October 2007
Sleeping Bag, Anyone?
I first read the essay below many years ago.  It echoed strongly with me then, especially as I had just come off my second NOLS course, living out of a backpack, days spent attending to my environment, food and very consciously choosing where I slept at night.  Those two courses were month-long stints in a sleeping bag, spent exploring the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges.

For the decades since those courses, I've always had a sleeping bag (and passport), but I 'graduated' from the sleeping bag as my default place to sleep through a series of beds.  'Real job, real house, real car... real bed with decent sheets.'

At some point in the last year, I was washing my sheets in Seattle.  Rather than making the bed, I yanked out a sleeping bag and crashed on top of the mattress.  And slept incredibly well.  For the next two nights under the 'real' sheets, I slept fitfully, not quite comfortable... yet this was the same bed that I had spent the last couple years in.  The sleeping bag was yanked out again and the night passed in cozy comfort.  Hm.  So, I now sleep in a sleeping bag on top of my dutifully made bed. 

In fact, the same sleeping bag that I had on my two NOLS courses.

Briefing for Entry Into a More Harsh Environment

by Morgan Hite, Europa Canyon, August 1989

People always talk about what you can’t take home after a NOLS course.  You can’t take home the backpack, or at least it has no place in your daily life.  You can’t take home the rations, and if you did your friends wouldn’t eat them.  You can’t take home the mountains.  All our connections to this place and our experiences here we seem to have to get rid of.  It’s frustrating and it can be depressing.

This essay is about what you can take home.  What you can take home, and what, if you work at it, can be more important than any of those things you leave behind.

Let’s look at what we’ve really been doing out here.  We’ve been organized.  We lived out of backpacks the whole time, and mostly we know where everything was.  We’ve been thorough: we counted every contour line on the map and put every little bit of trash in a bag.  We’ve been prepared: at this moment every one of us knows where his or her raingear is.  We’ve taken care of ourselves.  We’ve been in touch with basic survival tasks.  We’ve taken chances with other people, entrusted them with our lives and seen no reason not to grow close to them.  We’ve learned to let go of crucial items in our lives and do without them.  We’ve persevered and put our minds to things that never seemed to end.  We’ve learned to use new tools and new techniques.  We’ve taken care of the things we have with us.  We’ve lived simply.

Organization: The mountains are harsh, so you need to be organized.  But that other world is much more complex and even harsher in ways that aren’t always as tangible as cold, wind, and rain.  Being organized can help you weather its storms.

Thoroughness: Here it was easy to see the consequences of leaving things only half done.  That other world has so many interruptions, distractions, and stimuli that it is easy to leave things half done, until you find yourself buried under a pile of on-going projects with no direction.

Preparedness: Out here you’ve only had to be prepared for every eventuality of weather; but in that other world you have to be prepared for every eventuality – period.  There are no rules, shit happens, and only the prepared are not caught off balance.

Take care of yourself: and do it even more aggressively than you do it out here.  The environmental hazards in that other world are even greater: crowding, noise, schedules.  Take time to be alone and think.  Never underestimate the healing power of being near beauty, be it a flower, music, a person, or just dinner well-prepared.

Stay in touch with basics: Continue to cook your own food and consciously select the place where you sleep at night.  Take care of your own minor injuries and those of your friends.  Learn about how the complex vehicles and tools you use work.  The other world is far more complex and seeks to draw you away from the basics.

  Keep taking risks with people: Your own aliveness is measured by the aliveness of you relationships with others.  There are so many more people to choose from in that other world, and yet somehow we get less close.  Remember that the dangers are still present: any time that you get in a car with someone you are entrusting them with your life.  Any reasons that seem to crop up not to grow close examine very carefully.

Remember you can let go of and do without seemly critical things: Here it has only been hot showers, forks, and a roof overhead.  But anything can be done without; eventually for all of us it is a person we have to do without, and then especially it is important to remember that doing without does not rule out joy.

Persevere at difficult things: It may not be as concrete as a mountain or as immediately rewarding as cinnamon rolls, but the world is given to those who persevere.  Often you will receive no support for your perseverance because everyone else is too busy being confused.

Continue to learn how to use new tools and techniques: Whether it is a computer or an ice cream maker, you know now that simply because you haven’t seen it before doesn’t mean that you can’t soon be a pro.  Remember that the only truly old people are the ones who’ve stopped learning.

Take care of things: In that other world it’s very easy to replace anything that wears out or breaks, and the seemingly endless supply suggests that individual objects have little value.  Be what the philosopher Wendell Barry calls “a good materialist.”  Build things of quality, mend what you have and throw away as little as possible.

Live simply: There is no substitute for sanity.

These eleven things are the skills you’ve really learned out here, and they will serve you in good stead in any environment in the world.  They are habits to live by.  If anyone asks you what you course was like, you can tell them, “We were organized, thorough, and prepared.  We took care of ourselves in basic ways.  We entrusted people with our lives, learned to do without and preserved at difficult things.  We learned to use new tools and we took care of what we had with us.  We lived simply.”

And if they are perceptive, they will say, “You don’t need the mountains to do that.”

Peter Newbury's Published Adventures