(Photo: Red heading to a shelter beyond the cave)
“Hey Red, do you remember that day on the Long Trail when we hiked into Brandon, Vermont?” Red had called to talk about backpacking again, a kind of weekly therapy for being back in the real world. “I was thinking about that today. We woke up freezing and then it rained on us all day.”

“It rained almost every day on that trip,” he said.

“True, that rain was relentless. I don't think we had two days in a row without rain on that trip," I said. "We hiked seventeen miles of muddy trail to the road then decided to hitch to the McDonald's in Brandon, so we could be warm and dry for a change.”

“Except, nobody picked us up,” he said.

“Yeah, so we ended up road-walking nine more miles to town," I said. "And then by the time we got to the McDonald’s they were just about ready to close. There wasn't even enough time to get dry before we were forced back outside to walk up and down the road to find a place to sleep. On the outskirts of town, we saw a strip of trees cut out of a hillside for a row of power lines, so we climbed up there to setup camp."

“Yeah, I remember that," he said.

"That was kind of a shitty day," I said.

"It was kind of shitty wasn't it,” he said, but I could hear his smile.

“I'm mentioning it because when I thought about it today, I got very nostalgic. I miss it," I said. "Even the shitty days, I miss."

"So, as sort of an experiment, I thought about some really great days before backpacking. Memories of childhood, of trips, of friends. Memories of laughing so hard that the room goes silent because nobody can catch their breath. You know those laughs?” I said. “By every measurement, they were great days. But they didn't give me the same feeling. I guess I’d call the feeling homesickness, but I've never actually felt homesick before.”

“So you’re saying the worst day on the trail is better than the best day off the trail?” he said, summing it up much more succinctly.

“Exactly, but it's more than that," I said. "I even feel nostalgic for that night we slept on the front porch of that restaurant in Manchester Center to get out of the pouring rain. You were like, 'Hey, the sign says they don’t open for breakfast! I guarantee nobody will come in before 10!'”

"Yeah," he laughed, "And they didn't, did they?"

“No, but that was a shitty night too. I felt weird about unpacking my gear and getting into my sleeping bag, because I wanted to be able to make a run for it if I had to. God, I froze my ass off that night,” I said. “I think I got about two hours of sleep.”

"Nah, we were fine," he said. "If anybody saw us, they would have just told us to leave."

"Yeah, my attitude about that changed eventually," I said. "By the time we slept on that Big Lots loading dock in Morrisville, I wasn't too worried about getting caught. Actually, I slept like a baby that night."

(Photo: The Canadian/Vermont Border)
And on the conversation went for hours. It became instantly clear that Red was suffering from the same sort of homesickness. The phone calls became more frequent and soon the conversations went from reminiscing about past hikes to planning the next.

As of today, that plan is to leave in March of 2014. Actually, for the first month, we deliberately have no plan other than to slowly hitch our way to Campo, California, a small town on the Mexican border. From there, we'll hike north along the Pacific Crest Trail through the Mojave Desert then over the crest of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges. Five months and 2,663 miles later, we’ll cross over the Canadian border.

In the meantime, I'm working two jobs seven days a week to save money. The PCT is fully funded, but I have other big trips in mind after that, so I'll continue to work as much as possible to make those happen as well.

People have asked me how I'm able to afford to take so much time off of work to backpack. "Are you a self-made millionaire or something?" someone asked. That made me laugh. Even if every dime I've ever spent were returned to me, I still wouldn't be a millionaire. I don’t think it really occurs to most people how little money you actually need to live on the trails.

What could you afford to do if you had no mortgage, no student loans, and no credit card debt? Where could you afford to go if you had zero appetite for the latest gadgets, or newer cars, or expensive clothes? What if you had no rent, no electric bill, no furnace that needs replacing? No car payment, auto insurance, or vehicle maintenance or upkeep. What if you had no desire for a bigger TV or a more deluxe cable package? What if you had no need to contribute to a vacation fund and no reason to retire?

You might be able to spend most of your life doing what you love instead of just working toward retirement. What would I do with my retirement anyway? Do like the retired men I met on trails, who waited until retirement to go backpacking?

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.