I went backpacking this weekend, for the first time in two years, and it gave me ample opportunity to think about minimalism, fitness, frugality, and other such preoccupations. How do we spend our time? Do we engage in our favorite activities as often as we do other, less interesting things? How often do we see our favorite people? What stops us? What proportion of our possessions relate to our passions?
Seeing an old friend who lives far away is one of life’s greatest treasures. Almost everyone I love lives at least a few hundred miles away, many of them at least a thousand. Anyone who is reading this who has friends in the same city, please pause for a moment and feel grateful. I am so jelly you can put me on toast and then drop me on the floor, and my dog will think it is his birthday. We need to focus more on seeing each other face to face and being together without electronic intervention. We forget what it’s like to be part of a group of humans who are making eye contact, speaking to one another, and sharing an experience, live, in real time.
They say we get more value out of experiences than things. I suspect that a fairly large segment of the population would not agree, because many of us spend more time interacting with our stuff than we do going out and acquiring worthwhile experiences. Almost everyone has an interest in something such as travel, painting, building a treehouse, or playing a musical instrument. Sadly, many of us just quit these activities at some point, if we ever attempt them at all. Decades will pass without a single dance step or sketch or song. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of internal meter that chimes to remind us: “It has now been two years since you last engaged in one of your top three favorite things.” Where does the time go?
The nice thing about the passing of time is that sometimes Present Self is doing much better than Past Self was. I put on my pack and realized that I had to cinch the waist belt tighter. That surprised me. Then I remembered that the last time I went hiking, I was at least 20 pounds heavier. I also hadn’t run my marathon yet. I wore the souvenir shirt from my marathon on the hike, and got to meet two other women who ran the same race! I have only recently started working out again, so it was delightful to discover that my ankle is finally fully healed. Even after spending nearly a year sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I still had a high enough fitness level to hike 14 miles and handle a 4000’ elevation gain. There truly are no physical objects as valuable as that sense of pride and accomplishment. There are no material items that can compare in any way to the beauty and richness of the natural world in its wild state.
As for stuff, well, there is a base level of stuff required for survival. Add a layer on top of that for comfort, and another layer for luxury. Backpacking can be quite instructive as to what gear falls into which category. Spend a night outdoors in below-freezing temperatures, and remember how utterly amazing your mattress and pillow and sheets and blankets are. Spend a weekend wearing only the clothing options you can carry on your back, and develop an entirely new perspective on the extensive wardrobe in your closet. Tear a hole in your shoe and understand the nuanced difference between a tightwad and a skinflint. (A tightwad gets the full lifetime out of a pair of shoes; a skinflint wears them an additional year after that). Lose your lip balm and realize it may be the single most important possession you have ever had.
I gained some XP just from observing the other adventurers in my party. I take a lot of pride in my pack, and my ability to carry my own tent, stove, pots, water pump, first aid kit, etc. I had this idea that I was doing fairly well, considering my relatively small size and proportionally small backpack. My friends’ packs were noticeably smaller than mine, and I wondered, were they forgetting anything? Then we set up camp. Out came: a chair, a shovel, a bear canister, a lantern, a stuffed teddy bear, a foot pump, a camera tripod… What was next, I wondered, a kayak? WHERE ON EARTH WERE THEY PUTTING EVERYTHING? It was like Mary Poppins and her carpet bag. It turns out that technology has come a long way when it comes to lightweight gear, performance fabrics, compression sacks, and other such marvels. What I have is the camping equivalent of one of those foot-long cellular phones with an antenna. I have been driving a metaphorical Yugo. After replacing my blown-out trail shoes, my next task is to reallocate part of my budget from my out-of-control cookbook habit to something that is more valuable to me, namely, my physical ability to haul camping gear up a hill.
Minimalism is all about making sure our attention matches our intention. We should be spending the majority of our time with the people we care about the most, doing the things that are most important to us. Our possessions and personal environment should support that focus. We need space for our friends, just like we need space for privacy and projects, yet our stuff can often spread until stuff is all there is. Backpacking is my personal way of reminding myself what my real priorities are. I come home to my husband, my critters, and my big fluffy pillow, and appreciate our home and our life together all the more.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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