This is one of our all-time favorite essays. We hadn’t read it in years, but a reader mentioned it in passing recently, and we decided to share with new readers here on the homepage. Enjoy, again, or for the first time. -Ed.
There is cleaning to be done. The bags have to be emptied and packed anew, breaking set habits; calls need to be made and arrangements confirmed. Trash will be consolidated and fuel shuttled off, and all things will be separated and divorced from their expedition-spun meanings. Carbon rasped from stove legs will stain fingers, and once abandoned living spaces will sprout drying lines and sundered stacks of eighteen gallon blue plastic bins, ready to absorb the detritus of endeavour. Lists and receipts and maps and journals will clutter a table beside cans of beer. In the rage of small necessaries, the march of tasks will weave through the great thing just accomplished but barely talked about. The goal needs to be put to bed, silenced, zip-tied to shattering conclusion.
But that is tomorrow. Tonight, those thoughts flutter, but forward is balanced with backward and the reel of recognition has begun to play. What might not have seemed real that morning, or the many mornings before, has come to pass. The trip is over, you did it, you’re finished. A short descent is all that’s left. All the structures and efforts up to this point tomorrow break down as their meaning fades. Tonight, the last camp, is what stands in the place of transition from peaks painted with snow reflecting to unwanted complexity over the threshold.
Last camps are places of last quiet, last meal, and last untroubled laughter.
Last camps are places of rushed preparation and excitement, for reentry into that more harsh environment, but also of last quiet, last meal (if you planned right), and last untroubled laughter. The subtle temperature fluctuation that in a few days time you just won’t notice anymore. The empty food bag, and the empty fuel bottle; the full memory card. The last camp is the pivot on which the experience turns, from internal to external; you will lose yourself tomorrow, so today, look at the peaks around you, at the river current folding gently around the bend, at the tanned cheeks and dirty hair of those who lifted you to this point.
The blur of habitual travel has blended the days or weeks into a rhythm of experience that has rolled forward boiling tea, clearing hitches from cord, and stormproofing wet, packed-out boot socks
without any apparent input of energy or thought. The utterly reliant machine you’ve built is simple, and beautiful, but it has served its purpose and in the morning will begin its last efforts. Tonight, it has found this lonely spot where simplicity finds its last substantiation.
Accessing the next pass is habit and assumption; you’ve been programmed for this step, and the next, and the next, but there are no more passes, only a downhill fade as you drop trying to remember which wheel well the car keys are in or when the pilot is supposed to land. In its place is a sugar-rush of excitement and bad sleep, of staying up too late because it doesn’t matter anymore, the trained guilt evaporates: of not changing socks or scrubbing the pot with the attention it yesterday required, of not shepherding battery life or the last bit of cheese or oil or chocolate.
Ahead, there is the vague guilt around your deep desire for copious hot water, or the stupid roadside joy of asking having someone else cook your food for you and owing them nothing but money. You want to call your mom and check your email. But somewhere, there is the harsh realization, not quite sunk in, that the day after tomorrow will be just another day. Someone will inevitably look forward and remark on a return to normality, to the “real world,” as if the depth of connection possible in a small team working furious and hard in adverse conditions in the out of doors is fake, or meaning removed for its rarity. This is what we did for 400,000 years.
The electric light in the valley startles, the sight of wreathed land, or the rumble of a truck near the ramp all begin the process of waking up to the unreal world. But between shocks, the sun sinks on the last camp and makes beautiful the weary, happy, knowing smiles of the stubbled and tanned.
We revere last camps each time they come, and so we set up just upstream, just up valley, half-afraid of the trailhead or take-out, of what it will bring to us and our team. These points come in succession and mark our real ending, in golden light.
Photo by Ben Luchac