Backpacking is the Opposite of a Heroin Addiction
Backpacking is a strange hobby. Backpackers leave their climate-controlled, well-provisioned homes so they can attempt to enjoy themselves on a mountaintop with not enough food and none of the central heat systems. While we plan our trips, we imagine plunging ourselves into the serenity of nature, free from our usual worldly concerns. All that fantasizing goes out the window once we hit the trail. I spend most backpacking trips wondering when the trail will end and salivating over the pizza I’ll devour upon my return.
And for some reason I can’t wait to do it again.
I don’t think I even process the incredible views until I’m safely at home, blisters healed and belly full. When I’m ambling down the trail with sore feet and sweat in my eyes, I almost feel guilty. Why aren’t I enjoying this more? The view around me feels almost like a Windows screensaver. Flawless, beautiful, and completely in the way of what I’m actually trying to do in that moment: keep moving.
When the trip ends, a mysterious process takes place. I immediately gorge myself on as much food as I want. I change into warm, dry clothes. I lay in my unbelievably cozy bed. I cleanse myself of all the self-inflicted discomforts of the past few days. The only thing on my mind is undoing whatever it is that I asked the wilderness to do to me.
Eventually, the trip comes back to haunt me. Mountain peaks pop into my mind and make me smile. Jerry-rigged repairs to my backpack strap becomes a story of success rather than frustration. The knife-sharp wind cutting through my jacket feels like a call to adventure instead of a brutal enemy. I start planning the next trip.
This time I’ll pack thicker socks. More nutritious food. Maybe we should go thirty miles instead of twenty? Forty instead of thirty? We’re stronger now. We know what we’re doing. It will be fun.
And it does get more fun. You learn which cookpot is really worth the weight. Your feet get tougher. You don’t mind the cold so much. Your backpack gets lighter and your body gets stronger, but you keep pushing for longer treks and steeper mountains. Without at least a little bit of pain, you aren’t backpacking.
We say that we go backpacking for fun. We say that we hope to be comfortable, but that isn’t true. If we wanted to be comfortable, we would simply stay home.
Why is the pain so addictive?
I have a theory that backpacking is the opposite of a heroin addiction. Heroin addicts are always chasing that first high. The wash of pleasure gets weaker with every plunge of the syringe, but they can’t stop. They’ll never feel the same level of ecstasy again, but they keep trying anyway. The pull of instant gratification is just too strong.
I think backpackers are chasing a high too. A high that we don’t feel on the trail or at the peak. The high we’re chasing is the relief and joy of walking through your own front door, sleeping under a roof and never going hungry. We are privileged that a hot meal and warm house can be taken for granted — but our prosperity sometimes dulls us to the profound gratitude we might feel in a harsher, leaner time.
That feeling of gratitude is worth something. I believe that feeling is a window into the human experience across the ages, more-so than the present day. Backpackers are pulled along by their addiction to that delayed gratification.
I enjoy the peace and quiet of the trail, the time spent under the stars, and the babbling brooks and mountain-top vistas earned along the journey, but I can’t deny a central truth: the payoff of the backpacking trip isn’t the peak of the mountain — it’s coming home afterwards.
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