An Uphill Struggle

The prospect of a week-long backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains inspired me to look harder at Scott, the apparel-guy at Paragon Sports, than he was probably comfortable with. The question was not whether or not I wanted what he had to sell—in this case a Gore-Tex fleece with neoprene cuffs and inner and outer storm flaps—but whether I could live without it. As the least fit member of our group of hikers, I knew that the only way I was going to make it up as mountain was to carry as little as possible on my back. 

“If I do not buy this, Scott,” I shook the garment while beads of sweat formed on his upper lip, “will I die? Will I actually freeze?” Scott swallowed. Ron, the floor manager who had tried to sell me battery-powered socks, paced back and forth between knitwear and waterproofs, ready to intervene. “Scott,” I whispered, “talk to me.” He cleared his throat, “Listen,” he said, “I was drunk and it was February. My girlfriend wouldn’t let me in. So I spent the night on a park bench with a pizza box for a pillow and this fleece on.” I nodded and dropped the fleece into my basket. Three nights later on a mountaintop, when the moon rose and the temperature dipped to freezing, I was glad as hell I had. 

But the fleece was the exception and there were countless other comforts—inflatable pillows, a wire saw with tiny diamond teeth, a lantern for reading, a campfire coffee maker, even mosquito repellent—that however useful and attractive could not be proven necessary to preserving life. I had to resist my usual raccoon-like tendencies to pick up anything shiny, and, for once in my life, get serious about my things. 

This was a very different kind of shopping for me, and I have to say I was enjoying it. It had a raw, life-or-death edge to it that I rarely experience, even at sales. What I was putting together, to borrow Corbusier’s phrase, was a machine for living. And not just living in some milk fed suburban idyll, but living in a particularly rugged swatch of 21st century ecosystem on the brink of catastrophic collapse. 

As I gathered my gear it occurred to me that we are all embarking on a similar mission of survival. It’s no longer enough that the things we carry be attractive and not un-useful. Global warming will make life hotter and harder for almost everyone. The expanding population will put more pressure on dwindling resources. And the Yuan will get even stronger against the dollar, causing prices to rise at Walmart. All of this will change the way we relate to basic stuff. 

“Urine?” I asked sales rep in water filters. “I don’t see why not,” he replied, “it’s got a ceramic core.” The MSR filter is a tour-de-force of gear design—translucent candy-red plastic that let you follow the liquid as it slurps through the intake hose, disappears into the smooth ceramic monolith and then comes jetting out the bottom, purer than Perrier. Yes, it is true that the main competitor, the Katydyn filter, has a better flow rate, but everything with the Katydyn happens behind the scenes, hidden inside the dull beige case—there is no theater, no awareness that this device performs a miracle, transubstantiating turgid sludge into the very essence of life. Flow rate is important, but one must still save a place for magic. 

The fleece and filters were just the warm-up. First-aid challenged me on a more fundamental level. The term “essential” is much more slippery than it at first lets on. Like the Republican platform, it has the ring of moral righteousness, of manly decisiveness, when really it is an uneasy compromise between fear, on the one hand, and laziness on the other. In fact, it is impossible to know what is really essential until it’s too late. Take splints, for example. I have never yet needed a splint, which consists of two elegantly contoured lengths of durable plastic that can be fastened tightly around a fractured bone. Maybe the fact that I haven’t yet needed a splint is exactly why I need one now. My odds are up. And writhing in pain halfway up a mountain I can imagine myself remembering myself back at the store holding a splint. But, standing here in the store, I can also imagine myself carrying the splints up the mountain and not breaking my leg. So, as a compromise, I get the very light-weight snake-bite kit. No one can say I’m not prepared. 

While my first aid kit was admittedly eccentric—in keeping with the unpredictable nature of accidents—my wardrobe was strictly utilitarian. Early on I made the decision to sacrifice cleanliness for efficiency. I would be dirty, but I would reach the peak. I packed two pairs of quick-washing nylon bikini brief underpants; two moisture-wicking SPF-30 T-shirts; a pair of long underwear; a stocking cap which could double as an oven-mitt, two pairs of shorts; the aforementioned fleece; two pairs of socks; a hat with a wide brim; and a lightweight raincoat. The entire bundle weighed about as much as a Big Mac. 

Now, through the magic of hindsight, I can reveal that I may have been a little too zealous in my efforts to purge. At the last minute, I jettisoned my Tevas, leaving me with only the one pair of hiking boots. I believe this decision reveals important lessons about aesthetics and environmental strain. You see my Tevas feature an Aztec print pattern that drives my wife Alice to distraction and causes her to act like she’s being ill. For whatever reason, she really hates the Aztecs. So she caught sight of the Tevas and commenced fake barfing. And I could see her point, really. For me, the whole man-sandal genre evokes the image of software engineers with ratty pony-tails riding Segways through the streets of San Jose—something I would rather not take with me into the wilderness. For this reason, I did not bring a second pair of footwear. About half way through the first day’s climb I felt a rubbing that soon became a chafing and by the time we stopped I had pillowy white blisters on my heels. The second day I had to hike in my friend’s fiance’s camp shoes: I wore pink Crocs with swirls. With socks on. So let that be a lesson to you aesthetes. Stick to what you know is right even when it’s unattractive, for even more hideous options await the unprepared. 

But, before that, at the bottom of King’s Canyon, standing in the parking lot with all the day-trippers driving by in their Suburbans, the tinted-windows packed high with beer coolers, I swung my pack onto my back and cinched the hip-strap tight around my paunch. The pack still felt pretty heavy, but I could tell you every single thing that was in it and why. There was the mountain, here was me. And all that was between us were these things. 

That hiking trip has really changed the way I think about my stuff. Since I’ve come back down I’ve found myself in the habit of lifting things. Just picking them up and putting them down again to get a sense of how much they weigh and how much space they occupy. Nothing fancy, I’m not levering up my refrigerator, although I did notice how many condiments I have in there. 

I have three different kinds of crusty mustard, one and a half ketchups, and a jar of capers just sitting there. I’ve been spending energy to keep this stuff cold not because I want it—except for the one ketchup—but because, through the miracles of modern technology, I have never before felt them as a burden. 

I tried to give the capers to my neighbor who is French. She held the jar up almost suspiciously examining the label and shaking it a little so that the capers spun. “Are you sure you do not want them? Capers, you know, they can be very nice.” I explained that I didn’t really cook with capers and that they were just there, consuming resources, in my fridge. Finally, almost reluctantly, she took this burden from me and I felt, if not free, then a little less encumbered. More prepared for what’s ahead.

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