By Clint Calhoun

For some odd reason, my life has always had some type of connection to a backpack.  It’s odd how you look back at your life and think about the things that connect your mind to the things of the past.  So many of the things I remember have some connection to a backpack.

I remember the first backpack I ever owned.  It was an OD green backpack that looked like a child’s Army pack.  I got it for Christmas from my aunt and uncle when I was in the first grade.  Man, I thought that was such a cool gift.  I couldn’t wait to fill it with stuff and go on an expedition.  My first expedition, I loaded up the pack with some paper and pencils, a couple of books, some potato chips and my stuffed sock monkey.  I didn’t go too far; mainly hiked around the yard, pretending I was a scout for the Army, constantly ducking down out of sight of the enemy, sneaking and peeking here and there trying to gather intelligence.  I had something that I felt was really special and could be used for so many different things.  That green canvas was tough and it could stand up to every bit of abuse I put it through. 

First grade is a time in your life when you go through a great deal of change.  Your academic career begins to accelerate and you find that things aren’t as easy as they used to be.  For some reason, maybe because I was the oldest of three boys and no longer the center of attention at home, I tried to do things that grabbed people’s attention at school.  Some of those antics are probably worth writing about in another article, but one particular thing I remember doing still remains fresh in my mind to this day.  My Mom and Dad had gone to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for the weekend.  They returned with coonskin caps for us which was likely the second coolest gift I ever got as a child.  My brother Sidney and I spent hours running through the woods pretending to be Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (those were the only people we knew of that wore coonskin caps).  Looking back on that it’s kind of funny to me that Fess Parker played the part of both of those legendary characters, but I digress.  Anyway, I thought it would be neat to take my coonskin cap to school for show and tell.  As I was getting off of the bus at Green Hill Elementary, an idea came to me that I could pull off a pretty good little harmless prank.  I pushed the cap down inside my backpack but left the tail hanging out the top.  It looked just like there was a baby raccoon inside my pack!  I went into the classroom and it was utter chaos.  My classmates were crowding around me wanting to see the raccoon.  Even my teachers though I had a real raccoon in that pack.  I pulled it out and of course the joke was on them and I explained that it was just a hat and the story of how I had gotten it, but for me it was such a thrill to pull off a mild caper and garner some attention from my class.  I couldn’t have done it without that backpack.

I carried that backpack until I wore it out and it could no longer hold the books that I was having to bring home from school for homework.  By this time my mom and dad had divorced and were remarried.  My mom and stepdad had gone to Gatlinburg for their honeymoon (interesting the role that town plays in this story) and brought us back new book bags.  Now these were not the backpack variety but were huge duffle bags that you could have fit a body into.  I don’t know why they thought we needed such huge bags because we didn’t have that much homework, but needless to say, that’s what we got.  I wouldn’t get another backpack until high school, and I was never so happy than to get something that made me feel less like a nerd (even though I guess I will always be a bit of a nerd…I’m a biologist for cryin’ out loud).

All through college I carried the same backpack from my high school years.  I am quite convinced that I developed a slight tilt to one side from carrying my backpack over one shoulder as opposed to taking advantage of both straps as the designers intended.  By this time my backpack was full of the various textbooks that would shape my career as a biologist and naturalist.  As I was taking Plant Systematics, my backpack was quite useful for carrying around my copy of the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (the veritable Bible for plant identification as it were) and a notebook/journal for making notes regarding collection dates and locations.

Backpacks have been such an important part of my career.  During my years at Chimney Rock Park, a backpack was necessary for performing my various roles as a trailwalker and eventual Park Naturalist.  The things that I carried in my backpack exemplified my duties and consisted of first aid supplies, incident reports, pens and pencils, trash bags, brochures, plant identification manuals, binoculars, a camera, occasionally a GPS unit, flashlights, notebooks, just to name a few.  My backpack gave me extra carrying capacity for the most important resource of the trail, water.  Believe me when you are walking up to five miles per day, everyday during the hot summer months, water is a commodity that you should never be without and my backpack served me well.  I can’t think of a time while working at Chimney Rock Park that I was ever too far away from my trusty backpack.

Even now, as an older and wiser soul I continue to carry my backpack when I venture out into the field.  I own six or seven different backpacks, each with its own specific purpose.  I keep one in my vehicle as a safety and survival pack.  I have one that’s designed for overnight backpacking adventures and doubles as my climbing and rappelling pack.  I have another that’s just for day hiking.  My backpacks have seen adventures, evidenced by the holes and worn places in the fabric.  For me there’s some wisdom that comes from carrying a backpack that I think can be applied to our lives.  Here are some philosophical thoughts that can be applied to the backpack:

  • A backpack is like life in that there are only so many things you can put into it.  You must choose between what you want and what you need, knowing that the wants will make you comfortable, but may not get you to the end of your journey.
  • We often carry the weight of the world on our shoulders like a backpack.  If we don’t carry it the right way it’s easy to become unbalanced.  An unbalanced life makes you tired, emotionally unstable, and resentful.  We must balance our lives so that we can carry our loads with efficiency, make less work for ourselves, and feel a sense of accomplishment when our journey is over.
  • It’s not about the size of the pack but what you put in the pack that makes the difference.

Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist, whose entire career has been spent in the wilds of Hickory Nut Gorge.  Clint is currently teaching high school science at Lake Lure Classical Academy.