There Are No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs
Like a lot of backpackers, before I started my thru-hike attempt, I was living a #cubelife of “quiet desperation.” Although as a telecommuter, I was lucky not to work in an actual cubicle, I shared the Dilbert crowd’s existential lack of meaning. Like many nine-to-fivers, I sought solace in the abundant digital distractions of our age: Post and check. Post and check. Of course, rather than help, this fractured my attention and increased my overall anxiety.
I did have personal and professional aims—mostly along the lines of writing and creativity—but these were amorphous and mostly hypothetical.
The only actual relief from this fractured feeling came when I was in the woods walking. Step, step, step. So clean and beautifully simple. Out there, magic happened. Mostly the magic of focus. Unitasking.
A few months before my departure date I learned about a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. Considering how little satisfaction the pursuit of more was providing, it had my attention. I bought it, but before I had a chance to start reading it, my boyfriend was dropping me off at Springer Mountain and I was waving a tearful goodbye and starting up the trail to Maine.
A Null-Set Overlap with the Life of a Backpacker
After I had gobbled up the other books in my Kindle library, the plot- and character-driven ones, there was nothing left to read but the Essentialism. I tapped it open on my phone one night at Walnut Mountain Shelter. To call it hilariously irrelevant is an understatement. It’s a business book with a null-set overlap with the life of a backpacker. Block off time on your calendar to simply think, it advises. Escape the tyranny of phones, email, and agendas, it suggests. Find relief from our “gadget-filled, overstimulated world,” it warns. I snorted and tapped the book closed.
Then, two years after a stress fracture ended my thru-hike attempt, I tapped it back open and found a truism that was precisely apt for off- and on-trail life: “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.”
Now that I’m living my breathtakingly better, post-trail life full of real meaning and true human connection, I see obvious applications for my freelance career. As a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach, I do a lot—I have four titles! Ridiculous, and yet I love all these roles. Plus, they overlap, and the work I do in one role often improves my skills for others, so, all good. At the same time, if I want to be really effective in one area (right now I’m most committed to publishing my book, Deprivation Vacation), I have to say a hard no to very good opportunities in other areas. It’s not enough for me to, say, waste less time on social media. I have to turn down paying work. I must at times forgo money in order to put all my resources and energy into improving my shot at publication.
On the trail, trade-offs are no less painful. The main backpacking burden is literal weight. But while it’s not too hard to carry, say, 25 pounds, going really light starts to cost—a lot. Not just money. Yes, light gear is expensive, but hardcore ultralight hikers don’t achieve 12-pound base weights without seriously sacrificing good, important things: warmth, sleep, calories, hydration, comfort, knees, feet… you get the picture.
The principle applies across every aspect of backpacking I can think of: I’ve traded solitude for company (and companionship for quiet), morning breaks for mileage, a good night’s sleep for privacy (and privacy for a night out of the rain), mileage for a vista, speed (two trekking poles) for dryness (one pole and an umbrella), and hydration for time.
What trade-offs do you make when backpacking?
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