, overlooking the vast and beautiful desert, and sat down to read a book. But as I sat there, I couldn’t focus on the book. I was distracted. My ears were aching from the disturbance…my ears were literally hurting. It was impossible for me to focus from the pain induced by the total silence that engulfed me.
I know it sounds weird, but the silence was complete, it was absolute, it was everything. I could see for miles in every direction…but I couldn’t hear a single sound. And my ears screamed for a noise…any noise to confirm that I hadn’t been stricken deaf. There was no breeze rustling through the junipers. There were no ravens calling above the high canyon walls. There were no sounds to suggest that humans even existed. And while my ears struggled to overcome the silence, and my brain sought desperately to understand how there could be no sounds at all, a smile crept across my face as I realized the beauty of complete and total silence.
- We had traveled what seemed like forever and we ended up in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. We had an ambitious plan of backpacking for nearly two weeks throughout the southern half of New Zealand, and the first stage of the trip was two nights in Aoraki. Day two found us standing at a trailhead staring at a nearly 3,500 foot vertical ascent over the course of 2.5 miles. This was going to be tough. I generally have a rule that more than 1,000 feet of vertical ascent per mile is unpleasant…so I knew this was going to be particularly unpleasant. But there was supposed to be an amazing hut at the top, with views over actively calving glaciers, and I wanted to see it. So up we went.
The 2.5 mile hike involved hundreds of stairs built into the mountain, as well as nearly vertical loose scree fields. We hiked for over two hours, struggling up the nearly endless steps, when I finally figured we had to be close. I stopped and checked the GPS, only to find that we had only made it about halfway. Halfway. Two hours and we had walked less than a mile and a half. This hike was tough. But we pushed on. Tracy got spooked when we encountered the scree, worried that she would slip and break a leg, but I coaxed her through it with reminders that we had hiked in worse scree fields. And eventually we topped out and arrived at the hut.
And it was beautiful. The hut was perched among large boulders, remnants of the formation of these peaks. It was surrounded by towering mountains. And glaciers…glaciers were all around us. Hanging from the sides of the mountains, the glaciers were a sort of primeval demonstration of the artists that had shaped these peaks. But glaciers don’t just sit there. As we hiked along, we would hear a large crash, sometimes like a roaring train, sometimes like a rifle shot, and we would turn to see snow and ice pouring off of a glacier. The raw power demonstrated by the flowing ice falling thousands of feet, coupled with the evidence of its strength in the mountains around us, made us feel small and insignificant when compared to these natural forces. And the calving glaciers continued throughout the day and night, captivating us every time we heard the crack and roar of the ice fall. We found ourselves just staring at the mountains, waiting to catch another glimpse of this awesome power.
But the glaciers were just part of the show that this mountain had prepared for us. We awoke the next morning before dawn and started hiking back down the mountain. But as soon as we left the hut, the sun rose. And if there could ever be a sunrise to inspire poetry and paintings, this was it. The sky was on fire. Clouds filled the valley below the mountains, and the sun sparked a fire inside those clouds, making them burn bright red. We stood on the edge of the mountain, looking down into what we knew to be a valley, but what appeared to be an ocean…an ocean that lapped against the peaks with fire. It was spell-binding. It didn’t seem to be real. The red was so bright, and the color filled the entire valley below us. It seemed like we could wade out into the fire for a quick swim in the ocean. There was no visible sun, and the clouds didn’t even look like clouds…it was simply an ocean of fire. And I could not stop staring at it. I tried to take pictures, but my brain just wanted to stare. This was a once in a lifetime scene and I wanted to be sure I would never forget the morning that the sun rose to light a fire in the clouds below Mt Cook.
This list could continue for many more pages. I am reminded of the first time Tracy and I experienced the eruption of a backcountry geyser in Yellowstone all by ourselves…it was awe inspiring to realize we were standing on top of a volcano that could send the entire planet into catastrophe…and the geyser was such a beautiful symbol of that power. And I recall spending two weeks in the immense, endless, humbling Brooks Range of northern Alaska. Words will never be able to describe how large this wilderness truly is and how small it can make you feel. I had never experienced true insignificance before, and this mountain range made me feel like I was truly a tiny speck on a very, very large planet. And the immensity was emphasized when we spent nine days without seeing another single human being.
And I could go on and on.
But I hope I’ve given you an idea of why the pain and hardships are worth the rewards. I hope I’ve helped explain the beauty that can be found in the remote wilderness areas. I hope I’ve inspired you to get out there and find your own magical moments. I hope I’ve given you something you can use to calm your grandmother’s fears. I hope these stories can help you explain to your friends and family and co-workers why you endure the challenges of the backcountry when they look at you like you’re crazy.
But, better yet…don’t try to explain it to them: take them out there…let them experience a magical moment for themselves.