Sunday, July 27, 2014

The future of backpacking

When I finished my Calendar Triple Crown back in October of 2001, there was a fair amount of media interest. So much, in fact, that I was quite surprised by all the fuss. I was flattered by most of it, but like any celebrity I was subject to some criticism as well. One negative editorial was titled "A Long Walk Spoiled." I honestly don't remember who wrote it, or where it was published, but the point was that I walk too fast. My answer then as now is that my big hike was enjoyable BECAUSE of the pace, not is spite of it.

I bring this up because it's related to a larger issue that comes up regularly. What is the proper use of wilderness and what is the future of backpacking? While some people lament that backpacking is a dying sport that young people don't enjoy, others complain that special places are getting overused. How can these both be true?

Backpacking and the use of wilderness is changing.

Backpacking used to be a solitary endeavor where a strong individual went camping in the wilderness. It had much in common with a still earlier generation who conquered the wilderness in order to eke out a living. The value of wilderness to the solitary backpacker varies, but was often to reconnect with that earlier way of life, or experience a part of the natural world that was vanishing. Whatever the exact purpose, a backpacker typically carried a lot of gear and made a relatively large impact. For example, it was common for a backpacker to carry an ax and cut boughs to make a bed to sleep on.

The wilderness use we see today is much more diverse. Each person has less impact, as those who once carried an ax to "tame" the wilderness now carry a bear canister to protect it. But trails get used by runners and bicyclists as well as backpackers. People carry phones, GPS devices and cameras.

Do the new uses erode the experience of the more traditional user? The man who wrote the article about my hiking style evidently thought so. He claimed to be concerned with my enjoyment, but just because he doesn't like fastpacking doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. I believe his real point was that my speed upsets HIS peace and quiet.

If my very presence upsets his solitude, my goal-oriented trail use probably upsets his peace of mind. I try to remember that every time I pass someone on a trail When I come up behind a slower hiker, I alert them verbally of my presence before my footsteps startle them into thinking I might be a bear. If they want to talk, I slow down for a bit; if not, I move on with as little disturbance as possible. If a cyclist comes up behind me and shows similar respect, I won't lecture them about the rules. What's the point? Do you really think they don't know bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas? Of course they do!

Mutual respect is good in all wilderness encounters. Technology use offends some people, so take care when you break out your cell phone or GPS. Camp in a secluded spot, particularly if you have a large colorful tent. Limit your use of fire; downed wood is more beautiful than a blackened fire ring. Carefully bury human waste and pack out the paper. The days when we could all cut boughs for a bed are long gone.

Another reason to get along with others in the wilderness is for access. A good trail isn't cheap. We need all the trail supporters we can find or there won't be enough money spent on trails. You may want to exclude others from your private paradise, but how would you feel if your paradise was closed because of budget cuts or the trail you love was choked with brush? All trail users should be on the same side.

So what about younger people? How is their use of wilderness changing? Do they care about it at all? In my experience, yes, they DO care. Sure they have less time and more options than older folks. It's hard to backpack when you're working two jobs and don't get paid vacation. Rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and trail running compete with backpacking. The obesity epidemic reduces the number of people who can do any of these outdoor activities. And some people can't stand not to be electronically connected at all times.

So is backpacking dead? Hardly! It's just evolving. Rock climbers are venturing out deeper into the wilderness every year in search of new routes. Ever more remote rivers can be run with a pack-raft. And trail running is just a natural extension of the new fast-and-light backpacking techniques.

What about communication technology? The day has already arrived that a backpacker can be connected to the internet anywhere in the world. A selfie taken in Antarctica can be posted world-wide in minutes. This technology is actually increasing the exposure of wilderness and making it more popular, not less. The problem is that the most-beautiful and most-visited places are getting most of the exposure, so the most-loved places are getting mobbed like celebrities and loved to death.

So backpacking is alive and well, especially in our National Parks. Hopefully technology will help popularize some of the lesser known places so that they can thrive on the attention and take some of the load off places like Half-Dome and Mt. Whitney.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The meaning of "Stairway to Heaven"

When I run or hike my mind often plays songs repetitively. If I don't like the song or don't know enough of the lyrics to make it a pleasant experience the resulting monotony can get quite burdensome. But if I'm lucky, a beautiful ballad that I know and love will play and I can enjoy the experience. "Stairway to Heaven" is one such song. Written in 1971 by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, performed by the incomparable Led Zeppelin, it played endlessly on the radio when I was in high school. And every time it came on, I turned up the volume and let the spell of that song carry me away. At over 8 minutes long, with lyrics scattered sparsely throughout, it's arguable that the lyrics aren't central to the song. It's one of the greatest rock anthems of all time - who even listens to the lyrics? I certainly didn't. Not until it started playing endlessly in my head. When you are forced to listen to a song 15 times in a row, you get past the awesome guitar solos and the ethereal mood of the song and you start to wonder, "What the F--- is this song really about?" At least I do.

When I first heard the song it seemed to be about some rich lady who bought her way into heaven. The line "your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know" seemed appropriate to the endless loop I was experiencing. But it took a long time for the story to come together in my mind.

As I got into it, there seemed to be a lot of non-sequiturs. Consider the line "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." Where did THAT come from? We were just talking about the Stairway lady. It made me wonder.

In time I realized the song is not a linear story. It's a series of images altered by the later context. It's kind of like a movie that starts in the middle of the story and only later supplies the context to understand what you've seen.

