Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lessons We Didn't Learn on the PCT, Part Two: Appreciation of Nature

Road down to Truckee, California

No one sets out to hike a 2,660-mile trail through the wilderness unless they appreciate nature on some level. But once again, while many people around us philosophized about the wonder of nature and how you can never get too much nature and how awful civilization is, Zach and I found ourselves in the minority again. 

Let me clarify this up front: I love nature. I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid, running around in the acre of woods behind our house. I spent a good chunk of my childhood outdoors, learning to build forts, identify birds, study bugs, understand the ecosystem, and reduce, reuse, and recycle. That love of nature has grown the older I’ve gotten, and I seek to have a life connected to the earth, the seasons, and the weather.

So you see, I already appreciated nature when we set out on the Pacific Crest Trail. What I learned to appreciate on the trail, then, was civilization.

Unlike my unabashed appreciation of owning stuff (see previous blog), I felt more sheepish about this one. We had come out here to be in nature, after all. And I did love sleeping under the stars and drinking from clear mountain streams and seeing wild animals. But again, the trail didn’t create that appreciation of nature— it just told me what I already knew. 

What I didn’t know quite yet was how much I loved civilization. Not just the comfort of climate control or the security of living in a home— but as a place where people live and work and have friends and are connected. In the solitude and disconnection of the trail, seeing people in community (especially in the wonderful small towns we visited along the way) made me miss home so much I thought I would explode. Of course, civilization doesn’t automatically connect people to each other; all too often, it severs. But despite that, seeing the far-off twinkle of a house’s lights down the mountain always made me feel less alone in the world.

In my PCT memoir, I wrote this about a night in the desert (May 3rd, day nine, mile 144, for those who are curious):

That night, we raced to get a campsite among massive boulders before other hikers could take the good spots (getting a campsite was difficult in the desert). We claimed a nice sandy flat spot under the lee of a huge leaning boulder. We set up our tent but didn’t bother making supper— too much work. We ate Snickers instead. I went and sat on a boulder overlooking a wide valley as twilight seeped into the sky.

Far below, miles away, the golden lights of a town twinkled. I stared at them, and my eyes began to fill with tears. The starry sky was coming to life above my head, with vast constellations and a clear view of the Milky Way— but all I could do was stare at that town and its beautiful twinkling lights. Lights that meant people were at home, and people were climbing into soft beds with cotton sheets and kissing their children goodnight and living in civilization. Lights that meant there were people in the world doing normal things.

Zach came and sat next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder. We both felt a little beaten down, and a little guilty for feeling so beaten down even with all the amazing trail angels who had been helping us out. But it was nice to sit on a boulder and look down at the lights.

Finally I said, “Stars are beautiful, but you just can’t beat the lights of a city.”

Zach smiled and said, “Yeah.” And I felt happy, because it meant that he understood me. Even if no one else on the whole trail could comprehend why I’d rather stare at a bunch of artificial lights instead of the Milky Way, Zach understood.

I knew I had married him for a reason.


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