Firsts / A painful and marvelous secret

Written by: Alisa Awtry, avid backpacker, cycle tourist, and medical doctor based in Northern California. (Liz & Alisa met on the John Muir Trail, Summer of 2011.)

Rae Lakes, Photo by Alisa Awtry

Officially, my first attempt at backpacking was a trip to Yosemite with my dad the summer between my junior and senior years of college. He did all of the prep work, found me gear to borrow (and even packed my pack!) and got us to Happy Isles without any to-dos on my part. The plan was to spend three nights out, conquer Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest and, most excitingly for my dad, get his daughter out into the wilderness and see if she, too, loved it as much as he did. Everything went great until we got to the top of Nevada Fall, about four hours and 2000 ft in elevation gain into our expedition. We were greeted by the smell of smoke, helicopters overhead, and a park ranger informing us that the whole Yosemite backcountry had been shut down for the first time in 14 years due to a forest fire. I don’t remember much after that except my sweet dad’s quiet tears as we trudged back down the granite steps of the Mist Trail we had conquered just moments before.

With that failure behind us, we were more than eager for our next chance to get out on the trail together. That brief taste of the wilderness told me I would love it, so I saved up to invest in the bare minimum gear I would need. But, it was another three years before my dad and I created space to get back to the Sierras together. It was the week before I was starting grad school. 

My dad planned for us to spend five days on the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings’ Canyon. This time, no natural disasters were going to get in our way. I was filled with anxiety the night before and barely slept a wink at our trailhead campsite—would I actually love it and this investment be worth it? Would I let my dad down if I didn’t? What if the backcountry was actually miserable or, worse, I couldn’t stand being in the same space as my dad for so long? (The fact that it was pouring rain, my tent had a hole, and I hadn’t camped in the rain since I was a young kid didn’t help said sleeplessness.)

Within the first couple miles of our trip, my fears were far behind me. Though my hips were aching and my shoulders were getting progressively more tender, the breeze against my face, the smell of pine and the sounds of running water were enamoring. I quickly discovered that, though being in great shape is nice and certainly makes the experience easier to enjoy, successful backpacking is the result not of physical strength, but of mental endurance, willingness and eagerness, to find joy. 

I so vividly remember laying my eyes on the Rae Lakes for the first time. I was overcome with awe of the beauty laying before me and with a sense of accomplishment unlike anything else—there is something fundamentally magical about being in a place accessible only by your own two feet. Since then, I have backpacked through myriad breathtaking terrains, but Rae Lakes will always be the place that first captured my spirit.  Still, when I dream of my next wilderness adventure, it is that feeling of sitting on the edge of the third Rae Lake, exhausted and sweaty, with Glen Pass hovering behind me, that I find myself chasing.

But, as much as being in the wilderness is about exploration and freedom for me, it is equally about relationships.  Far from counting down the moments until we were back in civilization with other people, on that first trip to Rae Lakes, I saw so clearly, and began to newly admire and appreciate, my dad’s strengths. We were able to delight in a shared accomplishment and the collaboration it took to achieve it. We got to focus on being outside of our comfort zones together and allowing our differences to work together toward a common goal instead of fixating on the ways we’re similar, the ways we drive each other crazy. Without the daily distractions of to-do lists and cell phones, the backcountry allowed for meaningful, deep, and uninterrupted conversation and thought unparalleled. It was the first time I saw my dad not just as a good parent, but as a very dear friend.

Alisa & her dad, Scott, Photo provided by Alisa Awtry

The cumulative months we’ve spent together backpacking and bike touring since that first trip have formed the most cherished, inexplicable bond between us, one for which I will be eternally grateful. I have shared similar experiences with friends and now with my husband after partaking in backpacking journeys, the deepening of relationships because of the tiring, painful, marvelous secret you carry together of a far-off place. As much as than any of those relationships, it is the one with my Creator that is deepened in the backcountry. It is in those unadulterated lands with such vivid sights, fresh scents, and clear, uninterrupted sounds that I am always left in awe that this world was created to be so beautiful and that humans were given the capacity to enjoy it. The most incredible gift.