“Karen’s mean,” my mom whispered to me. Karen Najarian is awilderness guide affiliated with REI’s Northern CaliforniaWilderness School. On this particular weekend, she would be leadingmy mother and me plus six others into Yosemite National Parkwilderness for three days of backpacking instruction. But first wehad to withstand her tough love.
Not an hour after we met her, she had us lay out every item wewere planning to bring so she could examine everything, eliminatingour most prized possessions, like the extra fleece shirt I hadintended to use as a pillow, and the cookies I had smugly packed toshare with the group.
Harsh as it seemed, we soon realized that backpacking is likecarrying your closet, bed, and kitchen on your back. Anything extrayou bring translates into increased effort, which detracts from thescenery you came to enjoy.
But there’s a lot more to backpacking than deprivation andexertion. By carrying the tools for survival past the point wherethe road ends, you get to enjoy uncommon landscapes and vistas thatmost people never dream of.
When our gear inspection was over and our backpacks had beencarefully weighed with a fish scale, we lined up single file― for minimum impact ― on the John Muir Trail. Lessthan 100 yards from the trailhead, we passed a sign that marked thestart of the wilderness boundary. Karen stopped us. “What do youhear?” she asked. “In the wilderness, no machines or cars areallowed. You should be able to hear each other breathing ―it’s that quiet.” No longer the drill sergeant, Karen had taken onthe role of wise, thoughtful naturalist and guide. She walkedslowly and stopped often to observe small things: the five-needledtassels of Western white pine; the gouges in the trees, carved byshepherds as trail markers a century ago. She taught us how to usea compass to find true north and to orient a map accordingly.
We learned about teamwork too. The slowest person got to set thepace on our hikes, which were never longer than 5 miles a day. Andwhen we arrived at our campsites each night, everyone pitched in tomake dinner. “When we’re camping, we’re like a little community,the way we should be back home,” Karen said later, as we watchedthe setting sun turn the towering white walls above Lower CathedralLake gold, then rose, then pale purple. It did, in fact, feel likeutopia.
I woke up stiff and tired on the last day. Though we had only 2miles to the point where a free National Park Service shuttle wouldtake us back to our cars, they were slow miles, downhill andoff-trail. Karen explained that she would use the creek as her”handrail.” “Creeks and rivers never lie,” she said. “When you’relost, follow them, even if everything in you says not to.”
At that point, everything in me said it was time to hurry up andget home, to take off the backpack and boots. But then I rememberedKaren’s words: “The most important thing in backpacking is not tohave an agenda. If a storm comes in and forces you to spend anextra night, you can’t be thinking about that meeting you have thenext day. You have to be in the moment, observing your surroundingsat all times.”
Eventually we came to a vista that jolted me back into themoment: Half Dome and Clouds Rest, viewed from an entirelydifferent perspective than any that I had ever seen. We sat down todip our feet in the stream, and I felt my agenda slipping away likethe water over the rocks.
We descended through what felt like atmospheric layers ofcivilization: First we could see the road in the far distance, thenwe started to hear cars and see other people. Karen talked aboutthe 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 uswilling to venture far enough to find out.