Then, meet Now

Next week I’m off to Rocky Mountain National Park for a short backpacking trip. I’ll be returning to a campsite that I first visited in 1970. Then I was hitchhiking from Madison, Wis., to California and back, and found myself dropped off in Estes Park, Colo.

I had inadequate equipment for backcountry travel, even for that era, but on a whim I snagged a permit for a lakeside campsite chosen at random. The trail was five miles in, climbing from 9,000 feet to 11,000 feet. No sweat, I thought, a remarkably blasé attitude for someone who ordinarily lived at 863 feet above sea level and carried nothing more than books between classes.

Still, I was young then and fairly healthy, and, as they don’t say but should: Ignorance is not only bliss; sometimes it’s the only way things get done. I made it to the campsite and even beyond, to the continental divide, another 1,800 feet above the lake.

The trip was an experience of extremes. On the one hand, misery. My boots were barely better than those worn in Braveheart. I froze at night in a sleeping bag you could almost see through. My meals were a routine of peanut butter and bread.

On the other hand, magnificence. Peaks to the horizon on all sides, the views devoid of human activity. Quiet consisting only of wind and other species’ voices. And the stars! The glorious stars whose number and whose light was ten thousandfold what I was used to seeing from the bottom of the atmosphere.

In those days I had no life plan, no foreseeable career, no possibility of family other than the one I was born to. In short, I was a slacker a full generation before the term was coined. Alone in the wilderness then, I wondered what my future would be like in years to come, and how I would get there.

Considering my prospects four decades ago, I eventually got damn lucky with my marriage, children, and work. I don’t know what I did to acquire such a fulfilling life, much less deserve it. All I know is that I’m reaching back in time to say, Hey, I made it. And as proof of my good fortune, on this return trip I won’t be alone. I’ll be climbing with my 27-year-old son, Nick. Magnificent.

Then, meet Now.

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