This is what my summer was like: Walking into cloudy water with a metal canoe on my shoulders on slippery rocks where I don’t know how deep it is. Making whirlpools in the lake with each stroke of my paddle. Diving head-first into Duluth packs to retrieve duct tape, pot lids, and bags of food. Getting wet up to the elbow dunking water containers in the cool lake and hearing the glubglubglub of bubbles hitting the surface. Feeling the smooth metal of clanking tent poles as I assemble them into a frame. Unhesitatingly stepping my shoes and socks in mud. Hiking over rocks and roots and down slopes and around trees to get from one place to another.
Why can I sleep so soundly on the hard ground? Why does rehydrated camp food taste so good? Why don’t I pace aimlessly around the campsite trying to motivate myself to do my work, like I do when I’m at home? Why can I rise and shine at 5 in the morning, when in the city it feels like a hardship to be up before 9? Why does every shipment of eight new strangers end up feeling like family?
I noticed that the tasks on trail share a few characteristics. First, they’re tangible. They have a sight, a sound, and a touch sensation that let your mind know you’re working on them, and produce a physical result when they’re completed. Second, there’s always a visceral reward when you finish them: a cold splash in your throat when the water’s filtered, changing into your dry clothes once camp is set up, taking the canoe off your shoulders when the portage is done, food in your mouth when dinner’s cooked, rushing into the mosquito-free (or “mosquito-lite”) tent once the bear pack is hung. Third, they’re necessary for survival. There’s no temptation to procrastinate paddling out to fetch clean water when you and your campers are thirsty. There’s no question whether you are going to set up tarps and rain flys when storm clouds are rolling in, or paddle back to camp before your food runs out. That’s why we can work so hard out here without complaining. That’s why lying on a rock in the sun after a long paddle is so much more restful than guiltily surfing the internet on your bed. That’s why teenagers find it desirable to go to bed at 9:30pm. That’s why the tasks on trail fill us with so much meaning and satisfaction.
The tiredness clogging your eyes and weighing down your chest is burned up by the bright sunlight. The tension and self-consciousness about being dirty and smelly is totally lifted as you blend into your surroundings. You’re surrounded by organisms in every stage of life, from newly born, to thriving, to long dead. Nothing around you is square or organized like it is in our human world–nature is wiggly! And it’s all illuminated by the full-spectrum lighting of the sun. You’re on a journey with your tribe-for-a-week–the only friends you’ve got–over hills, through cracks, and around bends, on a venture where you literally cannot see the end. This is the way humans were meant to live.
We are seldom reminded that big cities have only been in style for a few hundred years. Most humans who have ever lived have been hunter-gatherers, and the rest were farmers. They lived a hard outdoor life of dirty work under the sun. They lived close to their family and friends, and were forced to work together just to make their livelihood possible. The sun was their alarm clock, and they lived at the mercy of the weather. This is the norm. This is the lifestyle our systems were calibrated for. I think this is why a canoe trip feels not like I’m far from home, but like I’m finally back in my element.
By the end of the summer, something about the way I carried myself had changed. I no longer smiled just with my mouth; I smiled from the width of my stance to the looseness of my hips to the openness of my chest. It was like I had settled into my own skeleton. I knew I could turn in any direction and confidently jump into any task I saw. I was simultaneously alert and relaxed. I was absorbed in the flow of life around me.
It would be wasteful for me to let this state vanish the minute I leave camp. My life is flexible. I can get out and spend more time in the elements. I can get rid of all my possessions that don’t serve me. (On trail, my personal items fit in a bag the size of a pillowcase!) I can clear my schedule of obligations that don’t fulfill me. I can choose housemates who don’t just live beside me, but work with me every day on projects we care about, be it gardening, making music, pursuing a spiritual path, or serving. I can walk out of my door and go on adventures to places I’ve never been. I can throw it all out and start over if I want. What, from my usual life, did I have with me when I was on trail? And I was happy then.