Bryn and I were on the third day of a five-day backpacking adventure in the Western Sierras, deep within Sequoia National Park. We had spent the day hiking through Big Arroyo, up and over Kaweah Gap, past Precipice Lake (made famous by Ansel Adams) to the shores of Upper Hamilton, where we joined a handful of other tired and stinky backpackers who were settling in for the night. It was such a tranquil setting that a group of deer thought nothing of wandering through the scattering of tents as they nibbled on the surrounding foliage. Further down the valley you could see the sun glancing off of Valhalla, an iconic slab of granite that fills the dreams of rock climbers and photographers and, I suppose, rock-climbing photographers as well.
Fresh mountain water gurgled past our campsite, spilling from Precipice to the Hamiltons and beyond. You could certainly find worse places to spend a summer night.
Once we had set up our tent, I sat lakeside—resting my throbbing legs and shoulders, taking in the magnificence of the place—when another backpacker ambled by with fishing pole in one hand and a wiggling rainbow trout in the other. (Perhaps. I know for sure that it was colorful and it was a fish. Beyond that, I’m guessing.) As he passed, I couldn’t resist a friendly tease. “If you’re going to feed all of us,” I told him, “you’re going to have to catch a lot more fish than that.” He chuckled and said that he was taking orders. Alas, our dinner that night would be much less exotic than his: dehydrated beef stew (about as delicious as it sounds). But when you’re tired and hungry, you’ll take your calories however you can get them, so under the circumstances the stew was good enough. We were full, at any rate. Plus, for dessert Bryn and I split a Snickers bar. Not bad at all.
Turns out that stew was merely antipasto. Soon after we had finished licking our sporks, the fisherman approached, and with a grin he presented us a fresh fish of our own, already cleaned and ready to cook. (He actually had taken my order!) We were flabbergasted. And delighted. He seemed as pleased to give the fish as we were to receive it. Although Bryn and I each got maybe three bites out of that tiny trout, the gesture made it the second-most-wonderful thing* we ate on the entire adventure. I’m smiling even as I recall the moment our new friend unveiled his surprise gift.
That brief moment of unexpected kindness is typical of what I experience just about anytime I find myself out among other nature-lovers. I can’t say exactly why it is, but on my morning hikes in the nearby hills those with whom I share the trail are unfailingly cheerful and polite. The mountain bikers will thank me for stepping out of their way and cheerfully advise me of how many others are following in the group. “Have a great hike” someone will say to me, maybe a dozen times in a three-hour hike. That generosity of spirit seems universal. And maybe a little surprising, given that a hiker like me is probably a nuisance to mountain bikers. But still there is a sense of community that you cannot miss, an apparent understanding that in the outdoors we share and preserve and try to “leave no trace.” We help each other. We do our best to get along. And in the backcountry, fresh air and clear water seem to intensify that equanimity.
And so it was a fitting close to our adventure when on the final morning, as I braced for one last serving of somewhat under-cooked instant oatmeal (bleckh!), Bryn presented me with the ultimate trailside treat: a clutch of freshly gathered thimbleberries (her favorite!).
She had spied the somewhat mythical berries the previous day as we made our way up through Bearpaw Meadow, down past a grove of redwoods (super cool) and finally up a steep incline to our campsite beside Cliff Creek. Apparently she had found yet another patch of thimbleberries near our campsite that morning. Those precious red treats, “superior to a raspberry in every way” according to my companion, filled my bowl with just the right tang and crunch to make that gray mush (dare I say?) delicious. It was so kind and generous and wonderful that I can state unequivocally: Best. Oatmeal. Ever.*
Like the fish (which I think we can agree was definitely a trout), those thimbleberries—or perhaps I should say the gift of those berries—was a simple reminder of who we are, or should be, or simply could be if we chose more often to wander around outside and share whatever we find along the way. Might not be a bad idea to start today. Who’s with me?