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Buds, Blisters and Backpacking

From Canadian Rockies Annual (Vol. 1)

BUDS, BLISTERS AND BACKPACKING

Words and Photo by Nathan Jones

What is the role of stillness in a distracted and ever-accelerating world? From September 30 to October 2, 2016, the Banff Centre’s The Art of Stillness Weekend invites the public to join world-renowned artists, neuroscientists, and Indigenous thinkers to explore what it means to slow down and seek tranquillity. This piece from Volume 1 of the Canadian Rockies Annual offers a timely contribution to this important conversation.


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In an age of contrived wilderness experiences and stunted
human engagement, it’s time we rewired our circuits.

The sky was still inky black when we rose; my phone read 4:30 a.m. We had only finished packing four hours earlier. With our tent split three ways and food sorted, our trio of twentysomethings set off from Calgary to Mosquito Creek (the end point of our trek). We hoped to hitchhike to the trailhead a few kilometres up the Icefields Parkway. After soliciting a ride from a kind Dutch couple in a Cruise Canada camper, we were off. If all went according to plan, our 74-kilometre trek through the Banff backcountry would include nights at Isabella, Devon and Fish Lakes.

It’s a sad truth, but this trip offered us a chance to unplug and re-embrace a wilderness bereft of the latest trendy outdoor hashtag. In an age where wilderness as a trope often trumps wilderness as an experience, social media platforms such as Instagram have allowed us to peruse an endless feed of seemingly pristine landscapes paired with nicely aged John Muir quotes. Tents, lit from within and perched in unfathomably scenic locations, create confusion: which are used for shelter and which are merely props in an elaborate scene? It is a sharp departure from Muir’s musings on wilderness, which he viewed as a chapel, a place to disengage from society and seek solace away from the buzz of civilization. Instead, we have a rise of satirical accounts like @youdidnotsleepthere that poke fun at our generation’s need for social legitimacy, chasing “likes” as a dog chases its tail. We’ve some of the best trail camerasscattered all over this trail, the witnesses though are as distant as can be.

Eight hours into Day One, we hit a wall a few kilometres short of Isabella Lake. Though our final destination was in sight, our quest seemed increasingly Sisyphean. As the trail receded into swampy marsh, our spirits sank with our boots. We stopped on the trail to lounge on our backs, cursing the fact that we could be at home with a beer in hand. Wallowing in our displeasure, our talk turned to ways we could encourage a bear to eat us, if only to pull attention away from our aching backs and sore feet. Lathering ourselves in peanut butter was one suggestion. The absurd humour offered relief from our mutual suffering.

“Modern technology, while offering many conveniences,
has made human engagement a complex landscape to traverse.

Our ability to disconnect has atrophied
and our attention spans have shortened.”

When we finally arrived at camp the first day, the impact of our 20-kilometre hike became apparent when Kent took off his boots. Grimacing, he pulled off crimson-stained socks; his feet looked like they’d taken a trip through a meat grinder. Marc pulled out the first-aid kit and went to work. In the days that followed, Marc and I would laugh as Kent’s painful gait, paired with his wood walking stick, made him resemble a backcountry Gandalf.

It’s moments like these that are unique to trips of this nature. Modern technology, while offering many conveniences, has made human engagement a complex landscape to traverse. Our ability to disconnect has atrophied and our attention spans have shortened. But here, set against a stunning mountain backdrop, three tiny figures pitch a tent, prepare dehydrated meals, lick our wounds and converse. There is no signal to disrupt our communion or technological crutch to prop up the flow of our chatter. 

Disconnecting, if nothing else, offers us a chance to rewire circuits. It is a forced embrace of the silences and nuances of conversation. Awareness is heightened, jokes are funnier, stories more novel, food tastier and the landscape more vivid. In a time where the Internet allows us to embrace everything simultaneously, intentional disconnection is a profound exercise in tuning in with your immediate company and surroundings.

The final three days of our hike through meadows and mountain passes were not unlike the first: long and arduous, but medicated by the enchanting and ever-changing landscape. It may be hyperbolic to suggest that we backpacked in search of a cathartic and meditative experience. Yet, in our increasingly complicated and high-speed world, it is rare to share such a simple, singular focus. The collective goal nurtured a collaborative spirit – a camaraderie strengthened through the journey’s ecstasies and adversities.

Together, we soaked in the simplicity. One foot in front of the other, and repeat.


Perpetually stoked on getting outside, Nathan Jones enjoys shooting photos, sleeping in tents and eating dehydrated meals.