The team heads into the Canyon at the start of the trek.
The team heads into the Canyon at the start of the trek.
The team heads into the Canyon at the start of the trek. (David McLain)

In the World of Ultralight Hiking, Everything Weighs Something


On a backpacking trip through Utah’s Buckskin Gulch with ultralight gear legend Glen Van Peski, our writer learns about the Crotch Pot, an Oscar-winning actor’s anti-snoring technique, and that there’s a whole lot of shit you don’t need when you’re on the trail 1,000 miles from home


They tell me Glen Van Peski is a celebrity, but he remains largely ignored where I first meet him: in Las Vegas in the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Glen is hard to miss. At six feet four inches, he towers over me as he peers way, way down below in search of my hand for our initial greeting. While everyone else in the lobby is dressed for dining or gambling or in what they think a celebrity might wear, Glen is wearing tomorrow’s hiking clothes today: quick-dry shirt, convertible pant-shorts zippered at the knee, and Altra Lone Peak foot-shaped minimalist hiking shoes cinched up with brand-new laces.

Glen likes to be ready. He wants to know everything fits and is in working order and that there isn’t too much of it. For Glen, and anyone traveling with him, having too much gear might be worse than having no gear at all.

A couple weeks prior to meeting Glen, my college buddy Dan Buettner invited me to join a group of his friends on an ultralightweight hike through Utah’s Buckskin Gulch—led by, according to Dan, a mythical legend named Glen Van Peski. Most of the group would convene at the Cosmopolitan, the last civilized outpost before heading into a wilderness where there are no bed linens, pulsating showerheads, or flushing toilets.

Glen’s long arms and legs qualify as lanky, but his accomplishments, confidence, and clarity give him a muscular air of leadership. His angular, expressive face and bald head simultaneously project wit, wisdom, curiosity, delight, and dead seriousness. Five minutes after we meet, he notices my overstuffed pack and suggests we go up to his room, where he’ll teach me how to lighten my load—literally, but also, I soon learn, metaphorically.

Riding the elevator, I notice that Glen talks in numbers more than words—grams and ounces, miles and kilometers. Arithmophobia may be an actual affliction, or maybe I made it up as a clinical-sounding excuse to explain my shortcomings. Either way, I suffer from a fear of math, numbers, and quantification. For example, when I hear Neil Young sing the lyric “She’s been running half her life,” I worry that I’ll be forced into dividing some unknown number by two before I can feel the emotion of the song.

Before Dan’s invitation, I’d never heard of Buckskin Gulch, a bucket-list destination for hikers and canyoneers in the Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness of southern Utah. A creek runs through the gulch for part of the year and feeds into the Paria River, which in turn joins the Colorado River southwest of the Glen Canyon Dam. Numbers that turned up in a Google search about Buckskin terrified me: it is one of the world’s longest slot canyons (15 miles), among the deepest (500 feet), and at times as narrow as two feet. Claustrophobic. Articles warned of subfreezing temperatures and flash flooding. Even…fatalities?

I said, “Sure, I’ll be there.”

Dan Buettner is a National Geographic fellow and bestselling author. He holds three Guinness records for endurance cycling. He created the concept of Blue Zones, regions in the world where people live longer and better. His life is an adventure, and he is often exploring another corner of the world accompanied by diverse groups of friends.

There would be eight of us hiking Buckskin: Dan’s longtime collaborator, National Geographic photographer David McLain; CNN correspondent Bill Weir; hotel entrepreneur Ben Graves; Ed Driscoll, CEO of Rational Resource; Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey; and me, an award-winning filmmaker who is often asked a question Matthew McConaughey never gets asked: “What have you done that I would have seen?”

When Dan called, I was completing a writing job for Netflix. I had once again been lulled into the artifice of Hollywood. “Real” to me meant a catered lunch delivered to my desk daily. I hoped a serious hike would recalibrate my senses.

Ali Selim, the author, breaks camp in pre-dawn light before heading into Buckskin Canyon.
Ali Selim breaks camp in the pre-dawn light before heading into Buckskin Gulch (David McLain)
Ali Selim, the author, makes his way through waist deep ice cold water in the slot canyon.
Selim leads the way through waist deep, ice-cold water in the canyon (David McLain)

Six Pounds, Two Ounces

Dan had met Glen Van Peski while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. He learned that, every spring, Glen introduces a new group of hikers to Buckskin to spread the gospel of ultralightweight hiking.

