Meeting the Fool on the Mountain
When I was on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada of California I encountered a fool.
I am an avid backpacker and early on in my “career” I got v e r y s e r i o u s about it. I studied every issue of Backpacker magazine and learned all the right gear to get and proper clothing to wear and all that jazz. For instance, I learned that “cotton kills” and one should wear synthetics or wool blends if you want to live to tell the tale of your journey. I also came to learn that people get into very heated debates over shoes. Boots or trail runners?! If it’s a boot is it high- or low-cut?! Flexible or stiff midsoles?! I could go on… The point is, I learned how to do it RIGHT.
On this particular trip I was about 10 miles in from the trailhead, climbing up a very steep and rocky pass. And I was miserable. I was cursing my shoes, my heavy bag, the trail, the terrain. (Walking on scree is the worst!) I couldn’t wait to get this part over with. And so I plunged on without stopping so that it would end ASAP.
Just as I was mentally berating a rock, I heard someone speaking to me. I looked up and saw a man, literally wearing rose-colored John Lennon glasses, jean shorts and a t-shirt (the aforementioned lethal cotton!), and regular old tennis shoes (gasp!), beaming a huge smile in my grumpy face. He pointed to the pass and asked if it was such-and-such pass. I confirmed that it was indeed. “Oh good! It’s SO beautiful here, isn’t it?” As though waking from a dream, I had a look around. It was stunning. I noticed he didn’t have any backpacking gear on him and asked if he was staying the night in the backcountry. “No! I’m just here for the day! I think I’ll climb over to that peak and head back.” As though “climbing that peak” was as easy as buying a churro at Disneyland. “Enjoy this beautiful hike!” And off he skipped down the trail.
Here was a man who wasn’t doing the wilderness thing “right” according to the “experts”. But he was having a better time than just about everyone on the trail. This fool, simply by being in their foolish state, held a mirror to me. There I stood, in his dust, under my sun-proof hat, wearing my wicking shirt, with my compass hanging from my neck, and I was the one who felt ridiculous. I was taking myself so seriously that I had lost touch with the inspiration that led me to lug a bunch of crap on my back and climb steep hills in the first place - to see the wilderness. To connect to the raw beauty of the earth.
Now, in good conscience, I can’t recommend people wear jean shorts in the subalpine mountain wilderness. But I can recommend people do take inspiration from the fool’s spirit of joy and wonder. This encounter has come to mind over and over and for many hundreds of miles hiked since then. Just as I’m getting very competitive with a slope or cursing my shoes, I picture his radiant face behind those rose-colored glasses and am reminded to take a moment to appreciate the privilege of being in the presence of Mother Nature.
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