"Karen's mean," my mom whispered to me. Karen Najarian is a wilderness guide affiliated with REI's Northern California Wilderness School. On this particular weekend, she would be leading my mother and me plus six others into Yosemite National Park wilderness for three days of backpacking instruction. But first we had to withstand her tough love.
Not an hour after we met her, she had us lay out every item we were planning to bring so she could examine everything, eliminating our most prized possessions, like the extra fleece shirt I had intended to use as a pillow, and the cookies I had smugly packed to share with the group.
Harsh as it seemed, we soon realized that backpacking is like carrying your closet, bed, and kitchen on your back. Anything extra you bring translates into increased effort, which detracts from the scenery you came to enjoy.
But there's a lot more to backpacking than deprivation and exertion. By carrying the tools for survival past the point where the road ends, you get to enjoy uncommon landscapes and vistas that most people never dream of.
When our gear inspection was over and our backpacks had been carefully weighed with a fish scale, we lined up single file ― for minimum impact ― on the John Muir Trail. Less than 100 yards from the trailhead, we passed a sign that marked the start of the wilderness boundary. Karen stopped us. "What do you hear?" she asked. "In the wilderness, no machines or cars are allowed. You should be able to hear each other breathing ― it's that quiet." No longer the drill sergeant, Karen had taken on the role of wise, thoughtful naturalist and guide. She walked slowly and stopped often to observe small things: the five-needled tassels of Western white pine; the gouges in the trees, carved by shepherds as trail markers a century ago. She taught us how to use a compass to find true north and to orient a map accordingly.
We learned about teamwork too. The slowest person got to set the pace on our hikes, which were never longer than 5 miles a day. And when we arrived at our campsites each night, everyone pitched in to make dinner. "When we're camping, we're like a little community, the way we should be back home," Karen said later, as we watched the setting sun turn the towering white walls above Lower Cathedral Lake gold, then rose, then pale purple. It did, in fact, feel like utopia.
I woke up stiff and tired on the last day. Though we had only 2 miles to the point where a free National Park Service shuttle would take us back to our cars, they were slow miles, downhill and off-trail. Karen explained that she would use the creek as her "handrail." "Creeks and rivers never lie," she said. "When you're lost, follow them, even if everything in you says not to."
At that point, everything in me said it was time to hurry up and get home, to take off the backpack and boots. But then I remembered Karen's words: "The most important thing in backpacking is not to have an agenda. If a storm comes in and forces you to spend an extra night, you can't be thinking about that meeting you have the next day. You have to be in the moment, observing your surroundings at all times."
Eventually we came to a vista that jolted me back into the moment: Half Dome and Clouds Rest, viewed from an entirely different perspective than any that I had ever seen. We sat down to dip our feet in the stream, and I felt my agenda slipping away like the water over the rocks.
We descended through what felt like atmospheric layers of civilization: First we could see the road in the far distance, then we started to hear cars and see other people. Karen talked about the phenomenon of reentry as if we were astronauts about to land. And in a way, we were. We had traveled to an unfamiliar landscape, learned a lot, and returned home a little tired, a little dirty, but filled with a sense of what lies beyond ― for those of us willing to venture far enough to find out.