Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Don't Give the Boot to Backpacks

Copyright © 2005 by Joel Marks

I kid you not, the very morning "Backpacks Bad for Kids" blared across the New Haven Register's front page (January 12, 1997), a package arrived from L.L. Bean's, the outdoor outfitter ... containing a backpack I had ordered for my younger stepson! I don't know which struck me more: the coincidence, or the apparent absurdity. Judging by the headline alone, the news seemed to me on a par with "Vegetables Cause Cancer".

The article itself made a little more sense: School personnel are concerned about excessive weight being carried by formative skeletal frames, illicit contents of the bags, and crowded hallways and classrooms. However I see nothing specific to backpacks about these claims. To this day, for instance, my own skeletal frame is skewed to one side; the slope of my right shoulder I attribute to the jam-packed briefcase I carried everyday to school 35 years ago. If anything, a backpack will redistribute the load equally and also disperse it over the whole back.

(Strictly speaking, a backpack is a bag with an internal frame and resting on the hips. A rule of thumb for backpackers is to carry no more than a quarter of your body weight. A book bag would be a rucksack or knapsack or daypack, carried on the shoulders and suited for lighter loads.)

My own experience is also that the weight of the pack, far from inducing slouching, obliges me to stand tall for comfort. Furthermore, if you're talking safety, the free use of both hands is a big plus for backpacks, especially going down stairs.

But these are quibbles. The positive associations of backpacks carry much the greater weight. To me they represent the outdoors, self-sufficiency, and freedom. It was not until college that I discovered the joys of hiking in the woods, for days on end, and carrying on my back everything I needed to survive. As I grew older and had young charges of my own, backpacking became a wonderful activity to share. How absurd to wait until college-age to become a hiker! I took my twin goddaughters on their first wilderness experience when they were young teens. The first time I met my pre-teen little brother in the Big Brother program, I took him for a hike, with many to follow.

This was also how I became a father to my two stepsons. The older, David, accompanied me to the top of mile-high Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in New York State. I remember how loath he was to begin the climb; it just seemed like work to him. But by the time we approached the summit, and stood on the rocks looking out over a spectacular expanse of high Adirondack peaks, he said to me softly, "Thank you for bringing me here." I put my hand on his shoulder. This was one of the highs of my life ... and not just because of the altitude!

We proceeded to "bag" another “tallest mountain” in a different state each summer. You need to backpack in usually. And it's not just the views that make the trip. Years later Dave remarked that the best experience of his life had been hiking back from the Mt. Katahdin base camp in a downpour, moving as fast as his legs would carry him over the slippery rocks, and weighted down by that heavy backpack!

I would like to think Dave remembers this, whether consciously or subconsciously, as he hefts his backpack through the hallways of high school ….. just as I am imbued with those magical moments that lighten my load, physical or mental, at work or play, since I hardly go anywhere without wearing my pack. This is why people are forever asking me, "Where are you hiking?" But it's simply the best way to carry things, memories included.

So it occurred to me the other day that David's younger brother, Sean, is old enough for a pack of his own. Whereupon I called Bean's and ordered one. "Would you like it monogrammed?" Great idea. And here it sits, next to a newspaper article that labels it poison. Do I dare give it to him now? You bet your hiking boots ... accompanied by this newspaper column (originally published on January 15, 1997, in the New Haven Register)!