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Fast and Light Through Utah’s Grand Gulch

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Photograph courtesy Peter Sustr

You know you work in the outdoor industry when your coworker announces that he’s spending eight days of vacation walking 82 miles alone through Utah canyon country, eating only quick boiled meals, salami, and Snickers. Then he knocks it out in six, charging 17 miles on the final day to retrieve the bike he stashed to ride back to his car.

Meet Peter, a membership representative here at Outdoor Industry Association—and a backpacking fanatic who describes his technique as “fast and light.” He likes to go solo because he can travel at his own pace, push as hard as wants, and completely disconnect from the outside world.

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Photograph courtesy Peter Sustr

Peter’s a pretty easygoing guy in day-to-day life. But when it comes to backpacking, he gets serious, with planning and spreadsheets and charting everything down to the kilocalorie. He brings only the essentials, carrying less so he can do more. On this trip, even though nighttime temperatures were expected to drop to the mid-20s, he didn’t even bring a tent—just a free-standing tarp, quarter-length sleeping pad, and warm down bag.

Now call me a wimp if you will, but if it’s that cold, I want a little more insulation. Not Peter. No, he’s done this before and he knows that a couple of ounces of salami before bedtime can keep your core cozy as your body burns through the fatty meat.

Peter charted an ambitious route through Grand Gulch Primitive Area in southern Utah. It wasn’t any sort of official loop—just a journey of his own making. This is remote and rugged backcountry, meaning there are some trails, but no established campsites, trail signs, or pansy wayfinding aids. A lot of the time you’re wandering though the desert following rocky escarpments or creek beds. Sometimes the only way Peter could keep track of his whereabouts was to count the number of side canyons he’d passed that day.

It sounds like an adventurer’s paradise to me. Plus the desert is an enchanting place. You’re nowhere, but somewhere—amidst a landscape that at first blush seems repetitive, but on closer examination reveals endless nuance and character.

Perhaps no one expresses this magic better than Edward Abbey, who penned the famous “naturography” Desert Solitaire. His prose paints the pages with streaks of sand, stone spires, canyon sunrises and soulful reflection: “…life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.”

As Peter said, “It’s an area that holds its cards tight to its chest, but once you get spellbound by the place, it opens up its heart, which then opens up your eyes.”

The beautiful thing about this sort of excursion is that everyday worries melt away and you completely immerse in the moment. There are no appointments or schedules or places to be. Time slows, measured only by the arc of the sun across the sky and the rumble of hunger in your belly. It makes it easier to absorb your surroundings, notice little details, and appreciate the gift offered by each precious second of time.

Somehow when you’re outside exploring, there’s less judgment. Every physical sensation, view or emotion is just part of the experience. You might be cold, tired or hungry—or relaxed, excited and energized. It doesn’t matter. It just feels great to be living. As Peter described, it’s a challenge: How are you going to make the most of this time?

It might take a dose of the backcountry now and then to remind us, but this is a lesson we all would do well to apply every day. You only get one shot at this life. And your life is only what you make of each moment. Cherish it! Celebrate what it feels like to be alive. And whenever you start to feel disconnected, get yourself outside!

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich