Requiem for a backpacker

Along in the snow-covered Sierras

The pink hues of sunset illuminate the snow of the Emigrant Wilderness COOL PINKS Sunset descends on a lone traveler in the Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest. Photo: Ron Erskine

Early October 2017. 9,500 feet. Emigrant Meadow Lake. Emigrant Wilderness.
It is late afternoon. I lay tucked in my sleeping bag staring at the ceiling of my small one-person tent. Every two or three minutes, I slap the rainfly to remove snow collecting there. Six inches are on the ground, and it is still falling like crazy. When I think of the 10,000-foot pass and the 14 miles between me and my car, the longing is nearly unbearable. I don’t want to be here.

I have backpacked for nearly 60 years. Throughout those years, I have always bounded to my mountain destination, then dropped my pack, looked for a nearby peak, and said, “Let’s go up there!” Now, here I lay, listless and defeated; not just by the weather, but by the effort and the altitude as well. I wonder, am I just too old for this?

While my backpacking days may be winding down, I will always promote it with enthusiasm. Few activities in our modern world strip you so bare and leave you with nothing but your resourcefulness.

In our daily lives, when confronted with any emergency, no matter how difficult, expert and professional help is a cell phone call away. Now, imagine an emergency—equipment failure, injury, foul weather—deep in the wilderness 20 miles from your car. Your safety valves are gone. It’s just you, the contents of your backpack, and your ingenuity to figure something out.

And you will. And when you return safe and sound, you will be a little surer and stand a little taller in everything you do.

The other incomparable gifts of wilderness travel are the jaw-dropping majesty and utter solitude awaiting there. No national park lookout can ever hope to match it. The silence is complete, the solitude unnerving. Sitting alone in one of those high and wild places, you would understand. Only the most barren soul could miss the wonder in it.

Downcast and brooding in my snowbound tent, I was not thinking these high-minded thoughts. The snowfall continued, but I could lie there no longer. I had to get out. Sliding, scooting, shuffling, I bumbled out, stood and looked at the transformed landscape for the first time.

Oh, my. Everything was soft and weightless like the inside of a cloud. No features, no detail. The softening cloud cover acted like a thin veil casting the warm pinks and purples of sunset evenly across an otherwise cool misty scene. A prairie falcon sliced powerfully but nonchalantly through the falling snow, pulled up, and landed on a granite ledge. The distant honking of a flock of Canada geese grew steadily louder until the birds landed beside Emigrant Meadow Lake, knocked out of the sky by the storm.

How can a moment be so difficult and so magical?

The next morning, ill-equipped and feeling bad, I packed up and hiked alone the 14 snow-covered miles out, seeing no one else along the way.

Ron Erskine

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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.