Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Backpacker

Backpacking is the journey from trailhead to lake. Yes, the destination could be any body of fresh water, but I don't want to complicate things. Besides, as a backpacker do you go for a line or a point on a map?

The backpacker must labor. Backpacking must be at least in part gruelling. Monotonous switchbacks are not absolutely necessary, but they are a fundamental metaphor for the experience of the trail. The trail is hot and dusty; the lake is wet and cool.

A vacation is a microcosm, or so you wish. The backpacker imagines that at the end of labor is sweetness. The trail is the arena of this imagination. It traverses uncertain terrain and arrives at the promised kingdom.

Vistas, like certain other fussed-over unveilings, must be conserved. To have a vista of the lake the whole way is obscene. Just as there must be labor, there must be blindness. You must travel under the sparse cover of millions of unremarkable trees. Continuing down the dreary viewless path proves your faith.

Not to worry. The backpacker gets a reward. You will round a bend to a revelation. That's what a vista is, no matter how many postcards you've seen. The revelation consists of three things: a lake, conifer trees, and vertical relief. You may be able to dissect these elements, but consciousness plays no part here. You will gasp. Make no mistake: this reveals no more nature than pupil dialation tests. Yet you will be equally helpless. The backpacker looks about in wonder: such a clear jewel of a lake, such bright stone, such green trees! Such a dramatic landscape!

If all the elements are in place, the felicity of the revelation is certain. The backpacker ogles rocks. The landscape beams right through you, undigestable. The backpacker often carries freeze-dried food, but doesn't have to carry Sublime Concentrate. The backpacker already inhales it through the eyes. It may be swarming with people, but we've yet to find a stronger dose than Yosemite Valley. Just look at it, and tell me it exists.

At small gaps in the trees where towers of exposed rock are visible, the backpacker stops and gapes, and exclaims. A seemly trail may tease discreetly.

Ideally, the backpacker is alone on the lake. The backpacker may smile at other backpackers, but backpackers want to avoid each other. More specifically, backpackers want to avoid seeing each other. The backpacker must imagine solitude at the lake. The backpacker is unique to the backpacker, and wants to be unique to the lake. Visible backpackers ruin it.

Sometimes, the backpacker's sense of obscenity transfers from the other backpackers to the lake. In this case, the lake is referred to as a popular spot. The backpacker seeks out less popular spots.

20 September 2012