The Things We Carry: A Backpacker Reflects on Her Relationship with Waste
“They didn’t understand why we wanted to sleep on the ground like peasants, when we had beds at home that our ancestors could only dream of. We told them we wanted to escape the crowds. ... But we couldn’t escape ourselves.”
The largest trees on earth are found in Sequoia National Park, germinating from seeds that fell thousands of years ago, around the time the son of a sun goddess founded Japan and the Assyrians sacked Babylon.
The park, and the adjacent Kings Canyon, rival Yosemite in beauty, but without the millions of visitors each year. “In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is yet a grander valley of the same kind,” wrote John Muir, the famed naturalist, in 1891.
The six of us, friends and family, drove to the park along twisting, dizzying roads where we risked plunging into deep canyons. At the trailhead, we strapped on 50-pound backpacks and hiked up a steep, dusty trail to the sapphire jewel of Eagle Lake.
Our Chinese immigrant parents found our plans baffling. They preferred a Las Vegas buffet piled high with king crab legs, or a cruise where the staff twisted towels into bunnies and elephants. To them, visiting the great outdoors meant driving to vista points, taking photos, and getting back into the air-conditioned bubble of their vehicles. They didn’t understand why we wanted to sleep on the ground like peasants, when we had beds at home that our ancestors could only dream of. We told them we wanted to escape the crowds.
But we couldn’t escape ourselves.
Not the stinky fish scales. Not the hard crust of bread, the skin-graft skin of a salami, the ripening jar of salsa, the gloppy rehydrated black beans, and the plastic container smeared with peanut butter. Not the used wet wipes or the cardboard boxes. Not the foil wrappers of energy bars or the eggshells or the silver plastic pouches of chana masala.
We couldn’t burn the paper trash because no fires were allowed at an elevation above 10,000 feet. We couldn’t bury the leftovers because marmots might dig them up and upset their stomachs. Cartoon cute, with golden fur and bulging cheeks, marmots seek out the mobile buffet that backpackers carry in. Marmots—and bears too—would paw through our provisions if given the chance. Not Yogi, or Boo-Boo, but black bears weighing several hundred pounds and capable of breaking car windows and ripping out the backseat.
Whatever we packed in, we’d have to pack out. Three of us had to work together to dump the trash into a bear-resistant storage container: one to hold the plastic liner, another to hold the can, and another to squash the refuse inside. It is a feat as difficult as squeezing toothpaste back into the tube. The heavy black plastic barrels resemble a water cooler jug, and its locked lid keeps out wildlife, even those smarter than your average bear.
Every meal, every snack, added to the bulging, fetid mess. We should have brought bulk items to reduce individual packaging. We shouldn’t have wasted so much food, unable to finish our dinner after snacking endlessly. Our water filter redeemed us, but only in part. No one minded perching on a boulder by the lakeshore and pumping water into our bottles, a satisfying task that left us feeling as self-sufficient as explorers charting new territory. After toting the bottles back to the campsite, we’d drink deeply and then return to making more trash.
Our challenge, I realized, was a microcosm of the global waste problem. In the United States, the average person creates up to 56 tons of trash each year. That’s the equivalent weight of eight elephants. Every hour, Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles that heap into landfills. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch—debris dumped from ships and washed off beaches and carried along by currents—is as big as Texas. And more than 43,000 tons of food is tossed out every day. Imagine if everyone were forced to strap on that burden, as we did on our trip.
Why stumble up a mountain, only to sleep on the ground and dig a hole to answer nature’s call?
Because of the trout jumping at dawn and dusk, the rhythmic splashes more entertaining than any Las Vegas water show.
Because of the deer stepping lightly at the edge of our campsite, their ears and tails twitching.
Because of the alpenglow that drenches the granite peaks in gold.
Because of the stars and satellites streaking across the bowl of the night sky.
These are the things we carry, too.