Tag Archives: backpacking

A piece of advice: should you embark on a two-day backpacking trip in your late 20’s with your then-boyfriend, and out of a misguided desire to be efficient, he convinces you to take only trail mix to eat – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks: trail mix – make sure to bring extra water. Failing this, expect to not poop for the entire trip. Also, as a result of this experience, you may develop an aversion to trail mix.


The majority of the family backpacking trips of my youth occurred in New England. My father’s deep love of leaving town and getting into the forest initiated these excursions, but I believe all of us came to love the way that trees and natural waterways soothed us to our depths. Making such a journey with four small children was a tall order. In exchange for the extra effort involved to take such trips – my mom was already working her ass off at home – my parents negotiated that my dad would be in charge of planning, packing, and cooking. And so summer after summer, between Memorial and Labor Days, we set forth – to the Catskills, to the White Mountains, to the Adirondacks – my dad’s pack piled higher than the top of his head and my mom’s not much shorter. 

As one of the children, I only had the vaguest notion of where we were going, or where we were once we got there. That was up to the adults. My job was to endure a long car ride and be lured up the trail by artfully meted-out cheese and chocolate. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in where we were; it’s that directions would have been meaningless to me. I barely knew the towns adjacent to my hometown, let alone the direction to take to get to them. Up to a certain age, this is the norm. To children, the world is vast, and unknowable in that vastness. Directions became more relevant once I learned to drive. So, I looked out car windows, then at countless pine-tree-lined trails, and at the end of each day, I’d feast on one of my dad’s hot dinners, miraculously assembled from camping food.

You could say I was primed to associate backpacking with certain things being expected of me – packing what I needed, carrying my pack, putting one foot in front of the other – and not certain other things – planning the trip, looking at maps, thinking deeply about meals. So when Mark proposed that on our trip to Oregon we do some backpacking, I was prepared to show up in certain ways and not in others. As fate would have it, he saw no reason to involve me in aspects of the planning, and neither did I.

Which is why, in a cheaper-by-the-dozen-like efficiency move, we ended up with the aforementioned excess of trail mix and dearth of anything else.

Lest I come across as a complete pushover, I want to be clear that I did express my desire for more varied food. I knew what it was like to walk all day, pitch a tent while tired and hungry, and be rewarded with a warm, tasty dinner. I also knew what it was like to emerge from a toasty warm sleeping bag into a chill morning and be able to warm up with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of hot cocoa.

Hearing my request, Mark thought a moment, then said, “Well, but then, we’d have to bring a camp stove. And extra water. And plan meals, and shop for them. Let’s just bring trail mix.”

I wasn’t surprised. This was the guy whose favorite meal to make for himself was Kraft mac-and-cheese with added canned tuna and frozen peas and corn. He eschewed the milk and butter that the box generally recommends you add. Let that sink in. Pasta, corn, peas, tuna, all in a dusting of dehydrated cheese powder. This was not a man who was seduced by food except as fuel for the furnace.

So I did say what I wanted. I understood that the best way to get my needs met was to say what they were and ask that they be considered. What I was unprepared for was what to do if the other person wasn’t swayed by hearing my needs. If I made my gambit and it was rebuffed – well, those were the only cards I had to play. Hence, trail mix.

In the developmental model of couples therapy (of which I am a student), the above, so-called strategy I used arises from a state known as symbiosis. Symbiosis describes a couple that is so uncomfortable with conflict that one or both people frequently squash their own needs in order to keep the peace. So if, for example, you’d like food that’s quite different from what your boyfriend wants, in the symbiotic phase you have a limited tolerance for being of two minds about food and will eventually abandon your culinary desires in favor of getting back on the same page. Except this sort of “being on the same page” is a fiction. Mark and I weren’t on the same page; my acquiescing simply buried the fact that we were on different pages.

All couples go through the symbiotic phase at the start, that heady, falling-in-love stage where we seem perfect for each other. Many of us have trouble shifting out of this phase even when we start to feel the ways we differ from each other. This difficulty might stem from watching parents who handled their conflicts this way. For women, female socialization, which often emphasizes accommodation and not rocking the boat, can also contribute to this difficulty. Wherever it originates, one thing always follows on its heels: resentment. 

