Ultralight on The Journey

A few weeks ago the movie “Wild” came out. It tells the true story of a young woman, Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), who hiked alone a good portion of the famous Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT). It is based on a book account of this adventure with the same title: Wild. From a New York Times article about the movie: “In 1995 Ms. Strayed, then 26 years old, set out on a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile ribbon of dirt and rock that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. She had never hiked before but believed the hardships of a relatively simple idea — a walk in the woods from A to B — would help her find her way out of the “sick mire” her life had become. A few years earlier her mother had died rapidly of cancer at age 45. Her marriage had collapsed under her own adulterous ways. She’d fallen into a world of scuzzy mattresses and heroin use.”

Here is a link to an actual review of the movie in the New York Times:


I am not recommending the movie; I am not saying anything bad about the movie either. Each viewer can decide. I admire the person in the story who undertook this journey in a desperate attempt to salvage her life. I have some questions about the movie and the account. Having met and talked to a number of long-range hikers, I have written about the PCT and other trails and the “traildogs” who populate them, so I was interested in Ms. Strayed’s experience and account primarily for that reason. She is not a typical hiker on these long trails; nor is she radically atypical. There is always the person on the trail trying to resolve some personal issue by taking “the journey.” I remember talking to a young Native American who had lost a close brother in Iraq and who was immersed in deep grief and the Trail was there to absorb that grief. Then there was an actual Iraq veteran who had seen too much of death and mayhem and was seeking healing on the Trail as it was not to be found in society. Then there is a significant group of hikers who are quite at home on the trail, in fact more at home there than anywhere else–they kind of realize the “sacrament of the wilderness” in their journey(a la John Muir). Then there also are the other types who simply try to do the Trail to prove something to themselves and to others,etc. Whatever be the case, the Trail beckons all of us in one way or another.

A few minor observations about the movie and the story:

1. Sad to say most of the movie was not shot on the Pacific Crest Trail. So you do see some scenic wilderness but it’s not on the PCT and that majestic route and that’s a shame.

2. Another somewhat disappointing fact is that Ms. Strayed actually did not do even half of the PCT. She did over 1100 miles which is remarkable in itself and quite commendable–especially considering she had no experience in hiking–but one still is left wondering what effect doing the whole trail would have had on her. She missed almost all of the Sierra Nevada, Muir’s Range of Light, arguably the most beautiful and awesome part of the Trail, and she missed almost the whole segment in Washington State. One wonders about these “absences”….

But what I want to focus on here is an image I see of our heroine, or rather of Reese Witherspoon who portrays her–the lone woman hiking with this huge backpack(look at the photos in the NYTimes)–solitude, wilderness, the human soul searching for something, and then this huge backpack! Yes, there are quite a few hikers on the PCT with these huge backpacks which weigh in at 40, 50 and even 60 pounds. Imagine carrying that on your back each day for 2000 miles! During her long hike Ms. Strayed learns to lighten her load a bit from the other hikers she meets, but she is still carrying quite a bit at the end. A very different approach to hiking emerged about 30 years ago and has grown very rapidly in recent years called “ultralight backpacking.” Ultralight hikers get their packs down under 20 pounds, and I have seen PCT hikers with packs down even to 12 pounds.

A most remarkable thing considering that often on the trail you are days away from any contact with civilization and its comforts. All in all it’s not just a numerical thing–less stuff, etc–it’s not just ingenuity and skill in getting the lightest equipment–it’s not just an ascetic thing if you will–making do with less–no, it is an approach, a philosophy even, indeed a whole vision of who you are and your being in the world. “Ultralight” is or should be a whole way of life. But most of us carry way too much baggage! Including internal baggage. To trim that “backpack” down that we all carry is one of the keys to a healthy spiritual life.

Switching now to another book–but staying on theme: Journeys of Simplicity, by Philip Harnden, a Quaker writer. A good little book, but not especially noteworthy. It is the author’s collection of favorite figures in history who have expressed “the journey” in their lives in this “ultralight” fashion. A few of my favorites from his book:

Layman Pang–he was called “Layman” because he was a married man, not a monk: “Twelve hundred years ago in China a middle-aged man named P’ang Yun loaded everything he owned onto a boat and sank it all in the Tung-r’ing Lake. After that, we are told, ‘he lived like a single leaf.’”

