KNOWING WHERE YOU NEED TO BE: A BACKPACKING TRIP TO THE CENTER OF SELF
Words and Photos by Peter Gierlach
As my best friend and I pulled into the Pharaoh Mountain Wilderness in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, a sense of peace swelled over me when I looked at my phone.
I was out of range, unreachable. So if somebody wanted to contact me, they’d have to either wait until I emerged from the wilderness or send a carrier pigeon in my direction.
There was a deep satisfaction in that thought as I began prepping my gear in the back of my friend’s car.
It was a beautiful weekend in upstate New York, so we decided we would make a roughly 11-mile backpacking loop to Pharaoh Lake in the southeastern region of the range.
Hiking in the Adirondacks is rugged; there’s no way around it. Trails are often muddy and narrow. Often the trail is just a series of slippery rocks that you need to traverse straight up a mountain.
Having done many of those extremely challenging hikes, we were looking for something more peaceful and serene– a nice, flat trail around a series of ponds and bogs that would lead to a beautiful lake at the base of a pristine mountain.
I wasn’t on this trip to summit a peak or achieve some self-aggrandized goal. It was actually the opposite.
I was on this trip to simply be.
I work full-time as a high school teacher. As you can imagine, it’s been an insanely stressful job these past few years. Between COVID, ever-changing state requirements, and the horrifying news of school shootings, my anxiety had reached unsustainable levels over the past few months.
Couple that with the extremely fast pace of our world today, and I was overwhelmed. Coming home and scrolling or streaming for hours may have helped me forget about the stresses of the day, but it didn’t destress me. They weren’t meant to heal. They were numbing agents.
And when my mind needs to heal, I know that the forest is the best medicine I can get.
This trip wasn’t just about epic views or sick photos. It was about calming my mind, resetting my values, and appreciating life as it is in reality, not how it is on TV or Instagram.
And so, I cherished each step as we started on the trail.
The loop took us through a scenic deciduous forest full of boulders and a fresh, post-thunderstorm breeze that pulsed through the trees. To our right, we saw the shimmering ripples of Putnam Pond, with families enjoying their fishing excursions on rented canoes.
The trail took us by another, smaller pond called Grizzled Ocean. Legend has it its name comes from a sarcastic response to someone who apparently embellished their fishing exploits on this “ocean.”
Looking upon it, I could see how a friend would chuckle when they finally found this supposedly epic body of water that their friend had so dramatically detailed. The highest drama on Grizzled Ocean that day was the ripples caused by a landing dragonfly.
Eventually, we descended to the side of a bog where a family of gigantic blue spruces shot up into the sky. With my friend behind me, I took a moment to stand and bask in their presence. This was a moment where I could feel grounded and centered, where my true size could be put into perspective–a reminder that I, and my problems, are small in the grand scheme of things.
But that moment didn’t happen. Unfortunately, about 500 mosquitoes in the area had other ideas about how I should spend my time in that precious spot.
Much of the hike at water level was spent with my friend and me compassionately smacking biting mosquitoes off each other’s necks and legs. It’s what friends do while backpacking.
As we came around the bend from that pond, we finally saw our destination: Pharaoh Lake.
The lake was much larger than expected and absolutely stunning in its beauty. On the far shore was Pharaoh Mountain, keeping watch over us as we put down our packs and enjoyed the rocky shores for a bit.
We laid down on the rocks and rested our weary feet in the chilly alpine lake, watching the fish trying to make sense of these foreign bodies in their water.
Throughout this evening, the purpose of the trip began to take hold.
Each activity in backpacking is mindful. Finding a shelter (which, thankfully the Adirdonacks have plenty of lean-tos), cooking dinner, and setting up sleeping arrangements. These activities take place firmly and solely in the present moment. In my mind, backpacking is simply an extended meditation.
Walk forward. Make food. Sleep under the stars. Repeat.
There’s beauty in this simplicity. And I think it’s something we could all benefit from.
I, like most people, am constantly moving in my life, obsessed with being “productive.” If it’s not work then it’s creative projects, or fitness, or even chores.
Even my leisure has been sucked up by activities that are anything but relaxing.
Scrolling and streaming dominate my senses. So much so that it’s not uncommon to get lost in the void and come up for air, only to realize that I’ve missed the sunshine of the day.
After a while, seeing 100 beautiful hiking posts on Instagram actually becomes stressful. Photo after photo, I just can’t help but think:
“Why am I not there? How come I haven’t had that experience yet? What am I doing with my life?”
That final thought encompasses it all.
“What am I doing with my life?”
It’s the constant doing that stresses me out.
The working, the production, the watching, the listening. It’s endless and exhausting.
But when it comes to backpacking, it’s not about what we are doing.
I know what I’m doing while backpacking. It’s on autopilot.
What matters is the being.
It’s the being on the rocky shore with my feet in the water, keeping a soft gaze on the mountain, that matters.
It’s the being with the sunset as it reflected on the rocks as I steadied my camera that brought me peace.
And it was the being under thousands of stars in the middle of the night that brought me perspective on my life and my problems. It’s almost impossible to feel stressed out when you’re staring at the enormity of the universe in an untouched night sky, with stars so bright that they actually reflect on the water like jewels falling from the heavens.
On this trip, I wasn’t doing anything.
I was being.
Peaceful. Relaxed. Mindful.
Most importantly, I was truly being myself.
And that’s what makes backpacking so special.
It allows us to simply be with ourselves, uninterrupted, in hopes that we can find a way to begin enjoying our own company and not distracting ourselves from it.
We get to enjoy our own thoughts, not the thoughts of thousands of others that are constantly bombarding us. We enjoy our minds, our bodies, our pace, our experiences.
Backpacking brings us back to ourselves and does so with no expectation.
In the morning, I was awakened at 4:30 am by a loon calling across the foggy lake, the greatest alarm I have ever known. The golden rays of the sun began delicately tapping the peak of the mountain before gliding down, slowly and deliberately.
Some people would pay hundreds of dollars for this view. We had it for free, all to ourselves.
After some oatmeal and a homemade whoopie pie lovingly made by my fiance, we rolled up our sleeping bags and left the lean-to.
Unfortunately, we had places to be and promises to keep.
But I was different after this trip. I became a calmer, more peaceful, more compassionate version of myself. I had cut to the core of my being, away from all the noise and stimulation. I felt like I could hear and feel my true self again.
When we passed by the blue spruces again, I realized it was too early for the mosquitoes to begin their aerial assault.
Embracing the opportunity, I stood at their bases and stared up, examining the twigs stretching into the clear blue sky.
I felt connected with the trees in the sense of oneness. I wasn’t distracted, and my mind wasn’t running in a thousand different directions.
I didn’t feel separate from nature anymore. I realized that I was, I am, fully part of the system.
And in order to realize that, I simply had to stop doing anything.
I just needed to be.