Bindlestiff

The song Big Rock Candy Mountain looped over and over in my head to the point where it became maddening. I felt as if there should be a word to describe the sheer annoyance of hiking uphill under the weight of a heavy pack while the same song plays endlessly in the echo chamber of your mind. As obnoxious as it became, I found myself relating to those lyrics sung by a nomadic hobo living out in the elements, dreaming of a Shangri-la full of every amenity that his current situation was devoid of. The song painted a delightful and evocative picture: "Handouts grow on bushes, while you sleep out every night. The sun shines every day. Lemonade flows from mountain springs. Where there ain't no snow, where the rain don't fall and the winds don't blow. I'll see you all, this coming fall ..." They might as well have been the fantasies of a thru-hiker. I suppose Canada, which I hoped to reach in the coming fall, was my Big Rock Candy Mountain or, if not Canada, at least the next town along the trail. In my case the next stop was Kennedy Meadows, that promised land at the end of seven hundred miles of desert - gateway to the alpine paradise of the Sierra Nevada.

In Benson's biography of Steinbeck he uses a term that seems to have disappeared from the modern vernacular - bindlestiff. A bindle is that which a hobo carries - that iconic stick held over his shoulder with all of his possessions wrapped up in a cloth bundle that hangs from its end. Bindlestiff therefore is just another term for a hobo and perhaps the thru-hiker is the contemporary iteration of that transient figure of old-time Americana. A young Steinbeck had worked on ranches owned by the Spreckels Sugar Company, a sugar beet refiner based near his hometown of Salinas. As Benson writes, "Each ranch had a small semipermanent crew for maintenance and feed operations. They were helped with these chores by the bindlestiffs and hobos who worked their way north every year up the line of Spreckels ranches ... Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men are such bindlestiffs ... Depending on the time of year, the bindlestiffs would move on from the ranches to Monterey to try to get work in the canneries. It was these men who became the models for Mack and the boys in Cannery Row." Those men worked their way north from ranch to ranch, while we thru-hikers - some unemployed, some fresh out of high school or college, others on a sabbatical or fully retired - chose not to work at all and made our way north from trail town to trail town passing through some of the most beautiful landscapes North America had to offer.

While working as a caretaker in the mountains near Tahoe, only a few miles from where the PCT would some day pass, Steinbeck wrote a letter to a friend asking him to give his parents an update. In his efforts to assuage his parents' concerns he painted a picture of a life not unlike the one evoked in the lyrics of Big Rock Candy Mountain. He wrote, "If, on going through Salinas, you have the time, you might look in on my folks and tell them there is little possibility of my either starving or freezing. Be as honest as you can, but picture me in a land flowing with ham and eggs, and one wherein woolen underdawers grow on the fir trees. Tell them that I am living on the inside of a fiery furnace, or something." It sounds like a land that might fill the dreams of a wandering bindlestiff and perhaps its not too far off from rosy depictions sent home by thru-hikers to concerned family. For my part, I tended to be fairly honest with my mother about life on the trail, though there was no harm in leaving things out. Certain details such as hitchhiking, for example, had a way of being omitted from my discussions of life on the trail.

...

When alone on weekend backpacking trips I used to hate stopping for the night to camp. All I wanted was to keep hiking, like a shark needing to perpetually swim to stay alive. Once I stopped and the sun fell lower in the sky the endorphins would fade away and a loneliness and sadness would creep in. I would barely sleep through the night, awaking often in fits of anxiety and worry. At times I was fearful of the night and what lay outside my tent, but mostly I worried about my life and my future. My neuroses were somehow amplified in the dark and lonely mountains. It was the price I paid to get further into the backcountry. Much to my relief, thru-hiking offered a completely different experience. Each day I looked forward to setting up camp, eating dinner and then fading off into a deep and well-earned sleep. During the day whenever I passed an ideal spot I would grow excited. "Oh man, I wish I could camp there. Oh man, I hope I find a place like that tonight," I would say to myself. There was a constant enthusiasm for the potential of rest in a comfortable and beautiful locale and it felt satisfying to have overcome the loneliness and anxiety that had once plagued my nights alone in the backcountry.

In writing to a friend about his winters in the Sierras, Steinbeck mentioned overcoming similar experiences. "Do you know, one of the things that made me come here, was, as you guessed, that I am frightfully afraid of being alone. The fear of the dark is only part of it. I wanted to break that fear in the middle, because I am afraid much of my existence is going to be more or less alone, and I might as well go into training for it. It comes on me at night mostly, in little waves of panic, that constrict something in my stomach. But don't you think it is good to fight these things? Last night, some quite large animal came and sniffed under the door. I presume it was a coyote, though I do not know. The moon had not come up, and when I ran outside there was nothing to be seen. But the main thing was that I was frightened, even though I knew it could be nothing but a coyote. Don't tell any one I am afraid. I do not like to be suspected of being afraid."


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