At the beginning of the hike – before the two days’ worth of trail mix had built up, so to speak – I didn’t yet feel especially resentful. We took the obligatory photos at the trailhead looking clean and energetic, and then we set out. We were hiking to the base of Mt. Jefferson, a hike I’d done with my family a couple times as an older teenager. Both times we’d gone with other families whose children were much younger, and I remembered the hike as one that basically took all day. I hadn’t factored in the fact that two 20-somethings could hike much faster than families comprised several small children. The hike in took almost half the time we’d allowed for.

We tromped around the soggy meadows at the base of the mountain, looking for a place to pitch our tent – which is when the mosquitoes first made their appearance. We stopped walking long enough to scope out a potential tent site, and apparently the word went out among the biting insects. Where previously we’d only seen the occasional mosquito on the trail, suddenly we were discovered, two warm-blooded creatures standing still long enough to be sucked on. The piercing blue sky was quickly obscured by the curtain of mosquitoes that came to feast on us.

“Let’s get the tent up and get inside,” Mark said. We were fairly proficient and got the tent up quickly so we could scramble inside. For a time, we hunted the mosquitoes who’d made it inside with us. Then we looked at each other. It was 5 pm. We’d have full sun for at least two more hours, and partial sun for two more.  We’d brought no books. There was nothing to do, no food to prepare.

We passed the bag of trail mix back and forth and stared at the slowly diminishing day while the mosquitoes whined and plastered themselves against the outside of the tent.

We spent a miserable night, mostly not sleeping. Outwardly, we were in this together. Inwardly, I blamed Mark: for the trail mix, for the mosquitoes, for the slowly seeping damp beneath our tent, for my bad night’s sleep, for the mosquito bites on my ass from having to pee in the middle of the night.

The sky brightened early. Following a terse exchange, we decided to eat “breakfast” once we were hiking. We packed up our damp tent and sleeping bags, hoisted our packs, and set off toward the ridge to the north. It was supposed to hook up with a trail that offered an alternate route back to the car. We could see the ridge from far off, and we wended our way toward it.

The view from the ridge was spectacular. Standing in one spot I could see Mt. Hood to the north; a 180-degree turn revealed one of the Three Sisters to the south. Their snowy peaks sparkled in the early sunshine. Up out of the mosquito-breeding bogs and above the tree line I thought maybe the effort had been worth it after all.

Mark had, in fact, brought a map, so when we hit the first unexpected fork in the trail, I looked over his shoulder to offer my opinion about which direction we should take. But nature refuses to stand still. It is always shifting and overlapping. Trails become obscured, or somehow don’t look the way you expect, given the map. Were we where we were supposed to be? Was this the trail that eventually curved back to where our car was, or was it the one that would spit us out miles from the right trailhead? I weighed in, no better informed than my partner.

“If we’re on the right trail,” I said, “it looks like we should come to a gentle right and then a sharp left soon.” Did we encounter such a configuration? It was hard to say. That right and then left that we took looked different to me than on the map, but maybe that’s how it appeared to the mapmaker. The emotional high I’d felt on the ridge was a distant memory. In its place, demoralization settled, aided by insufficient sleep and too much trail mix. I had no idea if we were on the right trail, and I didn’t know how to get more sure. In time, we’d reach a road and only then would we know for certain. It was possible that what we’d know at that point was that we’d taken the wrong trail.

We remained slightly above the tree line for a time, descending gently until the trail dropped precipitously. In just a few strides, we were down in the forest, surrounded by 150-foot Doug firs. No need to wonder any longer if we were on the right trail because this was the trail we were on. It was ours now, wherever it might lead. 

Time is relative, as we know. Our perception of time is quite vulnerable to believing ourselves to be lost, for example. Being lost, multiplied by countless steps, equals time moving at a snail’s pace; those countless steps took us further and further from an easy view of the sky. Though beyond the trees it was a clear, sunny day, in the forest it might as well have been dusk. Branches and boughs, hungry for light, filled every conceivable gap.