Glen is an engineer and the founder of Gossamer Gear, manufacturers of ultralightweight gear. I considered myself to be a dedicated hiker, but I’d never heard the term ultralightweight. I always thought the load on your shoulders was simply a factor of your strength, your common sense, how much gear you needed, and how much shit you believed you couldn’t live without 1,000 miles from home.

According to Dan, Glen had hiked thousands of miles, maybe millions. He was so tall that there wasn’t a body of water on earth he couldn’t cross without at least his nostrils poking out for oxygen. And if the water was deeper than that, Glen could make himself taller, then he’d hoist his ultralightweight pack above his head with arms that were so long they could grace the clouds while keeping his gear dry and out of harm’s way. He knew where all the clean water sources on earth flowed. He didn’t drink coffee in the morning; instead, he chewed the beans, because boiling water was an inefficient use of time that would be better spent on the trail.

Perhaps most perplexing for me was Dan’s claim that Glen Van Peski’s backpack, fully loaded, weighs only six pounds, two ounces.

I tried to imagine what might weigh six pounds, two ounces.

At home I drink a gallon of water every day. To accomplish this, I fill a jug in the morning. It felt heavier to me than a five-pound dumbbell, so I Googled the weight of water.

A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds.

Three-fourths of my jug is roughly the volume of a large grapefruit, and that didn’t seem to be enough room for gear. If I couldn’t pack that small or light, would I be able to keep up? I needed confirmation, maybe a bit of persuasion. Dan is often hiding, writing another chapter of another bestseller, but I can usually find him on his cell phone.

“Six pounds, two ounces? That’s everything?” I ask.

“Yeah, six pounds—that’s everything except water.”

“Tent?”

“No. There will be tents to share.”

“Sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.”

“Food?”

“Everything.”

“And what about water?”

“We’ll get it there.”

“I mean, how much water? Because a gallon weighs 8.34 pounds.”

“Probably.”

“What about a second pair of shoes? I read that we walk through water all day.”

Dan said our shoes would dry overnight. Weather maps for that part of Utah in early April show steady nighttime temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees, meaning our shoes would freeze, not dry. Dan’s math must be like mine.

“Just bring superlight shoes to wear around camp at night,” he said.

Ali Selim, Dan Buettner, Glen Van Peski, Edward Driscoll, Matthew Mcconaughey, Bill Weir, Ben Graves, and David McLain (from left) at the end of the trek
The Buckskin Gulch crew (from left): Ali Selim, Dan Buettner, Glen Van Peski, Edward Driscoll, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Weir, Ben Graves, and David McLain (David McLain)

Miraculous Fabric

Two weeks before the trip, I go to the REI near my home in downtown Portland and expand (or explode?) my brain by reading, for the first time in my life, product specifications—weights and measures and material composition.

I try on an Arc’teryx miracle-fabric quick-dry shirt and ask the sales guy if he knows how much it weighs.

“Weighs? What do you mean?”

“Like, I mean, weighs. Is it like, I don’t know, a pound?”

“That shirt? No. It weighs nothing.”

He speaks my language. Weight isn’t a number—it is an experience, a relationship. A thing is either heavy or light; it’s not a number. My kids always say, “If you want to know the temperature, ask Mom. If you want to know if you need a jacket, ask Dad.”

I buy the shirt. And a pair of Patagonia pants made from an even more miraculous fabric that actually feel slightly lighter to me. So they, too, weigh nothing. A pair of quick-dry antibacterial underwear weighs less than the shirt and less than the pants, so these must weigh less than nothing.

I search for “superlight” shoes, as Dan recommended, that I’ll wear while my hiking shoes are over yonder by that tree drying. Or freezing.

REI sells Birkenstock EVA sandals, the ethylene-vinyl acetate model. I bounce a pair in my hand. So light. They, too, weigh nothing.

At home, I assemble my weightless gear for the trip. By adding nothing + nothing + nothing + less than nothing, I still have six pounds, two ounces to go.

Gossamer Gear gave each of us a Gorilla 40 Light pack for the trip. I load it up. Then, naked and dehydrated, with the backpack balanced nearby, I stand on the bathroom scale.

170 pounds.

I reach gently, so as not to upset the scale, and pick up my Gorilla pack, which is stuffed with only the shit none of us can live without 1,000 miles from home, the gravity of life.

