When I was a young seminarian, I enjoyed walking in the California and Oregon coastal hills and planning more substantial hikes—even expeditions—in my imagination. Expedition planning was fun because it allowed me to pour over topo maps and to trace each elevation change I would later experience but this time with my fingertip. It was also fun because it justified time spent in hiking equipment stores where I critiqued technical improvements in backpacks and other gear.
When money was available (even when it was not quite available), the necessities of my pending expedition rationalized a purchase—for example, the purchase of one of those new Trailwise expedition packs from the shop on lower University Avenue in Berkeley, above San Pablo. That’s where I once saw Colin Fletcher, the famous walking guru—he of The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time—but I was shy to stand close while he chatted with the staff.
I had my own Trailwise pack, too, but I was not yet ready for the whole Pacific Crest Trail between Canada and Mexico—even my imagination was daunted by its 2,653 miles. But I was ready for a trial run. I focused on the Marble Mountains of NW Oregon. I packed and re-packed my gear, weighing it with Jesuitical precision, stripping as many ounces of useless weight as I could.
Here’s a Fletcher suggestion for all of you out there now preparing for your next expedition—cut off half the handle of your toothbrush. Three ounces can be saved that way!
Of course, the real weight problem in my expedition pack was books. Some gurus suggested tearing signatures out of bound books and carrying only those. But I couldn’t deface books that way. What I needed to read was Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. That was a weighty tome, even in paperback, but I found that when I jettisoned two of my four pairs of socks, my Bowie knife, my tube of tent-repair cement, and most of my gorp, I could keep Tillich and still balance out at less than forty-five pounds for a two-week hike.
Off I went!
Four days in, my Trailwise backpack and I were faced with a choice of direction. That morning, we could climb the rest of the ridge I had slept halfway up, top it, cut down its other side and end up by the stream I wanted to climb to the source of, or we could go all the way around the ridge on a flatter but longer path and still come to the stream. The first way would take about two hours, the second half a day.
My pack’s weight was down—I’d eaten the rest of my gorp, some of my granola, two of my freeze-dried meals (not worth carrying anyway), three of my oranges, a hunk of the cheese, and we were only carrying a half liter of water now instead of two liters—so I figured the steepness of the quicker course would not be a trouble.
We went up and over.
Having topped the ridge, my backpack and I were descending happily through a sunny deciduous forest. My intellect was fine tuned to a high seminarian degree—we theologians delight in what the medieval period called The Queen of All Sciences, that is, our study of the ways, means, and beneficence of God.
I had Tillich on my mind, my staff in my hand, and the sun at my back. I hadn’t seen another hiker during two days. This was my world—and surely the Pacific Crest Trail was next—mine for the taking.
I rounded an outcrop and a vast brown hairy object exploded upward from eight feet before me, emitted a bellow, stared at me during a frozen moment through its eyes taller than I was, turned and galloped away down the trail ahead, and then crashed a few steps into the bracken at its side—and utter silence reigned. That was the trail along which I needed to go.
Never had I encountered a wild and enormous brown bear this close—and I’d swapped out my Bowie knife for Tillich!
Since I’m writing this some fifty years later, you can guess that the bear didn’t eat me. However, I can still remember the tension I felt as I continued down that trail. I clung to the notion that the bear might be scareder than I was. I certainly hoped so.
I'd dug out food from my backpack—do bears like eating Oreos and bacon bits better than theologians?—and I had them ready to fling to him. My backpack was unbelted and loose over one shoulder, ready to drop. I scoped trees near where I thought the bear had left the trail and was hiding there in wait for me, and I mentally readied my muscles for flight response and swift tree climbing.
Then I decided to sing.
Nobody likes to hear me sing, but the bear probably didn’t know that and might not even complain, but I wanted to give him no excuse to think I was creeping up on him.
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
Step by step I was getting closer to where I could see he had crashed off the trail. Big clods of earth thrown aside by his paws; broken bracken. Silence—except me with my loud, untuneful song.
Maybe this wasn’t even a song, maybe a nursery rhyme—but it didn’t matter: I was loud!
He was right there! He was watching me! Right now, he’s watching me!
I was past him.
This was the biggest adventure my Trailwise backpack had with me. We went on other hikes together, too, but, over time, my emphasis became carrying less weight rather than more, and as a result my backpack got left behind sometimes when I used a smaller rucksack instead.
Also, my lust after expeditions declined—four nights on a ledge above Big Sur with no people, a couple of paperback mysteries, a skillet, and two pounds of bacon really was better than Canada to Mexico on sore feet, however much Colin Fletcher raved about it.
My backpack’s biggest adventure, though (after the bear encounter), was not with me at all. My sister-in-law Malya was going off to India for an open-ended rambling tour of exotic terrain and temples, and she needed a way to carry along a few extra rupees, some grains of rice, and maybe a head scarf or two. Might she borrow my big backpack?
I asked my backpack, who was confined to the back of the closet. What he said to me was, “When’s the next time you’re going to take me to the Himalayas?” I conceded not soon, so off he went with my dear Malya, and they had a magnificent experience among the foothills of the most elevated mountain chain on earth.
Don’t give up on your friends, that’s what I say. You may not see them often. They might be tucked away at the back of your garage with the four-man tent and the minus-ten mummy bags, but they are there for you when you need them.
Like last Sunday.
In the Blue Ridge, we had a big snowstorm. More than a foot fell around our house. It was the first snow of the year, and it was beautiful. Our grandchildren loved it. I loved it.
We live about a quarter mile from a big road which is kept clear by the county during snowstorms. However, the county does not clear secondary roads, such as ours very quickly. Our house is uphill from the major road.
Our son Sam had a work shift Sunday. During the storm, I was able to drive him down to his grocery store. However, when I drove home, for the first time since we moved here, I was unable to get back up the hill to our house through snow.
Over the phone, my wife and I decided I would go back to the store and ask to have Sam leave his shift so I could drive him back to our part of town during daylight, park the car somewhere safe, and then walk home. Sam is a good solid worker, and the store was generous to allow him to leave his shift. He and I parked about a mile from home and trudged through the stormy evening.
However, there were still about fifty pounds of groceries left overnight in the car.
My old friend, Mr. Backpack! Yay! He was ready to help me out.
Next morning, I found that we’re both a little clumsier than we were fifty years ago. His swivel parts tend to bind instead of swinging smoothly. Some of his waterproofing is flaking off. My hips take the weight his belt directs to them, instead of to my back, with less joy than was the case. His belt buckle was set for a smaller waist than mine has become.
But I packed him full and skillfully managed to keep the grocery weight balanced. He was patient as I propped him on something and managed to get his straps adjusted over my shoulders. I stepped a half step forward and felt competent as his weight settled familiarly onto my shoulders.
Pacific Crest Trail, here we come--NO!
But we did get home—uphill—with food for the family.
We’ve had a nice long life, each of us, he and I—adventures both of challenge and of grace. I hope you have, too, you and your symbols of daring.