Friday, August 22, 2008

The Zen of Backpacking

My next vacation will consist of the following: 22 miles of hiking, with 2,500 feet of elevation gain and 2,000 feet of elevation loss over the course of several days. Sounds like a good time, right? It's not.
Well, it's not a good time in the conventional sense, but who wants to be conventional these days? While most people prefer to spend their vacations lounging in beach chairs, sipping Mai Tais and taking late-afternoon siestas, I follow a crowd of people with slightly different outlook towards how vacation days should be spent. Instead of lying still in a patch of sun, drifting away from the stress of every day life, my crowd and I prefer to push the limits of our physical, mental, and emotional capabilities by presenting ourselves with challenges. We hike long distances that are normally only experienced from behind a steering wheel. We climb for hours on end with all of our belongings strapped to our backs. We ford streams. We spend our nights outside in the dark, with just a thin layer of nylon separating us from the elements. We sweat. We forego toilets. We eat dehydrated food, and go for days on end without bathing.
And the question I get from so many is: Why?
Well, of course, there are the obvious reasons why so many of us soccer moms and 9-5 commuters (not to mention the hippies) escape to the wilderness at the first sign of a paid vacation. There's the fresh air, the escape from technology, the convenient "dead zones" where crackberries and the like become useless paperweights, suitable for only keeping time and perhaps smashing a bug or two. Sure, it could be all about sleeping under the stars and getting back to basics and everything else that is touted by tent-weilding suburbanites, packing their SUVs for a weekend in the Poconos. But is that really why we abandon the comfort of our homes to go traipsing about in the wilderness? Is that really why we take ourselves out of comfortable situations to move on into unknown landscapes, ridden with hazards and inconveinences and discomforts? I tend to think not.
I'm sure everybody has different motives for spending a few days in the great outdoors, so I can only speak from personal experience, but the reasons that I, personally, head into the wild have much more to do with my own self image than with time away from the computer. I'm not talking about self image in terms of how I want to appear to others; I'm don't go backpacking so others will see what a "cool, outdoorsey type" I can be. In fact, most people are slightly turned off at the fact that I enjoy spending days on end sweating...and then NOT bathing. No, the type of self image I'm referring has to do with how I see myself - the worth I ascribe to myself based on previous actions.
You see, I personally believe that in order to live a balanced life, you have to experience the full spectrum of the human experience. I'm talking about pleasure as well as pain; safety and fear; comfort and discomfort. But the problem with humans is that we, as a species, spend a great deal of time figuring out ways to avoid the 'negative' spectrum of our existance. We've created medicines to diminish and manage pain, while numerous technologies have been invented to enhance pleasure, whether through TV or amusement parks or laptops with ultra-fast downloading capabilities. Similarly, we have strived to eliminate fear from our lives via control of our environments and living spaces. We have the police and the media and the government; all of them tasked with the preservation of our wellbeing as a society. At all times, we aim to feel safe and secure and happy and entertained. In fact, we demand that our lives consist of these positive emotions, and are confused, even outraged when our needs are not met.
And yet, despite our technological and societal advances, these emotions are still prevalent in our day-to-day lives, in one form or another. We have aches and pains and migraines from working too long or too hard. Our fears consume us in the form of debt and mortgages and car payments and health insurance premiums (or - god forbid - no health insurance at all). Despite all of the amusements at our disposal, we are bored, overstimulated, and undersatisfied. Despite our best attempts at eliminating every negative aspect of the human condition, these emotions creep back in during commericals and traffic jams and tee-ball practice and laundry.
So what does this have to do with backpacking? Well, for one thing, perspective. Backpacking exposes me to that part of the spectrum that is less desireable. When I'm backpacking, I feel pain and doubt and fear on levels that are not normally felt in my daily existance. When I hike up a mountain with 45 lbs on my back, man, it hurts sometimes. When I'm setting up camp for the night at some remote campground, hanging my food 10 feet in the air so the *bears* won't get it, knowing that the closest person might be 10 miles from me, I get scared. Sometimes, really scared. The treks are hard and the nights are long. In between, there's physical exertion and bad food and very little reassurance from other people, save for the person I'm backpacking with. So why do it? Because when you come home and you lock the door and you lay in your bed, you think, "man, this is WAY better." See? It's all about perspective. The very thing you were trying to escape by going on vacation is suddenly a welcome sight. The everyday comforts become luxuries of vast proportions. I backpack to make my everyday life seem better - to appreciate the things I take for granted.
And it goes deeper than that. On a personal level, exposing yourself to pain and fear and discomfort teaches you a lot about yourself. You learn your limits, while often times expanding them. When you put yourself in a scary situation, and then - importantly - get yourself out of that situation, it builds confidence. When you stand at the bottom of a mountain and look up at the top and say "I have to get there by the time it gets dark," and then, amazingly, you do it...well, again, you become more confident. When you can carry everything that you need for the next 4 days on your back, and avoid getting hurt, and risk encountering dangerous animals, and cover a distance that normally requres a car ride, it's an amazing thing. You're a better person for it.
We spend our lives avoiding 'bad' feelings, yet they assault us on a daily basis. The harder we push them away, the harder they push back. Backpacking teaches me to do something that seems unnatural; to embrace the negative spectrum of the human condition. I hurt, fear, and exhaust myself, with the aim of living a more balanced life. And as a result, I gain the confidence that comes with pushing myself to the limit of my abilities, with managing fear and pain, with accomplishing something out of the ordinary. Backpacking is my zen, my yin and my yang, my exposure to the entire scope and range of emotional and physical experiences. So I hike on, even though my legs are killing me and heart is pounding and I have 700 more feet of elevation to go. At the top, the view is sure to be worth it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Objectives, Methods, Results, & Conclusion