The scale now reads 192 pounds.

My wife, Robin, does all my math for me. She calculates that 192 minus 170 is 22 pounds. Minus the mythical six pounds, two ounces, this makes my pack 15 pounds, 14 ounces heavier than Glen’s.

Without water. Or food.

I remove a Gerber all-in-one tool, half of my protein bars, the fourth pair of socks, an extra camera lens, and my iPad, thereby redefining the shit I can’t live without.

The scale now reads 189.7 pounds. Robin tells me to get dressed while she does the math. That’s 19.7 pounds for my pack or, more importantly, still 13.58 pounds heavier than Glen’s six pounds, two ounces.

Dan must be wrong about Glen Van Peski’s pack.

CNN correspondent Bill Weir heads to higher ground.
CNN correspondent Bill Weir heads to higher ground (David McLain)
Bill Weir makes his way under flood debris trapped in the canyon.
Weir navigating flood debris in the canyon (David McLain)

Scaled and Schooled

In his room at the Cosmopolitan, Glen produces a very scientific scale, the kind with decimal points and spaces for several numbers after the decimal point; a drug dealer’s scale, really. He unpacks his bag to show me how he packed it and why he made the decisions he made. No stuff sacks—they weigh too much.

Twenty-one dry roasted chocolate-covered coffee beans, seven for each morning on the trail, just enough to stave off a caffeine-withdrawal headache and not one more. The superlight shoes he brings to wear around camp are a pair of disposable surgical shoe covers, the blue hospital kind. Paper. No arch support.

He weighs each of these items on the drug dealer’s scale, adds up ounces to ounces and grams to grams to show me how he arrives at his base pack weight. The surgical booties? Nine grams total for the pair.

I hand him one of my Birkenstock EVAs with decent arch support.

“They weigh nothing,” I say. He smiles and says, “Nothing weighs nothing. I mean, everything weighs something. He bounces the Birkenstock in his hand, considers, then says, “These are about 340 grams. Each. That makes the pair a pound and three-quarters.”

Then he sets the sandal on the drug dealer’s scale: 341 grams. Exactly one gram more than his hand had predicted.

He takes out a second scale: an industrial hanging spring scale with a hook, the kind you might use to weigh a trophy muskie. By way of instruction, and with a dose of shame, he hangs his own pack on the hook. It pulls down until the needle registers 6.03 pounds.

This scientifically and mathematically proves to me that Glen Van Peski’s base pack weight—meaning everything he’s going to carry, except food and water—is exactly, well, less than Dan told me it would be. (See Glen’s complete list of gear here.)

Glen hands me the pack so I can feel 6.03 pounds experientially.

“I packed heavy this year,” he says. “So many unknowns. All you first-timers. I figured there’d be a lot of sitting around. When I’m familiar with the group and have more confidence, I leave unnecessary items behind. On those hikes, my base pack weight is”—and then, when the rest of us might say something like, “Oh, four to five pounds,” Glen says, “4.68 pounds.” He accomplishes this by leaving at home his insulating bottoms (7.5 ounces) and LuminAID group light (2.6 ounces); reducing food from 64 ounces to 56 ounces, knowing he’ll only be feeding himself; and carrying just his own permit and maps (the difference between three ounces for eight permits and .3 ounces for one).

Glen helps me deconstruct my pack, which is less of an exercise in gear and more an excising of fear soothed in a layer of common sense. In Buckskin, Glen reminds me, we walk, eat, and sleep—that’s it. Would I need this? How about that?

We repack. Then he hangs my Gorilla 40 Light off the hook.

“What’s it say?” I ask.

“Manageable,” he says. “I just want you to feel comfortable.”

Or, more likely, Glen had already identified me as a potential whiner.

Writer and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner wakes up after a night of sleep in luxury accomodation.
The Blue Zones' author Dan Buettner wakes up after a night of luxury accommodation (David McLain)

Alright, Alright, Alright

The next morning, we left Las Vegas and headed northeast to the Bureau of Land Management office in St. George, Utah, where our group would convene and caravan into the Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

My job gives me the opportunity to witness, touch, and often work at the base of the great altar of celebrity. I once ate breakfast with Richard Gere in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And I licked Tootsie Pops in Alan Cumming’s Broadway dressing room with Walter Cronkite. While they, and others like them, are magnetic and accomplished people, I know they really do put their pants on one leg at a time.

Just like the rest of us.

