SPUR-OF-THE-MOMENT decisions can often be the best decisions we make. Throwing caution to the wind, acting on a whim, jumping upon an opportunity when it presents itself – what could be more adventurous, more freeing? The alternative – planning every detail minutely – can ruin a perfectly good adventure. Life is better when spontaneity is given room to breathe. Or so a wilderness wanderer named ‘Mad Mountain Jack’ once demonstrated to me with glorious abandon over an unforgettable 18 months.
Spur-of-the-moment packing for the wilderness, however, can sometimes lead to unfortunate discoveries…
These days, with nights out in the wild a weekly event, my backpacking gear is always close to hand. It sits in a corner of my office pretty much ready for spur-of-the-moment departure, crouched on the edge of vision just beyond my right elbow like an expectant puppy, impatient to get outside. Come on, the gear might be saying, walkies! Let’s go. Now? Or… now? How about now? You know you want to!
The beauty of this is that less thought is needed to choose gear, and less time is wasted packing it. Everything is already prepared, left over from the previous trip, no checklists needed. Just a few days earlier the gear was dried, aired, and thrown in a pile, ready for use again. Sleeping bag, shelter, stove, waterproofs, first aid kit, means for lighting the stove, head torch, and so on… everything required. Fantastic!
On Saturday, the sudden desire to sleep beneath the bright moon arose mid afternoon and it couldn’t be ignored. Spousal approval was sought and granted, and packing was conducted with feverish exuberance. Whoopee! To the hills I go!
Being a short one-night ‘escape’ I didn’t need a full set of gear with spares, although unlike during many other similar escapes this time I took my trusty old stove. I fancied a hot dinner in the wild for a change, and a gentle evening watching sunset from camp, and then a lazy morning sipping coffee, my thoughts brewing as morning light surfed the hills. To achieve this I made certain the fuel bottle was full, and that I had a box of matches in a Ziploc bag, and a spare box elsewhere in case the first somehow got wet. I can picture both matchboxes clearly. I held them in hand. They were added to the gear pile. They truly were!
By the time I left home a bully-of-a-cloud was sitting right over my destination, and it was growling darkly, rumbling a thunderous warning: don’t mess with me. I have lightning, and I’m not afraid to use it…
I’d aimed to walk from home – always my preference – but heading into a storm when there were other alternatives seemed like the wrong kind of spontaneity. Instead, I drove 45-minutes west to leave the storm behind, and was soon striding swiftly uphill into a freshly-washed pine forest, feeling jubilant at my good fortune. Clean air, cool temperatures, pine needles beaded with diamonds, distant rainbows, and a summit camp thirty-minutes ahead – what could be better?
Unfortunately, the weather gods were feeling spontaneous too. As I broke above tree line a second storm chose that exact moment to roll in, and it arrived with a sudden boom and flash, which produced a sudden spur-or-the-moment yelp from me and a sudden spur-or-the-moment about turn.
Perhaps a forest camp would be preferable to a summit camp? Yes – jolly good idea!
But it was no big deal. Happily accepting fate I descended the steeply-pitched forest to a sheltered saddle, chased by a burst of hail and a splattering of rain. It looked as though I was going to have to pitch my tiny tent in a deluge, but by the time I reached the saddle the storm was already rolling through, and sunlight was once again flickering through the pines. Rainbows chased the dark clouds as they rumbled east.
Hmmm, I thought, perhaps a summit camp will still be possible after all? On a whim, I turned about once again, and climbed uphill, off-trail this time, just for the fun of it. The return journey uphill around trees and rocks, breathing mountain scents, delighting in mossy textures underfoot, with wild discoveries around each corner, became the pay-off for all the effort. Honestly, it felt like a pay-off for being alive!
I reached the summit at sunset, and lost myself for a while within its unfolding. Time stopped – or at least my awareness of it did. But eventually reality hit, as did a strengthening blast of a wind, and another flotilla of cumulonimbus building to the west. So downhill I turned yet again, another spur-of-the-moment decision. Funny old game, this!
It was practically dark by the time I made camp down in the trees near a rocky spur, but no matter. The gentle evening of stillness that I’d originally sought had been lost, but the double ascent and descent of the mountain had easily made up for it. I’d detoured through corners of a familiar place that I’d never detoured through before, and the feeling of being unattached to any particular outcome or location had been curiously liberating. I didn’t care one way or another where I was or what I was doing. Here, or over there; sitting, or walking – it was all good. I sighed contentedly as I pulled out my stove and reached for matches to light it.
But – there were no matches. They were nowhere to be found. I searched through my very small pile of gear, through every bag and container, through every corner of everything I had; I searched again; and then – clearly revealing myself as insane – searched a third time as though the outcome simply had to be different. But it wasn’t.
Some idiot had forgotten to pack the bloody matches!
Instead of a hot dish of spinach tortellini with mushrooms, onions, broccoli, carrots and veggie jerky in a sun-dried tomato bruschetta… I had four small slices of squashed French bread. But – no matter. It was what it was. And I was where I was, which was exactly where I wanted to be. Once again, being unattached to an outcome was curiously liberating. Who needed a hot dinner anyway, when one had so much more? I had sweet mountain air, trees swishing in the wind, a peaceful night ahead, and a mountain sunrise to wake to. To want anything more would be greedy.
I spent the rest of the evening, the moonlit night, and the following morning feeling immense gratitude for the spur-of-the-moment decisions that had brought me to this point in time and to this magical location. I celebrated what I had.
But I did make a clear mental note to pack next time with a little less spontaneity. One can have too much spontaneity after all. Or so my empty stomach declared!