I Prepare for No-Man’s Land

I continued my exploration of the Southwest that existed beyond the cities and towns.  My goal now was to get far beyond the sight and sound of motor vehicles of any kind.  However, to do so safely and comfortably, some new equipment was in order.  So I dipped into my pocket and replaced my flimsy footwear designed for concrete and asphalt with my first pair of boots manufactured specifically for hiking; my foam rubber mattress with a compact inflatable mattress; my Sears cloth sleeping bag with a down-filled mummy bag; and my little plastic tarp with a one-person, lightweight backpacking tent with a rain fly.  I purchased a water filter and a container to hold four eggs.  However, my Svea stove still served me well, and I retained my Kelty backpack, which would now no longer be a mere storage locker; like me, it would be a sojourner!  

Linda preferred to limit her backcountry foot travel to occasional day hikes on bird-watching expeditions in central New Mexico, guided by an Albuquerque birder whom we got to know.  Occasionally I’d backpack in New Mexico or Utah with a visiting Denver friend or two.  However, my preferred companion in the Southwest forests and deserts was simply myself. 

This way of doing things had deep roots.  Throughout childhood, I occupied myself alone for hours, playing with my blocks, Tinkertoys, modeling clay, and Lincoln Logs, and reading my Little Golden Books. 

At 12, I added a long solo walk in the outdoors to my list of experiences.  While vacationing with my family in the Berkshire foothills of northwestern Connecticut, I slogged eight miles along country roads and a railroad track, through woods and swamplands.  Although I was tormented by mosquitoes and deerflies and miserable with dew-soaked socks and Keds sneakers, never once during the trek was I lonely. 

When I was a teenager, I walked alone in the outdoors more for psychic defense than adventure.  At the age of 15, I ended a destructive relationship with a boy who for years I regarded as my best friend; I dismissed, as well, a couple other even more toxic boys my friend and I knew in common.  Although I tried, I couldn’t establish another close friendship for the remainder of my high school years.  To hide from my classmates my solitude―now no longer an admirable expression of self-reliance, but rather a mark of shame―I avoided as best I could the streets and sidewalks between my house and my high school, often walking a stretch of railroad line bounded on both sides by a slender margin of trees and brush (which, for me at least, doubled as a kind of suburban New Jersey “wilderness” experience).  I was comfortable walking along the railroad tracks.  I was similarly at ease walking our dog alone in some woods near our house.  Undeveloped wooded areas meant safety and relief.

Although I graduated from my high school after the customary three years, I was―likely to an extent because of my solitude―a mediocre student who failed to gain entrance to any of the colleges to which I applied.  With my consent, my parents therefore enrolled me in a distant boarding school for a year of remedial education―and, perhaps in their minds, re-socialization.  I understood the boarding school’s necessity; nevertheless, I found the experience tormenting.  Although quite aware of my academic shortcomings, I still felt humiliated to be at the school.  Eighteen years old throughout most of my stay there, I loathed what I considered its childish rules.  Eager to join 1968’s “counterculture,” I despised the school’s regulations, including regular haircuts, coats and ties for classes and meals, and no smoking.  Most of all, now a hardened loner, I hated its clamorous beehive existence of studying, eating, sleeping, recreating, relaxing, worshipping, showering, and shitting together. 

Although, as at high school, I felt shameful doing so, occasionally I had to get away from all of this to regain some sanity.  Fortunately, the boarding school was located in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts―in fact, not far from where I happily vacationed as a kid.  So, after lacing up my Sears hiking boots, I’d leave the school property, briefly walk down a rural highway, and duck into the nearest woods.  After penetrating trees and brush for a quarter-mile, I’d sit on log, puff on a series of cigarettes (smuggled to me by my sister through the mail), and luxuriate in the peace and solitude. (Two decades later, I finally acknowledged my immense gratitude to the school, for, despite yet more average grades, the school somehow got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams, where I made friendships that have lasted me to this day.  I’ve regularly made modest contributions to the school ever since.)

Thus, the significant events that prepared me for my first Southwestern backpack.

In my Albuquerque apartment, loading my backpack―its features, by today’s standards, laughably rudimentary―I experienced an unprecedented feeling of freedom and satisfaction.  From my freeze-dried food to my water filter; from my remarkably lightweight tent and sleeping bag to my “candle lantern”; from my pocket-sized The Sierra Club Trailside Reader to my “snakebite kit”; from the fundamentally physiological to the lofty self-actualizing, I had psychologist Abraham Maslow’s complete “hierarchy of needs” ready to ride comfortably on my back for days and nights well beyond civilization. 

As far as guidance into the backcountry, I was not comfortable relying on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps alone, so I purchased Harry Evans’s 50 Hikes in New Mexico.  It was summer when I was thus newly outfitted, so, with Harry’s advice, I struck out into a landscape that seemed most familiar and comfortable: the high-elevation forest. 

(Author’s note: An account of this backpack, entitled “The Lessons of My First Backpack,” appears in Volume 2 of Deep Wild Journal, a print edition and/or an online edition of which is available starting in early July of 2020. Please go to deepwildjournal.com. The author thanks Deep Wild Journal for publishing his account.)

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