Eleanor Babcock: The Beauty of Backpacking

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“Look down at your legs,” Isa’s positive voice exclaimed. “They brought you here!” Twelve days hiking through the chocolate silted waters of the Dirty Devil River Canyon had induced sore muscles, blistered toes, and soil streaked faces, but also incredibly happy campers. Isa made sure to proclaim our collaborative success as we looked out over the entrenched dirty waters, glazed over by daytime dust. We left the Dirty Devil behind, holding the memories and the beauty of the place we called home for those twelve days close to our hearts.

The past two months permitted us to walk our way through sandy washes in Horseshoe Canyon, trudge our way through muddy quicksand in the Dirty Devil, and march through beaming sun rays in Dark Canyon. These extensive trips gave our footsteps purpose and new stories about place to tell. Backpacking is no easy feat. Each morning we dance our way through the packing routine, filling each open space in out packs with loose socks and canvas tent bodies, hoping the weight will balance out well on the trail. As we chugged, deep into the folds of the earth, sunbeams warmed our noses and happy shouts from out group echoed off red canyon walls. Just as Isa notes, our legs power us forward, building strength with each step.

We endure and embrace this type of travel so we can experience portions of the world very few others have seen. We enter into disjointed places from developed civilization which, in our society, we classify as wilderness. These places are defined by the untrammeled characteristics of its earth and its community. Places where taste, touch, smell and sound differ from the developed lands we call home. While backpacking through wilderness, the beautiful rhythm of our step pulses from the arches of our feet to the bounce of our unkempt hair and settles back into the earth. The earth greets our presence by blowing sand particles through our hair and chilling our blistered toes at night. The give and take from the earth while backpacking creates a sense of harmony between us and the untrammeled characteristics of wilderness.

Our time in society and ultimate search for comfort has evolved to dissipate our connection with nature. William Cronan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has critiqued societal views of wilderness to be “the dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural,” separating the developed world from perceived wilderness. The beauty of backpacking is that it allows us to break the division between humans and nature and carry our lives, packed tightly and held close to our backs, into wilderness with the purpose to temporarily live in harmony with nature. My experience backpacking in Horseshoe Canyon, the Dirty Devil Canyon and Dark Canyon has given me harmony with nature as I allow the earth’s red sand to rest in my hair and as I practice attentiveness to the non-human world. This attentiveness allowed me to touch papery Aspen bark, fuel my body with spring waters and smell the damp red rust rock waft through the air. How can we take this harmony backpacking creates and break the dualistic vision Cronan describes between humans and nature? Can we work to apply attentiveness to the non-human world in our own backyards to bridge the gap between wild places and us?

We don’t all need to trudge through murky waters, or carry half our bodyweight on our backs to experience wilderness. Wilderness is what brought our societal norms to be. Wilderness helped us create cities and fuel our modes of transportation. The beauty of backpacking does not need to be experienced through backpacking. We can walk through our everyday system of life in harmony with the land as we choose to recognize the value of nature shaping our lives. The islands of wilderness do not have to be islands if we drain the sea of dichotomy between nature and development through the application of attentiveness to the non-human world. Awe and wonder can be experienced through our front door if we choose to open it and embrace the sunbeams which radiate over the world, potentially bridging the gap between humans and nature.

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