Summer. It’s supposed to be about long, hot, lazy days spent on the river, in the mountains or on your deck sipping a tall, cold one. But this year it’s already almost July, and while I’ve eaten dinner outside on numerous occasions, I had to wear a puffy jacket, long pants and Uggs to stay warm. It feels like summer is never going to come.
That sense of suspension is not only due to the weather. Nothing is normal this year, which means the events and routines that mark the change of seasons aren’t happening. No Music on Main, no JacksonHoleLive, no Fourth of July Parade in Victor, Idaho, no summer camps or music festivals. Even eating at a restaurant feels as if you are gambling with your life. Many of us are out of work, so money is short, and we’ve had to cut back to make ends meet. Many of us feel helpless as our nation grapples with racism and oppression. It’s easy in this environment to be overwhelmed by anxiety and despair, especially if you happen to watch, read or listen to the news.
But we live in one of the best places in the country to escape the rabbit hole of 24-hour headlines, even if it’s cold and breezy outside. After all, when you live where winter runs from October until May, you have enough clothes to sit on the deck when it’s 40 degrees outside, and you have the gear to escape for a backyard adventure.
Years ago, my friend Mike Clelland, the renown illustrator of Allen and Mike’s series of backcountry skills books, started getting into ultralight backpacking. What I found most intriguing about his conversion was his notion that going backpacking did not have to mean a multiday trip carrying a heavy load. He loved to head into the Tetons after dinner. Long summer nights meant he still had several hours to get up high, sleep under the stars and, if necessary, get home early enough the next morning to be at work on time. He carried less than 10 pounds on his back: a sleeping bag and pad, maybe some kind of shelter, food he could eat without having to light a stove, an extra layer and perhaps a toothbrush. Although maybe not. After all, you can skip brushing your teeth for one night to save weight.
That kind of freedom is appealing. I spent years working for NOLS, where most of my backpacking trips were monthlong expeditions. We carried libraries, 2-pound spice kits, frying pans and heavy tents. We had climbing gear, fishing gear, and ice axes for the snow. Don’t get me wrong: Those things made our trips into the mountains comfortable and full of adventures. We’d climb a peak and make pizzas for dinner when we got back to camp. We glissaded down snowfields in the morning and fished at night. We could identify the flowers we saw and the rocks we climbed. We had everything we could possibly need for a fun, action-packed, educational experience in the mountains, and I loved it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the body to be out in the mountains for a month at a time anymore, yet I still want and need to escape to the natural world to counter the stress of modern life.
Mike’s vision was refreshingly noncommittal, and it appeals to me now. He would decide at 4 p.m. that he was going camping for the evening and make it happen in less than an hour. He lowered the barriers to entry that can intimidate so many want-to-be backpackers, by saying you don’t need an elaborately mapped-out route, fancy equipment or lots of time and energy. You don’t need a color-coordinated, name-brand outfit or a $700 three-season tent. You can just drive to the trailhead and walk until you find a good place to sleep.
With all the challenges to travel in place right now, I find myself thinking back to Mike’s method. We aren’t going on any big, exotic trips this summer. No airplane rides, no need for passports or visas. What we do have is time. Time that we can use to look closer to home to find the adventures that bring us joy and allow us to escape the stress of world news and COVID statistics.
I’ve been impressed with the backyard explorations my friends have already ticked off. A bunch of people have bike packed out in the hills and valleys east of Idaho Falls in the area around Bone, Idaho. Who ever heard of Bone? No one. But it turns out there are miles and miles of gravel roads and two-tracks that you can link together into a route worthy of one, two, even four or five days of cycling.
From the highway, the area looks pretty bleak — nothing but sagebrush-covered hills without a tree in sight. But once you start riding you find the roads duck down into hidden valleys lush with willows and alive with songbirds. You find patches of fir and pine covering north-facing slopes, raptors soaring overhead and streams creating microclimates of green in the midst of the pale gray desert. It’s wide-open country with few people and lousy cellphone coverage, making it the perfect escape from NPR and The New York Times. And that is just one of the many hidden gems we have nearby.
Too often I get caught up in the glamour of big-name destinations, forgetting that when I was a kid, Jackson Hole was one of them. I remember the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains at 13. That experience changed my life. But after living in the West for most of my life, it’s easy to get a little blase about its beauty. People say familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t feel contempt for my homeland, but I do recognize that I take it for granted, and I realized I’ve missed a lot by assuming I knew everything about the place I call home.
For example, just because I ride the Ladyslipper Trail near Victor at least once a week doesn’t mean there isn’t something new to see every time I venture forth. Right now it’s fairy slipper orchids providing an unexpected spot of color in the forest that brighten my day. Other times it might be a glimpse of some coral root or pinedrops. Last week, my husband and I hiked up a grassy meadow near Phillips Bench. At first our eyes were blinded by the showy display of arrowleaf balsamroot, but as we walked I started noticing leopard or chocolate lilies hidden in the grass. Once I noticed one, I realized they were everywhere, their beauty concealed by their demure, downturned faces. It made me realize that these little, unexpected moments of wonder and joy are everywhere, if we look.
I don’t want to downplay the sense of loss all of us are feeling as we try to make sense of this feeling of suspended animation that has taken hold of the world. Our lives seem to be on hold as we wait to see how this pandemic plays out, as we wait to see what happens with our government, our treatment of people of color and the economy. This national anxiety is very real. We could be heading toward some kind of traumatic upheaval that means life will never return to what we’ve deemed to be normal. Or not.
Regardless, I am grateful for the medicine in my backyard, and vow never to take it for granted again.