Backpacking in the Woods for 10 Weeks Taught Me How to Embrace the KonMari Method IRL
Not far from the start of the Appalachian Trail, all the contents of my world lay strewn across the floor of an outdoors outfitter. And I do mean all: my home, bed, bedding, clothes, electronics, medications, water treatment assembly, heating system, toiletries, food, library, and kitchen.
Jeff, a fit twentysomething in a trucker cap and brown beard, with tattoos covering all but a few small patches of flesh on his arms, squatted and ran his eyes over these items. He sifted through them quietly, nodding and sorting as I sat cross-legged on the other side of the pile, expectant.
He pointed to my Kindle. “Can you read on your phone instead?”
“But it’s so light,” I protested. It was the Paperwhite, just 7.2 oz.
Unlike Marie Kondo, Jeff wasn’t asking me whether the items I’d packed for my 675-mile solo journey through the wilderness sparked joy. He was asking me whether I truly needed them. This shakedown, a rite of passage for long-distance hikers, had a rule of thumb: Excepting raingear, if you hadn’t used it in the last three or four days (the travel time from the trail’s southern terminus, Springer Mountain, Georgia, to here), you didn’t need it.
The KonMari method, which Kondo first popularized with her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and now promotes on the Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, takes a draconian approach to decluttering. Before I quit my job at the age of 43 to go on this outrageous journey in 2016, I was aware of Kondo’s book but unfamiliar with its approach. I was, however, feeling the oppression of materialism.
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Having gone off my antidepressant to try, with my boyfriend, Inti, to get pregnant, I was not depressed, but as months passed and the pregnancy-test kit sat by unopened, I grew restless. In an attempt to ward off encroaching malaise, I fled after work to shops like TJ Maxx, bought items such as colorful pillows to toss across my couch. Unsurprisingly, the flame such purchases ignited quickly flickered out. My job was stable, my relationship secure, and my home comfortable, but something major was missing. Meaning.
I had never backpacked before, but when I encountered two thru-hikers (backpackers who walk the 2,189 miles from Springer to the trail’s northern terminus in north central Maine) one day in the mountains an hour from my home in suburban Washington, D.C., I expressed admiration for their courage to simply up and go, subject themselves to the hardship of living in the woods. The boy told me it was “never too late,” and I laughed. For them it was an adventure. “It’s surprisingly easy to unenroll from college,” he said. “Just takes a click.” For me, it would take a lot more than that. Yet his words stayed with me, and 11 months later here I was on the floor at the back of Mountain Crossings Outfitter in Neel Gap, Georgia.
Compared to the approach thru-hikers use to assemble their gear, the KonMari method is child’s play. A thousand joy-sparking objects exist that I wouldn’t hump up a mountain for any amount of money.
One effect of living in the woods for 10 weeks, as I did, was rearranged priorities. This was one of my explicit goals. I knew couch pillows and their ilk didn’t make me happy, and I knew what would: pursuing a freelance writing career. Problem was, I feared the life I would lead without the security blanket—my job—that provided these salves to the existential boredom of child-free midlife. I feared the impoverishment and insecurity of freelancing.
But what if, I wondered, I could learn to tolerate such uncertainty by deliberately enduring the extended unpleasantness of backpacking? Could I hike in the rain, sweat up the hills and battle the insects, limp on despite injury, shiver through night after night? Then, after months of that, could I easily forgo middle-class ease? Could I survive the financial uncertainty of a less-lucrative vocation?
In the end, Jeff convinced me to discard only a handful of items: some fire-starting material (campfires are discouraged per Leave No Trace principles), a nail clipper, and a bottle of biodegradable soap (human bathing alters the woods’ natural state of things). But 30 miles later, from Hiawassee, Georgia, I mailed to Inti a package of featherlight individual items that collectively weighed nearly 2 pounds. It was a joy-sparking difference for my shoulders, back, and knees.
RELATED: How the KonMari Method Stopped Sparking Joy for Me
When a stress fracture in my foot ended my hike nine weeks later in southwestern Virginia, I downloaded Kondo’s book and, in my parents’ basement, sorted through and easily gave away almost everything I owned before the journey.
On the trail, the price of having things was weight, which caused pain. At home, the price was space, which cost money and had locked me into a joyless job. Kondo has been criticized as elitist for assuming her readers and viewers are in a position to discard so many belongings wholesale, and maybe her stance is presumptuous. My takeaway though, is that whatever we can ditch—and accept we don’t need—frees us from the tyranny of the impulse to consume—a revolution. With so many fewer things, I easily moved into a smaller, cheaper apartment. This meant I didn’t have to take back my old job, which meant I could become a freelance writer. And that sparks the most joy of all.