But I felt something like a shift in the barometric pressure in the entire town of St. George when Matthew McConaughey came out of the public restroom drying his hands on his pants before extending one to me, saying, “Hey! McConaughey.”

He is distinctive, one of very few truly distinctive people in the world, even in history; he has an Oscar; he has an oeuvre; he has a slogan, which he’s displaying now on a threadbare T-shirt.

Yet, as Glen hands each of us a WAG bag, McConaughey grabs his, and my thought is, Ha, just like the rest of us.

For the uninitiated, a waste alleviation and gelling bag is basically a doggie poop bag for people, used to collect and carry human waste out of the backcountry. The bags are made of a space-age silver material, have a Ziploc-style top, are puncture-resistant, and contain a NASA-developed solidifying agent for your waste. Our permit number was written in large black Sharpie letters across the outside of the WAG bag. Carry your own shit out of the wilderness or, according to Glen, go to federal prison.

Glen shows us how to fold the bags horizontally across the front—never vertically across the Ziploc!—and how to store them upright, never sideways, in our packs. Both mistakes were made on one of Glen’s recent hikes by a woman known as Leaky D.

Near the parking lot at the trailhead, where we planned to sleep the first night, in pitch black, I learn that there are no tents to share, as Dan had promised. Ed and Ben have one-person tents. Dan and David have plastic lean-to protection—basically Saran Wrap—in case it rains. The rest of us set up cowboy-style under the stars. We respectfully or selfishly spread out, less for privacy and more for snoring. His or mine or ours.

While I deflate my lungs inflating an ultralightweight sleeping pad, Glen uses his hands to press contours into the ground, sculpting concave sections for his head and ass, convex for his lumbar and cervical spine. He pulls a thin foam pad (a quarter-inch thick, at most) from the lining of his backpack. It provides cushion, ventilation, and added warmth at night while he’s on the trail. He lays it on the ground where his torso will rest. Other than this touch of comfort, Glen likes to sleep directly connected to the earth and only rarely walls himself off from nature with a tent. He believes that the less we carry, the deeper we go. Life gets simpler. When the only thing we need to worry about is the next water source, it reminds us of who we are. These were the founding principles of Gossamer Gear.

It is cold that first night. Frost sets in early, not long after the tequila has worn off. My freezing breath clouds the view outside the face hole of my mummy bag.

Obviously, an ultralightweight nylon tent like Ed’s or Ben’s would not keep me warm, but it would wall me off from the demons that keep me awake. A friend once told me a story about a bat that landed on his face while he was asleep, covering his eyes with its wings. I spend the first hour staring up at the black sky, scanning, until I realize it’s too dry and cold here for bats.

Soon my eyes drift beyond the sky—where the bats would be if there were bats—and I focus light-years away into the great void of space and existence. That’s usually a good way to kill the rest of the night. What is out there? Where does it all end? Does it all end? What does it all mean? Who am I? Why am I? And finally, Am I?

Thankfully, through the darkness, I hear Glen chewing and crunching his seven coffee beans. My sleepless night has come to an end. Ten feet from my sleeping bag, he is up, standing ramrod straight, his pack cinched, his poles gripped, and his shirt tucked in, ready.

It’s before 5:00 A.M. The air has the muffled, antiseptic smell of frozen sage—more freezer burn than living plant. While Glen waits, the rest of us pack our gear and prepare for the trail in a way that is far from efficacious. It resembles a French bedroom farce. We all have our own abject fear of this hike—duration, blisters, hunger, worthiness, injury, drowning, the WAG bag, keeping pace with Glen Van Peski, maybe even impressing Glen Van Peski.

To alleviate those fears, or just stumble around them, we take our time, hang close to the cars, visit and revisit the parking lot outhouse—unlike the WAG bags, it has a seat and locking door. We boil water, chase our garbage, eat a hot breakfast, have one last coffee for the road, relace our boots, repack the Gorilla, one more last coffee for the road, and again one more last time to the outhouse.

Having used up all our delaying tactics, we finally fill our water reservoirs. The next fresh drinking water is 20 miles away, and we’ll each need five liters to make it through the day. My pack instantly grows heavier.

The sun has been up for hours when we finally set foot into Wire Pass, the gateway to Buckskin Gulch. It must have felt like a year to Glen.