I can’t believe this, I thought. How hard is it to know where you’re going? It’s not rocket science, planning a backpacking trip. My dad did it all the time. My back hurt, my legs hurt. A bubble of panic lodged behind my sternum. I imagined myself fragmenting into a screaming, hysterical mess. I would have been one of those pioneer women who completely lost her shit crossing the country in a covered wagon. These woods went on and on and on. And back then, they went on and on a thousand times over. She would have wondered if the forest would ever yield to some other terrain. Would she ever see the sky again? In all directions, there was nothing but dense, towering Douglas firs, broken only by the trail.

Instead of decompensating, I had to put one foot in front of the other without cheese or chocolate to motivate me. I had to find my motivation within the fact that the forest would be a supremely inconvenient place to have a nervous breakdown. Curses on Mark’s head accompanied every step for a time. Then at some point my aching knees and oozing heels – did I mention the blisters? – demanded all of my attention and I dropped the silent litany of Mark’s offenses.

Eventually, the forest spat us out a mere 20 feet from our car. The familiar normalcy of it almost made me weep. We drove the three hours back to our digs in complete silence.


We’re used to thinking of the word symbiosis as relating to infant development. In the earliest days and weeks of infancy, the infant is not only completely dependent upon its caregiver but in fact, as a result of this close bond, experiences the caregiver as an extension of themselves rather than as a separate being. Only as their brains and bodies develop do they come to understand that, in addition to there being a “me,” there’s also a “you.” They don’t have to think about emerging from symbiosis into the next stage; it’s a natural process that simply happens as the brain and body continue to grow.

Unlike childhood, in order to grow out of symbiosis in our adult relationships, we can’t rely on aging to bring automatic growth and development. We have to deliberately reach for that growth. We can have all the trappings of adulthood – a job, a long-term relationship, maybe a house, or a retirement plan – and still be stuck in symbiosis. To remain stuck there is not only painful but stagnating. 

To remain stuck also robs us of enjoying the benefits of the next stage of development: differentiation. How might a little differentiation have transformed this backpacking trip? Mark and I would have valued each of our positions equally. If neither of us could genuinely be won over to the other’s side, I might eventually have said, “I know that having a variety of hot food will enhance my experience of this trip so I’ll pack the camp stove and the extra water and the food I’ve shopped for in my backpack.” I would have realized that, since this was my desire, it was reasonable for me to decide how to fulfill that desire. I wouldn’t have thought it was Mark’s job to make my agenda happen when his differed. 

With a little differentiation, we also would have understood the importance of both of us being responsible for knowing where we were going and how to get there. Of course, the “maps” that might teach us how to get where we’re going in our relationships are even more mysterious than backpacking maps can be. Maybe that’s why I do the work I do, trying to become more familiar with the terrain, looking for the landmarks that will keep us on the right trail and prevent us from getting lost. Mark and I did get lost; thus, ex-boyfriend. But maybe getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe it’s what helps us to get better at reading maps so that the next time – perhaps – we don’t get quite as lost.


One of the delights of writing these memories is that my parents get to read them, if they so choose. They did so choose with my last post, and they filled in a couple blanks I thought might interest one or two of you.

My mom was last seen driving away with my grandfather to pick up the backpackers. It was a hair-raising drive with lightning crashing down, first on one side of the road, then the other, practically the whole way there. They drove a road thick with dark, looming Douglas-fir on either side, certain that lightning would bring one crashing down upon them. That was their moment-by-moment terror.

Meanwhile, while much drama and anxiety were playing out on their behalf, the backpackers – having climbed a mountain, and then pushed themselves coming off the mountain in order to be at the agreed-upon pick-up site on time – slept warm and toasty in their tent. They were awakened only when the headlights from my grandfather’s station wagon arced into the parking lot at the trailhead.

Everyone safe and sound.

The family stood alongside their car, an orange and white VW van circa 1974. It was dusk in a land drier and dustier than they were used to. Where they stood, the sky maintained a late-afternoon quality, but further south, the sky boiled a blue-black darker than night. Branching, jagged lines of lightning cracked down from the clouds, their white-hot color contrasting with the darker sky.

The family was heading back east after a summer road trip that started in Massachusetts and extended as far west as Oregon. The vacation had worked wonders on the father. After so many drifting summer days strung together, he’d found more patience and tenderness than he usually felt for his family. Which may have been why, when his children asked him to photograph the lightning, he refrained from citing the speed of light, and human reflexes, and shutter speeds as a way to decline, and instead, for his four children, he promised four attempts to capture lightning with his camera. 

