After tackling our first backpacking trip together in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, my wife and I now have our eyes permanently trained on ultralight forums and Reddit threads. We've even begun to find ourselves inexplicably wandering the local REI with no recollection of how we arrived...I don't think we hit our heads on this trip but we were definitely bit by a bug or two. Kimber is already gearing up for more trips with a new pack ordered and on the way, and I am drooling over modern gear after spending the weekend with my 10+ year old pack and sleeping bag.
We're no strangers to camping and have had our share of adventures (recollections of our 12,999 mile camper van trip around the US to follow eventually) but settling in to New York life over the past 2 years has brought understandable compromises in time, resources, and access to natural beauty, so my worn-out, country-bumpkin emotional state needed a boost and we both wanted to scratch an outdoors itch that had been left unscratched for some time. With a camera from the 80s, gear from the aughts, and a tent from, well, a week before our trip, we set out to decide if backpacking was a hobby we really wanted to dive into.
Kimber's folks are hiking fiends and kindly led us to one of their favorite spots in the beautiful White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. This particular section of trail snakes through pine groves and beaver dammed lakes, ultimately hooking up with the Appalachian Trail at the base of a popular, rocky waterfall with great views of the surrounding area. It's a very picturesque region with plenty to explore from less travelled, designated wilderness to a comfortable, if a bit overrun, hiker's hut maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Our planned camping area was about a 2.5 mile hike from where we ditched the car, and it positioned us perfectly for two solid day hikes in the area, one up to a scenic view via the "Z-Cliff" trail and one to an incredible, s-shaped waterfall called Thoreau Falls. We planned to hike about 15 miles throughout the weekend—a perfect trial run—but it became clear in our first leg of the trail that some of our gear would need to be updated if we ever plan be truly comfortable on the trails ahead.
The most up-to-date gear that we packed was our tent and Kimber's sleeping bag. These were essential items we simply didn't have when we decided to do this trip so we picked up a Sierra Designs tent and a three-season bag about a week before we left. The rest of our gear was either resurrected from my parent's basement (pre-2006 boy scout equipment) or borrowed from Kimber's parents.
My current pack is heavy, to put it nicely. Empty, it weighs about 5 pounds, a refrigerator by today's standards, and adding my sleeping bag alone brings the weight up to about 10 lbs (a somewhat typical base weight for an "ultralight" backpacker's full kit). After adding food, water, our tent, my sleeping pad, clothing, a stove, necessary tools, and last but not least, one of my trusty cameras, my cubicle trained hips of the last two years were confused, not only as to why they were moving at all, but also about how they came to be carrying 1.5 humans as opposed to their usual load. Upgrading my pack and sleeping bag in the future will be key, both for comfort's sake and to allow me a little more wiggle room for packing my camera gear.
Minor aches and top-heaviness aside, my mood sky-rocketed with my first footfall on the trail. Under the canopy of the forest, I had all but forgotten my nagging, depression and anxiety. Curious for what might be around the next bend in the trail and ecstatic to simply be in the woods away from the people, buzz, and frenetic energy of the city, I was completely wrapped up in the moment and enjoying every second.
With tents pitched and gear stowed, we loaded up on snacks and headed out for a 5 mile, out-and-back hike to the top of a nearby ridge. This took us right by the Zealand hut, which at the time was teeming with children. Though noisy and wild (we fell asleep that night to the sounds of campfire songs and clanging pots reaching us down in the valley below), I was happy to see them enjoying themselves in the woods. The parents from the group seemed to be enjoying this escape as much as their children and had left the kids in the care of the hut volunteers who we overheard asking, "Wait, where did their parents go?" We wasted no time filling our water bottles and striking out for Z-cliff.
Z-cliff offers views of Mt. Washington and other surrounding peaks from an exposed, yet shaded rocky outcrop. Kimber's father pointed out the trail we'd be taking the next day down below, at the base of a massive rock slide across the valley, while I munched on trail mix and jerky. We reminisced about our hike the previous year to the peak of Mt. Washington and talked about what sections of the White Mountains we still wanted to explore. Feeling accomplished and relaxed, I loaded my Minolta with a new (10+ years expired) roll of film and snapped a few photos before heading back down to our campsite with enough time to cook dinner and drink tea before sunset. This was a good day.
