Some people can go backpacking with nothing to eat but cold oatmeal, dried fruit, and trail mix. I am not one of them. I tried the room-temperature diet for three weeks during my sophomore year Spring Break, and I learned something from it: Hot food makes me happy.
* * *
I am hiking through the Isle of Skye, a place that shows up in Prometheus and Snow White in the form of swinging landscape shots that make audiences gasp. I am free from responsibilities, free from deadlines, free from finances. The sun is coming up across the water, and I know it will be a mostly-clear, mostly-warm day, which is perfect weather for backpacking. I sit on the hillside to memorize the view, and I reach into my backpack for my lunch.
Two half-kilogram bags of Sainsbury’s granola. The same granola I ate for breakfast, and the same granola I will eat for dinner. It was yesterday’s dinner and the day before yesterday’s dinner, too, and even though I so wisely bought two different kinds of granola so I could have a choice between Tropical Medley and Chocolate Mix, neither one seems all that appetizing anymore. My one remaining apple and that squished half-loaf of bread look even less appealing.
I really just want a cup of tea. Or some scrambled eggs. Or anything, really, that will make me feel like a person who eats meals. A person who enjoys eating.
But this is efficient, I tell myself. Hot food requires a stove, and a stove requires money, and I am a sophomore trying to backpack Europe on a budget. Food seemed like the best place to cut corners. But I spent the last three nights in a tent and hiked twenty miles on out-of-shape legs, and I know it will probably rain soon, and who cares about the view anyway? I just want a microwave.
* * *
Everything is soaked. Trees, logs, dirt. It’s winter in Washington, and the woods are abandoned. No one but me and the few friends I could convince to join me would camp in these conditions. My poncho is dripping rain,
and I can feel water inside my boots. My fingers are stiff and painful. I somehow unclip my backpack and set up the tents, but our sleeping bags are wet and everything is wet and someone says he wants to go back, and I don’t blame him.
But then, the stove.
The glorious Jetboil, the Usain Bolt of cooking. Two minutes makes two cups of hot chocolate. Surely this is a light upon a hill, a beacon amid the wilderness. I cook up some maple and brown sugar oatmeal using water as hot as I can stand it. Everyone is agreeing that “Food always tastes so much better out backpacking,” and we’re planning how to build a fire in the rain, and we’re picking who gets to sleep in what tent tonight, and tomorrow night, too.
* * *
My trips have changed since that sophomore year Spring Break. They are no longer about chasing a view “Damn the torpedoes”-style, because more than the objective qualities of any particular landscape, how I feels determines how I will appreciate it. The Isle of Skye looks better in movies and memories than it did in person, and in a rainy clearing no different than any other remote part of western Washington, I found a piece of paradise.
So I get enough sleep when I backpack these days, and I won’t (usually) hike from sunrise to sunset. I bring a book and spend an extra hour by the river. Sometimes I’ll carry hamburger patties wrapped in ice. I bring a stove.
The view might still be the best part of the experience, but it is not the only part. And it is the mundane parts, like eating and sleeping and drinking enough water, that matter most. They happen on a mountaintop the same way they happen at home, without grandeur or photographs or bragging rights. They happen and no one tells stories about them. But I need them.
Because more than a beautiful view or a perfect itinerary, it all comes back to food. Hot food. Happiness.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.