Olympic Games vs. Backpacking

Written on Sep 1st, 2016 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog

The Farrells on the trail leaving the West Fork of the Pasayten River Valley and heading back toward Hart's Pass in the North Cascades.


By Marlene Farrell

My husband and I planned our summer vacations months ago. That’s just the way we are, we’re planners. And for Kevin, the idea of a vacation is the light at the end of a tunnel of months in his home office, staring at screens, connecting with other humans only through the wireless headset that leaves a dent in his hair.

So we had a plan — sailing in July and backpacking in August. There were no foreseeable obstacles.

Most of July was spent sailing in Canada, and for the last week we were here in Leavenworth, enjoying the farmer’s market, swimming in the rivers and barbecuing with friends and family.

It was my mom who told me that we would miss half of the Olympic Games while we were backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail. No, that can’t be right, I thought. They always start in the beginning of August and there is such a multitude of sports that it surely lasts three weeks — how else could they fit in all those martial arts, synchronized whatever and hitting balls of various sizes over nets?

But she was right and I was wrong.

Marlene Farrell, followed by her children, hike a few miles north of Hart's Pass, near Jim Pass, in the North Cascades..

You have to understand the Olympic Games are the only thing on TV I ever watch. There’s something about the Olympics, summer or winter, which casts a spell over me. Somehow I am able to suffer through the interminable commercials. I use the time to do another instant replay in my mind, or I go get a tall glass of water to drink after all that vicarious exertion. If a commentator drones on, I drown him out with a few bars of the Olympic theme song.

I love the moments before a race that are caught on video. To watch athletes, whatever their nationality, with their headphones and their hoods, shielding themselves from the arena, turning inward. What’s going on in their minds? Do they imagine the years of preparation and sacrifice as a mountain on which they now stand, or do they hear sage words of advice or a mantra that helps them find their flow. As the event starts the athlete radiates focus. For the events that deplete muscles and rob them of oxygen, the strain is raw, and so is the vision of courage. And, of course, there is the ecstasy and tragedy when it’s over.

We’re a family of runners. Now I knew our backpack trip would coincide with every single track and field event. We wouldn’t get to watch one preliminary, nor would we get home in time to see the iconic men’s marathon.

Our backpack trip was fast approaching. Between sessions of Olympics viewing Kevin and I organized eight days worth of meals, shriveling veggies in the dehydrator, shopping online for hard-to-find powdered coconut milk, dehydrated cheese, and energy bars with short ingredient lists. We had to buy new sneakers for our kids whose feet were shockingly close to my size.

We said goodbye to my folks and Bob Costas and took off for 70 miles of wilderness travel north and south of Hart’s Pass, starting above 6,000 feet. As soon as I took that first step, I knew this was where I wanted to be. Quentin and Alice were now wearing real backpackers’ packs, complete with hip belts and sternum straps. There’d be real elevation gain and 10-mile days.

I expected some complaining. There was a bit, but also huge helpings of joy. Quentin said, “It’s all so beautiful,” in rapture of the mountains surrounding us. Alice sang to herself as she set up the tent every afternoon, wanting it comfy. There was lots of laughter in response to concocted stories, bad singing and the barking spiders that seemed to follow us. We shared epic sunsets while draping arms around each other on slabs of granite amid vast alpine meadows.

The kids had left their Kindles behind, and I had left behind the Olympic Games. I realized I could watch Youtube highlights of Usain, Mo, Allyson and others when we got back. There’d be another summer Olympics in, dare I say it, a mere four years. But the mental video that I took (and maybe the kids took, too) of our family climbing switchbacks, jumping into alpine lakes and stopping to watch a puffed-up grouse strut and saunter could bear no repeat and was just as full of grit and bliss as I could ever witness in the Olympics.

Marlene Farrell is a writer, long-distance runner and coach. She lives in Leavenworth.

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