It was a balmy day in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: the skies were overcast, the wind was whipping off of Lake Superior, and the air was just cold enough to elicit a shiver if you stood still for too long. I teetered at the edge of Log Slide, a sand dune that stood 175 feet over the lakeshore, with my 30-something-pound backpack strapped to my back and waist. The ground might as well have been quicksand — I was convinced my feet were sinking deeper and deeper into the pale sand, dragging me down its vertical face, where I would be unable to climb back up.
I had decided to sign up to go backpacking over my Fall Break with a group of five other students through the Michigan Backpacking Club; it was an idea that had sounded great at the time, but was starting to feel like a giant mistake as the trip crept closer. I’m not an outdoorsy person. I was born and raised in Manhattan. I feel more at home on the streets of Detroit than in small-town Ann Arbor, despite never having lived there. Bugs give me the heebie-jeebies, and the idea of giving up working plumbing for four whole days terrified me. “Anything for the content,” I told my editors as I griped about the upcoming trip.
I had plenty of valid reasons as to why I was anxious about going to the Upper Peninsula: Our trip leader had not communicated any information about the trip or what I needed to buy until the day before we left, I had two pressing midterms the week after and, according to my grandfather, it was quite possible I could get hypothermia and die. But deep down, I was mostly worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up: that I would be “bad at backpacking” — and therefore slow the whole group down.
I decided to assuage those feelings the only way I knew how: by planning, and planning and then planning again. I bought a notebook especially for this trip, canary yellow and waterproof, and wrote a packing list. “Warm longsleeve,” one entry reads. “Flashlight?” is crossed out in favor of a headlamp. My grandfather, an illustrious world traveler and backpacker himself, took me to REI to purchase rain pants and dehydrated meals, along with an assortment of other items. Although I had all the required equipment, I still didn’t feel ready. I had no idea what the terrain would be like, whether or not the rain would hold off or if the tent had all the required parts. What if we left the stakes behind? What if someone broke their leg in the middle of the backcountry? What if a bear ate our food? What if I did get hypothermia, turn into an icicle and die on the shores of Lake Superior? The green Osprey backpack that my grandfather’s friend had donated to me sat on the floor of my closet, radiating with all these questions, and none of the answers.
At the beginning of our first day, I stared down Log Slide in terror, ready to be absolutely humbled by the sheer stupidity of the choice I had made. But day one was deceptively easy. Although we had to hike 9.4 miles to our campsite for the night, we were primarily on man-made wooden walkways over babbling brooks with sweeping views of Lake Superior and Michigan’s renowned fall foliage to my right. The pack was heavy, yes, and my shoulders and hips were sore at the end of the day, but it was a manageable level of discomfort and there was minimal change in incline. It wasn’t until the last few miles, when we sped up to reach our campsite before sunset, that I somewhat struggled to keep up with the rest of the group. I was fully content with over four hours of putting one foot in front of the other — something I usually find monotonous after 15 minutes on the treadmill. I normally hate being alone with my thoughts and entrenched in unenjoyable, repetitive actions, but this time, the malaise somehow melted away.
Walking through mile after mile of sand dunes, streams and richly colored forest left my mind totally clear, devoid of any worries or even thoughts. I would hum a couple of rounds of “99 bottles of beer on the wall” before inevitably losing count as another glorious view of Caribbean blue water brushed against sandy shores, hundreds of feet below my hiking boots. No thought seemed to stay in my mind for too long, which, at the beginning, truly unnerved me. Think about your exams, I told myself, midway through one hike, only for the idea to go in one ear and out the other. Aren’t you stressed? Why aren’t you stressed? The goblin in my head roared at me as he got swept underneath a riptide of golden leaves and crystal-clear water. Nothing could penetrate the calm I was feeling for longer than a few minutes. We walked in a single file line, mostly without speaking — all the grounding and reassurance I needed was footsteps to follow in and the thuds of the footsteps following mine.
Our second day left me feeling not just calm, but euphoric. We hiked a quick 4.5 miles in about two hours, set up camp after eating the staple lunch of trail mix sprinkled onto peanut butter tortillas and then headed down to the shore. Martín, one of the more seasoned backpackers in our group, adjusted my rock-skipping technique. After an hour working on my craft, I laid down in the sand and, blissfully happy to be off my feet, fell into what can only be described as a trance. I wasn’t quite asleep, but I also wasn’t quite awake. I could feel the sun breaking through a patch of clouds and warming my knees, but only distantly, as if the feeling had been translated several times before I was able to truly process it. Later, we returned to the lake to watch the sun dip below the edge of Lake Superior, painting the sky a lustrous pink in the process. After huddling around the fire we had built and nourished all evening, we met up with another Michigan Backpacking group and laid down to stargaze. Never in my life have I seen as many stars as I did that night.
