Sometimes when you’re hiking alone in the Sierras, you’re carrying a lot. Every night you set down the same pack, and you hear the clink of mason jars of peaches, the squish of your sleeping bag, the crunch of yesterday’s trash you had to pack back out because there was no garbage can near you.
You can go for days hiking alone, and the sights are as pure and the pine winds as sweet as they would be with company. But that nightly unpacking gets kind of useless when you know you’ll have to pack everything back into your russack to begin the next day’s climb.
You stop unpacking anything but the essentials, and you keep them near the top of your bag. You know the other contents of your pack, the extra water, the half-full peanut butter, the mason jars of peaches. You know there’s trash in there, because you put it there. But you still haven’t seen a garbage can. Or maybe you did, but the trash was so deep and it was already evening and a little chilly, so you decided to carry it just one leg longer.
You can manage great distances, stuffing the trash down, the wrappers, the klenex, the too-muddy-to-wear socks. You hear the clink of the mason jar of peaches, but it’s pretty far down too, mixed in with the trash and below the things you need every day, and you’re too tired to unpack all alone, so you let them sit.
One day, you find someone to hike with. He has a heavy bag too, it’s full of stuff. You can hear the thunk of canned tomato soup when he sets his pack down at night. You fall in love, maybe with his smile, maybe the way he grins into the thunder storm. And maybe with the fact that he’s carried the same worn copy of The Name of the Wind and can’t stand to share it, though he’ll detail the plot points at length during a walk across a long and open meadow.
You decide to unpack in front of him, just a little bit, just the top. Your hands shake, more than when you lost your clothing together, because while you can control what he sees and feels inside the now-too-warm-and-too-small tent, it’s been so long since you’ve opened your pack, you can’t be sure what he’ll see.
In a leap of faith, you unpack the first third. He sees what you’re doing and unpacks the first third of his pack as well, laying out the most common things he uses. You see he cleans his knives but not his forks, and he sees your underwear and flowery deodorant. Neither of you balk, and you pack back up.
The next day, you unpack a bit further. He sees your half-eaten peanut butter can and unread Japanese novel and ruffled socks you thought would be charming but chafed in the wild. You see his oddly-rolled underwear and a crumpled mess of what looks like a lost attempt at wilderness writing. You see he hordes tiny pinecones and keeps a library card in a plastic bag. You keep your silence, and so does he.
Your bag hasn’t gotten any lighter, and one night it is just too heavy. By the rare firelight in corner of wilderness that had not been intended to be a camp until you made it one, you stridently unpack everything. You lay it out: rolls of clothes, your unread book, your underwear, your half-a-jar-of-peanut-butter, your mason jar of peaches, and your trash.
He unpacks. He has trash as well, not as much, but some of his is calcified. He’s carried it for a long time, and it’s a solid mass of junk. You sit across from each other, and slowly surround yourselves with walls of what you’ve been carrying. You stare at each other, willing a known rejection.
He starts, and points to your peanut-butter and then his. You can save space if you combine them, and he offers to carry the full one. Next are his crumpled papers, which you smooth down and slide into a file folder in the back compartment of your pack.
He lifts your mason jar of peaches, and at your nod, cracks them open. They’ve gone rancid, and he carries them into the woods, far enough from your camp they won’t attract animals, and buries them. While he’s gone, you look into your trash, and see a history of what you’ve eaten, of things you’ve used. His trash is from different things.
He returns, and pulls from his bag one final thing: a white plastic garbage bag. You look at it, and then as he billows it open, you start scooping your trash in. In goes the mason jar, the movie tickets, the receipts, the old business cards, the cracked-leaves and the fragments of pinecones. In goes his entire lump of hard trash, unopened and unneeded.
You run your hand over what you have left, finding small spaces where you can conserve weight, conserve size. You move your water into a few good bottles and toss the others. You munch some crinkly candy bars whose box has been poking you in the back for 50 miles and tuck their wrappers away before the wind can catch them and throw them over the trees.
You repack your bags. You understand why he was scared of that river (the crumpled writing) and he knows why you sat so gingerly (the never-opened mason jar of peaches). You tie the now-full trash-bag up, and hang it from a tree while you sleep.
There is no trash can at this camp either, and so the next morning you look between yourselves to see who will carry the collected trash. You believe there is a trashcan in the next few hours, and you’ll find it before you sleep. He walks to where you tied the bag up, and undoes your knot. He brings it back to camp and tucks a few more stands of mess inside of it.
You lift your packs and begin walking, him taking this turn to carry the white, full bag, and you bumping your less-burdened shoulder against his.
“To call for hands of above /
To lean on”–The Knife, Heartbeats