Real Life Revision Along the John Muir Trail

by Kate Barrett

I recently returned from hiking the John Muir Trail, a 215-mile (give or take) thru-hike in the high Sierras. If you need a point of reference, think Wild, except three weeks instead of three months and lot less heroin leading up to the whole thing.

I backpack pretty often—not as much as some people, but enough. Generally the first two things people learn about me, new acquaintances and whatnot, are 1) that I’m “outdoorsy” and 2) that I write. Naturally, an easy follow-up question is, “Oh, you must write a lot about your adventures then?”

[caption id="attachment_6993" align="alignright" width="300"]IMG_0975 Walking up and down the large hills.[/caption]

Well, no actually, although I understand the assumption. The thing is, my type of adventure is usually pretty boring. It mostly involves walking up and down very large hills, talking about how smelly I am, and thinking about what to eat next. I decided a long time ago to stop trying to pull writing material from my trips—in part because it’s nice to give your brain a break sometimes, but also because I think nature is one of those things a million times more interesting to the person experiencing it than to the person hearing about it. Even when it’s a heart-pounding adventure, like ice climbing or mountain biking or fighting piranhas in the Amazon or whatever, I still find a lot of those narratives snooze-worthy. They just don’t translate onto the page very often.

The trouble is people make the same mistake about big outdoor trips as they do about international travel—they think it’s a Life Experience, capital “L,” capital “E.” And sometimes they even think of it as a Life Changing Experience, which is where things get really sticky. Because most of the time, the whole thing turns out to be pretty mundane and uncomfortable. Plus there’s usually a dubious Italian guy in the hostel common room rifling through your stuff, except in the wilderness that Italian guy is either a marmot or a bear and the hostel common room is a pitch-black forest at two in the morning. Much like the Italian guy, it’s an unapproachable nuisance at best and flat out dangerous at worst, which can leave you feeling powerless.

[caption id="attachment_6989" align="alignright" width="300"]IMG_0997 Dreaming of cheeseburgers and comfy footwear.[/caption]

For myself, I’ve noticed a trend in my attraction to so-called adventures. I always seem to set out thinking, “This time, I’ll do it right.” (Whatever that means.) But every time, I come back feeling beat, like I lost a game I was certain I’d practiced enough to win. My time on the JMT was no different—I spent a good bit of it feeling miserable, dreaming (quite literally) of front-country comforts like cheeseburgers or merciful, merciful sandals.

You might ask why, why do it then? Totally valid. In fact, it’s a question we asked ourselves often, jokingly most of the time, as in, “We’re so nutty, we do this for fun!” But really, all joking aside, I asked myself “why” silently, and painfully, throughout the trip. An easy answer might be that outdoor enthusiasts are just generally gluttons for punishment, especially the ones who choose the humdrum activity of long-term backpacking. One step at a time, bug bites and sunburns and chafing and blisters and knots of lactic acid and all. Gluttons for punishment, maybe, but really I think the answer is much larger and much simpler. I think we’re just forgetful. And by we I mean everyone, not just the outdoor community, and I think it has a lot to do with our capacity for creativity.

Listen, here’s a story. About midway through the first week of the trip, a storm system rolled in. Here are a few of the things I saw: sheets of misty rain shot through with sun just before the clouds took charge, a whole valley overtaken, rain halfway between its journey from pregnant clouds to a thirsty ground because we were only a quarter of the way down a massive descent when the drops started falling. And when you can look out across the midsection of a rainstorm, not just up at what’s hitting you, it looks like a painting creating itself in slow motion. Later, after we had descended into the valley and then climbed back out, we stood at the edge of a glassy lake at nearly 11,000 feet and watched the storm recede over the next range of mountains, framed on either side by peaks in the foreground. The sun sank down and lit everything warm oranges and marigold, throwing the mountains down-valley into blue silhouette, mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains. All this cradled by the backdrop of a granite cirque bathed in alpenglow.

[caption id="attachment_6990" align="alignright" width="300"]IMG_1026 The author and her fellow hikers cast long shadows.[/caption]

Now let me tell you the other part of that story. We stopped three quarters of the way through that descent and tried to take cover under a tree. By then, my toes were so jammed into the front of my boots they had gone mostly numb except for periodic (read: frequent) shooting pains that started in my big toes and radiated into my ankles and knees. After sitting under the tree for some time, I became so damp and cold I started shaking uncontrollably. I cried, but only because my face was already wet enough no one could see. Also because I wanted to go home, and because even after years of backpacking I could still make noob mistakes like forgetting to keep a backup layer dry. It rained the rest of the day, through the remainder of the descent, through the following climb up many switchbacks, until mercifully it cleared enough for us to make dinner and watch the sunset. The best and worst day.

I used to think honesty was synonymous with suffering. I see this conflation happen in writing—my own and others—all the time. In order for writing to be honest it needs to talk about suffering, focus on it, lay it raw. That’s why I always had such a hard time getting any decent material out of my backcountry excursions. I thought the important part, the lesson, had to be about hurting, but dwelling on pain only gets you so far. The really important thing, at least for me, is what happens after I come home.

Since returning from the trail, the sweet, sweet mechanism of forgetting has already set in. Despite saying a few weeks ago I would never backpack again, I’m already planning my next weekend wilderness getaway. My feet don’t remember the ache of a talus field underfoot; my heart can’t recall pumping its way up a thousand feet of mountain pass. Instead, I wake up craving the surprise of morning light on a sequoia tree and the warmth of making unexpected friends along the way. I remember crossing from one mountain range into another across the Bighorn Plateau at 6:30 AM, our shadows long and alien. I remember the wordless fellowship I felt with a faraway man who emerged from his tent, the only other person we could see for miles, enjoying his coffee and the flat forever-view. I remember the joy of sharing that place with him, of knowing without ever meeting that we love something together.

Is it wrong to allow some forgetting of trauma, emotional or physical? No. Is it a skewed version of the truth, a lie even? Maybe, but still—I say thank god for the falsities of memory! Fiction is the mother of resilience. Pain fades, details get mixed around, and the brain plays a big benevolent game of fill-in-the-blank, or what I like to call real-life-revision. That day we spent in the rain? Not half bad a few hours after the sun came out. The 13,000-foot pass with mosquitoes at the bottom and riptide winds at the top? It had a great view! We are story-making animals at our core. We can’t always control what happens, but we can (and do) control the stories we tell. Forgetfulness and the fictions that rush to fill in are, for me at least, what keeps love alive. How else can we return again and again to the most important things we might otherwise give up on? Family, significant others, writing, the natural world—the list goes on.

I for one plan to write some, tell a few more stories, and then load up my backpack again. Too bad I burned my hiking boots in a fit of joy at the end of the trail. I guess I’ll have to get another pair…

Kate Barrett writes short fiction and dabbles in poetry when she’s feeling bold. Kate is currently embarking on a new adventure in the MFA program at the University of Montana. Before this most recent hike, she served as the Program Coordinator for Lighthouse, where she was universally considered an all-around wonderful person. We miss her. We wish her well.