Moreover, those stars were unlike anything I’d ever seen before — even more gaping and bright than their twinkling representations in planetariums. The Milky Way glowed above us, cutting a wide swath through the pitch-black sky. The night was so deep and dark and the stars so insistent, that I felt like the sky could swallow me whole, drawing me up into its inky maw. The utter lack of light pollution made everything clear: I was so insignificant, I realized, and so was everything I had ever worried about.
During my freshman year of college, I decided to practice meditation more consistently, mostly because two people who were very important to me at that time were really passionate about it. I had always shied away from meditation — it didn’t come naturally to me, and I hate doing things that I’m bad at. Moreover, I couldn’t really find a way to improve. Focusing on my breathing caused me to hyperventilate, and I would often get stuck on thinking about not thinking; it seemed like an unfulfilling cycle of struggle, with none of that emotional release that everyone was always talking about. In fact, I didn’t really believe that said meditative state actually existed. It seemed like a lie that my friends and family were telling themselves in order to feel like they had some control over their negative emotions. Still, a few times per week, the three of us would hole up in my Bursley Hall dorm room, and we would all meditate. As their minds were wiped blank of worry, I imagined my happy place: a nameless beach somewhere on the East Coast with waves lapping at the sand. If I couldn’t reach blankness, at least I could pretend to be peaceful for a few minutes.
I never quite got hooked in the same way that the two of them did, but ever since my attempt at meditation, I’ve been unable to separate the formation of breath from the structure of ocean waves — the deep curve of oxygen flooding into my diaphragm before reforming into a crest, over and over, the constant ebb and flow and ebb again, curling and unwinding and re-curling for all eternity; the inhale and the exhale and the inhale once more.
On the afternoon of the third day, after a 7.5 mile hike, I sat with my feet hanging over the place where Chapel Falls met Lake Superior’s blustery waves. I watched as the two bodies of water clashed, retreated and clashed again, creating ridges in the rock with all the handiwork of a master sculptor. As I listened to the water, my thoughts and feelings seeped out and mixed with the waves in front of me. I was a placid observer, not involved in the process at all.
This was when it hit me. This was the emotional release I had been searching for since I began attempting meditation, to no avail, years ago. This was the state that all my friends had talked about finding, this place where nothing could touch you unless you let it — unreachable, unshakable calm. As I watched the waves heave themselves against the spray of the falls, I couldn’t feel my bruised collarbones or the gnawing hunger in my stomach. I could only feel the wind on my face and the water in the air. I could only see waves. I was only my breath. Smash, regroup, smash. Curl, unwind, re-curl. Crest, break, crest. Inhale, exhale and inhale forevermore.
It’s not that the hike was always easy, but rather that the calm I had discovered and the blissful peace that came with it didn’t dissipate when it got hard. Even as our routes began to get longer and more difficult; even as the days dragged on and I woke up sore; even as I tripped over a root and went sprawling and even when my blisters reduced me to a hobble, and I slowed the group down to a crawl — the thing I had been most afraid of — I was ecstatic to be there. In fact, when I started crying in a dehydration-induced delusion (as I had promised my editors and photographer I would do at some point on the trip) it was out of laughter. I could not have been happier if I tried.
I’m not sure what allowed for this revelation; whether it was the physical exhaustion or the lack of outside communication or the way the waves of Lake Superior seemed to flood into every crevice of my mind. But I do know that I’ve always felt some deeper connection to water. My freshman year journal has an entry detailing how I felt back then (untethered from my own sense of self), and attributing the feeling to my lack of access to the ocean the summer before. Each day, our group joked about doing a cold plunge, and had I not been forewarned about the dangers of hypothermia, I just might have dunked myself under. I would have let the cold sear the breath right out of my lungs and take with it the last vestiges of anxiety — a pseudo-baptism, if you believe in that kind of stuff (I don’t.) As it was, I made sure to scrub my face with handfuls of crisp, ice-cold water whenever I had to leave it.
At the end of our final day’s hike, as we dropped our packs at Miners Castle and changed out of our sweaty gear, I felt nothing but bubbly warmth and accomplishment — nothing but that serene clearness whose existence I had doubted for so long. It still doesn’t quite make sense to me — how I could find such peace doing something I was convinced I was going to hate — but as I stared off of Miners Castle’s outlook, a couple hundred feet above Lake Superior’s gray-green waves, I knew I had made the right decision to go backpacking, no matter how crazy the idea had sounded in the first place.
Statement Correspondent Lucy Del Deo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.