Leaving the World to Rejoin It
on the joys of exiting the wilderness
In June 2002 I became a volunteer backcountry ranger in the Trinity Alps, an obscure mountain range in far Northern California.
A summer earlier I had embarked on my first solo backpacking trip: a quick out-and-back into Sequoia National Park in which I scrambled up to a rocky ridge, munched on Corn Nuts and peanut butter M&Ms, watched marmots raid my campsite, contemplated the vastness of the Sierra Nevada, and quietly said to myself, yes, I’d like more backpacking in my life.
Now 19, drunk on visions of mountaintop ecstasy (thanks to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums) and recently indoctrinated into the cult of “ultralight” hiking (thanks to Ray Jardine), I signed up for the Trinity Alps volunteer position to get my backpacking fix, play with some new ultralight gear I’d acquired, and fill the first weeks of summer before departing on a 5-week Europe trip with high school buddies.
At the Forest Service office outside of Weaverville, a kind ranger in his forties showed me how to check permits, drown campfires, and report trail obstructions. (The under-resourced district, I intuited, was happy to take anyone who showed up.) The ranger loaded me up with trail food and drove me up the long road to Canyon Creek. We backpacked together for two days as I observed him inspect firepits, ask to see hikers’ permits, and write trail reports. He asked if I felt ready to do the same. Yes, I said—and then he took off down the trail, promising to pick me up three days later.
For the first day and night I happily traversed the Trinity Alps, checking off volunteer duties. On the second day, a long rainstorm sent me into hiding for the afternoon, under the tiny 5’x8’ ultralight tarp I’d brought as my only shelter. Affixing its centerpoint to an overhanging tree branch, I pitched the tarp teepee-style, curled up below its tiny footprint, and napped the afternoon away as drizzle soaked the foot of my sleeping bag.
That night I slept little, peeking at the stars as the clouds parted, warming my feet, contemplating a peripatetic and ascetic life in the mountains. Having never backpacked for more than two nights (or solo camped for more than one), I was pushing up against the edge of comfort, and the edge was expanding. When morning came, blue sky had replaced rainclouds. All I had to do was pack up, walk seven miles, and meet my ranger friend at the trailhead.
Now came one of the most curiously delightful moments of my young life. Tramping down the canyon, touched by sun and birdsong and fresh breeze, my already lightweight pack further lightened by an absence of food and fuel, having weathered a rainstorm on the now-longest backpacking trip of my life, I became filled with a kind of electric joy: an effervescent, full-body tingling that ran up and down my spine. With quickened pulse, rapid breathing, the occasional burst of laughter, and a smile I could not wipe off my face, I hiked in this giddy state for somewhere between 10 minutes and an hour, filled with an ecstatic sense of possibility.
Then I got to the trailhead, found my ride, and returned to town. The feeling was gone; life went on.
In the many backpacking trips that lay ahead for me, I would come to know this sensation well. Most likely to arrive on the final day of a long adventure, the spine-tingling wave of joy would never again be a Trinity Alps tsunami, but it would arrive nonetheless. With time, I would realize what these tremors represented: the promise of society, civilization, relationships, and everything else that the non-wilderness human world had to offer.
At 19, this meant a return to UC Berkeley, where I was undergoing an intense period of self-discovery and personality development. It meant looking forward to my European adventure, my longest international voyage and largest experiment in self-organized travel. It meant returning to the Buddhist and Daoist texts I’d started reading (again thanks to Kerouac) and planning a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Though I wouldn’t stumble into the world of self-directed education for another six months, I was already realizing that I could shape my own world, I could make it my own. Life was good, and I wanted to get back to it.
I will always love wilderness trips for their own sake—the beauty, the physical challenge, the adventure—but I also appreciate them as barometers for how things are going at home, thermostats for our worldly ambitions, and reminders of what we truly miss, and thus hold dear.