When I was 11 years old, shortly after I had joined Boy Scout Troop 116 in Elkhart, Indiana, I prepared for my first backpacking trip. Until this trip, the only camping I had done was when the whole family and our giant canvas tent were loaded into my dad's station wagon. We traveled to a nearby state park.
As the planning and packing for the backpacking trip began, I knew this would be better than any previous camping trip. I was going to carry my own gear and hike with other scouts five miles to a farm. I was excited.
I borrowed a canvas rucksack from the troop, and my mom helped me pack it. I tried to tell her what the scoutmaster said I needed to bring, but she had a hard time believing I would only need a few essentials.
She called the scoutmaster to check with him. Even then, when he only named a few items, she was skeptical. She had never been backpacking, but she couldn't believe scouts could manage in the wilderness with only a sleeping bag, a cook kit, a canteen, and little else. Then she found a checklist in my Scout handbook, which convinced her I wasn't taking everything I needed for a successful trip.
With this list in hand, she collected more items for me to take. I don't remember all of the extra gear she added, but I definitely remember there was a plastic washbasin. Her list was now so long the items wouldn't all fit in the rucksack, so she put the overflow in a drawstring bag.
By now, there was too much gear for an eleven-year-old to carry. That was no deterrent to my mom, however. She called the scoutmaster again, and he agreed to transport some of my gear in his car to the campsite. He took the bulging rucksack. I carried on the hike the bag containing the plastic washbasin and other stuff I didn't need.
Even though it's been more than 50 years since that first backpacking trip, I vividly remember that weekend. I remember the teasing I got for bringing all of that extra gear I didn't need. I remember the hay the farmer gave us to spread in our floorless canvas tents so that we would be warmer on this early spring outing. The hay made my nose so stuffy I could barely breathe.
I remember being in the woods on that farm, attempting to cook my own meals, and learning outdoor skills like setting up a tent and building a fire.
And I still remember when the trip was over, I wanted to go backpacking again. To this day, I don't fully understand why I wanted to do it again. I just did.
Looking back, I realize that desire must have started with a sense of adventure I inherited from my parents. Though you could hardly call us the rugged outdoors types, my parents wanted my sister, brother, and me to have lots of experiences. Camping allowed us to travel on a limited budget.
Through these trips, I quickly grew to love the outdoors. I discovered I appreciated the freedom, the beauty, and the serenity it offered. To this day, I would rather be outside than inside.
I have been on many more backpacking trips since that first one when I was eleven. Most have been in places much more rugged than an Indiana farm, like the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Wind River Range in Wyoming, and Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado. Each trip strengthened my need to spend time outdoors.
Over time, I realized I wanted to attempt a big adventure like a thru-hike of a long trail. That desire had to be put on hold until I reached a season of life with fewer obligations.
I have a loving and supportive wife. We have two grown sons who are now raising their own families. With their support, I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail at age 61. That was followed two years later with a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and two years after that with the Continental Divide Trail.
Becoming a Triple Crown thru-hiker was a long journey of many rewards, and I've written much about them on this site. To understand how the journey started, though, you have to know about the weekend I became a backpacker when I was eleven years old.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.