Any magazine photo spread illustrating backpacking in the United States feature the grand peaks of the West, from Denali in Alaska to Mt. Rainier in Washington. Why wouldn’t they? These and similar peaks throughout the West own entire horizon lines, silencing any opposing force from both man and nature. They challenge even the most basic bodily functions like breathing with depleted oxygen levels at questionably healthy elevation levels. And lastly, but not exclusively, these behemoths prepare climbing aficionados for other formidable peaks around the world like K2 in the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
As someone who spent the first 18 years of her life in Connecticut, I can confidently say we have nothing like those mountains. I’m guilty of allowing the lustful lure of the Rockies pull me to Colorado without even the slightest regretful glimpse back at the rolling, tree-studded hills situated in my backyard. I know it’s because I crave extremes and risk in my life that the seemingly tame nature of the eastern mountains and woodlands could not encapsulate me in a way that the West did.
What I failed to realize is that no part of nature is tame: the elements constantly ping humans chaotically back and forth between one another like a pinball with no regard for the immediate and long-term effects the previous ricochets have left. Isn’t that why we all love throwing ourselves into nature and getting lost for a bit? Should it matter whether our physical location is on the pinpoint of the rugged ridgeline leading to the summit plaque on the top of Mt. Massive in Colorado or on the five-foot boulder encircled by oak trees on the flat summit of Steep Rock Mountain in Washington, Connecticut? Let’s settle the backpacking battle of the East vs the West.
In revisiting my memories of the most chaotic and most tame single day hikes and multi-day backpacks I’ve enjoyed, I’d say no. Of course, there is no comparing sloshing through the rain for seven days through loose rock on Olympic Beach, the desert-like conditions of one’s throat in the thin, dry air on a 14er in Colorado, or the dense webs of oak trees in the woods of Connecticut; but the physical and mental demands, as I have learned, are one in the same.
When I attempted to climb Mount Baker in the summer of 2011 (which, at the time, was the tallest mountain I had attempted to climb), 15 feet of visibility and constant freezing rain stalemated my group for three days. For summit hunters like myself, such an uncontrollable defeat could have thrown me into a caldron of self-pity and frustration. Instead, I had to respect the grandeur of the power of nature to not only imprison us under a tarp and in our tents for 72 hours, but also to leave us without a foot on or even a glimpse of the summit. I went home that summer with only one summit (Mt. Adams) in my pack, but with many memories from the snow bench we laid sleeping pads across to shelter our butts from the snow as we played Werewolf and forgot about the rain freezing around us.
Two years later, I found myself hiking with a friend through the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. This was my first self-planned and executed backpacking trip and, as much as I wanted to believe in all my hours of planning and deliberation with seasoned Appalachian Trail hikers, subconsciously I knew my first ‘real-world’ backpacking trip would push my physical and mental limits. My friend and I set an aggressive pace for the first day, 16 miles, and a much gentler one for the next two at 8 miles each. It was 16 miles in Connecticut, how hard could that be with my experience across the United States?
I had yet to experience the seemingly never-ending, undulating hills starting in Cornwall, Connecticut. My quads felt as though there were nails digging into my tendons. My calves would periodically over-flex without my consent and pain would swim against what seemed like the strongest current up towards my knee. And, even with my hip belt adjusted correctly, my shoulders seemed to each be carrying a block from the pyramids. Nine hours later, we were huddled around a JetBoil filled with Spongebob mac & cheese. With every movement, I bowed my head a little lower towards the hills on which my feet had so recently left imprints.
The juxtaposition of these two experiences, along with many others, proved that hiking both in my backyard and on mountains nearly 2,000 miles will always be subject to the unpredictability and majesty of nature. West coast isn’t the best coast, and neither is the east; both have their challenges and their opportunities for success to offer the most and least experienced backpackers.