In civilization, life is carefully constructed so that meeting our basic needs is generally easy and convenient. When we’re cold, we turn on our heaters and bask in their warmth; air conditioning cools us when we’re hot. We rarely find ourselves rained on, snowed on, or hailed on, and we generally only sunburn out of choice. Our world is made light with the flip of a switch. We browse refrigerators and aisles of neatly-packaged food for our meals, or we order and get them delivered to our door. We find ourselves at the top of a food chain we likely didn’t work directly to climb. In these ways and others, most of us are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met with ease.
Meeting one’s basic needs when living outdoors, even by choice, can be much more challenging, as was readily apparent as I walked from Wrightwood to Acton.
The snowstorm that brought Pine Nut and me running to Wrightwood ushered in a chilly and sometimes even cloudy weather pattern. In the low desert, that might have been helpful, but the Pacific Crest Trail goes over the top of Mount Baden-Powell, a 9,406-foot behemoth. The first day I attempted to summit the mountain, the remnants of the storm made the day so wet and bitterly cold that I decided it would be safer to wait for some warmth or sunshine. When I did go up Baden-Powell the following day, I slipped and slid on snow and ice and slush much of the way to the peak.
In places, the backside of the mountain was even snowier. I followed the occasionally knee-deep postholes of intrepid hikers as I worked to stay on trail.
That night, hoping the thin silnylon of my tent would protect me against the cold wind as I slept atop snow, I thought about human innovation and our fragility. Squirrels and chipmunks scurried among the trees nearby, but hairless me needed to wait out the night wrapped in the feathers of other organisms.
The sunshine of the following morning felt miraculous, and relaxing as I descended thousands of feet into the warmth of the desert made me realize how stressed I’d been in the cold.
But, soon, the dry heat, too, proved challenging. I drank more water to ensure I stayed hydrated and removed my socks and shoes to cool my feet at breaks. I donned sun protection, both clothing and chemical. At the margins of the trail, lizards and snakes basked in the sun. I sought shade.
The path took me along steep, eroded hillsides. The trail, held together with all sorts of metal and wood contraptions, was dangerously deteriorated, and I chose my steps carefully. Unstable footsteps sent pebbles tumbling into the valley below, their clattering resounding in the air as they rolled.
The ridiculousness of what I was undertaking struck me as I slowly and methodically moved northward, perched atop a disappearing trail with my trekking poles poking into the rock and providing a fleeting sense of security.
How is it that we humans, little desert scavengers that we once were, have become so powerful? How have we wiped out whole species and destroyed entire habitats? How have we come to occupy every biome on Earth?
I thought of the mountain frog whose limited habitat we hikers were avoiding with an extensive detour.
I thought of the ancient mountains I treaded on, of how they must have been perceived by the Americans of centuries and millennia ago, who wouldn’t have known what lay beyond them.
I thought of the 1500-year-old tree atop Mount Baden-Powell, a tree that had stood for 1000 years before Europeans came to the New World and had witnessed more time than my brain could fathom. I thought of its windswept appearance, of its steadfast endurance as the weather has tested it for a millennium and a half. And, I thought of the initials carved into its bark next to “2015.”
Why is it that we find the need to leave our mark on the world in such destructive ways? Is our own short existence part of the reason we seek relative permanence?
What if we were, instead, to walk gently? What if we left no trace of our time here? What if we just moved through time and space quietly, like leaves in the wind?