The fears we carry
Guy with the trail name or pen name Nimblewill Nomad, real name Meredith J Eberhart, was a doctor, husband, father, but one day he finished with all that, gave all his money to his wife & sons, & went walking. He’s like a real-life Forrest Gump in the running chapter, because he just started walking, & he’s criss-crossed America in several directions. He’s walked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail—the three collectively known as the Triple Crown — and all eleven National Scenic Trails. In the chapter about him in a book I just read, he started in New Mexico & walked all the way to the Florida Keys. The author caught up with him east of Houston, & spent a few days with him, enough to see how he ticks.
He’s an unconventional hiker because, having finished the wilderness trails, he doesn’t carry food. He just buys stuff to eat along the way in a service station or diner or fast food joint when he gets hungry. He carries a lightweight pack with not a lot in it. Tarp tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, electronics so he can blog, a rudimentary medical kit, poncho, ultralight wind pants. He wears trail running shoes instead of the heavy-duty hiking boots that most hikers wear. No food or cooking gear. He’s not so much a wilderness hiker as a highway-side hiker more likely seen among a backdrop of refineries than in Yosemite.
The point in telling you all this lies in an interesting idea Eberhart has about why people carry the things they do.
Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The "last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying "way the hell too much food." He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.
The book is On Trails by Robert Moor. Only the last chapter is about Eberhart, and this little epiphany about fear slips in almost under the narrative’s breath. For Eberhart on his long walks, the relationship between fear and carrying is very pragmatic. Yet the idea of life as a journey is so commonplace that it is more synonym than metaphor, so we can get away with extending the idea to talk about carrying fear and how our love of possessions weighs us down in the journey.
The default American state of mind is an acquisitive somnambulism, and realizing that our possessions are tokens of our fears is the first step toward waking up. This equation of fear & possession is the most articulate rationalization for minimalism I’ve seen anywhere. We are slaves to our things because we are slaves to our fears, but we can wake up.
“The Things They Carried,” the breakthrough short story by Tim O’Brien, is the most widely anthologized piece ever, so if you went to school, especially to college, you most likely read it. The title is so prominent that it has entered the language as a phrase in the same way that Catch-22 and “go down the rabbit hole” have. O’Brien’s Vietnam tale works its magic by enumerating the weights of the items a platoon of seventeen men carry in their rucksacks, on their belts and shoulders, on their heads and on their feet. They carry these things because the Army wants them to be effective fighting men, and they carry them for their safety and because they fear to die “over there.” They carry personal items that link them back to home, the people and places they love and that they fear they may never see again. They carry some dope — marijuana — to escape the fear.
I've always been drawn to these unanchored & sometimes rudderless spirits like Eberhart, and Moor asks him why he wanders so much.
Eberhart says he doesn't really know.