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven." The lady and her stairway represent materialism. There's also a hint that she may be misguided because all that glitters is NOT gold. "When she get's there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for." Money, privilege and power. Pretty simple so far. "There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." She doesn't trust anyone. Money has cut her off from people.

Then comes the apparent non-sequitur. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." So far the song has been about a lady and a stairway, or if we're already on the metaphorical bandwagon, it's about materialism and the way that cuts us off from other people. We can't understand this line except in the context of the rest of the song, but we'll soon see that a change from an old way of thinking to a new one is the real theme of this song. So eventually we'll understand that this line starts the real theme of the song and everything that came before it is a metaphor for the old way of thinking.

The refrain is "Oooo, it makes me wonder." Wonder what? The singer is rethinking something. But what?

The story takes a personal turn with the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving." This is a lovely poetic line that boils down to "Facing death makes me think about what's important in life." Because the sun sets there, west has been a metaphor for death since at least ancient Egyptian times.  

"In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking." Rings of smoke denote campfires, indicating that people live there, despite being hidden. Those who stand looking are people who witness evil, but say nothing. The people in his thoughts are coming out of hiding to stand up for what's right. 

"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason." The vision continues.The tune and the piper are musical metaphors connoting the spread of the goodness and truth seen in the vision. "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long and the forest will echo with laughter." As the vision gathers momentum, the people are no longer hiding in the trees.

But we're still not sure what this great vision really is. Does it have anything to do with the lady or the materialism she represents?

In the next few lines, we the listener are brought into the song somewhat ambiguously. "Your" and "you" could refer to the lady, but as we'll see later, they don't. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen." Very poetic again, and very British. Some translation is needed. In rural England the hedgerow is the line of shrubs denoting the property line between your estate and the next, so a "bustle in your hedgerow" means something is changing in your life or your mind. The May queen was chosen by a village to represent youth, beauty, newness, and hope for a better future. So this line boils down to "if your old ideas start crumbling, don't be alarmed, you have new and better ideas forming in their place." It's also possible that the May queen is another reference to the lady, though significantly changed in her ways.

"Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on." This is a major clue to the still nebulous vision. It's a vision about a change for the better, one that we the listener can make.

"Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know. The piper's calling you to join him." Since the bustle, hedgerow and May queen were so mysterious, this stanza restates and clarifies the previous one. The piper, as mentioned earlier, represents the vision, now evidently an idea because it is humming in our head. It's also a popular idea because here the piper is portrayed like the Pied Piper whose pipe magically lured rats and children to follow him.

"Dear lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind." There's a lot going on here. Blowing wind is a metaphor for popular opinion, just as it was in many other songs from this era. Now we see the flaw in materialism, represented by the lady. Her money is only good if people accept it. And her reliance on it has cut her off from those people to the point where she may not be able to hear them at all. "Dear lady" is a clue that the lady also represents the materialist part of ourselves, one of the "two paths you can go by."

"And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls." I really love this image. This song could have been about other people's flaws, but it's not. As time goes by, we inevitably grow more materialistic. One day we realize that we haven't lived up to the idealism of youth. Our material selves are now more important to us than our spiritual selves. 

But why shadows? A close inspection of the entire song shows a consistent differentiation between things seen and things heard. Things seen are false and misleading. Things heard are real and from the heart. This might seem strange, but remember, we're listening to a song. The truth is coming to us aurally, not visually.

"There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold." The shadows of the previous line come from the shining white light of a materialistic point of view. If we cast a shadow, it's because our materialism is showing.

"And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last." The tune returns. Like last time, the tune is the new way of thinking, the second path, the non-materialist way of living that is more genuine, and keeps us connected to other people.

"When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll." It's too bad this line is so hard to understand in the recording because it really ties everything together. If the new way of thinking is good for one person, it's even better for a group. If enough like-minded folks get together and form a community then we'll live in a real, solid and reliable paradise.

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." If not, the materialists will take advantage of the rest of us.

So that's how I interpret the song. It has added immensely to my enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven. I hope it does the same for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's been a long time

To date I've used this blog exclusively for trip reports. But it's been almost five years since I last posted one. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is I'm old enough now (53) that what I accomplish in the outdoors is no longer newsworthy. No FKTs, no high placings, no races at all lately. I've been recovering from an ankle sprain that I refused to acknowledge until it got much worse than it ever should have. It had been so long since I got injured, I thought it would never happen to me. Live and learn.

I've also known for many years that I write best during or after solo hiking or running. I've never been more prolific than during my Calendar Triple Crown. On that trip my journal was my substitute companion. When I came back a minor celebrity, I had more human contact than I could handle and the writing suffered. I tried to write a book about my big trip, but I just didn't have the time or desire to write it. On the other hand I came back so much more confident and happy that my life quickly changed for the better. I started a second career as an adventurer. I got married, something I had all but given up on after turning 40. I helped raise an amazing step son who is now in college. The marriage didn't work out, but Sophia and I are still great friends, so there was a minimum of grief involved. Neither of us wanted any of our friends to have to choose between us, so we kept the separation quiet. When people found out, it was old news and we could prove to people there was no drama. Some people understood; some didn't.

But now I hike and run alone again much of the time, and I find stories bubbling up from my subconscious. So I've started writing again. About anything. It doesn't matter. Like running, writing well takes lots of practice. So I hope you enjoy reading my blog. But it's going to be different this time.