Only What You Take With You

I like to backpack. I’ve been doing it since I was young. It has long been a part of my pilgrimage on this planet. There have been some grand adventures and some disappointing days along the way. I’ve been excited, and occasionally injured. I have enjoyed incredible views and days when you could only see the rain dripping off the front of your hat. Every trip is different. Every experience is unique.

One of the critical aspects of backpacking is that you have to find a way to carry everything you think you may need. It all has to go in a bag of limited size. It all has to go on your back, which also has a limited capacity. Every item needs to be evaluated in terms of how much space does it take and how much weight does it add. With every addition, space decreases and weight goes up.

People pack to their fears. That means someone will over-pack in the areas where one is concerned and anxious. If someone is afraid of being in the dark, then they may well have a flashlight, a headlamp, a lantern, some candles, and even a glowstick or two—throw in backup batteries for all of that and you’ve taken up some serious space and weight. If someone is afraid of being hungry in the woods, then the tendency is to overload the food bag with more than enough for the trip at hand and beyond. Someone who doesn’t want to get cold will pack more layers than you would find in premium baklava—base layers, midlayers, shells, outer layers, puffy coats, and three hats. You get the picture. Figure out what you are most afraid of happening to you, and you will get an idea of how your own pack might be filled.

A few years ago I was doing an overnighter to cover some miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; I had been up on the Appalachian Trail and was now hiking back down towards my pickup point. As I approached a trail junction I looked up ahead and saw a young fellow sitting by some rocks on the other side of a bridge. Next time I looked up it seemed as if he had disappeared. A few more paces across the bridge and I see him standing up—with an enormous pack on his back, probably the biggest I have ever seen! We talked for a moment about directions and campsites, and he headed off. As I watched him walk away, it dawned on me what had happened. When I couldn’t see him, it was because he was sitting on the ground getting his pack strapped on—because it was too heavy for him to lift up to his shoulders! His load had exceeded his arms’ ability to pick it up. I can only imagine what it must have felt like bearing that incredible burden into the woods. For me, the physical exertion to carry that pack would have ruined any possible enjoyment. Carrying such a load would have felt more like forced labor than a potentially pleasurable hobby.

There comes a point when trying to be ready for every emergency hampers the enjoyment of the journey. There comes a point when one has to face the fear, make some decisions about how much prevention is prudent, and then take what fits within the space and weight capacity. It is not possible to plan for every possible contingency in the wilderness where the journey takes you. Each hiker has to find the balance between equipment and enjoyment; each hiker has to decide how much first aid is expected; each hiker has to determine what kinds of communication is available or desired. It’s all going in there on your back—that makes a tremendous difference.

I’m not saying that people should not be prepared when they head into the woods. I carry a small first aid kit. I carry a headlamp and a solar-charged collapsible lantern. I have worked out my list over the years, and it works for me. My packweight is less than most and more than some others. But I am confident that I can make what I have with me work in the situations I may encounter.

The most important thing that one carries into the wilderness is not what goes in the backpack—it is what one has in the space between the ears—knowledge, confidence, experience, good judgment, a workable plan, preparation, and the attitude that impels the journey. The reality is that none of those things takes up any space in a pack and they are all weightless. Yet, they are the things that most often determine the direction and the delight, and sometimes even the completion, of the journey.

There is a great scene in Star Wars when Master Yoda is training young Luke Skywalker. Luke suddenly becomes aware of dark entrance into a place that seems to be drawing him in, but it is not clear why. It is a place of danger and the unknown. Yoda is hesitant to answer too much about it. Luke inquires, “What’s in there?” Yoda answers, “Only what you take with you.” Brilliant.

It works not only in that story, but in every story of those who are making a trek, a hike, a pilgrimage. Yes, we only have the equipment in our packs when we walk in the woods, but the same is true mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We have a ‘mind’ that we ‘pack’ with ‘things’ like thoughts, fears, memories, emotions, and experiences. We may well have to sort out what needs to be left behind and what we will carry forward. We may find the journey goes faster with a lighter load that is not weighed down by negative thoughts and feelings that do not give us energy or enthusiasm. We may find that the ‘woods’ of our pilgrimage is a beautiful and growing place when we are less concerned about the negative that may happen and the positive that we have projected and planned for. “Only what you take with you.” Choose carefully.

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