Always plan a summer backpacking trip, solo, in South Utah. Make sure to not totally know where you are going but be prepared with all your gear and maps of potential routes.
Always make sure to be patient while people who love you tell you it’s probably not a good idea to do what you are about to do. Also be a little scared by how certain they are that this is a bad idea. Also feel a little peeved because if you were a boy you doubt you would get such an earful.
Always set your alarm clock for a few hours before your flight so you will not be rushed. Be sure to instead wake up 10 minutes before your alarm when a 6.0 earthquake rattles all the windows in your house. Sit in bed and wonder, “should I be doing something?” Also make sure to wonder if this is some sort of omen for your trip.
Always bring a credit card with you name, not your company name, listed on the card. Without it, rental car companies in Las Vegas will not rent to you. And they will not let you pay cash. Nor will they let your nice mother rent a car on your behalf. Except for the heroes at E-Z Rental Car who will totally bend the rules because, duh, obviously this girl needs a car.
Always stop at a nice gas station and buy awesome road snacks. Takis and Pepsi are good choices.
Always arrive to the visitor center and talk to the nicest ranger you’ve ever met. His name is Brian. He will plan your entire itinerary for you.
Always leave your car at your end location and have no real plan on how to get yourself to the trailhead, this way you can meet Zach who will kindly offer to give you a ride when he gets off work (he works as an intern in the park). Then you will get to jam out to 90’s R&B classics and other summer jams while talking about growing up, shooting guns, and how to survive in the wilderness. Also Zach will give you a great tip on what to think about if you get scared by an animal. Just think: “I am the top predator in any environment.” Even though a mountain lion could totally eat you to bits, the mountain lion doesn’t really know that. Especially if you act like you can mess him up real good like.
Always wave goodbye to Zach and start on your walk. Always think, “Oh shit, what the hell am I doing?”
Always arrive to your first campsite and almost die from the beauty of it all because Ranger Brian gave you the best goddamn campsite you’ll ever see in your life.
Always get your mind blown out by the stars.
Always keep on walking and meet Gorge, an Italian dude, and his two friends whose names you will quickly forget. Make sure not to forget the answer one of them gives you when you ask, “So where are you from?” Remember that he says, “I am from nowhere. Today, this is my home.”
Always get lost for a little while. Being lost with them won’t feel scary at all. Then make sure to look up and see Ranger Brian out to work in the backcountry for the day coming your way to confirm, yes indeed you are going the right way. High five and keep walking.
Always start to pull ahead and walk a little faster than the group, naturally parting ways. Then discover an amazing field of golden hay growing like a magic shimmering blanket.
Always continue on, stopping to eat lunch and take care of your feet.
Always get to the next junction with a plan to dump some of your clothing in the garbage can there because by this point you realize you are not going to get out of the AC/DC tee and cheetah running pants you are currently wearing, and all the other clothing is weighing you down. Then when you arrive, make sure to look to the right and see Ranger Brian finishing up his day at his truck, and ask him to take your clothes. Have a nice conversation with him. Make sure to get the distinct feeling that he is looking out for you.
Always listen when he points to the next mountain you will be passing in the distance. Think to yourself, “I can’t really be walking that far.” Then walk 6 miles farther.
Always overshoot your campsite and end up at the next trail junction, two miles farther than you planned to hike that day, that way you will stumble upon a lush meadow and say to yourself, “this will do.”
Always wake up early and see Gorge on the trail. Say hi. He’s a nice guy.
Always watch storm clouds brewing in the distance. Watch as the dark cloud elongates and begins to touch the earth. Know that that storm is heading your way.
Always feel a few raindrops, and then ask yourself if it’s about to really start raining. Decide it will. Rip your bag open, stuff your sleeping bag in a plastic garbage bag, throw on your raincoat, slam the cover over your pack, hoist it up onto your back and the minute you clip in, notice how the sky opens up and starts dumping rain. Think to yourself, “Perfect timing.”
Always walk in the rain for a while. It’s pretty goddamn fantastic.
Always look to your right and notice a perfect lookout spot. It opens up into a view of canyons you can barely believe even with your own eyes even though those eyes are located in your own skull. Then think to yourself, “I wish someone else was here to see this.” Also, take off your raincoat because as you sit there the sun comes back out and now you are crazy hot.
Always look up and see another storm coming. This time get a little scared because you are up on a ridge surrounded by the corpses of trees that have been struck by lightning. Then remember what Ranger Brian told you: “If lightning starts, try to stay off the ridge.”
Always have your heart jump out of your chest when lightning does start to strike and you are in fact, not staying off the ridge. Make sure to think about dying. Make sure to think about all the people who told you backpacking by yourself is not such a great idea because you might die by, say, lightning. Then make sure to think, “Josh didn’t worry about me, he said ‘Yeah, go for it!“. Your Dad was all about it, and actually so was your Mom. And Ranger Brian didn’t doubt you either, he sent you on your way. Then stop feeling scared and know that you will be alright.
Always make sure to laugh out loud when it starts to hail.
Always walk up to the campsite you would have stayed at had it not started electrical storming right overhead. Say “What-up campsite!” and then keep walking. Make sure to remember that now you have an additional 8 miles to walk that you were not planning on walking that day. Think, “Cake.”
Always keep walking and walking and get your feet nice and tired. Get rocks stuck in your boots. Sit down on a log and get what seem like cactus needles stuck in your butt. Make sure to pull your pants down in the middle of the trail and pick the needles of out your thigh skin. Make sure to hope that no boys will come traipsing up the trail for the show.
Always keep on walking.
Always finally get Zion Canyon in your sights.
Always almost have a heart attack you are so overcome with bliss and joy and wonder and love and gratitude and oneness with the real deal.
Always trail another hiker, and make sure to catch up with him with about a mile to spare. His name will be Ed and he’s from Atlanta. He will have been rained out too. Be sure to get rain dumped on you, see a rainbow, have heavy hail fall all around, and then watch waterfalls and streams start as trickles and then become torrents out of nowhere and flow swiftly toward the canyon floor. Make sure to wade through these fast moving streams with Ed, you both will now have boots that feel like 10 pounds each but you both will be very happy.
Always get to the end of the trail. Always feel relieved and cold. And always feel a little sad.
Always get a motel room, and tell Ed to get one next door. That way you can grab a beer together after you have ripped off your wet boots and taken the best goddamn shower of your life.
And always always count up the miles you walked, the fears you overcame, the people you met, and think something private and profound to yourself.
And remember, you don’t have to tell anyone that part. That can be just yours.