The rainy season has opened its wings and descended upon the islands. Most people would gripe about the steamy air, constant overcast days, inability to hang clothes out to dry, and the blooming of white mold all over leather goods, but I’ve always loved this season. The air is cool enough to sleep and, perhaps because of the dampening effect of the sound of rain, somehow people seem more subdued and sleeping comes easier among these crowded apartment buildings. I also love the movement of the sky and the veiling of distances. In the mountains the next bend in the trail loses itself in the mists and trees emerge out of the grayness like watery shadow puppets. Mountain tops hide away in the clouds and only reveal themselves after the proper ablutions, and even then only reluctantly. This is the Plum Rain, when hydrangea bloom and the tree swallows fly low over the fields.
Next week the buses that take walkers to the mountains will finally start running again and the high peaks will call me. I’ve been doing my best to get in shape for this, but insomnia and work getting in the way, I’m not as well-conditioned as I had hoped. So I will have to take it slow and set my sights on the bigger peaks at the second half of the summer. Still, just knowing that the snow has largely passed and I can set foot on my favorite ridges makes the heart beat. All winter I have been preparing my pack for much lighter walks and now I get to try it out and see if I can walk without the pain in my knees over the last few years.
For anyone who doesn’t do much hiking the obsession with getting the weight of a pack down may seem a little kooky, but when you’ve schlepped huge bundles loaded down with every latest gadget up half vertical slopes for ten or eleven hours a day, when the ascent forces you to gasp and the descent brings the weight of the mountain crunching down upon your knees, there comes a time when you have to ask yourself what the whole point of the walk is. I’ve seen young men carry packs almost as tall as they are and their whole walk consisting of placing one foot in front of the other without ever looking up. Once one guy pulled out an entire watermelon and complained of its weight! Another time a father carried the entire selection of equipment for a family of five; while he labored under the load his wife and children loudly complained about how slow he was walking, the wife going so far as to accuse him of bringing them all on this uneventful waste of time…
If only he, and me, earlier, had known of ultralight walking. A craze among backpackers the world over now, when I started out only a few people knew of the exploits and philosophy of Ray Jardin, who is largely credited for starting the whole movement. Basically he suggested ways that people might reevaluate more severely what they put into their packs. He and his wife managed to hike the three most important long-distance trails of America, the Appalachian, the Continental Divide, and the Pacific Crest… known together as the Triple Crown… bearing packs of only 8 pounds each, minus food, water, and fuel. Instead of heavy tents they used tarps. Instead of sleeping bags, they used quilts. Instead of the new-fangled internal frame packs so popular among walkers around the world today, he used a simple, frameless sack. And with weight so reduced he walked in running shoes rather than boots.
Other people have taken his ideas further and even managed to get their base pack weights down to 2.5 kilos (5 pounds), which admittedly is on the fringe of comfort and safety. I haven’t been able to get close to this, but I am still working on it. The freedom of wandering the peaks carrying what you need for safety, but without being bogged down by unneeded equipment is an allure that keeps me giving all my belongings a critical eye.
One thing that trying new methods demands is equipment that perhaps no one has made before. Quite a few ultralight backpackers design and make their own equipment. I’ve taught myself to use the sewing machine and have made a number of tents, tarps, hammocks, bags, and rain gear. My next project will be a lightweight backpack and perhaps a new kind of backpacking umbrella. There is satisfaction in making something yourself and then getting out into the mountain conditions and seeing it actually work. What surprised me was just how simply most commercial products are made and how little technical knowledge you need to produce most products yourself. It’s hard for me now to look at a lot of the clothing made by Patagonia (though I’ve come to appreciate much more the ability to come up with all their ideas) and justify the absurd prices they ask.
There are certain things that I refuse to give up in order to lighten the load. I love photography and drawing and so require a proper camera for control over the kind of photos I want and always carry a sketchbook and art supplies. But I no longer carry a fat novel (though I will bring along a thinner book for longer trips) or a white gas stove or heavy gore-tex rain gear. My tent is a filmy tarp that can configured into a storm-proof shelter and my sleeping bag stuffs down to the size of a small loaf of bread (augmented by my fibrefill jacket when it gets cold). It just feels wonderful when I lift the pack now, everything inside pared down to the essentials.
Going ultralight has affected other aspects of my life. Recently I’ve begun to whittle away all the non-nessential belongings in the apartment. If I can apply the same logic to my lifestyle I figure that I will edge myself closer to what really matters in life, and to come harder up against the real world using more of my wits and ingenuity rather than tools of convenience. The simplicity of the traditional Japanese lifestyle.
And with so much cleared away an unobstructed view out of the window at the Plum Rain, falling amidst the green proliferation and the settled pool in my mind.