The group makes their way up the canyon on Day one through freezing water.
The group making their way up the canyon through freezing water (David McLain)

Cold Feet

As we stroll those first easy steps along a dry riverbed, Glen prepares us for the realities of the hike. Numbers. The elevation is 4,872 feet; longitude is 112° 1′ 29.52″ W and latitude 37° 1′ 8.76″ N. He explains that a rainstorm more than 50 miles away can send 100-foot walls of water in a flash, moving at nine feet per second through the canyon. If it rains while you’re in there, you basically risk death not so much by drowning but by becoming a pinball bouncing from side to side down the canyon at 400 miles per hour while uprooted trees and boulders the size of Italian cars bear down on you.

Not exactly an invitation. But when we turn into the first of the Buckskin slots…

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If I write 1,000 or 10,000 or even 100,000 words, they would not begin to capture the beauty and wonder and spirituality and complexity and triumph that is Buckskin Gulch.

And if I take a picture that is really, really good, it won’t begin to capture the true essence of the feeling that washed over me, like a flash flood without warning, when we came around the bend, left Wire Pass behind, and entered the legendary swirling red rocks that define the canyon. Their ancient, water-carved shapes simulate movement; they look like a combination of wedding cake frosting, the journey of our own birth, and Jabba the Hutt licking his lips.

It’s disorienting. Or is it more accurately described as orienting?

As we approach the first of the canyon’s many cesspools, Glen explains the source of the muck we’re about to navigate. During summer monsoons or when wintertime low-pressure systems move across the region, flows through Buckskin Gulch can swell from barely a trickle to more than 8,000 cubic feet per second. The rushing wall of water sculpts the canyon walls and deposits logjams in the narrows. The flood can dissipate as quickly as it developed. The next season, snags larger and more intricate than well-engineered beaver dams hover ominously five stories above the heads of hikers down below on the path.

But some of the stormwater lingers for months, in red mud cesspools that form where the sun doesn’t shine. The depth of these cannot be discerned by the naked eye. You walk through and hope. A stubborn, thin layer of ice from the night before coats the surface. Your hiking pole pokes gently ahead, breaks the ice, and tells you if the water is too deep. If it’s too deep, you find a way to move forward anyway, because you don’t go back. You keep up with Glen Van Peski.

We wade through these pools with increasing frequency—at times there is one nearly every 100 steps. My wet and frozen shoes never have the chance to dry or thaw.

Several ice-covered cesspools later, my feet are numb and my attitude is not so much poor as unresponsive. I wonder if I’m the only one suffering. McConaughey tells a story that ends with “alright, alright, alright.” You’ve heard those three words spoken many times in films and many more times by frat boys standing next to the keg, but never like this, straight from the source. McConaughey laughs at his own story. Everyone laughs. My brain is too muddled and vague to connect the punch line to the setup. I am the only one suffering.

Glen is ahead, looking over his shoulder, worried about water and daylight and which of us will need to be airlifted out of the canyon.

We pause to rest in a sunny cove and hope the breeze will dry our pants, if not our shoes. Dan offers sustenance in the form of homemade trail mix—a blend of oats, nuts, dried fruit, coffee grounds, and olive oil. The plastic bag he carries it in is bigger than a basketball. He hands it to me. Now that I understand that everything weighs something, I know this bag is clearly heavier than Glen’s entire base pack.

We arrive at rockfall, a narrows in the canyon whose terrain shifts with every flood. Boulders and trees from this year’s flood become intertwined with boulders and trees from previous floods. It is theoretically possible that a strong storm season could render rockfall impassable. But that’s never been true for Glen Van Peski.

Though he doesn’t initially see the obvious passage, Glen makes no move, as I hoped, to locate the keys in his pack and return to the cars. To the layperson’s eye (mine), getting to the other side of rockfall is more than a significant challenge. It looks like a wall, not a path. It is a bottleneck of boulders, rocks, entire trees, stumps, branches, goat carcasses, and other debris—it looks like an illustration of entropy, covered in a shock of Medusa’s hair.

Like a downhill ski racer before a run, Glen imagines the impassable to be possible. If, in his mind, he hits danger, he retreats and draws another route. He finally spies the clear path. We strap on our packs. We go high, then we go low. Over and under rocks. We use rope, poles, and each other for acceleration, ballast, and brakes. Someone in the group describes our effort as “generally heroic.”

But my feet are beyond numb. Through rockfall, they feel and behave as though each had been injected with a maximum dose of novocaine. During each step I take, they bend over rocks and slip into crevices in ways that a foot’s 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments were never designed to work.

