Words by Andrew Somps
Photos by Flip Mayernik
Backpacks have always been synonymous with school for me. My relationship with its typical items – textbooks, pencils, notepads, that sort of thing – has always been tinged with a slight feeling of worry. These were the tools that I would use to succeed or fail and therefore carried with them a reminder of what was at stake. As a kid who cared deeply, often too deeply, about his performance in school, my backpack would often feel much heavier than it actually was. Knowing I carried papers and projects that would either get the stamp of approval or the painful branding of rejection, I felt a tremendous weight throwing those black straps over my shoulders every day. I hated how I allowed the contents of my backpack, designed to imbue me with knowledge, instead fill me with the ugly angst of success at all costs.
It took 25 years for my relationship with the backpack to change. It required a radically different environment, one far from the polished confines of a classroom, for me to appreciate the true value of a backpack and its integral role in human connection and survival. As fate would have it, I traded textbooks for extra socks, pencils for extra water, notepads for sleeping pads. And in one week, camping and hiking in the Yosemite wilderness, I learned that what one carries on his back means so much more than a good grade. And for me, that was everything.
I awoke abruptly to the sound of Flip’s alarm. 3:30 am. Frozen toes. Biting wind. I scrambled from the tent, pacing aimlessly to shake the sleep from my weary bones. We boiled water, made coffee, and drank our fill but I owe this wake up call to the stars. They woke me as tenderly as my mother. I looked up in disbelief, completely transfixed. This was a new beauty, a new feeling, and I was seeing the world with new eyes. This was awe.
Four miles separated us from the summit. We wanted to be there to catch the sun red-handed as it stole the darkness from the night. With one large pack and some head lamps to light the way, we hit the trailhead. With each step, we felt the praise of the elements. The wind blew, the trees swayed, and the dirt cradled our feet, moving in harmony with one another, pushing us through the night.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the crux of the hike: a formidable and unforgiving 500m stretch of granite that rose steeply, almost inexplicably into the realm of the stars. Steel cable hand rails, running parallel to one another, lined the way to the top. There lay a large pile of gloves at the base of the cables which, for some reason, seemed an eerie sign for the ascent ahead. We continued on, cautious yet intrepid, exhausted yet thrilled. And one by one, we took those first, triumphant steps onto what felt like the surface of the moon.
The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon. Slow and welcomed was its crepuscular light into the fading darkness. I had never witnessed such a friendly introduction to the day or impressive ending to the night.
In a mad world, governed by clocks and calendars and deadlines, we had somehow crossed into a more expansive, slower world – one where time did not matter but operated perfectly within its essence. It was a rhythm I had never felt before, never taken part in. And yet, somehow, some part of me recognized it. Maybe I have that – maybe we all have that – that rhythm inside us. I think there are things we know, feelings inside that have yet to be realized or spoken into existence, until life aligns with us and we allow ourselves to fully play our part in its masterpiece.
When we finally sat down, I took a sip from our jug of water and threw some trail mix into my mouth. The mixture was salty and sweet and cool and danced on my tongue. As I chewed and stared out into the unfolding day, I found myself relishing in this moment of glory. I looked around, baffled by the joy of simplicity. A rising sun, some good friends, water and some trail mix. It was upsetting to think I had ever over-thought happiness beyond such a scene as this.
And it was in this moment as well, when my relationship with the backpack changed forever. Worries about its arbitrary standards of success were whisked away by the very real measurement of its capability to ensure our survival. We had all shared in the awesome responsibility of transporting the pack and its contents, which sustained us through the night. How beautiful – to know that what was in the backpack could, in more dire circumstances, keep everyone alive. In an instant, I felt lighter just thinking about the symbolic sacredness that is the backpack.
I wish I could better describe the scene as the sun came up that morning, but sadly, I don’t think language belongs in the same ring with such immense beauty. It seems unfair. Maybe one day I’ll find the words. All I know is this was more than a hike. This was a transcendent experience in love, in friendship – in beauty. All of this, all of this, through the night.