Torture Device

So what do you do for fun? Me, I tend to strap 40 or 50 pounds of dead weight on my back and drag it and my ever-heavier carcass up some rock-strewn trail to a windswept, godforsaken mountainside, then pull all the junk out of my packsack, use it, eat, sleep, and put it all back to do it over again.

This is called "backpacking," but should probably be called "backbreaking." Backpacking became a fad in the 1970s, when hordes of would-be Colin Fletchers stomped across the landscape-and the mall-in ungainly waffle-soled boots, leaving deep tracks that some intelligent cockroach will find fossilized in mudstone in ten million years.

These days, stolid old backpacking is hard-pressed to compete with such esoteric and adrenaline-laden thrills as BASE jumping, tow-in surfing, and Mardi Gras. But those few of us who never outgrew the '70s and lack adrenal glands large enough to accommodate paintball wars still find this inexplicable activity somehow appealing.

How did I ever come to regard lugging all my crap around as "fun?" Didn't we invent cars and roads to eliminate the need to live like snails? Perhaps my illness has its roots in family camping trips, where we spent most of our time on the side of the road, either pulling all the heavy canvas tents and boxes of food out of our midengine Corvair van so we could replace the fan belt while everyone else whizzed by to get the best campsites or consoling my screaming sister because Dad had left her favorite pillow on top of the car and drove off, leaving the pillow to be run over by semis in a cloud of polyester stuffing. After all that commotion, the idea of heading off with minimal stuff to tromp about in woods free of traffic jams or mobs of screaming brats sounded pretty damn good.

So I gave it a shot. Reflecting on my first backpacking experience, it's a wonder I ever tried it again. I probably kept at it mainly because it was the easiest way to get away from authority figures likes cops, teachers, and parents. However, I was nearly cured that first time out.

I set out on a rocky Massachusetts trail with a mob of spindly Boy Scouts, each of us sporting a more unfortunate set of gear than the last. There was not a waist belt in the bunch, but there were plenty of cans of pop and jars of peanut butter, not to mention pockets full of the inevitable and nearly inedible Space Food Sticks.

Our patrol did not yet own any tents; even the garden variety, with one straight pole at either end and no floor, were still out of our financial reach. So, taking a sorry tip from a Boy Scout pamphlet, we made – out of clear plastic Visqueen. We cut our plastic to pattern, set grommets in the corners, and gleefully folded and stowed our pitiful creations, thinking we'd arrived as gear manufacturers and pulled a fast one on Kelty.

Out on the trail, our glee rapidly turned to dismay as our pack straps dug gouges in our shoulders and our cheap work boots turned our heels to hamburger. However, being young and nearly indestructible, we forgot the pain and hunger as soon as we sat on a log and popped a can of cream soda. We were backpackers! Look out woods, back off bears, don't even think of biting us bugs, we are big bad woodsmen now.

Our clear tents went up in a jiffy. Never mind that one or two grommets ripped out immediately; these things looked cool, like moon tents, and in fact we'd be able to see the moon and stars through our clear plastic domes. However, we conveniently overlooked the fact that it was October in New England, and any sort of weather was possible. I felt pretty cozy when I crawled under my Visqueen in my cheap cotton bag with pictures of pheasants and deer on the inside. That is, until the wind picked up. Moaning though the leafless treetops, it found its way down into my little hovel and into the neck of my bag. As I shivered and cursed and pulled the bag tighter, I could hear teeth chattering from Mark's sorry shelter next door. Whatever possessed me to want to sleep out here? It's dark, and there are weird noises, and there are bears, and I ate all my Space Food Sticks, and where's my Mom?

By morning my head ached from lying on my folded vinyl raincoat. I was shivering uncontrollably, and there was snow on the foot of my sleeping bag! My feet were ice cubes. My boots were frozen solid.

Somehow I finished that hike and, in the flush of unconquerable youth, even looked forward to the next one.

Later experiments met similar results. My equipment remained rudimentary at best. A four-day, 50-mile hike in the White Mountains with my brother had some definitely ordeal-like qualities. I had a 40-pound pack, again with no waist belt. The narrow shoulder straps dug into my skinny frame so painfully that I padded my shoulders with a pair of long pants. Having forgotten my boots, I hiked the whole thing in smooth-soled sneakers, leaving my feet bruised. We ran out of food and survived the last 14-mile day over Franconia Ridge on half an orange each, hallucinating hamburgers and fries.

When at last I obtained a backpack with a waist belt and other modern features, I got thoroughly taken by the salesman. The pack he sold me had a frame held together by plastic joints, which, he assured me, were stronger than welded. Oh, you bet! Then why did four of them snap on the very first hike? I eventually rebuilt the entire frame, drilling it and wiring the joints together.

Considering how many similar, often worse, experiences I have endured in pursuit of endless backbreaking miles, there are only two explanations I can devise for my 35 years of backpacking. One, I am a gearhead at heart and love to collect and tinker with camping stuff. Two, the body forgets pain.

This very weekend I hoisted a load of junk and went gleefully marching off into the mountains only to find that, yes, it still hurts to grunt uphill with that load and no, it has not gotten any easier with age. Were the vast mountain vistas, the herds of wild elk, the baleful glare of the unpredictable cow moose, the peace and quiet and the deep green depths of the roadless forests worth it? It's hard to say, but I'm already thinking about where to torture myself next. Now, if only they still made Space Food Sticks.