Ali Selim, Matthew Mcconaughey, and Dan Buettner (from left) hitch a ride back to their cars at the end of the trip.
From left: Ali Selim, Matthew McConaughey, and Dan Buettner hitch a ride back to their cars at the end of the trip (David McLain)

My Adam’s Apple

We break out of Buckskin and into the Paria River canyon about two hours before sunset—late, according to Glen’s plan. There isn’t enough daylight to make it to the site of his freshwater supply. We set up camp on a bend in the river that is far less beautiful, according to Glen, than where he’d hoped to camp.

We find branches to hang wet shoes. My left foot is swollen. As I slip it into the superlight surgical booties I’ll wear in camp, I’m actually thinking about surgery. On my foot. We assemble stoves that will heat the water that will reconstitute our dinner with the rationed remains of our limited water supplies.

Glen reaches into the front of his pants like he’s about to take a trail pee and flips out a Ziploc bag that is attached to his belt loops by two mini-carabiners. It sags in front of his fly, swollen with what looks like vomit, like a clear-sided air sickness bag.

I inquire.

“Dinner,” Glen says. With all the body heat he generates during the hike, why drag along heavy stoves and isobutane canisters? So he invented the Crotch Pot. The plastic bag weighs three grams. The mini-carabiners are each three grams. The entire system weighs nine grams. My Jetboil stove weighs a pound and a half. Earlier that day, he put his freeze-dried dinner into the Crotch Pot, poured eight ounces of cold water over it, zipped it up, and slipped it into his pants. Now, while the rest of us watch water slowly boil, Glen’s dinner is reconstituted and ready.

It starts to rain. As I said, unlike Dan had promised, there are no tents to share. Ben and Ed each zip into their solo tents. Dan, David, and Bill set up their plastic wrap.

Glen is prepared. Part of his added weight on this trip comes from an extra piece of double-wide plastic, packed for the most ill-prepared and deprived members of the group: me and McConaughey. We sleep together.

I often snort myself awake from the force and volume of my own snoring. But on this night, when my sleep is interrupted and my eyes tense open, I see it wasn’t my doing. There, inches from my face, close enough to kiss me, but with his thumb and middle finger in a flicking position, like he’s about to launch a booger in sixth grade, is McConaughey.

He flicks my Adam’s apple one more time before he realizes the snoring has already stopped and I’m awake, a trick one might learn from reading an old cowboy novel or sitting next to a maxillofacial surgeon at a dinner party. Successful, McConaughey smiles at the silence and immediately falls asleep. I do not.

Dawn in the canyon is more gray than golden, the result of the sun’s inability to sneak around the high brown rock wall that towers above us. Where sunlight can reach, it only bounces low off the churning, green, murky Paria, darkening the canyon more. Glen chews coffee beans. The ground is soggy. My shoes are wet and cold. When the last of our water boils and the coffee is finally ready, McConaughey tells a new story: the one about his ingenious Adam’s apple tactic, the snoring it killed, the silence it created, and the sleep it induced. He says he was desperate and devised the plan of attack on my Adam’s apple on the spot at 2:00 A.M. As we leave camp, the story ends with a well-rested “alright, alright, alright.” (Later, he will say that even if he traveled with earplugs, that would have been “like bringing a knife to a gunfight, the way Ali snores.”)

We spend the second day walking in the calf-deep water of the Paria, heading upstream. It’s hard work, both for my ligaments and my resolve. But like a cold tub plunge during physical therapy, the temperature and current calm my foot.

Five months later, I’ll learn that the rockfall inflicted a less-than-heroic stress fracture on the second metatarsal of my left foot. After months of blissful ignorance and running and hiking and working and yoga and cycling, the bone finally exploded into a displaced fracture that required surgery and kept me from walking for nearly a year. During rehab, my predominant thought was, “I’ll return to Buckskin Gulch.” (And I do, two years later to the day, with Robin and our friend Rya, all three of us wearing Altra Lone Peak foot-shaped minimalist hiking shoes, like I learned from Glen. When we exited the canyon, I saw his Subaru, with its “take less, do more” bumper sticker, waiting for him in the parking lot. Glen was out there on the trail with eight permits and seven novice recruits, spreading the gospel.)

