In the beginning of the book, you said you’d described the trip as a “diet with a view.” The subject of weight comes up a lot in the book–why did you decide not to shy away from that subject, even though in a lot of nature writing and outdoor memoirs, that’s not a subject that comes up a lot?
On a backpacking trip, you are necessarily confronted with the body. Your body aches. It hurts. It gets bitten up by insects. It bleeds. It can be a source of danger or violence, or so you think. The body gets hungry and thirsty and so tired it feels like a burden to carry. It’s strong. It’s weak. It’s too big to carry. It’s small. It’s not quite the right size.
These thoughts all come up in the many hours of hiking. Many nature narratives are written by men, and I don’t think they are, or need to be, as aware of their physical bodies, as women are. We have been trained to be aware of our bodies always, and some of that is biological—we have periods, we grow babies and feed them, we have a physical “change of life,” (twice with puberty) so our bodies demand attention that male bodies don’t, or at least not to the same extent.
And then there’s the cultural baggage. I would be lying if I said that I never used my body, especially in my younger years, to get what I wanted. We are taught to define ourselves through the male gaze. And I know young women still see themselves as a reflection of the way men see them. I see my female college students reacting to the attention of men in the same way I did. They are taught to do this from a very young age.
As women, we are always aware of our bodies, sometimes this can be a healthy awareness, but most often, especially when we are trying to fit the cultural expectations of beauty, it is destructive, even deadly as in the case with Dionne (the character in my book who is battling anorexia and bulimia). For these reasons, I could not write about backpacking without writing about the body. At least not as a woman I couldn’t. But the thing about backpacking is that though we are aware of our bodies in a very real physical sense, we can get away from the cultural expectations of beauty. There are no mirrors. No designer jeans to squeeze into. We begin to feel strong—a body that can carry itself and a backpack hundreds, even thousands of miles. Maybe these are the reasons Dionne believed she could cure herself out there—but in the end, it’s difficult to escape what’s been planted in your brain. Not confronting body issues in a memoir about backpacking would be false, a lie, or at the very least a serious omission, at least for me.
This book was also very much about the human body’s limits. Your knee was injured, and you were hiking with a young woman struggling with an eating disorder. What can people, whose modern lives tend to disconnect us from our own bodies, learn about ourselves from spending time in the wilderness.
I don’t think that the only path to the self is through nature, the outdoors, wildness, but I think that is one very real path. It’s the path I’ve taken, the path I am still taking. And I guess I believe it is a true path. If we see nature reflected in us, we really can love the natural instead of buying into the artificial, or the mediated. We not only live in mediated worlds—boxes with climate control, sound control—we live in the artificial worlds of the facebook post, the text, and the tweet. All of this functions as one big distraction. We confuse what we want with what we really need. We confuse who we are with who we are supposed to be. We don’t have time to think. We are separated from our true natures. Being out in nature reconnects us to who we are at the core, which can be a scary place, but it’s the true place, the place where our humanity lives.
A large part of your relationship with Dionne on the trail was about hoping she would “get better.” Do you still think that nature and hiking can help those who are struggling with mental duress?
Yes. I hope so. It may not be an immediate cure “for what ails you,” as Muir claims, but it sure does help. Or at least I hope so. I guess I am being vague because I think you’d have to ask Dionne. She got better for a time. I do know that. But she also entered back into the world, a world that was entirely too much with her, and it wasn’t easy. I do know I go outside to get better, from whatever it is that ails me, and it helps. A lot.
What would you recommend to those who are thinking about going on an adventure like this?
- Trail running shoes instead of boots, and band-aids and moleskin.
- Lemon drops are the fifth food group, heavy but they will cheer you and your hiking partners up enough to make up for it.
- Read Victor Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning on the trail. You might think you are suffering, and perhaps you are, but this will put things into perspective. You have chosen this.
- Choose your hiking partners wisely.
- Pay attention to everything. This will fill up your life with everything you have ever needed. You will find things—stars telling their ancient stories, the pink alpenglow that transforms a granite peak into a cathedral, your own connection to the great big beautiful world— that you will carry in your pockets to heaven, if there is such a place.
- Realize that the places you will go are your heaven. You don’t have to wait. Go.