The children debated the merits of taking a photo after the lightning was sighted versus anticipating a flash in hopes that the camera would take a picture at just the right moment. 

As promised, the father took four photos. Months later, all the photographs from their summer journey were developed. These four photos mystified them at first. Absent any lightning on the film, they couldn’t remember why anyone would want to photograph this landscape. Then someone remembered. Remembering transformed the photos, changing them from puzzling if perfectly nice landscapes to concrete evidence of love.


The above was hardly my family’s first encounter with lightning. Earlier that same cross-country summer trip, while staying with my grandparents in Madras, Oregon, my dad and brother peeled off to make a two-day climb up Mt. Jefferson.They’d been dropped off at the crack of dawn two days previously, and as my mom and grandfather prepared to go collect them again, we looked uneasily at the sky. Weather was moving in, and we all thought anxiously of the backpackers coming off the mountain during a storm.

“Let’s leave now,” my grandfather said, an hour earlier than planned. The wind whipped the birch tree beside the driveway into a crazy dance as they headed out. 

The black afternoon light encroached for a long time; we didn’t think it was possible for it to get any darker. When the storm hit, it was anything but gradual. One minute, the high desert air held its usual parching heat; in the next, sheets of rain and explosions of thunder swept in.

You could say we were used to storms like this. They were not uncommon in Massachusetts where we’d been living. In fact, two years earlier, almost to the day, we lived in a 200-year-old farmhouse at the top of a rise. It sported seven lightning rods throughout the house. In that two-years-ago summer day, the usual heat and humidity were briefly broken by a storm at dinnertime. My mother thought we should turn off the dishwasher. I headed to the kitchen and stopped it just in time for the crack! that meant the house had been hit. Contained electricity snaked down the kitchen lightning rod, visible to me as it blazed toward the ground. But it’s nearly impossible to get used to thunder and lightning storms. They’re too erratic, too loud, too potentially deadly. 

Now, we sat huddled in my grandmother’s family room, me, my two younger sisters, my grandma, her youngest sister, Alice, and Grandpa Joe, their mother’s third husband.

If you were trapped in a storm, and both of your parents, and your older brother and grandfather were out in that storm, the best person in the world to be trapped with was our grandmother. She had survived countless storms by then – most of them of the non-weather sort. She had skills for just such moments.

“Let’s play rummy,” she said. My sisters were 11 and 8. Her house sat on a slope toward the top of a hill. The storm brought significantly cooler air than we’d felt during the day and we unlatched the windows, opening them a hair to feel the new coolness and to smell the scent particular to desert dust and sage pummeled by rain.

I was a veteran of the rained-out camping trip by this time and knew such a thing to be unpleasant but not necessarily dangerous. But this was next-level rain.  I envisioned my dad and brother descending from the mountain on trails turned to rivers, beneath trees that, in the absence of lightning rods, were the only things tall enough to guide the lightning to the ground.

My sisters and I had been taught to count the seconds between the lightning and thunder. It was meant to comfort us, I think, the assumption being that most storms would be far enough away to reach five, or four, or even three seconds, and thus we’d be reassured the storm was far enough away to offer us no danger.

“-three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand-” CRACK!

“Still a whole mile away,” I said.

Gram dealt the cards. Rummy was her favorite and we’d been practicing in hopes of offering her a little competition. Grandpa Joe didn’t join us. I was used to taciturn men in my extended family, men who couldn’t seem to be bothered to speak with women, and certainly not with children. How strange, to have become acclimated to a male body being in the room without it being a part of the goings-on, a body that expected to be offered food and drink without having to participate in any way.

“-two-one-thousand, three-one-thou-” CRACK!

I discarded a ten of clubs at the end of my turn. Grandma’s eyes twinkled, and she scooped up the entire discard pile, 12 cards in all. “Ha ha!” she laughed with glee.

“That might be your undoing,” Alice said with a wink to us kids. She could say such things and still win prizes for being the most sweet-natured woman of all time. 

My grandma’s stepfather, Louis – Alice’s father and their mother’s second husband – believed children were best disciplined through beating; he also believed daughters to be an extension of one’s wife. When you’ve been raised in such crushing harshness, you can go one of two ways in adulthood. You can allow it to leak into your child-rearing philosophy, or you can treat children like the tender shoots they are, like the tender shoot you were. 