The lasting effect Buckskin Gulch had on me isn’t pain or surgery. No, walking up the Paria River Canyon next to Glen and Dan and David and Bill and Matthew and Ed and Ben, the indelible impressions of the experience are the light, the dark, the sun, the moon, the reds, the browns, the cold, the warmth, the wet, the dry, the oxygen, the effort, the monotony, the catharsis, the purity, and the epiphany.

The sounds you hear—wind, water, voices, echoes, the illusion of silence—are the sounds of both creation and evolution. They tell a story that you’ve never heard before; a story that does a damn good job of explaining, well, explaining everything; a story that reminds us who we are; a story that can only be felt beyond the need for gear or food or weightless shirts or any of the other shit we believe we can’t live without 1,000 miles from home.

Any and all of the events and issues and perceptions and beliefs that would kill us or send us screaming to therapy back there in “the real world” are meaningless here, here in the—

No, wait, that implies that we’re not in the real world in Buckskin Gulch, which is, I’m starting to see and feel and understand, the actual real world.

My feet sink deeper into the soft floor of the Paria. I worry that I’ve discovered quicksand. For safety, I grab hold of a colossal canyon wall that Ed is admiring and photographing. He leans over to me and says, “It’s like nothing else matters.”

People say this when they are on top of a mountain, or wading in a river, or watching sunset from the bow of a canoe. What they mean is they are disconnected from that other world, the one where we live our daily lives. They can’t get to their iPhone, and if they can, it doesn’t have service.

Here, deep in nature, numbers don’t hold the weight or wield the power that they do in the science lab or on the playing field or on the Nasdaq or in the Nielsen ratings. The distance in miles or the number of steps until the end of the day, until the next campsite, the next water source, is not nearly as consequential as the experience of effort, determination, resilience, dedication, and purpose.

The True Weight of Things

As we approach the end of the canyon, close to nightfall and our cars, three strong young women easily pass us, clearly recognizing members of our group but pushing on against the current of the Paria.

Our hiking party is admittedly unique, chockablock with celebrity. Yet none of the infrequent hikers we encounter signal any interest. (Except at the end of the hike, when I’m charged with disposing of a box containing our eight WAG bags. A hiker from another group follows me to the dumpster and says, “Hey, give me McConaughey’s.” I say sure and give him mine.)

Then, after a while, there are the three women again, waiting for us on the tip of a peninsula, framed and protected by a hovering cottonwood tree. I fear celebrity has ended our trip in the natural world and we are now entering the world of autographs and selfies and giggles.

But I’m wrong.

One of the women walks past Matthew McConaughey, past Dan Buettner, and past Bill Weir. She walks up to Glen Van Peski and asks, “Excuse me. Are you G-Squared?”

Glen says yes, he is G-Squared. This hushes the three women. Their respect for him is visible, tangible, visceral.

Glen Van Peski is a celebrity. A celebrity in a way he wasn’t in the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Here in the Paria River Canyon, this woman does not have stars in her eyes for the bestselling author, or the CNN correspondent and anchor, or the Oscar-winning actor. She turns to Glen and says, “I’ve hiked with Adventure Alan.”

This impresses Glen. He asks, “Who are you?”

The woman responds, “I’m Wildflower.”

Glen is moved. Reverent. Wildflower. He knows what this means, though none of the rest of us do. They have a secret language, these virtuoso hikers. They’ve been places none of the rest of us will ever see, accomplished physical feats we can’t imagine. They have code names that I would come to understand are their “trail names,” referring to achievements or heroic personality traits. Trail names like Adventure Alan and Wildflower and G-Squared are earned and respected. Ones like Leaky D, not so much.

Wildflower, Glen explains, completed the Triple Crown.

Pacific Crest Trail. Appalachian Trail. The Continental Divide.

That’s 7,940 miles, with a vertical gain of more than 1 million feet, traveling through 22 states using only human power on two legs. It’s an accomplishment that can be claimed by very few people in hiking history. At the end of 2020, the American Long Distance Hiking Association recognized only 482 people who had accomplished this feat since 1994. That’s a lot of numbers. But there was no math involved in understanding and admiring Wildflower’s achievement. No one weighed her backpack or opened it to see how she organized and carried only the shit she could not live without for all those days and miles.

In this moment, watching Wildflower and G-Squared admire each other and their formidable accomplishments, I am awakened.

It’s not that nothing else matters.

It’s that something else matters.

And that realization, it weighs nothing.

And it weighs everything.