It's Not Really Camping
Most of our family’s vacations took place in the outdoors, but my memories of those trips are filled with vans. I spent hours looking at my gameboy, only to be interrupted by hands pointing enthusiastically at an elk on the side of the road. Oh cool, I would say, and then return to tetris. There was also fog, sticks, muted colors, endless trees, long drives, motor homes, and shade. We spent many nights at campgrounds all across California, but I was too busy looking at sweatshirts in the gift shop to notice the landscape.
For over 18 years I sat with another kind of memory entirely, a vivid one, of hiking up a mountain overlooking the desert. I was 10, and my best friend’s parents woke us in the dark one morning to drive us to a mysterious place called Onion Valley. The sun was bright there. They strapped gigantic packs to our backs and marched us up a series of dusty switchbacks that disappeared into the sky. I didn’t think I would make it. My best friend got altitude sickness. We set up tents next to a lake and stayed there for what seemed like a week, eating fresh fish from the nearby lakes and dehydrated food.
One day on that trip, we left our tents behind and hiked even higher into the atmosphere where the sky was closer, brighter, and crisper than I’d ever seen. The blue light sharply illuminated the uneven, lunar landscape, and the surrounding peaks fell swiftly into green tufts of grass that gave way to reflective, sapphire lakes of unknown depths. I could see everything at once, as if I removed sunglasses I had been wearing since I was born. I wondered how snow and wildflowers could be together in the same place, and how the wilderness could suddenly feel clean and devoid of sticks.
After I returned home with pneumonia and went back to my dull existence at a flat, suburban school, I interpreted my memory of “Onion Valley” as too frightening and beautiful to be real. The air must have been thin, I thought, and I was sick. The lakes, snow, and wildflowers I saw that day, so clear in the blue light, merged with my blurry memories of dreams. It didn’t help that when I mentioned Onion Valley, no one knew what I was talking about, perhaps because I knew nothing about it, either. The name wasn’t very compelling and I didn’t know what the Sierra Nevada was. I shelved all of it into the place of the unarticulated, where daydreams, nightmares, and humiliating experiences sit unmoved, collecting dust.
The place we went to that day wasn’t Onion Valley after all. Onion Valley was the campground where we parked our car, but the trail that scaled the mountainside went to a place called Kearsarge Pass, a quintessential Eastern Sierra hike out of Independence, California. Kearsarge Pass descends into a large, lake-filled basin and connects to the John Muir Trail. I know all of this now, and when I say “Kearsarge Pass”, most California hikers understand I wasn’t dreaming about its magnitude or appearance.
My vivid memory of high altitudes and backpacking once at the age of 10 stands out against a childhood of traditional car-accessible campgrounds. I say this not as a value judgement but to point out that those two things are entirely different experiences. I still enjoy camping, but never blame anyone who dislikes it, or anyone who unknowingly equates what I do on a regular basis with car camping.
To me, it isn’t camping. Backpacking is a vivid experience that involves being scared, earning experiences, standing in awe at the landscape, and sleeping far away from help and light pollution. Part of my enjoyment of the backcountry is that I’m forced to leave behind the kinds of comforts I’m allowed to bring with me when I camp in a traditional campground, which always includes my car and real food, and sometimes includes cell phone reception. I can’t bring any clothing or objects that aren’t absolutely necessary, preventing me from contemplating my choices. There are fewer distractions and reminders of the other reality in which I live—the one where I put on mascara, double tap my phone screen, and get on the freeway. Places that can only be accessed with great effort, and on foot, carry a special kind of magic—they do things to your mind. Consider what it would be like to not see or hear a car for four days. We know instinctively that we cannot sustain and feed human life at 12,000 feet, and that if we built a road to those places, half of us would die making it. Standing above the treeline, I feel as though I'm not supposed to be there, that I'm accessing another dimension.
Since I started backpacking, I have made two trips to Kearsarge Pass, once on a freezing, snow-dusted, late October day, and 11 months after that, on an intermittently warm and sunny Labor Day weekend, pictured here. It is the only strenuous Sierra hike I have completed three times; I will most likely do it again. Walking up the trail, I still see ghosts of myself at age 10, a little turtle carrying a heavy shell up the switchbacks, step by step, moments away from witnessing the person who I would become, but not for a long time.