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by Michael Palm
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Unlike rock climbing, a sport where I can pinpoint the exact day of infamy as August 27, 1996, the beginnings of my backpacking interests are bit more elusive. When and why did carrying my home, wardrobe, refrigerator, stove, etc. on my back for tens of miles up a mountain in a foot of snow become a "fun" thing to do?
As a child, when a trip four houses down the street was considered too far, my interests lay in soccer and the rescuing of damsels in distress. Often I would take on the persona of Spiderman or Steve Austin (The Bionic Man, not the wrestler) and save my sister Tammy or my neighbor Lisa from certain death or the clutches of Matt Fernandez (our neighborhood-designated villain) - Spidey-sense and slow-motion running were a mainstay at my house for many years.
Though playing soccer helped develop great endurance and fantasy role-playing fueled my sense of adventure, both can only be listed as slight influences on my desire to plod 30 miles in two days. Reflecting back, probably the most important influence on my craving for back and foot punishment can be directly attributed to my dad.
As I was growing up, my father instilled in me a great respect for nature and all natural things. Straight out of the womb, I was exposed to the outdoors. Photo albums hold countless pictures of me in my mom's or my dad's arms as we visited local parks or walked along a beach; and as soon as my little legs could propel me, my father took me for two or three hour jaunts in the woods behind our house. For awhile, I hated those little hikes - mostly because they were usually early Sunday morning, which directly contributed to me missing Speed Racer or Scooby Doo. Yet, I learned to make the best of them by creating such fantasies as my mother and sister had been kidnapped and it was up to my dad and I to save them, but first we had to navigate a dangerous jungle with scary beasts at every turn.
But as I grew older the responsibilities of teenage life intervened, cartoons became less important and my father and my hikes, which I came to enjoy greatly, less frequent to not at all. Sunday's we're filled with trips to soccer games and then later to reviewing films of the Friday night high school football game, and in college, the Saturday afternoon football game. In fact, hiking was not a part my life during those years. From high school clear through the attainment of my bachelor's degree, the only adventure I experienced was getting friends from the bar to the dorm without being arrested.
Then sometime in the early-90's, again, I'm not exactly sure when (maybe '92 or '93), I decided abusing my body was what I wanted to do. I phoned a friend of mine and asked him if he wanted to do a 31-mile hike. Of course, Keith laughed.
"Dude, it's February," he told me.
"Dude, I know. That's the beauty of it," I replied.
Once he realized I was serious, he surprised me by saying he'd go. Hunting season had just ended and Keith, being an avid archer, felt his difficulty in bagging a deer this year had led directly to his inadvertently getting into decent shape. So two weeks later, with heavy, over-stuffed packs, we set out, ill advised and ill prepared. Neither of us had ever spent the night in the woods in the wintertime, and neither of us had any clue what we needed to stay alive. Needless to say, we froze our butts off. But we had fun. And even though I was cold and miserable the entire way, that hike reawakened feelings deep inside of me that hadn't surfaced since those days of adventure with my dad.
As the years passed, Keith and I did a few more trips together, but as it was with my father, the chaos of life intervened and Keith and my trips went from three a year, to one, to none.
But I would not be dissuaded. With my future wife, Lisa, at my side, I slowly, but consistently, checked off many of the hiking trips on my must-do list - Shenedoah, White Mountains, Smokys, etc. And in my travels, I found others who shared my passion - Steve, Katie, Pope, etc. Together we combed as many hillsides as our schedules permitted.
Recently though, with 2001 being the year of my marriage, the months leading up to the fall wedding and the couple months after had been jam-packed with commitments and appointments - no time for anything but matrimony. Now, here it is winter again, and the itch to do a backpacking trip grows more intense every night I lay down next to Lisa in our warm, comfortable bed. June was the last time I woke up with a sore back and hips. May was the last time I spent an hour fixing blisters. February was the last time I ran in place to stave off hypothermia. I need pain.
"Sure would be nice to be sleeping in the woods tonight," I say. "Clear night. Full moon. Lots of stars."
Lisa rolls toward me. "It's January."
"I know. But that's the beauty of it."
About the AuthorMike Palm is a copy editor, backpacker, rock climber from Southwestern Pa.
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