Disconnect to Reconnect

Nearly a year ago today, I found myself strolling along an asphalt road near the Pacific Ocean with one of my best friends. We had just emerged from a two-night backpacking trip along the Coastal Trail in California's Redwood National Park. Still in our hiking gear, we felt awkward in our bulky boots, which made more sense when we were trudging up slippery hills among fallen logs and thick shrubs. Walking along the road, we just looked like two tired vagabonds.

Actually, though, we were walking toward our car, which we had parked nearly two miles from the trailhead. The asphalt road felt startlingly hard after days of hiking on wet grass and soft dirt. But after two nights in the wilderness, I didn't mind the trek—even if I had just hiked 28 miles and was in serious need of a chair. My head was clear, my thoughts relaxed. I was concentrating only on the sound of the Pacific's crashing waves to our left. The sun was bright, and the light breeze tickled my arms.

In that moment, everything felt perfect.

I slowed my pace to a stroll. I let my feet drag a little. One of my shoe laces came untied. I let it dangle. My hat was dirty and lopsided. My lips were chapped, and my hair was a tangle of dirt and sweat. My legs hurt, and my friend's ankles were raw with blisters. But it was great. The sun, the wind, the waves—it was all so great.

I often emerge from hikes feeling like I've just dropped 50 pounds—even if I've been struggling for days beneath my 30-pound pack. I lose the urge to check my cell phone, to think about work, to plan the following day. Backpacking is my way out of a too-crowded, too connected life.

Out in the woods, with a pack strapped to my back, I'm forced to think only of my necessities. I need enough food. And not the low-calorie, low-carb kind. The food I bring is for survival. It's loaded with carbs and calories. It's delicious, if only because it's all I have at the end of a 15-mile day.

I don't have service, so I'm not on my phone. I pay attention to the sun, the way the wind is blowing and the sounds the animals make. I know I need to arrive at my campsite 45 minutes before sunset so I have light to pitch my tent. I need enough propane to prepare a warm meal, and I need plenty of layers to stay warm. Above all, I need two good trees on which to string my hammock. Later, I'll fall asleep in its fold and wakeup around 2 a.m. to a black sky speckled with stars.

My "wants" diminish in the backcountry. I have only needs accompanied by little hopes. I hope the view isn't blocked by clouds. I hope I wake up early enough to see the sunset. I hope I can hear the ocean from my tent. These are the things I live for when backpacking.

In the real world, we're constantly bombarded by what we are made to believe are our needs. We're assaulted, daily, by ads selling us a lifestyle. We are told we "need" more clothes. We "need" to go on this trip. We "need" to go to the gym in order to whittle down our waist or lean out our legs. In the backcountry, you realize that this is a bunch of bullshit. You come to understand that only several layers of clothing are needed to survive the harshest weather conditions (if you pack smartly). You thank your thunder thighs for powering you up hill after hill. You eat gummy bears because they taste good and help you conquer the last couple miles.

In the backcountry, I'm focused only on what I need to do. This shift in my mindset makes me grateful for the few things I'm able to carry on my back, and that gratitude spills into my off-trail life. When I return, I feel light as a feather. Life's stresses can't touch me.

I backpack because it's fun and because it's one of my favorite ways to absorb life's beauty. But I also backpack out of necessity. I need a reminder of what it feels like to not be connected all the time. I need to remember that I don't need all these material things people flaunt on social media everyday. After all, my Carhartts and two-person tent suit me just fine.