This is not the way to begin backpacking.
This hike begins with stiff leather boots and a heavy pack, wet against your lower back where your sweat has seeped into your shirt. This hike begins with a wide flat graded dirt road. This hike begins with sunburned lips and strange looks from families walking in shorts and sandals, dangling jewel-colored water bottles. This hike is six miles of heat from above and heat steaming up from below.
This hike begins with thinking you were delusional to think this would be fun, that you could do it.
After five miles, you stop for a rest in the shade at a picnic table. You’re still in a city park and there are bighorn sheep, two mothers and their two kids. They don’t seem to much mind you’re there.
Andy is there, too, sitting at the picnic table. Together you watch the sheep mosey past. He has a fat orange pack, shiny new gear. He says he’s from Thailand via Illinois and he’s never been backpacking before. “How much does your pack weigh?”
You look at your pack dubiously and say you don’t know, you were too frightened to ever weigh it. You feel secretly relieved you never weighed it because you assume it weighs more than everyone else’s because you are no good at packing packs. Here, in the world of thru hikes, in the world of backpackers, pack weight is like dick length. The lighter your pack the more you belong here.
You didn’t have enough money to buy a new headlamp or a pocket knife before. This was frustrating because the latest in a long line of owned headlamps has just fizzled out, and the antler pocket knife your brother gave you for Christmas a few years back has disappeared. This makes you sad. It would be good to have that now, on the trail, comforting, a gift from someone who wishes you well.
Instead, you have brought a metal flashlight and a hefty multitool that you once won in a grocery store giveaway. You brought two novels, paperback, to stave off loneliness, and a book of poetry for when you need human-made beauty. Your sleeping bag is bulky. You brought too much food. Your backpack bulges oddly like The Burrow, the Weasleys’ lopsided house in Harry Potter.
You tell Andy good luck, you’ll see him down the trail you’re sure. You hike on.
Behind you, down the road, through the haze of heat, you notice another backpacker. You stop in the shade for water and allow him to catch up to you. You tell yourself you are allowing him but he would have caught up anyway. You’re going slow. You are trudging.
He catches up. He looks a few years younger than you. His pack appears more smoothly-packed and he has a rolled bandanna tied around his forehead. “I’m Adam,” he says. “From Kentucky.”
You smile weakly at him. You’ve been guzzling water and you haven’t peed all day. The sun beats through your head. Your hips, bearing the pack, ache dully.
“Erin,” you say. “Wyoming.”
Adam says he is here with his dad and his brother. “The whole thing,” he says. “On to Durango!”
You lag behind. Let him pass. You want to bear your weakness on your own and also you don’t have any words to say.
After six miles, the road narrows to single track, and disappears into the trees. Here you stop once again for water, and watch the other two Kentuckians glide silently past. They nod stoically, unsmiling, at you. You assume you will not see them again, that their competence outstrides yours.
That night, after nearly nine miles, aching in long-dormant muscles, you slide off your pack at a campsite. You moan and stretch your arms above your head. Your shoulders have forgotten how to hold a pack. Your neck has. Your back has. Your hips and feet and legs have forgotten. You slide to the ground, against a perfectly-placed recliner rock. You unlace your boots and pulling them off your hot, cramped feet feels like sex. You sit there, barefoot. The trees arch long shadows over your legs. You notice, behind a nearby boulder, just within your sightline, a pair of wadded-up socks. You think about nothing.
After awhile you set up your tent and start your stove. You eat rehydrated refried beans and corn tortillas for dinner and then you stare at the trees and the still-bright sky and listen to the unfamiliar sound of wind through the needles and you think, I am too small. You can still smell laundry detergent on your shirt. You look at the very tall ghost trees and you think, I have something to learn from you.