It used to be that I saw backpacking as purely a way to enjoy the backcountry and a chance to escape to wilderness. It was an opportunity to leave civilization behind and reconnect with the natural world that we were inhabitants of until only very recently in human history.
It wasn't until the Pacific Crest Trail that I began to appreciate backpacking as a broader way of seeing the world, a new way of seeing our culture and how we interact as a society with nature. While originally we viewed the very necessary town-stops along the Pacific Crest Trail as respites from the rigors of backpacking for days on end, it soon became apparent that we looked forward to the towns not only as a chance to rest and refuel, but for the charm and character that each small establishment encompassed. It wasn't only the towns, but the fragments of human history that added an unexpected and enriching aspect to the trail.
During our Colorado Trail hike, we fully planned the hike to take advantage of small towns and interesting stops, not only as rest periods, but as sections of trail that were just as important as the wild sections.
Our last town stop along the Pacific Crest Trail was beautiful Stehekin, Washington, at the end of Lake Chelan. It was a great stop, a time of celebration and some sadness (we were only three days from the Canadian border and the end of our journey), but a big part of what made this stop so great, was the Stehekin Bakery.
This past weekend, we recaptured a bit of the feel of those long hikes and the realization that civilization can play a positive and very rewarding aspect to the backpacking experience. We planned a nice loop backpack through the North Cascades, that with a short side trip, led us into the Stehekin Valley and back to the bakery.
As the trail dropped into the valley, there were times when I felt as though I was back on a long-distance hike and this was merely a regular and brief stopover in civilization. Even though our stop at our bakery was short (and we had a nice 5,000' climb back out of the valley), our little dip into civilization enhanced our overall trip and helped to make it all the more memorable.
Perhaps it's not prudent or possible to incorporate a bit of civilization into all backpacking trips—it's very likely the novelty of the act that makes it such a great experience and I wouldn't want to bring an element of civilization into all of our great wilderness trips. However, an appreciation for manmade history or an aspect of civilization, whether it's a great town, a fire lookout, the ruins of an old settlement, or a great breakfast at a remote bakery, can create the opportunity for appreciating how we fit into the wilderness.