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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.

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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.