We are in the middle of a fairly substantial interior renovation where I work. One by-product of the undertaking is that a small space will be sealed up behind a drywall partition, sort of like Fortunato in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”
On a lark, I suggested to my employees that we hide a time capsule in the abandoned space – you know, one of those boxes full of trinkets, newspapers, and the minutiae of the day, which (one hopes) will be of interest to whomever unseals the repository fifty years, or more, from now. I tossed in a copy of my new book, as well as a personal “letter to the future.” While writing that letter I couldn’t help but reflect on how lucky I felt to be living in the early 21st Century.
That gratitude extends to my forays into the woods. I think we may very well, for the past twenty years and for at least another decade or so, be living in the Golden Age of Hiking and Backpacking. Why do I concentrate on those thirty years? Three reasons.
The internet. Nothing – no piece of gear, no change of government policy, no technological advance – has done more to improve my backpacking trips than the internet. Through forums like the John Muir Trail Yahoo Group I am able to learn from hikers far more experienced than I. Cottage industry manufacturers are able to innovate and to stay in business by reaching customers they would have never reached in the past. (Unbiased reviews of the tents, backpacks, quilts, and other kit are also readily available.) Local knowledge about specific trails, specific campgrounds, transportation alternatives, even places to stay and to eat before and after a hike is just a few clicks away. Perhaps best of all is the wide variety of online mapping alternatives available, coupled with high-resolution satellite photos. I’ll bet I spend almost as much time doing map and photo reconnaissances of a route as I do actually walking it. I’ve visited countless delightful spots, usually within a five minute walk of the trail, I would have never known existed if not for finding them while scrutinizing the maps and satellite photos. But, once you find these spots, how do you ensure you don’t walk by them? That brings me to the second great advantage of hiking in the current day.
Small, lightweight, handheld, accurate, rugged GPS. I learned land navigation well before the era of GPS, and I am so very glad I did. But I’d be lying if I said that GPS wasn’t a huge part of how I find my way around the woods. A GPS does two wonderful things for me. First, it tells me where I am. Anyone who has done any serious land (or aerial! or nautical!) navigation knows that 90% of the solution to any route-finding puzzle is knowing where you are. (Nearly 100% of the navigation errors occur, not when you go the wrong way, but when you go the RIGHT way from where you THINK you are, when you are actually somewhere else.) Second, it allows me to name and pre-load specific points on the ground so that I can easily find them later, whether they are trailheads, campsites, water sources, rendezvous spots, or that perfect break area I discovered while pouring over a satellite photo. I can still use a map when necessary, but GPS is a wonderful thing.
Relatively permissive government policy. We all complain about how hard it is to get the permit we want to enter the wilderness, but does anyone think it is going to get better? Right now, once we get that Sierra Nevada permit, we can pretty much walk anywhere we want, camp anywhere we want, and stay as long as we want (exit dates are rarely a problem; only entry dates). I may be wrong, but in a dozen years my guess is that the constraints will be far more restrictive and the permits even more difficult to obtain. (Often – but not always – those constraints are for valid reasons, but that doesn’t make them less restrictive.) I can imagine our descendants, forced to walk only on designated trails and to camp in a few overcrowded campsites, wondering what it must have been like back in those magical times of 2016.
I’ve read that the happiest people are those who are also the most grateful. I’ll plead guilty on both counts, and one thing I’m most grateful for is that I’m alive during this Golden Age of hiking and backpacking.
Good hiking, Ray