Ode to the Perpetual Amateur

Maybe “experience” in the outdoors is worth no more than a hill of beans.

By Leath Tonino

I want to tell you about the can of baked beans. How it was for us on the Long Trail in the early 2000s, that first time. How we teenagers were famished, getting scrawnier by the hour, shedding calories at the same rate (fast!) as our heels shed blistered skin. How packed into the muggy tent—swatting mosquitoes, bumping spoons, laughing and groaning and laughing—the three of us ate all eight gloppy pounds in a single gluttonous flash. How I practically ripped the door off the vestibule in my desperate, red-alert lurch for…

There’s something wonderful about being a total freakin’ idiot. Don’t you agree? Or, putting it more kindly, about being a newbie, a fresh-faced greenhorn, a bumbling novice, an earnest student, the world open and uncertain before you, not yet pinched and narrowed by so-called “expertise.”

And this holds especially true for outdoor activities, I think. Some people will claim the opposite, will insist that initial awkward attempts at downhill skiing, say, are nothing but misery, nothing but a stiff entry fee paid in order to one day, eventually, shred the gnar like an accomplished pro. Sorry, nope. Some people are confused.

Take the question of menu, of what foods to pack on a Long Trail thru-hike, a self-imposed rite-of-passage sufferfest intended to introduce you and your buddies to independence, wilderness, and general badassery. Freeze-dried beef stroganoff is light and quick but expensive. Couscous is heavier, just as quick, and about nine hundred times cheaper. Blue box mac ‘n’ cheese repels after the third consecutive dinner whereas Annie’s eternally attracts. Great jagged chunks of Cabot Hunter’s Sharp are gifts from the bovine deities, the holy cows, and should be added to Annie’s with zero care for the morrow. GORP is solid, the chocolate in particular. Jerk is jerky. An eight-pound can of baked beans—a veritable bazooka of Van Camp’s (or was it Bush’s?)—should under no conditions be considered, let alone purchased.

We opted for the beans. Real bits of pork fat? Hell yeah! Shoulda bought two of ‘em!

Did it cross our collective mind that eight pounds was a lot of pounds to mule from the village of Danby, site of our much-anticipated resupply, back to the trail up above town? Did it cross our collective mind that in the Green Mountain National Forest there’s a dearth of Tupperware and refrigerators? Did it cross our collective mind that once cracked with a jackknife the whole gross barrel, er, I mean bazooka, er, I mean can, would need to be consumed? Indeed, there’s something so wonderful, so free and easy, about being a total freakin’ idiot.

Long story short, that evening I put the pro (as in professional) in the phrase “projectile vomiting.” And my friends did the same, each glutted boy-man fending for himself. I left those losers for dead, mercilessly abandoned them with my red-alert lurch through the vestibule door. There on the ground—sprawled, half-conscious, the sun setting, perhaps an owl hooting overhead, probably dirt and pine needles glued to my cheek by sweat and spittle—I was utterly alone with the woods. Trying to regulate my breathing. Trying to focus on anything besides the metallic-meets-barbecue tang in the rear of my throat, harbinger of a second wave. Trying to enjoy the confusion: This is backpacking, is nature, is Vermont?

Various Western philosophers have written about the delights of being a perpetual amateur. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki has lectured on the need to maintain what he refers to as beginner’s mind. Most artists worth their salt admit that they don’t have a clue what they’re doing, what The Muse is or how She functions. If they ever do gain a grip, a sense of the “right” way to proceed, they immediately subvert their newfound confidence, aware that “right” is the killer of creativity, thrill, and discovery.

The dozens upon dozens of wilderness treks I’ve undertaken since that teenage legume massacre (cue the fife and drum, sing a Civil Warish tune, title it Massacre at Danby) are a far cry from art. Nonetheless, I draw a cross- disciplinary inspiration from painters who employ the wrong end of the brush and musicians who leave pianos in the rain just to hear what kinds of sounds the rusty strings and rotten felt hammers will generate. Does cotton actually kill? I’ll eschew Gore-tex and head into damp thickets wearing blue jeans to find out for myself. Are maps and compass necessary? I’ll gladly toy with the possibilities of lostness.

The world open and uncertain before you, not yet pinched and narrowed by so-called “expertise.” I wrote that a few paragraphs ago, remember? We visit the mountains because we want openness and uncertainty, because we want moments that exceed our expectations and imaginings, because we want the adventure of the trail’s next bend, tomorrow’s weather, a bear’s growl. Via these visits we acquire skills, tricks, esoteric insider secrets, rules of thumb (for instance: No beans).

This learning process is inevitable, even a source of pleasure, but it ought to remain fluid, dynamic, a part of the openness and uncertainty that, fundamentally, we desire. When knowledge ossifies— when learning hardens into learned— the wilderness becomes a smaller place. Pinched and narrowed.

You’ve got to keep it goofy, playful, loose, that’s all I’m saying. You’ve got to experiment. You’ve got to occasionally abandon the fancy gear and slick outfits, the stuff that you’ve learned, the practices and protocols, the “right” way, the “smart” approach, the “sane” behavior. Casting off the shackles of conventional wisdom, you’ve got to lug an eight-pound can of baked beans into the beautiful backcountry, smash the sucker’s lid with a pointy rock, and bravely slurp the entire thing down to the dregs, preferably with a few fellow idiot-friends for company.

Smash it. Slurp it. Feast on the nasty bazooka. And then, as I have, wake the next morning, break camp, and continue trudging north, deeper into the woods, the wilderness you will never (praise be!) fully master or fully fathom.

What’s for supper tonight? We shall see.

Ferrisburgh native Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press, 2019).

Leave a comment