Memories from the gear shed

  • A gear shed with multiple tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags and packs to choose from for a memory-making adventure.

    José Mandojana

I could put it off no longer. The gear shed had long been an object of contention in my marriage. “You don’t use half this stuff,” my husband observed, more than once. “You need to go through it and make more room.” Defiantly, he rolled his fat-tired bike into the living room and left it there.

He met my gaze. “Why is that bike in here? That bike is in here because there’s no room in the shed! Because the shed is full of your stuff!”

I surrendered. “OK, I’m going in,” I said, and steeled myself for the task ahead.

For decades, I was a gypsy; everything I owned fit in the back of a Chevette. A seasonal park ranger, I followed summer, ranging from Washington to Idaho to California, making a long loop through Florida and New Mexico, fighting fires and leading interpretive talks. More recently, I moved from Oregon to Alaska and back again, stripping down to the basics. I pared down everything –– except for my outdoor gear.

I kept it all because I suspected that it would be hard to let anything go. And I was right. This was like an archaeological dig: I was finding my way down through the layers of the person I used to be.  

Each item I added to the to-go pile felt like letting go of a memory. Here were the water-bottle packs from my pre-knee surgery days, when I could still run 26 miles in four hours and change. Sorting through them, I remembered my intrepid running partner, Ken, just outside of Sitka, Alaska, the two of us dodging salmon guts freshly dragged by brown bears onto a fish-hatchery road. I could hear us singing, “I’ve lost that lo-o-ving fee-ee-ling,” bellowing soulfully at the top of our lungs to scare away the bears.

That Coleman backpacking stove, the first one I bought with my own money, was a behemoth by today’s standards. The upgrade, the finicky MSR Whisperlite, had a bad habit of exploding in a ball of flame in the Idaho backcountry as a result of over-priming. I remembered nights at high lakes camped with long-gone companions encased in down jackets, the darkness giving us the courage to talk about our dreams.

A dozen backpacks lay piled on a shelf. They reminded me of old boyfriends: The good-looking ones that were too good to be true, the ones that worked until the relationship became uncomfortable, the ones that turned out to be unexpectedly fragile. A few of them – the backpacks, not boyfriends –– ended up getting chewed by marmots. 

In one corner lurked the Xtra Tuf rubber boots and kayak paddle from my Southeast Alaska days: In this land-locked, sun-drenched corner of northeast Oregon, would I ever need them again? Would I ever fix fence again with these leather gloves, feel the full-body shudder of a rock bar hitting immovable earth, or hold one end of a misery whip, slicing through a downed tree that blocked a trail? I had once had the latest in firefighting gear: high-heeled logger boots that slid like butter onto my feet, a fancy lumbar pack that hung just right around my hips. Now that was old school; there was newer, better gear.

By the end of the day, I had accumulated a large pile to bring to my town’s gear swap –– sleeping bags I’d forgotten I owned, a kayak cart, tents that could house a small family. Piling everything in the truck, I felt both relief and sorrow. Why was it so hard to let the past go? I had a great life now, no longer subject to the whims of the weather, no longer beaten down by a $5-an-hour wage and the hefting of a heavy chainsaw in the freezing bitter rain. Those were the times it was easy to forget when reminiscing.

The truth, I knew, was this: It’s hard getting older when you’re still in love with the outdoors. As much as you fight aging tooth and nail, as much as you work to keep up the pace, you will never be 20 again, scrambling fearlessly up a talus slope, knowing everything will turn out all right because it always has so far.

But how many more years, months, days did I have? When would 20-mile days become 15, 10, five, zero? I knew I was luckier than others who had succumbed to random falls, lightning strikes, illness. It was unfair to complain. But I did. I wanted it all — the freedom to follow the seasons, plus the security of steady work, the sense of being footloose yet firmly anchored — a thousand more sunsets and mountains, and a life with no end in sight.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She declutters and writes in Oregon. Her novel, The Geography of Water, will be published in November.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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