Watching the daylight fade to nothing through the trees surrounding our campsite, I realized I couldn't remember the last time I had really taken in a full sunset. We hadn't brought any "entertainment" and I was content to sit, chat, and marvel about how long it had been since I had done just this—nothing. In fact, I distinctly remember a moment that evening when I was suddenly aware of the fact that my head was not occupied with thoughts. No thoughts of what I was going to do tomorrow, what I hadn't yet done today, what I hadn't yet done in my life, what I messed up on two days ago, what I thought I should be doing to get to point B two years down the road, whether or not I locked the door, whether or not the cat was due for a vet visit, who's birthday I might be forgetting about this month, how infrequently I've been exercising lately, or what the car would need for maintenance soon. What was more shocking than the fact that I was not thinking about these things was the realization that the constant presence of these thoughts had become my new norm. I am happy to have had this unexpected smack in the face, I feel re-oriented, like I suddenly saw myself from the third person and was able to say, "oh, that's silly, let's work on that."
We woke up slowly with the early morning light, stretched out, and did the first thing any human does right after waking up; brewed coffee. Breakfast came next, then all other things. I filtered some water from the nearby stream, threw some snacks in our daypack and calmly finished my coffee, stretching and flexing my out-of-shape calves until we were ready to start our second hike of the weekend. Hiking along the base of the exposed rock scree which I had viewed from above the day before, I was taken aback by the simple beauty that was the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The air smelled extraordinarily piney, the trail was cool and shaded, and when the trees broke, we were greeted with an incredible view of the neighboring "notch" and a different trail head beckoning for a closer look, a few steps in, a curious look around the next curve. I lagged behind for a few photos before running to catch up with the group. We came across frogs, snakes, birds, and all manner of other woodland creatures that you'd expect in such a secluded part of the forest. This was one of the more peaceful days that I had enjoyed in some time.
After 2 miles, the turn-around point and end-goal of our hike was at a surprisingly beautiful waterfall. I expected something similar to Zealand Falls back by the hut, namely water crashing over clumps of exposed granite boulders in staggered ledges; beautiful but not at all what we came across on this day. Thoreau Falls swoops down an 80-foot drop in a massive s-shaped arc over a smooth granite chute crashing against an exposed cliff-face in this chasm that felt as though it had opened up out of nowhere. Climbing around to get different views of the cascade brought me back to carefree days of boulder hopping in Pennsylvania as a child and I must have looked the part, sprawling prostrate with my camera, hopping about with a big stupid grin.
We ate snacks, took in the views, and listened to the water for about a half hour before heading back to the campsite to pack up and hike 2.5 miles out to the car. The weekend felt seized and I felt relieved. Kimber and I daydreamed all the way home to NYC, about building our stamina, working up to treks like the John Muir Trail or Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hikes in the Grand Canyon (yup, back and forth), and what gear would make up our dream packs.
I definitely underestimated how much hiking or being surrounded by nature helps me release tension. Maybe it's the fresh air, maybe it's the exercise, maybe it's a slightly naive feeling of discovery—perhaps a combination of all of those factors—but what I do know is that I walk taller, breathe deeper, and generally take things slower when I'm in the woods. This realization has helped me shine a light on what I am not doing in my day-to-day, urban routine and helps me be conscious of taking my time, even when surrounded by noise and concrete. I'm not at a point in my life where I can be a full-time mountain hermit, so I've got to work on staying centered regardless of my surroundings while making an effort to get to the woods and recharge whenever I am able.
Though urban living does not come naturally to me and definitely affects my mood, I'm taking steps to course correct i.e. career planning, exercising, asking for help, and focusing on the positives of city life. I am happy to say that this trip shocked me back to a somewhat forgotten, familiar headspace, one I hope to chase down again, and more frequently. Backpacking, it seems, will be so much more than a hobby for Kimber and I, and I'm looking forward to racking up mileage and lightening my loads.