For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to go backpacking.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when or from where this desire first sprang. Maybe it followed a day hike in the Sierras with fantastic views of a vast and beautiful wilderness beyond the reach of cars? Maybe it was a shared desire for adventure after reading “Into the Woods” by Bill Bryson or “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed?
Whatever its source, the desire grew within me. Problem was, no one I knew had any interest in backpacking. Not my husband nor any of my friends.
And so I was stuck – and for a long time.
Finally, about a year ago, I’d had enough. Enough of waiting for someone to come along to help me make my dream of backpacking come true. Enough of allowing my fears to keep me from forging ahead on my own.
So I started to do my homework – figuring out what equipment I’d need and what route would be appropriate for a beginner like me. I recruited my son Declan (12) who’d enjoyed two short backpacking trips with his Scout troop. We made a plan – a three day hike through Desolation Wilderness high above Lake Tahoe.
The night prior to our start, we car-camped near Fallen Leaf Lake. We pitched our tent amidst a dozen variously-sized RVs. Their generators hummed as we roasted marshmallows for s’mores in our fire pit. When bears started to roam the campgrounds after dark, as the rangers had warned they would, folks started to honk car horns to ward them off. We were sleeping on the ground in our tent, yes, but it didn’t feel like we’d really escaped to the mountains at all. The loud, frenetic din of modern life was all around us.
The next morning we set off. The first 2.5 miles were nearly straight up, some 1,000 feet, on narrow switchbacks through groves of red fir. Over the following four miles, we hiked along the saddle between two peaks, taking in stunning views of Lake Tahoe to the east and high Sierra peaks to the west. Snow still covered some of the north-facing slopes above 8,000 feet, creating several streams that we had to ford over rocks and downed tree limbs. We reached our destination – Upper Velma Lake – in mid-afternoon and set up our campsite. We swam in the lake’s crystal clear waters and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. We had crossed paths with a handful of other backpackers and were expecting some number of them to share our lakeside campground, but no one ever came. It was just me and Declan.
Now, if you’d told me I’d be all alone in the mountains with Declan for the night, back when I was planning the trip, or even when we were standing at the trailhead earlier that morning, I would have broken out in a cold sweat. Because, really, what beginner backpacker should be alone at 8,400 feet with her 12 year old? So many things could go wrong, from bears getting into our food – or our tent! – to a lightning strike, to a snake bite …. You get the picture.
I had expected that there would be some other people around, with more experience, who we could ask for help, if something went awry.
But there weren’t.
Turns out it was a blessing. When the sun went down and we tucked into our sleeping bags, all we could hear was the sound of the nearby waterfall. No generators, no car horns. (And if there were any bears nearby, they left us alone!)
Over the next two days, as we continued our journey, I felt the weight of so many doubts and fears that I’d been carrying slough off, one by one. And they weren’t just concerns about staying hydrated on our hike or getting comfortable pooping in the woods. They were the kinds of everyday self-doubts that keep you from taking risks. The kind of everyday fears that allow you to settle for something less than you deserve.
When we returned to the trailhead, I found myself at once energized and at peace, realizing that I can do just about anything if I set my mind to it. And, really, can’t we all?