There’s the ‘Back Fence’ Line Again

Yes, that one– “Who has not felt the urge to throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence?” It was John Muir, pioneer wilderness preservationist who said it, of course.

It’s quoted everywhere. It first struck at my soul on the first page of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” and since then it’s kept cropping up here and on There’s something about it that resonates well among hikers. As I prepare for my impending thru-hike–only three weeks away now!–I’m thinking about the longing it arouses in me. What am I looking for that Muir’s question draws me towards, that my thru-hike may be an attempt to find?

Old Sacks

That much-quoted line tosses out a series of images that are distant and dreamy for someone growing up in Manhattan. For one, by saying “an old sack,” he implies you’d have various old sacks lying around, from which you’d pick one and go forth. These days, most people around here don’t have those kinds of multi-purpose ragged possessions. Maybe you have a briefcase for work and a few plastic bags from the grocery store that you dispose of later. It’s just too easy to buy exactly what you need. “This will do as a fine sack, as long as I patch this up right here” is not something you hear. “I need to buy a backpack” is more like it. I wonder about a world where people make do without buying all the time.

Back Fence

Then there’s this idea of the back fence. Yes, of course people in Manhattan don’t have fences at all, let alone back ones. But it’s not the fence that interests me–it’s the fact that it alone could separate civilization from the wild. That one could jump over a simple barrier and switch instantly from the comforts of home to the unknown, revert in a moment from modernity to the ancient wild. By contrast, going hiking from the city requires an agonizing drive through the suburbs, waiting for the houses to spread themselves out more and more until they finally give way to forests. The city sprawls. No fine line contrasts my home with the wildness it once replaced. I’d love to be able to simply jump between the two, to hear both of their songs, learn what they both have to teach me with the simple crossing of a line–but that’s just a daydream.

On a Whim

Finally, and most poignant for me, is the spontaneity Muir evokes. Just toss the bare essentials together and go. My whole life has been obsessively planned out, school and extracurricular activities all with rigid timetables. Anything requires several weeks notice. Everyone’s frozen in a routine. But what freedom this guy seems to know! On a whim, to dash out and explore! No permission slips necessary…A wildly different reality from the one I’m used to going along with.

Dream Come True

I love to dream about these different ways of life. They have a freer, a simpler color to them in my imagination. I’ve always vaguely wanted to venture out and find that different world. And now I have the chance to live in it–in all its harsh realities. On the Appalachian Trail, I will be laden with old sacks, many items with multiple uses, all wearing down. I can’t buy my way across the trail–at a certain point, I’ve got to use what I have in front of me. Just make it work, no matter if I know how. I’ll hop the fine boundary between civilization and the wilderness countless times, stepping off the trail onto the road and back again, in and out of town. I’ll grow to love and dread them both. And most of all, there’ll be no clock or schedule telling me when to go. When I’m ready to head off for the day, all it takes is walking off. When I want to stop–simply stop moving my feet. I’ll be free, totally free–and I’m ready for both the pain and the pleasure of real freedom.

Good luck to everyone else who’s preparing to enter this magical world.

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Comments 4

  • George Turner : Feb 16th

    I taught in Brooklyn for 16 years. One of my former students plans to do this next year with 3 of his budies. I always liked being able to jump a train and travel from one of the busiest cities in the world to wilderness in almost no time at all. I’m flip flopping myself . Have a wonderful adventure!

  • Nancy Vanderheide : Feb 16th

    John Muir and Bill Bryson, two of my favorite sirens. What a terrific plan – have a great time.

  • Antonella : Feb 17th

    go Ronen go. and enjoy it every step, every day, every minute.

  • Steve R. : Feb 21st

    Ronen and an adventure! Great combination!


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