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Living and Writing in the Natural World

What Muir Knew and We've Forgotten

Sticks, hat, and 40 pounds of trouble

As my wife accompanied me on morning walks preparing me for an upcoming backpacking trip this summer, I entertained us by singing a boyhood song, heard on TV’s Lawrence Welk show (yes, I’m that old): “I love to go a-wandering, my knapsack on my back. And when I go a-wandering, this is the song I sing: fol-do-ral, fol-do-ree, fol-do–" Well, you get the idea, and maybe even know the song. During the actual trip, I had occasion to be reminded of one very crucial word of that song, much to my dismay.
John Muir had several qualities which strike us as quite peculiar today. For one, he almost always hiked without a pack on his back. During the Yosemite years of the 1870s, he’d pack a mule with food into the high country and establish a base camp, then take two or three day excursions from there, carrying bread, tea, and matches in his pockets. That’s it. Back to the base after several days, get more bread and tea, then off for another three days. Friends once persuaded him to wear an overcoat in the winter as he took off, but he quickly ditched it, finding the garment impeded the wild leaping and scrambling that was his style. When night arrived, he’d gather incense cedar boughs for a bed, then gather wood and start the fire. Hot tea with his bread, writing in his journal (tied to his belt), then to bed beside the fire, switching positions numerous times throughout the night as one side became too cold. A blanket? Forget it—too cumbersome. On longer trips, he’d again take a mule (though on his 1875 trip censusing giant sequoia groves he detoured to the valley to ditch the mule; it was slowing him down) or, in Alaska while exploring glaciers, he had a small sled for his gear.

I thought longingly of Muir this summer on my hike in Sequoia National Park. My pack weighed a bit more than forty pounds, and I wasn’t enjoying myself. A week’s worth of food, the required bear-proof canister, stove, water filtering pump, clothing, tent, sleeping bag, binoculars, even (I am ashamed to admit) a very lightweight tilt-a-chair. But it all added up. Of the 6 days of my trip, I was lugging my pack on 4 days and taking day-hikes on 2 days. Guess which days I hated and which I loved?

I understand that some guys and gals are big and strong enough to shoulder a 40-pound pack for twelve or more miles day after day with no diminution of their enjoyment of the wilderness. Wonderful. Not me, and not a lot of people, I suspect. I weigh 135 pounds; a 40-pound pack is 30% of my body weight. That’s equivalent to a 175-pound person carrying a 52-pound pack. A 200-pound person carrying a 60-pound pack. That's got to catch your attention and likely put a crimp in your style, even if you aren't in your late sixties.

I tried singing “The happy wanderer” song on those four days I was trudging along with my pack on my back, and one word stuck out: “knapsack.” That happy wanderer was not lugging 40 pounds, and wasn’t even carrying a proper backpack. The bloke had a “knapsack” for heaven’s sake, which is what we’d call a day-pack. The Europeans that generated this song understood the same thing that John Muir understood so well: it’s no fun when you’re loaded down like a mule. Ever hear mules warbling ecstatic songs on the trail?

Reading Muir today, you’re struck by how much joy flowed through him when he was out in the natural world. He saw the world as packed with beauty, harmony, and interest, and he responded exuberantly. I’ve often wondered why Muir was blessed to be able to see the joy-producing face of the natural world--while me and my hiking buddies didn’t seem nearly so joyful.

Now I know: he went light, radically light. He wasn’t carrying 65-liter backpacks stuffed to the brim. He was happier, not being loaded like a mule. He saw more, enjoyed more. What idiots we are these days!! We’ve let the camping-backpacking-industrial complex persuade us we should have giant backpacks and all the associated gear to “enjoy” the wilderness—when in fact all this gear largely prevents us from enjoying the wilderness!

So I’ve finally come around to where my family physician Doctor Michael and more than a few outdoor enthusiasts have arrived: no more heavy backpacks. Some of us take longer to see the obvious. If you’re young and strong, you can get by with 25 pounds max and travel fast and far. The ultra-light crew. Another alternative: pay mule-skinners to have their beasts pack your gear in, and take day hikes from your base camp. It’s not particularly cheap, but hey: you’ll enjoy being in the natural world! Is that worth a few extra bucks? Sell all those huge 65-liter packs and gear and you’ll pay for your first mules.

Another alternative, the one taken by that happy European wanderer: hike from one wilderness cabin to another. Here in the Sierra Nevada we have “high sierra camps” separated by 6 to 12 miles. They provide your tent-cabin, your bedding, and your meals. Again, they’re not cheap, and demand is high. But they’re in the middle of the high country, and you can actually enjoy the wilderness you’re privileged to be in the middle of. Back in the eastern U.S. they have similar cabins, and of course in Europe a similar situation exists. No wonder that “wanderer” was so happy.

I feel like a happy wanderer already, contemplating my future trips into the wilderness without a 40-pound pack on my back. Maybe I’ll even be as ecstatic as John Muir. Maybe I’ll see as much beauty and meaning in the natural world as he did. Every day of my trip.

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