I was hot, sweaty, sticky, dry-mouthed, sunburnt with peeling ears, dirty and grimy, itchy and bit up by bugs, with sore feet and tired legs — yet I felt more at home, more relaxed, and more at peace with myself, my companions, and the world around me than anywhere else. I was backpacking — one of the true loves of my life.
Hiking and backpacking (which is just a more awesome form of hiking) have always had a hold on my soul. From the initial excitement of my first trip, I’ve settled into this hobby like breaking in a well-worn and familiar pair of hiking boots. Being on the trail has become an important part of me, and I’ve learned that there’s a reason for that — backpacking requires me to take on practices and go to places that put me in touch with the deeper realities of my life. It’s a practice that has the potential to develop our interior lives if we pay attention to what’s going on inside us as much as we take in the beautiful scenery.
I love the solitude and simplicity of being on the trail — the grandeur and majesty of hills, valleys, and mountains; the isolated beauty of little glades and glens, tiny streams and waterfalls; the ruggedness of cliffs, bluffs, canyons, and ravines; the raw power of thunderstorms; and the company of one, two, or 12 people I am with.
On the trail, even in the company of others, I feel alone with myself in a way that I hardly ever feel otherwise. I feel like I really inhabit my body, and that my body really inhabits the world around me. Inhaling dry dust from the trail, spiderwebs sticking to my face in the morning, my muscles rebelling against another steep ascent, sleeping with a rock or tree root in my back — all of these annoyances fade into the background when I’m on the trail. When I mount a promontory and look out over mountains, ridges, hills, and vales, I exist in a moment, in a world stretched out around me to horizons that seem to fade forever, and, when I find a secret waterfall, I feel absorbed in my surroundings, inscribed within a little valley with only the birds, the animals, and my companions to share my delight.
Nature gets into me when I get into nature, but that connection has a price. I have to do a lot, put up with a lot, and leave a lot behind. Backpacking isn’t easy, even if you are fit. It requires time, effort (usually a lot), preparation, and equipment. And, when hiking with others (buddy system, please), I need to be patient, tolerant, cooperative, trusting, and self-sacrificial. Of course, backpacking companions can also be a ton of fun.
Backpacking asks me to let go of many things and take up others, and those constraints bring me back to something fundamental and true about myself and the world. It puts me in touch with God and nature in a deeper way. As I think about it, the practices needed for backpacking are similar to the practices needed for seeking deeper meaning in life:
- Backpacking is an exercise in simplicity — everything you have, you carry on your back. In my spiritual life, I often find that connecting with God and others requires me to make intentional space for those encounters — I have to let go of certain habits or distractions and adjust my priorities.
- Backpacking also requires time and preparation — not just for the trip, but to gather my equipment, shop for food, plan the travel, get into shape, etc. My spiritual life also needs maintenance — prayer, taking stock of my life and where I am going, and figuring out what I need in order to develop my interior life and seeking it. If I never make those preparations, then I miss out on new perspectives.
- And, just like with backpacking, in my spiritual life, I have to interact with my traveling companions — the people in my life — by fostering my good qualities instead of my more negative or selfish ones.
When I finally realized that, in addition to being an enriching hobby, backpacking was also forming me in a spiritual way, something clicked into place. I understood why I felt closer to God on the trail than almost anywhere else — because I actually was closer to God. I had left things behind; I had plenty of time and silence to reflect on my life and talk to God about it; and I was making an extra effort to get along with the people around me because, well, if you don’t, the trip can get pretty miserable pretty quick.
It’s easy for me to let go of things, reinvest in better priorities, and persevere when I’m on the trail because I love it so much and know the payoff will be worth it when I reach to the top of that mountain or arrive at that waterfall. I wish the same were true for my spiritual journey, but it’s not — I’m heading in the right direction, but my focus and attitude make it a much slower (and sometimes backward) trip.
I hike on, though, knowing that something new and beautiful is just ahead. And I long for the time that I will have developed the same level of discipline in my spiritual life, a level that makes spiritual practices easy and allows the inconveniences to fade into the background.
Through it all, I know God walks with me, helping me see what I need to let go of and take up in order to reach those new horizons.