Halfway down a broken hill — where the trail under my feet was gnarled with roots and busted slabs of granite — I came to a realization of sorts: Backpacking was a coming of age. As a 20-year-old, I found an exercise in manhood. It required setting off into the wilderness with a backpack loaded up on essentials. It required a friend or two or three for companionship and shared endeavors. And it required that I dig a hole and poop in it when I felt the urge.
Welcome to manhood, Young Kevin. No wonder I was so in love with hiking and camping in the backcountry.
On that broken hill, it occurred to me that this not only explained why I embraced backpacking with such gusto back then. It explained the enthusiasm deficit I had experienced on this entire trip. From its inception to its conclusion, there was a lingering voice saying do I really want to do this anymore? It had been so long since I’d last done it (2007) and life had gone in such a new and exciting direction (fatherhood) … I just didn’t feel the desire like I used to. What was going on?
To help me answer this question, I was traveling in the Holy Cross Wilderness with these two guys:
That’s Tim lighting his foot on fire. You may remember him from previous Tanager Photography stunts as Handstand on a Round Bale of Hay and Time Lapse of the Orbiting Fire. And that’s Matt — my childhood friend from the Cul-De-Sac Days — watching as if this is a normal thing to do.
I kid them, really. Tim’s feet were freezing and I framed the shot to burn him, literally.
But these two men are the reason I even hold onto my backpacking gear. Fatherhood doesn’t make the need for camaraderie go away, and nothing — nothing — builds camaraderie more than adventure.
Granted, this was pretty light adventure. Our route followed a popular trail 3 miles into the wilderness to a magnificent alpine basin known as the Missouri Lakes. Our elevation gain was nothing to sneeze at, but it wasn’t anything to thump the chest over, either. We were returning to the woods after a long hiatus. None of us were in the mood for ambition, especially since the last time all three of us embarked on an ambitious backpacking trip, some idiot (read: me) misread the scale of the map during planning and we ended up doing 15 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of elevation in the first day. Nights 2 and 3 were 10 and 12 miles away respectively. We hiked out on morning 2, too damn tired and deflated to press on. Camaraderie building changed venues to the hot springs in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It stopped short of mani-pedi’s and a massage.
But this little 3-mile hike in proved to be harder than I even imagined. Upon arriving at the top lake — with every good campsite taken in the lower parts of the basin — I conked out. My shoulders and lower back were screaming from fatigue. A last-minute adjustment to my pack at the trailhead — moving the tent higher up — had ended up having the opposite effect of what I intended. If it sounds ridiculous to say I was “out of practice,” this is what I mean. The one foot in front of the other part? Got it. The gear management? Another story.
While I rested and ate 1/3 of my GORP stash with the nearby marmots — gregarious little f**kers — Tim and Matt ventured off trail in search of a lake that was completely hidden if it weren’t so plain to see on the topo map. Twenty minutes later, Tim returned: “Have you seen Matt?” No. Perhaps we were all out of practice in other ways. Matt returned moments later, and both of them — independent of each other — had discovered a magnificent lakeside camp spot. They navigated us back to it, we plopped down our packs, and settled in for the night.
Day 2 answered my nagging question definitively. Yes, you still want to do this.
There is no substitute for a sunrise in the wilderness. The first rays of the sun, cast in pink, splashed Mount Savage at dawn, and as Tim and I retrieved our food from where we hung it in a tree, we discovered the glorious scene in duplication on a nearby lake (top photo). The night before, we ate dinner on this separate pond, and had named it the Bat Track. It’s long runway shape had attracted several bats, who buzzed the water surface at dusk, gorging on insects. One even flew to within a foot of Matt’s face, causing him to fall over yet keep his hot cocoa upright.
Now the lake shore was the scene of a different wildlife encounter. On the scree field which covered the lower flanks of the nearby mountain, we could hear stones being overturned by hoofed feet. Through the trees, a herd of bighorn sheep. Two rams and four ewes. Despite their abundance, I couldn’t recall ever seeing them like this in the backcountry. To gain a better view, we snuck through the trees, but they were well aware of us, and retreated to high, more precipitous ground. As we popped out on the other side of the trees, an even more spectacular view emerged. This time, the entire ridge crowning the valley was gold with alpenglow, and reflected on our camp-side lake. My tent looked perfectly cozy as it was set back in the trees some distance. No wonder Matt was sleeping in a bit, but he was missing quite a sight.
Our full day in the wilderness was spent exploring the creek channels, discovering waterfalls, animal tracks and ways to nearly destroy my camera. We even communed with the marmots a bit. They’re not very bright.
As evening arrived, my nagging question was further pushed back into my mind as we wandered off trail in search of a perfect dinner spot. We found more shallow lakes and stunning scenery, the type of evening-light scenarios that a photographer dreams of, and that you would certainly miss if you day-hiked.
And there is also something to be said for how a friendship is cast in a different light when you are backpacking, and not when you day hike. Day hikes are often consumed with conversation. Backpacking brings about long spells of mutual quiet, which can be a good thing for relationships. It fosters patience, and silently proclaims that you don’t need a whole lot to keep these bonds going. Of course, there were also times of fervent debate and passionate discussion: usually on camping gear, but rarely — this time — on politics. Which is a good thing. Especially for Matt. Who has too often seen Tim and I duke it out over ideology.
But was it necessary for Tim to make me a pancake in the shape of an electoral map of the United States — clearly missing the state of Florida? I don’t know what he was trying to tell me. All I know is, his backcountry pancakes need more practice.