Go Long, Go Deep

If the point is to get away from it all, then all you need is time and distance

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
You check your e-mail, what, three times a day? eight times a day? the world is too much with you, friend. You need out. Not for a day. Out for ten days. By yourself, if possible. Because believe it or not, your brain can actually stop buzzing. For a day or two it will keep firing on all cylinders— what stock you should buy, what your savviest career move should be, what trip you should take next. And then for another day or two you might panic. What am I missing? Is the NASDAQ, like, plummeting?

But soon enough your brain starts to run out of gas—opinions, ideas, plans start to float away. Maybe once upon a time life was so simple that this process only took a few hours: wander in fields, write sonnet, come home, take bath. But now a day trip does more for your muscles than your mind. It's hard to leave it all behind when it all is used to tagging along with you wherever you go.

When you do really get away, though, strangeness can happen. I remember hiking for a week by myself, easy trail- walking in the Adirondacks where I live. One rainy morning, I woke up, my mind still, didn't bother to get dressed, and just began to wander down the trail. It was as if I gave off no vibrations at all. An owl stayed perched on a branch as I walked two feet beneath him; a deer stayed on the trail, shifting her weight to let me pass; a mother merganser paraded her young inches from where I lay naked on a rock. Late in the day I saw people coming my waya party of four, perfectly pleasant-looking backpackers chattering their way down the trail. I'd already yanked my clothes on, but I crouched behind a fallen hemlock and hid till they were gone; I didn't want the spell to break.

Take as much food as you can carry, but no cell phone. And no book that isn't illustrated with pictures of the local birds or wildflowers. You can chew information all the rest of your days—the idea here is to get a little bored. Does that prospect unnerve you? It shouldn't; it's not like going on an airplane without a book. There's plenty of stuff out there to read, written in what John Muir called "the great alphabet of nature." But you have to slow down enough to see it.

One trick is to bushwhack whenever possible (and ethical). You can keep your eyes fixed as firmly on a muddy trail as you can on a four-lane highway, and if you do, your mind will drift just as quickly. When you're off the trail, finding your way, you're always looking. The contours of the land, the game trails, the drainages—they catch your attention, fill your head.

Sometimes, if everything's going well, even movement starts to seem unnecessary. I remember a week I spent on the top of a mountain near my home, when I hiked no more than two or three miles from camp on any given day. I'd just head out along some ridge until I found a patch of sunshine and then sit down, or until I found a patch of berries and then fill my baseball cap. Here are the things I noticed: Night takes a long time to fall—hours, from the sun low in the sky through the pink glow to the darkening blue to the first star. Also, a mountaintop has a sufficient number of rocks and trees, needing neither more nor less to be complete. One day I lay on my stomach on a little promontory and watched a black bear pick berries on the same slope I'd browsed the day before. He moved at about the same leisurely and unconcerned pace. Like me, he had the luxury of a predatorless existence, at least until hunting season. His only work was to fill himself with calories before winter; mine was to fill myself with silence before I returned home.

If you're lucky, nothing dramatic will happen. The days will fade into one another. That way, you'll know it wasn't fording the raging river, or facing down the grizzly, or surviving the thunderstorm that left you a little changed. It was just the quiet, the chance to use senses other than the info-eye or the info-ear. Which leads, of course, to the main danger of going long and deep. You might not be able to find your way back to quite the spot where you began.

I'm a sucker for vistas—I'll stare off into the mountains forever, memorizing the curves and thrusts of the surrounding ranges. So while Lewis and Clark carried a magnifying glass to impress the Indians with their magic fire-starting ability, I pack one in an effort to force my head down toward the ground. All you need is a Swift Instruments Pocket Magnifier ($5; 800-446-1116), or even just a little plastic lens, and you can examine the veiny wings of that annoying mosquito, the melting ice crystals on the edge of a late-spring snowfield, or the rings in a slice of pine. You can, in other words, see vast vistas even on cloudy days. —B.M.

A one-foot by two-foot swatch of closed-cell foam for a sit-pad
Mountain Safety Research Heat Exchanger ($30; 800-877-9677)
Small shaker of cumin (about $3 at any grocery)
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers
($19; Alfred A. Knopf)

Adirondack State Park, New York: Head into the hilly Silver Lake Wilderness and then hit the Northville-Placid Trail—a 133-mile trek through the rugged High Peaks region.Contact: New York State Bureau of Public Lands, 518-457-7433.

The Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: This 93-mile circumnavigation of the mountain traverses lowland forests and subalpine meadows. Contact: Mount Rainier National Park, 360-569-2211.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: Over 850 miles of trails, including a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that winds around old-growth tulip poplars and under a natural arch. Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 423-436-1200.

The Long Trail, Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont: A 270-mile gallivant through farmland and into the crags. Plan for at least three weeks. Contact: Green Mountain National Forest, 802-747-6700.

Haleakala National Park, Maui: Hump through 19,000 acres of rainforest, near-desert, and the dormant Haleakala Crater in this International Biosphere Reserve. Three back-country cabins are available by advance lottery. Contact: Haleakala National Park, 808-572-4400.

PHILOSOPHY OF CAMPING 101: "People too often hike to a beautiful natural area, pitch their tent, crawl inside, zip the door, and shut out the world. This is camping? I prefer what I like to call 'stealth camping'—wander a mile or two beyond the crowded campground, establish a low-profile campsite, and sleep under a tarp. If a deer wanders past, you see it. You stay connected to nature."

Bill McKibben's book on cross-country ski racing, Long Distance: Notes on a Year of Living Strenuously, is due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.

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