One of the most meaningful parts of backpacking, for me at least, is being put in a place where you have no easy way out. If you choose the right trip, you get to experience this often:Sycamore Canyon
, early spring, a hike that runs essentially from Cottonwood to Flagstaff. Last year's winter, as mentioned above, did a good job of removing the trail, so we spent the vast majority of our time boulderhopping in the creek. You should know at this point, if you don't already, that I am not what would be generally called athletic. I walk pretty well, especially with a pack on, but boulderhopping is not a forté of mine. But two days in and six to go, with a frankly unknown number of miles and the car at the far end - and the promise of a trail, somewhere up ahead - and we go on. After five days, if I remember correctly, we are exhausted: we have been up since before dawn, walking, stumbling, wading up to our armpits. Once wading in then back out when it got too deep, and scrambling up the side of a scree slope, big slabs of rock that shift underfoot. I am sure I will die, but its the only way to get to the other side. Once we climbed part-way out of the canyon to try and find the trail. An hour of scrabbling through locust saplings and hot sun, just to spot it around the next bend, about 200 yards from where we had been, then the climb back down. We followed it for an hour before it disappeared again. Dusk gathering and bear tracks in the sand - and baby bear tracks beside them. No place to camp. I want to give up, desperately. But there is no place to camp, no place to stop, no choice in the matter. So we keep walking. Just as darkness falls, he finds the trail, small miracle, and we vow with relief to stop at the first flat place we find.
However: this is, as we slowly realize, the trail out of the canyon. That means that the first flat place will be at the top of the Mogollon Rim, whereas we are now at the bottom, somewhere between 1 and 2,000 vertical feet below. It is dark. The trail is what my climbing friends would refer to as "sketch" - this means that it is approximately four inches wide and made of gravel, with a pretty sheer drop of between 1 and 2,000 feet, and nothing but agave to catch you on the way down. I very desperately want to stop. But there is, quite clearly, no stopping to be had.
Of course, we eventually reach the top, and the most perfect campsite I've ever laid eyes on appears just when I am certain that I would rather leap off the edge into the arms of the agaves than take another step. The moon has set. The grass is soft. I have never slept so soundly in the whole of my life.
We live in a world where inconvenience is easily transmuted into tragedy, where slow service in a restaraunt is enough to spoil the whole day. If it is too cold, we turn up the heat; if the neighbors are fighting, we turn up the sound. Comfort is paramount, and I am as guilty as anyone else. Knowing what I know, I still drink my coffee in the morning, because I like coffee. But I am certain that there is good to be had in discomfort, as well - it is from this that we grow. If I had been able to stop halfway up that trail, I would have. In fact, if I could have been transported magically from that trail to a soft warm bed with a mug of tea, I wouldn't have hesitated for a moment. But I don't think that would have given me the best night's sleep of my life.
I don't think hard things are good just by virtue of being hard, but I am pretty sure we value more that which we have fought for. Certainly I am glad now that I made it up that trail; I count it among the very few things about which I am proud for having done. The only other that comes to mind is leaving Philadelphia, and to do that I had to also leave the first person I ever believed truly loved me. (The metaphor here? I am only halfway up the trail, but still walking. Still walking.)