The Last Backpack?


Was it my last backpack?

Yes. No. Maybe.

When reflecting on my hikes into the mountains, I confess to crafting them towards the dramatic. However, I mostly forgive myself for the forced metaphors, exaggerations, and romanticized tales. I do not lightly claim that many of the backpacks represented the best of my four decades of professional ministry. With youth and adults, with first-time and experienced hikers, I relished the communities we created on our mountain sojourns. Like Jesus, with his testimonials to lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and baptisms in flowing rivers, I embraced the wild lessons. There were literal moments of me being lost and found, of breaking bread with companions, of choosing the narrow, rocky path.

(Bonus: most adventures contained excellent stories for preaching the good news without adding extra weight to my backpack.)

In 2022, fifty years after my initial foray into wilderness—a Memorial Day weekend hike in 1972 with a college buddy—I once again ventured onto a trail.

It was awful.

And yes, it was awesome.

A lot had happened since my prior backpack in 2010. I certainly didn’t know then that a dozen year would whoosh by before more trail time. Following 2010, both parents died, my mother-in-law died, and in 2014—a particularly troubling year—all four of our pets died. I had surgeries with months-long recuperations. And while my work at a hospice was part-time, it was rewarding, with weekly and monthly demands that often topped the list of obligations. There was also, with each new year, the accumulation of birthdays!

Trudging across a mountain ridge in 2010 in my late fifties was a different experience when compared to my seventieth year.

Age inevitably erodes the legs, the lungs, and the stamina.

At the Grand Canyon, early March-1979

Age sucker-punches all of the expectations based on memories. Hey, when I was such-and-such years old, I could change gears on a serious uphill section and keep a steady pace. I could easily hopscotch across a stream. I could take a brief break, slurp water, then hoist the pack onto my shoulders to rumble along for more hours and miles. In trips of yesteryear, I’d arrive at a lake and quickly organize camp. Following those chores, I’d spend the afternoon exploring before settling down to fix freeze-dried grub for dinner.

What a dude!

Now, though, I was more of a dud.

Barely a mile from the trailhead, I gasped for precious oxygen. While surrounded by the mostly ignored majesty of the forest, I contemplated lurching back to where the vehicles were parked at the trailhead. Even with my slower-than-a-snail pace, couldn’t I get to the car before dark? In prior hikes with groups, I had encouraged struggling participants to focus on a tree or rock visible ahead on the trail. Just make it to that tree—I cheerfully nudged them—then stop and rest. Now, trying that gimmick on myself, I began to silently apologize to the suffering hikers I’d deceived. Staggering the distance to the next tree or rock seemed comparable to a marathon. I also heard the echoing laughter—nay, the guffawing and chortling—of every cookie I had eaten in the last decade.

My 2022 companions never once complained about my trudging ways. We made it to the goal of a lake. Though it carried the unremarkable name of Upper Twin Lake (elevation 8,500 feet), it was—like so many locations in the high country—a spot of grandeur and granite. The serene view made me glad that I kept taking that next step. I was also glad to rid my shoulders of the one-ton pack.

It was a brief trip, with just two nights in a tent. Nonetheless, the experience contained elements from prior mountain sojourns.

Like always, the dehydrated food lacked flavor and looked bland. I ate every last molecule!

The act of slowly filtering water caused me to appreciate the ease of turning a tap. And the task gifted me a chance to admire the constantly changing lake. Light. Shadows. Breeze. Stillness.

On ridge above Upper Twin Lakes, August-2022

Dawn was magnificent; dusk sublime; witnessing the cloud ballet in the sky was a performance without parallel.

Several of us got momentarily lost as we tramped away for our departure. This side trail or that side trail? Our bad choice added time and footsteps and whining (by me) before reconnecting to the right path. Which, only in hindsight, served as a reminder of wilderness’ immensity and complexity.

On my first hike with my pal Michael, five decades removed, I was twenty and eager and scared and thrilled. That first foray into the Sierra Nevada transformed my life. It added to my ministry. It boosted my confidence while teaching me humility. Will there be another hike? Is it all memories now?

(Hey, did you want to hear about the bear who chowed down all of my dried apricots and then . . .)

All I know for sure is in the summer of my seventieth year, I was far from young, but remained eager and scared and thrilled.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” ― Edward Abbey

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