It’s on my mind again as we are packing our belongings for our move to Orkneyby Cal Flyn / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
A couple of summers ago, my partner Richard and I rode the Colorado Trail, a mountainous 500-mile route through the Rocky Mountains, from end to end. We travelled alone except for three horses, all of whom I’d rented—much like one might rent a car—from an enormous ranch on the outskirts of Denver. We rode the two painted geldings, and the third, a little Appaloosa mare, ran loose behind us as a pack horse.
After a few days of footering around with packer’s knots and diamond hitches, we soon settled into a good rhythm. We rose before dawn, fed and watered the horses, packed away camp and—by the time the red sun was peeking over the ridgeline—had them tacked and loaded ready for a day on the trail.
The key thing in travelling long distance, whether on foot or on horseback, is to pack wisely. Before we set off, we’d learned a great deal from online forums frequented by “thru-hikers”—the community of people who walk for weeks or months without a break. The thru-hikers’ maxim: it’s not the miles that will kill you but the kilos. They taught us about meal planning, back-country hygiene (less is more!) and cutting the contents of our packs to the bones. Change of clothes, waterproofs, tent, sleeping bag, mat, food, repair kit. Anything else is a luxury.
Many of the most prolific advice-dispensers were those who subscribed to a hardline “ultralight” philosophy, in which proponents go without stoves, tents and sometimes even waterproofs (preferring to go nude under a bin liner during rainstorms). Being Scottish, and therefore haunted by the spectre of hypothermia, we rejected many of the stricter ultralight edicts outright. But there was something valuable in it as a philosophy. It offered clear guidelines to live by, in a complex world: it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need.
Once absorbed, ultralight thinking seeps into your way of life. And it’s on my mind again as we are packing our belongings for our move to Orkney. I find, with horror, that our book collection alone stretches to seven dense boxes, not to mention Rich’s six crates of records. When I look at our vast hodgepodge heap of mementos and knick-knacks, I can’t help but compare it to the two panniers that lasted two humans and three animals for six all-weather, self-sufficient weeks in the mountains.
That summer, I felt a freedom I’ve never felt before. Weighed down by only the bare minimum of belongings, we sought our basic requirements from the land we travelled through: fresh grass for the horses to eat, springs and streams for us all to drink from. We hung our wet washing on the bushes to dry, tied the horses to trees while we groomed them. Now, as we heave our belongings down three flights of stairs, I find I miss it.
And yet. Despite threatening to give it all away, I hesitate. These books, these LPs, these belongings are a record of our lives. The faded postcards in a shoebox have no value, but they are prompts for memories that might otherwise slip away. Photos, trinkets, even the receipts I keep for accounting purposes, are all freighted with meaning—to me, if no one else. Don’t we need such things in our lives too?
Trail life is not real life. It’s unnecessary to cut back to the bare minimum when you aren’t living a bare-minimum lifestyle. So I’m keeping the souvenirs—including one very dog-eared and battered copy of the Colorado Trail Handbook, which I will almost certainly never have a use for again. It remains a priceless reminder of a beautiful summer of sunshine, saddlebags and electrical storms.