To the extent that my grandmother survived Louis, she did so through the balm of humor, the unstoppable ability to laugh, to find the absurd, the one nugget of levity that might transform an experience, lighten it up. What started as a survival skill blossomed into a single-minded way of being. Stories abound in our family about her contagious laugh, a sound that could lift a tense atmosphere and invite others to laugh together, even when we weren’t sure what had originally been so funny.

“Do you think they’ve gotten to the mountain yet?” I asked.

Gram looked at the wall clock. Only 7:00. Full-on dark due to the storm. “They’re maybe halfway there by now.”

The family room had a couch, a couple recliners, and a small table with chairs. It lacked decoration unless the clock counted as such. The overhead light cast an interrogation-room glare.

“I imagine the storm will slow them down a little,” Alice said. “You’ll be in bed before they’re home.”

Flash! BOOM! The storm was on top of us.

My youngest sister hunched over and put her hands over her ears. We all remained fixed in place, as if by freezing we might escape the notice of the storm. The rain roared against the room, and the wind whistled through window screens, still cool but no longer a relief. We couldn’t hear each other to speak. The overhead light flickered.

Within clouds, when some of the precipitation moves rapidly upward, and other precipitation falls, their collision can create the fiery discharge we call lightning. The resulting current of electricity instantly heats the surrounding air. The air in turn expands, and then as suddenly collapses, creating shock waves along the entire bolt path: thunder. 

How long does a storm-on-the-move stay in one place? The answer is both too long, and, in the scheme of things, not long at all.

Flash! One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thou- Crack! It was moving away. Maybe staying motionless had helped: Nothing to see here.

The wind and rain began to ease. We’d be able to talk soon, but now I imagined the storm moving inexorably toward my parents and brother, traveling like some force released from the underworld, intent on destruction.

“Who needs a snack?” Gram asked.

“I brought some Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz,” Alice announced.

We were hooked. Cheez Whiz was a thing of legend, something we’d never tried. Alice brought out her cheerful turquoise beach bag and pulled out the box and can.

Apparently Cheez Whiz was novel for Gram as well. She stared at the directions on the can. “How does this work?” she asked. 

Alice pulled a sleeve of crackers from the box. “Let’s see,” she said. She offered us each a cracker, tilting the sleeve toward us as if she planned to knight us with it. We each took one, though I could have eaten dozens given my post-terror appetite.

The Cheez Whiz was aptly named.  It did indeed whiz out of its container, wiggling onto the cracker, falling all over itself, piling into a squiggly mound before Alice let her finger off the button. “Be careful. It comes out fast.”

She passed it around. My 8-year-old sister cackled with delight as the Cheez Whiz overflowed her cracker and onto her fingers. She licked it off, her eyes shining. “It wiggles like worms.”

“Maybe it is worms,” Alice said.

“Worms, worms, worms,” Gram chanted. “We’re eating crackers and worms. Mmm, delicious!”

The meter of those words – crackers and worms – was irresistible.

We howled.

“How do these worms compare to the ones you’ve had before?” Gram asked.

“Oh, these are the best worms I’ve ever had,” Alice insisted.

“Me, too,” my 11-year-old sister agreed. We erupted again with silliness, laughter discharging our anxiety and ushering in relief that the storm had moved on.

“Crackers and worms, crackers and worms.”


There’s a photo from that night, a Polaroid that has survived the intervening 45 years. My grandmother took the picture. None of us sit fully in a chair except Grandpa Joe. The rest of us – Alice, my sisters, me – we’re all perched on something, the arm of a chair, the back of the couch. Each one of us girls holds a Ritz cracker, one raised to toast the photographer. My 11-year-old sister’s eyes are squinted closed with laughter. The flash from the camera and the overhead light conspire to wash things out, but you can still tell we three sisters have had the Platonic ideal of a summer. We are tanned from hiking Pacific Northwest trails, swimming in Oregon streams, picking blackberries in the blazing August sun, and sitting on countless front lawns meeting cousins we didn’t even know we had.

We look like children who’ve benefited from tenderness, who’ve thrived from it.