I love the Sierras…to climb up out of the lower elevations into the pine-scented heights, to feel the gritty crunch, crunch, crunch of rocky soil under my boots and to fill my entire being with that cool, crisp morning air…to feel strangely small beneath the towering lodgepole pines and to ache with the beauty of grand views across a seemingly endless majestic range. Having grown up in the midst of endless cornfields of America’s Heartland, I did not have the mountains in my backyard…though my soul had always yearned for the grandeur…to climb to the sky.
My university in California had what was called Outdoor Adventures…you could get backpacking equipment and OA guides would lead you on trips to wild and remote locations…perfect. So one spring break I signed up for a 4-day backpacking trip into the Sierras. Days and days to drink-in the beauty of nature…the solitude of a sanctuary untouched by paved and stuccoed suburban sprawl…back in the days before iPods and cell-phones and GPS.
A group of a dozen or so students arrived in the dark of night, pastey-mouthed, with slits for eyes to sleepily drop bags of gear into trunks of old cars…to start the drive up out of the monotony of the flat valley up into the mountains promising both adventure and refreshment. I was thrilled!
As we parked at the trailhead, the first order of business was to have experienced OA guides help all the novice adventurers to get their backpacks organized. This trip required all kinds of gear: sleeping bag, ground-pad, water bottles, socks, shorts, food, camp stove, first aid supplies and DEET, on and on…all to be stuffed into one backpack that would be part of your body for the next 4 days. I had this guy that was lanky and clad in Columbia shorts and a watch much too large for his gangly wrist…probably an aspiring engineer straight from Sunnyvale. He wrestled everything out and vigorously set to shoving my mountain of gear into the pack, explaining all the while the laws and logistics involved in loading a backpack just right. Finally, he pulled the strings tight, and with a confident “click, click, click” of the plastic buckles, patted my pack with the satisfaction of a young car salesman who has just completed a sale.
He hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, cinched me in and we were off! As we began our hike along the leisurely grade toward the forest beckoning from off in the distance, I was struggling against my load…it felt heavy, awkward, like it might even be alive. Teetering along under the powers of this cumbersome burden, lurching from side to side, I locked my shoulders under it and tightened every muscle in my back, but still I was pulled off-balance…this way and that. As the struggle with this heaving, writhing mass progressed, a pinching sensation gripped my neck. Blisters started to form on the tender edges my little toes. I was cramping up…shooting pains ran along nerves…down through ligaments and tendons across my hips and knees. All a foreshadowing of a slow, agonizing death on this dusty trail. Evidently I must not have been cut out for this backpacking thing after all.
After about 20 minutes, which actually seemed like eternity to me, the guides signaled that it was time for a stop…we had crossed a wildflower-laden meadow that was giving way to the deep, bouldered forest with neon green lichen tufts clinging like glowing, bushy eyebrows to the rocks and trees. The fantastic scenery–it had all been lost on me as I trudged along as merely a careening trail hazard busied by an inventory of the various places in my body experiencing pain. The guides decided this was a good time to make sure all the greenhorns were doing fine…to explain the wonders of moleskin and give us a sermon of expectation weaving together the philosophies of Ansel Adams and John Muir. During this time of enlightenment we also had the great fortune of divulging any problems we were experiencing.
One of the guides was a female grad student who looked as if her mother had borne her somewhere out here amidst the boulders and raised her on fresh mountain-air, bathing her daily in nothing but sweet Sierra sunshine and pure snow-fed streams. I told her how I was having such a difficult time balancing my backpack and asked for her to comfort me in my last few hours on earth. She had me take the pack off and then she slipped it on and buckled it tight. She stood in place and leaned first to one side, then to the other…then taking a few steps she declared that it was difficult for her to balance, too! And she was the “outdoorsy” type–the real deal!
Then she began to unpack my backpack, unzipping and opening each compartment, pulling my items out one at a time. Her diagnosis: she said that the guy who had helped pack the backpack at the beginning of the trip had packed it like it was supposed to be packed for a “guy”…whose center of gravity is closer to his chest and shoulders. But that was completely wrong for a woman whose center of gravity is around her hips. She repacked it with the heavier items lower in the pack and I felt like she had lightened my load by half!
So many of us can find ourselves struggling under a load, careening along life’s way. This load may seem to take on a life of its own and there are times when we seem to be wrestling with it for days. I have had the great fortune of sharing the company of many wonderful women who have come alongside me and helped me experience the freedom of cultivating and enjoying a more balanced life. It has lightened my load tremendously and freed me up to enjoy the scenery along life’s roads.
Through this blog I am thrilled with the opportunity to share little bits and threads of wisdom I’ve gathered along the way…so that you, too, may breathe in the fresh mountain air, delight in the wildflowers and meadows and drink from a cool mountain stream…even if you are staring at the umpteenth load of laundry and making grocery lists…frantic with endless paperwork, phone calls and looming deadlines…pulling an all-nighter on your essay or cramming for exams.
You can still live life…live free.