From the book: “Traveling light–imagine this meaning: unencumbered journeying, a graceful way of traveling through life like a single leaf. Now imagine another: the light by which we journey, the light that shows the way. Our traveling light. What would it mean to live like a single leaf? What would it mean to make one’s life a journey of simplicity? A journey unencumbered, uncluttered, without distraction–a journey of focus and intention? A journey of lightness and light?”

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1888-1973): “She hiked the entire two-thousand-mile Appalachian Trail when she was sixty-seven years old. Then she hiked it again. Then she hiked it again. Always alone. Never with a sleeping bag, tent, backpack, map, or hiking boots–she preferred sneakers…. Grandma Gatewood had already raised eleven children when she read a magazine article about the Appalachian Trail. She resolved to be the first to traverse it alone. She stood five-foot-two and on her first trip lost thirty pounds and wore out five pairs of sneakers. Later at age 72, she walked the Oregon Trail to celebrate its centennial.”

The Hermit of Tailaoshan: “In 1989 Bill Porter traveled to China to look for mountain hermits. Although officials in Taiwan insisted that the Communists had eradicated them all, Porter found otherwise. One day on a mountain trail, a Buddhist layman led him to the cave of an eighty-five-year old monk. The monk had moved to his cave-hermitage in 1939 after having a dream in which the spirits of the mountain asked him to become its protector…. He had not come off the mountain for fifty years. After some conversation, the hermit asked Porter, ‘Who is this Chairman Mao you keep mentioning?’”

Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216): “At age sixty, Kamo no Chomei retreated to a mountain called Toyama and built himself a little hut ‘for the last leaves of my years.’ There, alone, he reflected on the many calamities, both natural and political, that had ravaged Japanese society at the end of the twelfth century. He covered himself with clothes woven of wisteria fibers and quilts of hempen cloth. He foraged the fields for food and occasionally went begging in the capital city. ‘My body is like a drifting cloud,’ he wrote in his hut in 1212. ‘I ask for nothing. I want nothing. My greatest joy is a quiet nap; my only desire for this life is to see the beauties of the seasons.’”

Peace Pilgrim (1908-1981): “She was born Mildred Lisette Norman but gave up that name in 1953 when, as Peace Pilgrim, she embarked on the first of her seven cross-country pilgrimages for world peace…. For the next 28 years, Peace Pilgrim walked ‘as a prayer’ through every state, every Canadian province, and parts of Mexico. With a gentle persuasiveness, she urged upon anyone who would listen an unadorned message of nonviolence and disarmament…. Peace Pilgrim neither carried nor accepted money and owned only what few things fit in the pockets of her tunic. ‘I walk until given shelter, fast until given food,’ she said.”

And the final word is from George Washington Sears, who paddled the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks as he was entering his sixties and dying from tuberculosis: “The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong, and we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how to do it. Go light; the lighter the better.”

And for an example of the “anti-ultralight,” what lies at the other side of “ultralight,” whatever you might want to call it, I won’t pick on the most obvious example of all these “fat cat” billionaires romping through our world caring for nothing but more acquisition, but, alas, I want to point to the institutions of our monks and nuns and in this case especially the friars, who especially carry the “badge of ultralight,” who proclaim its value to the world, but, wait, there’s something very wrong here…. Here is a link to a very sad story:


For St. Francis “poverty” was a very important value and almost the key symbol of what he was trying to point to. His followers, the Franciscans, almost lost the essence of this value right from the beginning. Of course this is a value that was suppose to be essential for the “old fashioned” monks also, but Francis was rebelling against the big institutions of his day which were basically the monasteries and which were not “poor” in any sense of the word. Individual monks, maybe, but then they lived off the benefits of being members of these very well financed institutions. Francis wanted a religious community that would be “ultralight.” The word “poverty” has taken on some very bad connotations in our time—what with millions of people on the planet chained to a miserable poverty that dehumanizes them–nothing blessed about that. So maybe translating the old value “poverty” into “traveling ultralight” is not a bad idea. In any case, sad to say the folks in this story are even a better example for me of the anti-ultralight than the greedy millionaires. From those to whom more has been given, more is expected!