Better living through backpacking, part 1: Relaxation through play

Relaxing, for me, is a difficult thing to do—lying on a beach for a week doing nothing makes me stir crazy, my competitive impulse tends to turn hiking into an exercise in going faster than everyone else on the trail, and when I do have down time throughout the week I feel guilty if I’m not putting it to good use somehow. It’s one of the biggest things I get from being in a long-term relationship that I have trouble accessing when I’m single—being with a partner I trust relaxes me, truly and holistically, in a way that nothing else really does. About a month ago I did a 5-day cross-hike of Olympic National Park with a few close friends, and a big part of my goal for the trip was to find some peace and quiet out there in the middle of the wilderness, cut off from the modern world. The whole hike was fantastic, but a little meadow by the Low Divide campground was where I really found what I was looking for, and that specific spot in space and time has become my new Platonic conception of relaxation in a post-Carolyn era.

We christened it John’s Meadow, after the ex-Army National Parks ranger who told us the Low Divide ranger cabin used to be there before it was destroyed by an avalanche a few seasons ago, and it was like paradise itself—a river valley running between two peaks with Mt. Olympus looming over it like a watchtower, lush green grass and wildflowers in the full bloom of summer, a 500-foot multi-leveled waterfall tumbling down from the glaciers of Mt. Seattle to form the source of the Quinault River…I intentionally didn’t take any pictures, because no picture could possibly have done it justice and because I wanted it to stay forever idealized in my mind.

We spent our free day playing in the meadow—I climbed up the waterfall, napped in the shade of a rock, and generally comported myself like a wild human in a world where civilization didn’t exist, and the feeling of just existing in nature completely unselfconsciously was pure bliss. I’ve spent a lot of time re-thinking my relationship to the natural world over the course of the last few months, and the big takeaway from Low Divide for me was that my most fundamental relationship to nature is that of an animal to its immediate surroundings—all of human civilization is a layer that sits on top of that, and I have a tendency to get so caught up in the minutiae these days that I lose track of what’s best for my core self, not just for the persona that I project out into the world.

That focusing on minutiae is something we learn over time, I think—when I was a kid my whole life was nothing but joyous, unselfconscious exploration of the world around me, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved more towards the human end of the continuum and further away from the animal end, because that’s what it takes to exist in the modern world. I held on longer than most—traveling around the world after college was about a lot of things, but at its heart it was about climbing and playing and exploring without boundaries or limits—but my life now fits neatly into all of the little blanks on a credit card application or a resume in a way that used to be anathema to me.

The question of freedom vs. stability is one that I’ve been wrestling with for over a decade now, and it’s gotten more and more personal and granular as time’s gone on. I realized this summer that the true dichotomy isn’t between freedom and stability over the course of a lifetime, though; it’s actually about play vs. work and the balance between the two on a daily basis. My coping mechanism after the breakup was to swing the dial as far towards “play” as it would realistically go and keep it there, and as a result the last 7 months have been among the most enjoyable of my life in a lot of ways; that revelation didn’t come into focus for me until John’s Meadow, though, and I’m still processing what it means for me back here in civilization as I start to intentionally combine play and work to create the life I want to live.

For the time being I’m using a simple mindfulness technique that presented itself to me as I was making my way down the waterfall and my animal mind wanted nothing more than to leap from rock to rock for the sheer joy of it but my human mind, taking into account the likelihood of injury, the logistics of hiking 16 miles out on a broken leg, and the potential negative impacts on my fellow hikers, decided against it: seeing the animal path, but taking the human one. We’ll see how it goes.

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