My first and only solo high-mountain backpacking trip comprised about 25 miles, and just over 48 hours. And, in many ways it kind of sucked.
It turns out that I am an extrovert. What I mean is, I get energy and encouragement from other people. On all my dozens of prior backpacking trips, I’ve had the companionship of at least one trail mate, if not several. I get a lot of life from their company and camaraderie, which turns an otherwise taxing experience into a bonding of worthwhile memories.
But I had never taken a solo trip of this size before, so I didn’t know any of that. And I didn’t have trail mates on this trip.
This meant that every worry about weather, camp chores, pace, hydration, and so on, was mine alone to carry. Along with all the gear. And the whole plan. Nobody to bounce ideas off. Nobody to laugh with, when exhaustion and altitude hit hard on the first night. Nobody to cook for. Nobody to encourage. Just me, for some reason sojourning alone, amid a vast mountain host, who was entirely indifferent to my malaise.
If this sounds dramatic, it’s because I was. When you combine an extrovert’s social deprivation with the general sensory punishment of lightweight alpine backpacking, he tends to wig out a little bit from the strain. The first 24 hours were especially tough.
I stuck it out, but only begrudgingly. I decided to shorten the trip by a day. But before I came home, I would stumble upon some more important insights.
The Inner Monologue
Having realized that I don’t much like solo backpacking, I next asked why I had driven myself there.
The easy answer was: I wanted to see if I could do it. And with relief, I discovered on this trip that indeed I can. Not altogether happily, but I managed.
The more complete answer was: I felt like I should. Ah, now we are getting somewhere.
Why should I solo backpack? To keep my mind and body sharp of course. To oppose the complacence of the everyday.
Why do I need to keep my mind and body sharp? Because I don’t want to go to sleep. Because I don’t want to acquiesce to the limited horizons of the middle class American dream.
Why don’t I want to acquiesce to a middle class existence? Because then I’ll end up with a totally average life, indistinguishable from the great sea of human experience.
Why don’t I want to be average? Because then I’ll die average, having left an average legacy. In a word, I will be forgettable.
And why don’t I want to be forgettable? Hm. Interesting.
Because I don’t want to end.
At that moment, meditating atop an unnamed prominence near Pecos Baldy Lake, I laughed and cried at once, as I realized that I am terrified of my own finitude.
It’s not that I’m afraid of the physical sensation of death. My anxiety is instead that my story will one day have a conclusion at all.
So for years, this fear has lurked around in my unconscious, motivating me toward curious acts of asceticism and radicality — like solo backpacking on pure principle alone. My hidden ego has whispered that if I can just become superhuman, I will stand out from the tide of history, my name will be remembered, and my legacy will never die.
Bahaha … right.
Everyone freaking dies, dude — even the truly great ones. Do Plato or Pythagoras take comfort that their ideas are still in regular use more than 2000 years later? Is Temujin happy with his 16 million living direct descendants? I have no idea. They are long dead … either floating in some ethereal plane of bliss / torture / limbo, or lacking existence entirely — gone in the truest sense.
So what exactly do I hope to accomplish that could quench this deepest fear? More than these ancient ones? How many generations do I need to be remembered, in order to “never die”?
Yes, this is all ludicrous. I thought so too. All this iconoclasm I’ve wrestled with over the years … basically it is a bid to reach toward the eternal.
And the dumbest thing about all this is … I already have access to the eternal.
There is a man who called himself the Gate. He doesn’t have need for my willful iconoclasm. He just wants me to find his footsteps, and walk in them.