08/04/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Things I Learned About Life on My First Backpacking Trip

Kathleen Buckstaff


When a summer weekend opened up and I proposed to my husband that he and I go backpacking in Yosemite, his response was justified.

"Really?" Dan said, his eyes crossed as he wrinkled his nose and examined me. "You'll have to pack lightly and sleep in a tent," Dan said.

"I know," I said. I'm an over-packer and a picky sleeper. On one road trip I loaded a sewing machine in the car, and that was after I had packed books, pens, paints and cameras. To fall asleep, I like at least 600 thread count cotton sheets on my bed (I can tell the difference), a pillowcase that has been washed in fragrance free detergent and blackout curtains. And truth be told, showering is my favorite part of the day.

When our kids were younger, Dan would take them backpacking and I'd stay home. When they returned with big stories to tell, the life in their eyes made me wonder if I had missed out on something.

"If there aren't any wilderness permits available for the trails, we can camp by a lake and read," I said hedging on my offer to backpack.

At Yosemite, serious backpackers sign up months in advance for trailhead permits. A small number of permits are issued to day-of backpackers. This means if you drive to Yosemite, show up and wait in line, a permit to hike on a particular trail might be available. This was our strategy.

On our way to the Wilderness Office near Tuolumne Meadows, we drove by Tenaya Lake. It had Caribbean blue water and was surrounded by pines and granite mountains.


"If they don't have backpacking permits, I want to camp there," I said ogling at the blue water, and I took a picture with my phone.

In the Wilderness Office, the park ranger showed Dan the trails that were open. As it turned out, a world-class, hike-of-a-lifetime trail still had a few permits available.

"Really," Dan said, "The John Muir Trail is open?" I heard his excitement. Fear gripped me, but I held my words. Could I do it? Could I even carry a backpack?

Dan had wanted to hike the John Muir Trail to the Cathedral Lakes for decades. He was elated. I stood quiet and read the giant graphic signs on the wall that showed me how to correctly dig a hole, poop in the wild and pack out the toilet paper.

The ranger helped us map out an 11-mile hike over three days. We would see the Cathedral Lakes and finish at Tenaya Lake where I would read and swim in Caribbean blue water. It sounded like a perfect test-run. But fate had other plans for us.


On our second day out, we took advice from a hiker and missed the turn to Tenaya Lake. We figured out our error after we had descended 1,000 feet. As we refilled our water bottles with filtered stream water, Dan and I discussed options. Eventually, we decided to follow the John Muir Trail into Yosemite Valley. This meant that instead of hiking 11 miles over three days, we hiked 29 miles.

While we hiked, walked, sweated and stopped to rest in the shade of towering pines, I had time to reflect. When I returned home, I made notes to myself because I wanted to remember the wisdom I had garnered on my journey.

1. Carry a light pack. In life, there are so many heavy things that we carry --heavy stories, wrongs, grudges, losses. We all have them, and they weigh us down. If you can, name what weighs you down, thank whatever it is for the teaching it gave you and then let it go. A lighter pack makes it easier to enjoy the hike.


2. Get dirty more often. For three days, I didn't brush my hair, I didn't wear makeup and I wore the same pants. Pee splattered on my ankles, and my nails were full of dirt. I gave up on my appearance and didn't look in a mirror. Instead, I looked at trees, lakes, mountains and wildflowers. The result? My inner beauty felt alive and healthy .


3. Unplug and see what you do to fill the time. I went for three days without checking the news, emails or voicemails. To keep my mind off the weight of the pack, I started to sing. Usually, I listen to music and don't sing. While we were hiking, I sang every song I know -- often with the wrong words or a different tune, but that didn't matter. As I sang, I forgot about my blisters and tired legs and a deep sense of well-being and joy reemerged within me.

4. Play the question game with someone you love. As we hiked, Dan and I took turns asking each other questions. My favorite question he asked me was my preferred strategy for roasting a marshmallow. What I liked about asking him questions was that I learned, to my surprise, that he had a new favorite color and a new favorite dessert. I want to remember to allow those closest to me the opportunity to change and to make time to get to know them.

5. Be willing to see the beauty on the path you didn't choose. I want to practice complete acceptance for what is. This means wasting less energy on thinking about how things might have turned out differently. I want to accept the reality of my circumstances, even when my current path has deviated significantly from what I thought the "right path" was. This is a hard one for me, but offers me the opportunity to embrace new experiences and be richer for them.


Because Dan and I took an unplanned path, I didn't get to read my book beside a Caribbean blue lake. Instead, we hiked through a forest of old growth trees, saw Half Dome at sunrise and swam in the Merced River. And for a gal who loves to bathe, one of my favorite parts of the entire trip was maneuvering over creek rocks and submerging myself in the river. The feeling of being in river water with wildflowers on the banks and pine trees overhead gave me a new definition of heaven.


When Dan and I arrived home, I emptied my backpack and declared that when I went backpacking again I would pack half the contents. The best news was that I wanted there to be a next time.


Look Up is a series produced by The Huffington Post and Cat Greenleaf of NBC's Talk Stoop about the benefits of disconnecting from our devices and re-connecting with our sense of wonder at the world around us. If you are taking steps to unplug and Look Up, email to share your story. And use both hashtags #LookUp and #ThirdMetric to share photos on Twitter and Instagram of the things that inspire wonder in you.

Kathleen Buckstaff is the author of two books that celebrate life and motherhood:Mother Advice To Take With You To College, a collection of hilarious drawings and wise sayings, and The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, an International Best Book Awards Finalist, a true story told through emails and letters about the last two years of Kathleen's mother's life. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.