Clean Underwear Day

This essay was written in response to the prompt: “Cultivating a sense of ‘enough’ in a culture of more.” I owe the inspiration and space to let my creative juices flow to the young ladies of Semester 33 who were in my third expedition group.

Today is clean underwear day and I am pretty excited. I have waited until more than half the trip was over because I knew day five would be a sweaty one and I wanted to preserve the clean pair just a little longer. It’s not that these new undergarments are special—they’re nude-colored, Patagonia, mid-rise—rather it’s the ritual and symbolism of it all. Putting on clean underwear in the middle of a backpacking trip is kind of like brushing my teeth, or, if I’m really getting into it, flossing. Hand washing with soap is another fulfilling ritual, essentially equivalent to showering. These are all behaviors that define time in the wilderness.

Last night I got up to pee on three separate occasions, marking my territory and an evening filled with several cups of tea and hot cocoa. Unzipping my sleeping bag let in the cold night air, which was mildly annoying since I had achieved such a cozy temperature inside. Out on the slick rock, the canyon walls rose up around me, framing a small triangle of starlit sky. The finite space seemed filled with infinite twinkles, both Orion and the Big Dipper sneaking into my view. Worth getting out of my sleeping bag for sure. Like so many little things out here, extra effort or mild discomforts often yield high satisfaction.

And, changing into clean underwear is pretty nice. It’s hard to fully appreciate it without notchanging underwear, I suppose.

But I don’t travel to the so-called “backcountry” to have an underwear changing experience. Rather, I journey, more often than not with teenage students, to soak up the visceral learning afforded by simultaneously harsh and beautiful surroundings, physical exertion, and relative simplicity. It is a privilege, I think, to choose to feel cold and have to struggle through fumbling fingers and dripping nose to light a stove while the rain attempts to thwart my best efforts. It’s not “glamping,” but it feels luxurious having the freedom to only deal with the present moment and nothing else. I don’t need to file my taxes, clean the toilet, or register my car. I don’t need to finish a million to-dos on my ever-lengthening list, I don’t even need to fit in a shower. I get to be fully present in whatever moment I’m in.

Out here, I am transformed by challenge—by watching as a flash flood clambers through the spot where our tarps once stood, by long days with scraped legs and salt-stained cheeks, by endless laughter in the face of adversity, because, what else are you going to do? I am transfixed by the slowly creeping light of dawn, the cascade of water over a high desert-varnished spout in red rocks, the bright crimson of a piece of chert. And I am revitalized by the growth I see—in my travel companions and in myself.

It is enough to watch my student learn to trust her feet on the surprisingly grippy slick rock. It is enough to watch another’s awe at the ancient ruins we’ve visited. It’s hearing the stoic certainty in her voice as she says she will definitely come back here, with family or friends, to adventure again in this landscape. It’s when I recognize just how much I am able to trust others—and myself—and take each day as it comes.

How can I maintain some sense of this stability and simplicity as “frontcountry” life swirls around me?

Perhaps it can start with celebrating each day’s clean underwear.

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