Finding Inner Peace While Backpacking

Being from Washington, the Pacific Northwest holds a special place in my heart. With that comes countless stereotypes, many of which are true. Yes, my friends and I have attended our fair share of indie rock house shows in Portland and Seattle, I ski Mount Hood every winter, I never use an umbrella even though it rains nearly 200 days a year, and yes, I did go through a vegan phase. However, despite my own perpetuation of the Pacific Northwesterner stereotypes, there is one area in which I have failed: until coming to college, I had never been backpacking. Central Ohio is decidedly not known for its great wilderness potential, and yet I somehow found myself on my first ever backpacking trip, not in the lush evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest, but on the dry, deciduous trails of Ohio.

My first trip was a single-night fifteen mile hike with several other members of the Kenyon College Outdoors Club (KCOC) in Zaleski State Forest in Ohio. Two weeks later, I found myself smashed in the middle seat in the back of a Kenyon van crossing state lines on my way to the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail for a three-night backpacking trip over Fall Break. 

How did I get there? It began, as so many great things do, with a trip to REI. REI, for those of us not well acquainted with the mysterious world of hiking boots, Patagonia fleeces, and Hydroflasks, is a retail company with branches in various cities throughout the United States that specializes in camping gear, travel equipment, and other outdoor essentials. 

The strange thing about spending any significant amount of time in a store like REI is that you suddenly find yourself wanting things that you have never given much thought to before. Wandering between perfectly set-up tents and rows of heat-retaining rain jackets, I inexplicably developed an intense craving for Cliff Bars. In that moment, a bowl of Peirce lava cake would not have tempted me, but a coconut almond Cliff Bar would have had me salivating. I caught myself spending nearly an hour in the dressing room trying on one pair of ugly black rain pants after another, imagining the muscles that would surely soon emerge beneath them after just a few more hikes. 

After a general perusal of the store, I knew I would need help if I were to accomplish my goal of the trip: acquiring a proper hiking backpack. A well-timed helpless look led me in the direction of Jacob, one of many REI salesmen sporting long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Jacob is the kind of guy that you have no doubt scales rock walls during his free time. You know that at a glance he probably has a bulletin board in his kitchen with articles pinned to it that feature titles such as “10 Things You Need to Know Before Climbing Mount Everest,” “The Only Green Smoothie You’ll Ever Need,” and “How ‘Into the Wild’ Should Have Ended.”

When I told Jacob that I was searching for a backpack for my three-night backpacking trip the following weekend, he was ready with four different options in less than five minutes. I tried each of them on, tightening the straps to my hips, shoulders, and chest. There’s something about putting on one of these backpacks that just makes you feel powerful, until you fill the backpack with all the things you’ll need for a trip and realize that weight is a genuine concern. 

With bags full of Nalgenes, bumper stickers featuring slogans such as “Yay, mountains!”, and of course, Cliff Bars, I left REI feeling spirited. I was so enthusiastic that I found myself tempted to wear my new backpack around campus. Fortunately, a rare moment of good sense got the better of me and I neglected to pursue this urge.

And so it was that early Thursday morning I set out (after numerous stops at Peirce to grab last-minute apples and bagels) with about fifteen other KCOC members for three nights of backpacking. The drive was expected to take about five hours. It ended up taking closer to seven. How we managed to find traffic in small-town Maryland is beyond me. We arrived on the trail as the sun was sinking past the treeline, and thus our hike commenced in darkness. Our first dinner consisted of orzo, pesto, and probably more than a few Appalachian rocks and insects. 

The next morning, we emerged bleary-eyed from our wooden, open-face Appalachian Trail cabin shelter. After consuming bowls of off-brand (as in not Quaker) oatmeal stirred into water from a nearby stream that refused to come to a boil over our meager camping stoves, we set off. Were we deterred? Perhaps, but we had pizzadillas to look forward to that evening, so nothing was about to stop us. 

I’ve spent a good portion of my life politely making fun of the “Jacob” brand of people—those who hike every weekend, backpack during their longer breaks, and consider an energy bar to constitute a meal. I am notoriously someone who places a great deal of value on cleanliness. I shower every single morning as soon as I wake up, messes make me agitated, and my notes in class must be pristine in order for me to concentrate on my schoolwork. Despite this, over the course of my Fall Break backpacking trip, I noticed a change in myself. Without intending to do so, I found that I stopped caring about the oiliness of my hair, the Sunbutter that spilled onto the sides of the jars during lunch, the dirt on my clothes, and even the stink bugs lingering near my sleeping bag at night. The realization that these things were legitimately okay with me was freeing. I have spent so much of my life compulsively worrying about little things. When I was a little kid I used to obsessively check the hallway door in my house up to twenty times a day to make sure that it was closed even though there was no reason for it to be. Up until last year, I would scrupulously examine my sheets before going to bed to make sure no bugs had found their way into my sleeping space. I still almost always made sure that my desk and floor are clean and organized before falling asleep at night. Backpacking somehow managed to bring me out of this mindset for a few days. Without even trying, I didn’t care anymore.

On the third day of our trip, we took a detour to a cliff overlooking the Potomac River. I sat on one of the rocks near the edge of the cliff face and gazed out at the expanse far below. The river washed white across heaping rocks, currents sweeping in swirling, surging motions. Trees scaled the hills rising from the river in swathes of green. It was beautiful in a way that seemed unjustifiable. There was a certain grandeur and an undeniable presence. I felt entranced, caught in an unexpected state of genuine peace and humility that I am so rarely capable of summoning when actively trying. I felt a true sense of place and a relation to where I was. I saw myself as a part of the world around me as much as the trees and the rocks and the river. 

There is a kind of freedom in allowing yourself to be someone you assumed you were not. For me, that meant forgetting my fear of messes and losing my emotional distance from the world around me. It meant caring about different things for a change. In the process, I discovered that this Grace, the one who backpacks and stares at rivers (and maybe even enjoys trips to REI) is definitely me, as much as the Grace who delights in cleanliness, and I get to decide how much of this side of myself I want to retain when I return to my everyday life. Now, I find myself less bothered by the things in life that probably don’t matter very much. Sometimes we need to try something completely new in order to break away from the versions of ourselves we are most accustomed to. Most of us are probably not as fragile, nor as one-dimensional as we assume ourselves to be. Whether it’s backpacking or something else altogether, there is immense value in breaking out of your own assumptions of yourself. Most people, myself included as I’ve learned, are far more capable and more adaptable than we suspect we are. 

Image Credit: Lily Beeson-Norwitz