Words and Photography by Amy Tomasso, Quiet Adventures Team Member
My first backpacking trip was somewhat incidental: its main focus, actually, was not backpacking at all. I was fifteen and my father in his endless patience had determined to teach me how to drive. As a freshly permitted driver, hours of endless highway seemed more palatable--and of course, more fun--with a destination. And, hours of sitting for two hopelessly ambulatory people like us had to be counterweighted with physical activity, the more rigorous the better. So, why not do something daring, intense? Why not backpack? Why not?!
I had grown up hiking, camping, bathing in freezing streams on RV trips where showers were hard to come by, but backpacking seemed to me something deliciously, impossibly cool and, admittedly, hard. Was I strong enough? Did I have the right gear? What even was the right gear? Did I know what I was getting into at all?
Being fifteen, I didn’t really. Instead, I fingered my shiny driver’s permit, which I packed lovingly alongside my one hiking outfit--all synthetic, of course--and my new hiking boots, which I still wear today, seven years later. We were heading to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a granite range which is about as West Coast-looking as the East will get, which is to say, big and grand and somewhat lunar. From our small town in Central Connecticut, the drive would be about five hours, and not too hard, once we hit the two-lane highways of Western Mass.
I should also say that backpacking is a bit of a misnomer for our particular route, since the unpredictability of White Mountain weather makes tenting all but impossible on the exposed high-mountain ridges. Instead, the Appalachian Mountain Club (an incredible organization!) has set up a series of wondrous huts along the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, each one about a day’s hike away from the next. For a small fee, hikers delight in a bunk bed, a delicious dinner and breakfast (the fresh food is hiked up daily on wood backpacks by the robust and young “Hut Croo!”), the interesting company of fellow hikers, and a much-welcomed roof. Not quite glamping, not quite roughing it: the perfect initiation for a novice backpacker like me.
And so it began, four glorious days of mountain air, endless vistas, and the sweet silence of hiking in the zone. Well, almost. At first, my pack was impossibly heavy, my feet blistered from my new boots, all the things happened that one fears will happen in the woods. But something else happened, too: the little annoyances, the aches, the freezing mornings, all that didn’t seem to matter. I felt a focus, a purpose that was totally new and totally thrilling and which, after a few days, I came to recognize as my first big lesson: backpacking is living intensely for a short period of time, which is to say, mindfully, with intent, with all I have.
It is a spectacular way of living. It remains one of my favorite ways, and my mantra for every other day when I don’t find myself on the trail.
The days of that first trip were dense, but even now I can remember those packed and pivotal memories: there was the moment we crested our first real peak, Mount Madison, and I marveled, with innocent wonder, that I had walked, on my own two feet, from the very bottom of the mountain to its very top. A wonder! A moment of endless pride, even still. There was the foggy evening where we missed a turn-off and bumbled, achy and starving, along the wrong trail as everything assumed a spooky, threatening aura. In that moment, I intuited the second backpacking lesson: the things we learn on the trail, the eleventh-hour determination, grit, and the magical confidence that “yes, I can do this,” are preparation for life’s hurdles, like a test-run, or a lasting gift.
And then there was the moment when I looked back at the entire ridge behind me, miles of it, which I had traversed on foot in the past days. Suddenly, I was the smallest I had ever been, and yet I was more of myself, too. I was free and powerful, humble and in awe.
Since then, I have gone on countless backpacking trips. I have felt the immeasurable joy and the overwhelming fright of the woods, have breathed soft cloud air, and yes, have learned how to drive without a co-pilot! I have yielded to extreme weather, have made lasting trail friendships, have crumpled into my tent in exhaustion. But most of all, with my backpack, boots and the trail alone, I have come into myself again and again, always finding something of my soul, always remembering who I am with every glance backward, and who I want to be with every new bend in the path.
Amy grew up in the woods of Connecticut, finding every opportunity she could to explore New England's natural wonders. An avid outdoorswoman, she is happiest when hiking, backpacking, or simply being outside. If asked, she prefers mountains to ocean! A recent graduate of Stanford University, Amy majored in Urban Sustainability and Italian; while at school, she also honed her outdoor skills as a trip leader for Stanford Outdoor Education, a favorite pastime of hers. An aspiring writer, currently Amy is writing a book of personal essays. In her free time, she loves exploring nature, reading everything she can get her hands on, and cooking delicious vegetarian meals.