Blame my background as a Medical Writer for the title of this post. I've started a blog, and the scientific part of my mind refuses to push forward without a clear outline of reason and intent. This is often how I try to make sense of life; I live and breathe outlines. Call me a nerd if you will, but when you're trying to sort through mounds of data on hospital-associated diarrhea (I'll give you a moment to let the glamour of my job sink in), outlines will always bring order to the chaos that is Clostridium difficile infection.
Okay, first off: Objective. What is the objective of this blog? Well, quite frankly, it beats the hell out of me. Gaining readers would be nice. Gaining so many readers that a publishing company offers me a deal would be even better, but let's not kid ourselves; writers like me are a dime a dozen. I'm probably hotter than most of them (I KID), but looks do you no good in the vast anonyminity of the internet. So I'll settle for some readers with the hopes that regular contributions to this blog will train me in the discipline of creative writing for any future attempts at publication.

Methods. Riiigghhhtt. Uh, writing? Writing regularly? Writing brilliantly? I know most blogs have a purpose or subject of interest. I have none. Well, no, I'm sure I have a purpose and many subjects interest me, but considering the maniacal ramblings of my Objective, I'm hesitant to push this blog in one direction or another. For now, I'll just write what feels right, and maybe the subject of my blog will find me. Or maybe this blog will be used in future case studies of early-onset alzheimers and dementia. Who knows?

Results: I'm anticipating results to range somewhere between blog abandonment and world-wide fame (or notoriety). That gives me a pretty big target, which is great, because I'm a terrible shot at most things in life. It's okay - I've accepted it.

Conclusions: Well, so much for my clear outline of reason and intent. Apparently my objectives are selfish, my methods are poorly planned, and I'll settle for just about any result short of utter failure. I believe my application of science to the world of blog outlining is a complete disaster. But no matter. I'll press on with this experiment and see where it takes me. Fame and fortune? Book deals and interviews? More likely a slight sense of accomplishment and an hour killed at work, but no matter. I'm a writer. It's what I do.