On My Way to Saguaro

I’m walking through the desert; my sunburnt skin is streaked with salt and sunscreen; I’ve run out of water, so that’s what I’m looking for, now; and I’m alone.

Part of the reason I wanted to go on this trip, or this series of trips, was to pay homage to the National Parks Service centennial anniversary; part of it was to honor my grandparents; part of it was to do something different from what I did last year; part of it was to save money (that part is going poorly, so far); part of it was to force myself to develop my photography skills in an intentional way; part of it was because I wanted to have a forum for writing in a different medium than I ever have before. Beyond that, there are a couple reasons why this National Parks Project, in particular, was right for me to do now:

1) It makes me uncomfortable. I’ve never backpacked alone, before. And, yet, here I am, wholly committed to backpacking through 17 national parks over the next four months, regardless of whether anyone else is coming with me. Being uncomfortable for me means asking questions like, What if I run into a bear or a mountain lion? Or, What if I get lost out there? Or, What if I run out of food? Or get sick, or injured, or wind up in some version of serious trouble by myself? Pushing one’s limits in the outdoors is part of the whole point. But, in the outdoors world, there’s a fine line between understanding the risks involved in pushing your limits safely and failing to understand the risks you’re taking and winding up dead - the former is honorable; the latter is disgraceful.

Still, being uncomfortable for me is often more of an impetus for doing something than a hindrance. I’ve found that the ideas and activities that make me uncomfortable are usually the same ideas and activities that provide the greatest opportunities for personal growth. It’s in doing something new, or in doing something outside the normal realm of my comfort zone, that I feel most alive.

2) I wanted to help give people a nudge to get outdoors. My day job is so much the antithesis to the stereotypical outdoorsman that I sometimes become sheepish when people that I admire in the outdoors industry ask me what I do for a living: I’m a portfolio manager at a wealth management firm… is something I would have killed people to be able to say with some shred of sincerity back when I was in college; and, yet, middle-aged men who make less than half the money that I do every year, who spend most of their days in beat-up North Face or Patagonia jackets have the ability to make me feel insecure about my occupation. The world is full of irony.

Still, my white-collar professional background can be a strength, too. I didn’t grow up with my parents taking me on camping trips; I wasn’t an eagle scout (or a boy scout, for that matter – I’m too prone to losing things to collect badges…). And, yet, over the past few years, I’ve been able to develop a wide range of outdoors skills through research, experience, and trial-and-error. I’m hoping that by sharing some of the knowledge I’ve gained along the way – as well as some of the mistakes I’ll invariably make – that I can help make the outdoors more accessible to other people.

I want to help people figure out how they can integrate the outdoors into their life, if for no other reason, than because I believe that it enhances a person’s well-being. It’s tough to be pissed off about traffic when you’re walking through the woods; not getting the raise you wanted somehow doesn’t seem to matter when you’re sitting on top of a mountain; and you’ll probably burn a few calories walking through the wilderness with a 35lb backpack. Put simply, in response to the frenetic stress of a modern, urban lifestyle, I know no better wellness plan than getting outdoors.

I’m sitting at SeaTac International Airport, now, waiting to board a flight to Tucson. I’m on my way to the Saguaro National Park for four days of backpacking through the Rincon Mountains. This is my first trip for my National Parks Project; this will also be my first solo backpacking trip. And, if I’m being totally forthcoming, there’s a part of me that’s a little bit afraid to go backpacking by myself into a region I’ve never been.

As this trip has been approaching, there’s been this image that’s been burned in my mind: I’m walking through the desert; my sunburnt skin is streaked with salt and sunscreen; I’ve run out of water, so that’s what I’m looking for, now; and I’m alone. Every time I’ve thought about the Saguaro Wilderness, that’s the image that comes to mind. What I’m concerned about there is not the black bears, the mountain lions, or the Africanized honey bees that occupy the region. I’m not worried about the snakes. It’s the water that I’m a little anxious about. But, at the same time, I can’t help but think about the way that our fears sometimes push us to do things we didn’t think were possible.

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington