Yes, I think, reassuring myself, of course I love backpacking. The Amazon confirmation appears in my inbox a second later: a back-up water purifier and a new flint striker. My knees start to stiffen as I sit back and adjust myself in my cubicle, daydreaming about spending a summer sans-schedule hiking every inch of Isle Royale.
I stand up to take a lap around the office and refill my Hydro Flask but instead I do neither. I sit back down and check Facebook. It’s a reflex without conscious thought. Physically demanding while mentally recharging, I do love backpacking. Scrolling through the first couple items in my News Feed, I politely and appropriately like one engagement photo and one baby announcement without reading either past the headline. A college acquaintance posted an entire album about his parent’s 30th anniversary surprise; he’s not at all shy about seizing what credit is rightly his or flaunting his still-married parents. Bloated with likes, I shut my eyes and let out a deep slow seethe before closing the tab. I could never do that, I think. The party itself would be fine to throw together with a few phone calls—no issues that couldn’t be resolved with a little money—but I’d never solicit likes by distilling someone else’s milestone into a means to quantify my own influence and, however briefly, monopolize attention. There’s no need for social-media validation; I can generate self-esteem without likes, shares, or imagined pangs of jealousy my friends and followers feel as they browse through my testimonies and photos.
I look at the small, obscured Boundary Waters patch hand sewn onto my day-to-day pack. It brandishes my adventure for the world to notice, no less shameless than a “13.1” bumper sticker. I love the outdoors, I tell myself. I love being on the trail. My inner monologue quivers now; this is definitely not a long-form performance in which I’m passively parading my “richer” human experience, right? I promise myself that I’m better than the dipshit in our Marketing Department who painstakingly styles his hair to look “messy”.
Moisture floods my palms. I find my breath and close my eyes. Concerns nip at me, but I acknowledge their influence and they crumble away. A few minutes of serene transcendence pass. Meditation has helped existential anxiety before, yet I can’t shake the idea that even meditation itself is only another prop for cultivating my granola persona. Was there any introspection a decade ago when I bought my first pack from a buddy who was moving to Chicago? It’d be pathetic to buy all this gear and take all these trips to merely implicate myself as an outdoorsman to my friends, family, and my own mind, though I’m sure my vigilant brain could rephrase said lifestyle adaptation as “fun” and “intrinsically valuable” in ways that would escape any self-audit.
Damn you, unconscious mind, you’re always two steps ahead.
I’ve appraised ten items in my News Feed before I even realize it. Each one resonates somewhere from mildly to exceptionally vain. Were I to plaster memories from Moab or Big Sur across social media it’d feel as though I’d embarked exclusively for the photos and the fleeting endorphin rush accompanying likes, comments, and other responses doomed to never graduate past short-term memory. My online presence has instead been minimal. Tailored, I suppose, to convey this sexy apathy towards digitalism. Every trail, every dehydrated meal, every vista I didn’t post were all building blocks to my current self-image: the one where a close friend uncovers my backpacking and survivalist hobby organically and thinks to himself or herself, “I wonder how deep this human iceberg goes.”
It’s a white-hot fear now. This decade-long charade might be solely for myself. Latent brain, do I even like TM or T. Anastasio, or were these designer interests intended to bolster an overarching theme? Am I’m still craving attention, but have just found that I crave a more nuanced form where friends and family supposedly laud my social media detachment and my supposed holistic balance?
It’s been eleven months since I’ve last been on the trail. My son will be six-months-old next week. He, too, is physically demanding and mentally draining. I’m pretty sure I love being a parent and I have a lot of gear, so to speak, though I won’t be posting about that either.
I think, I can’t wait until he’s old enough to go backpacking.