“Isn’t it funny, what we think we need,
to live a life, and succeed?
. . . You gotta lighten your load, kid, when you hit the road.
I woulda thunk you’d know, kid, you gotta lighten your load.”
From the song, “Lighten Your Load,” by the Okee Dokee Brothers
As I mentioned in a post to this blog a couple weeks ago, I’ve been reading a lot of books about long-distance hiking since beginning my saga with breast cancer in March 2015. For backpackers, decisions about equipment and pack weight are crucial to the success of the journey, and the holy grail in how-to guides in that regard is Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking (AdventureLore Press, 2000). First published in 1992, it is a book that Wild author Cheryl Strayed learns of through more savvy hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. One of them helps her divest “Monster” (the name she gives to her unwieldy backpack) of items that have added unnecessary weight, and therefore unnecessary pain, to her hike. Strayed, of course, realizes her inexperience has led her to pack ridiculously useless stuff. So the scene in which she describes the process of lightening her load is meant to be funny, but—particularly in light of Jardine’s advice about lightweight backpacking—it got me thinking.
For example, I love my tent. I purchased it back in the late 1990s, and at the time it was the cheapest and lightest tent REI offered. I’ve gone backpacking with it in the Sierras, the Rockies, and taken it to numerous parks in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I’ve never considered it unnecessary weight. Jardine, however, is not a fan of the tent. In the chapter “Tarp and Tent,” Jardine convincingly ticks off the disadvantages of the tent, including the accumulation of condensation. As Jardine notes, “the hiker’s body gives off several pounds of moisture” during the night. That means much of the morning is spent trying to dry out the tent’s interior, wasting precious hours idling by camp when one could be on the trail. In contrast, the tarp allows for proper ventilation and offers a dryer and therefore more pleasant sleeping experience while still providing shelter from the elements. And, really what could be more proof of the superfluity of the tent than the experience of Earl Shaffer? In Walking with Spring, his memoir about successfully completing the first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Shaffer notes that the first thing he chucked from his pack was his army tent, preferring instead to sleep in shelters, under the stars, or—when raining—under his poncho.
Still, the embrace of the tarp over the tent seems an incredible act of faith. I tend to take the duck-and-cover approach to a crisis. In the outdoors, then, the tent has always served as a kind of psychological protection from the potential threats of wilderness nights. As Jardine points out, however, the tent offers only a false sense of security. Jardine claims that the greatest advantage of the tarp is that it allows us “to become more connected to the wilderness around us. The night is as full of wonders as the day, so why barricade ourselves off from them and spend the quiet, starry hours in oblivion?”
So often, the Biblical metaphors we embrace tend to be those that speak of light. Even one of Bethel’s “core values” claims we are salt and light. In these last several months, however, I’ve been drawn to the Biblical passages that speak about the God of deep places, of the shadows, of the darkness. In Psalm 139, in asking where he can go to escape God, the author observes that even if he makes his bed in the depths, God is there (v. 8). Psalm 91 claims that “[w]hoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty (v. 1). I can’t say it’s exactly comfortable to take refuge in these darker places, and in many ways I imagine it’s similar to how I would feel (at least initially) camping under a tarp instead of a tent. It feels right, however, to relinquish false security in favor of God’s deep, mysterious presence even in the darker parts of the journey.