When preparing a few years ago to embark on a nearly month-long mountaineering expedition to Aconcagua in the Andes of Argentina – at 22,841 feet the tallest summit in the Western Hemisphere – our team spent an entire day shopping for supplies in Santiago, and then another full day organizing a monumental heap of food, clothing, tents, ice axes, backpacks, stoves, pots, pans and other equipment that covered knee-deep the floor of a garage-sized storage shed.
Burros would carry most of the goods to base camp at 13,000 feet, but then we would have to sort through everything again and haul only essential items the rest of the way in stages on our backs.
I remember staring at that immense pile and thinking, "There's no way I'm going to make it up the mountain lugging all this crap," and I was right. Weeks later at Camp 3, 19,000 feet, I ran out of gas. I struggled for another 1,000 feet or so, and then officially retired from high-altitude mountaineering.
On another occasion, the night before setting out on a weeklong hike of Maine's 100-mile Wilderness, the last leg of the fabled Appalachian Trail, I stuffed all the food and gear I thought I'd need into my pack and weighed it. My heart sank: 80 pounds!
Furiously I began tossing out extra jars of peanut butter, a spare sleeping pad, several pairs of underwear and other extraneous items, finally bringing the weight down to a more manageable 60 pounds – still way too much, but at least it would diminish daily with food consumption.
I struggled mightily for the first couple of days, then hit my stride, but damn near starved by the final day when I gobbled the last crumb of my provisions.
On yet another expedition, a 400-mile canoe trip down the Connecticut River from close to the Canadian border to Long Island Sound, we jammed our 17-foot aluminum vessels so full of ridiculous items – including, I recall, my guitar – that we felt like Hannibal crossing the Alps every time we had to portage around a dam. We suffered through 17 such land detours. The one thing we should have brought would have been worth the extra weight: a set of wheels.
Most recently, a few months ago, loyal readers may recall my account of a cross-country ski trip to Zealand Falls Hut in New Hampshire's White Mountains, when I dragged a sled behind me filled with way too much food and clothing, so overly concerned I was about staying warm and well-fed. We were sleeping inside a cabin! Why did I feel compelled to bring an expedition parka and a sleeping bag rated to 30 below zero? I guess I've never learned.
Wait – that's not entirely true.
A few years ago while kayaking the 363-mile Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany I uncharacteristically and sensibly packed modestly, managing to condense all my food and gear into two dry bags that I stowed in forward and aft hatches. I even skipped bringing a stove and ate nothing but grinders, yogurt and fruit purchased at stores and restaurants along the way.
I also got by with only two pairs of shorts, two T-shirts and one pair of sandals, a major sacrifice considering I'm somewhat of an Imelda Marcos when it comes to footwear. I own plastic mountaineering boots for extreme winter conditions, another pair for moderate winter wear and lightweight ones for other seasons, four pairs of sandals and water shoes, two pairs of cross-country ski boots, three pairs of waterproof work boots for working in the yard, and at least 20 pairs of running shoes that have been banished to a far corner of the porch, safely approachable only by those wearing hazmat suits.
Anyway, that kayak trip was a joy, even though I was pretty gamy after a week, since it took only a few minutes each night to set up camp and a few minutes in the morning to break camp and start paddling. I had no trouble averaging more than 30 miles a day for 12 straight days, and never had to dig through a heap of gear to search for a missing item.
The other day I started re-reading Emerson's celebrated essay, "Self-Reliance," which led me back to the bookshelf for another source of inspiration, the wellspring from which flows virtually all my beliefs about nature: "Walden."
Of all Thoreau's dictums I abide, two resonate most powerfully: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and "Simplify, simplify."
The latter full quote actually reads, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!"
So we have simplified Thoreau's famous phrase by eliminating one of his imprecations. We could simplify it further by simply saying, "Simplify."
Or we could simply shake our heads balefully whenever someone like me comes lumbering by with an immense pack, or a jam-packed canoe.
By the way, the rest of the "simplify" quote includes, "I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
Words to live by.