The Back-To-Civilization Buffet

My friends and I drove down a dirt road out of the Sangre de Cristo Range after a two-night backpacking trip to an alpine lake and within the first 10 minutes of the drive, we had decided that we would head straight to the town of Salida, find burritos or sandwiches, then find ice cream, then buy coffee for the drive back to Denver.

Maybe you’ve experienced this type of thing before? You’ve spent two hours to two weeks away from civilization, and although it was lovely, man, is there some civilized shit you missed. As you walked down the trail back, silently trying to calculate how much further the trailhead was—that waterfall was about an hour up the trail when we walked in, so if I’m going downhill, it’s maybe a half-hour from the trailhead now, worst-case 40 minutes—and thinking about all the things you’re going to start doing as soon as you drop your pack. Including, but not limited to:

  • taking off these damn shoes/boots and putting on flip flops
  • pulling a beer out of a cooler in the back of the car and listening to the satisfying puff of foam as you open it and then pouring it directly into the back of your throat
  • driving into the nearest town and finding the first cold beer available
  • driving into the nearest town and finding the first cheeseburger available
  • texting your loved ones to see if they’ve stayed alive and healthy while you’ve been out of cell phone range
  • posting a photo to Instagram
  • driving into the nearest town and finding a milkshake
  • turning on the air conditioner in your car full-blast and putting your face in front of the nearest vent
  • turning on the heater in your car full-blast and putting your face in front of the nearest vent
  • taking a shower as soon as you get home
  • taking a sink shower in the restroom of whatever restaurant, bar, or coffee shop you patronize first

These are elements of what I call “The Back-To-Civilization Buffet,” the mental list of all the things you miss when you’re on a trail or a peak or a climb—which you will devour in rapid succession as soon as you have an opportunity, with the fervor of a half-drunk vacationer who has just won a couple hundred bucks at the blackjack tables at the Bellagio and then hears that, what, they have all-you-can-eat crab legs in that room over there?

Be honest. You love the outdoors. But something happens when you’re out there, and you turn into a horrible, horrible monster who would destroy everything in its path to once again experience the things it believes are civilized: warm food prepared by someone else, cold beverages, 3G cellular coverage, open-toed footwear. You are irritable, cranky, ready to be done—essentially, underneath your calm exterior you are the Incredible Hulk, except instead of needing a massive dose of gamma rays to return to normal, you just need a beer and a plate of nachos.

All your friends are experiencing similar emotions out there on the trail, and if they’re not, it is your job to persuade them onto your train of thought. You can do this by saying things like:

  • “There’s this one place in town that has really adequate cheeseburgers/burritos/nachos. It’s like 10 minutes from the trailhead.”
  • “Sure is hot out here. Makes me think of how nice it would be to shove a waffle cone of mint chocolate chip ice cream into my face.”
  • “Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick, I could really go for a beer.”

Minutes later, you will find yourself in an air-conditioned bar or restaurant, cramming fistfuls of nachos into your mouth and gulping refrigerated liquids, complete again. Until next time.


26 replies on “The Back-To-Civilization Buffet

  • Susie

    It never fails that I end up in an extended, yet quiet, belly laugh when I read your stuff, Brendan. Thanks and keep on!

  • Gabe Bunch

    I was actually just out in the Sangre de Cristo Range two weekends ago and hiked to the South Zapata Lake & up to Ellingwood Point.
    When we were hiking out, always thinking we only had 30 minutes left to get to the trailhead and always being wrong, all I could think about was getting those boots off, driving into Walsenburg to the Carls Jr. and getting the biggest, greasiest burger on the menu. I then proceeded to do just that and it was everything I thought it would be and more.

  • Mark Kenyon

    So ridiculously true. For example, after backpacking in Kings Canyon National Park my wife and I began obsessing over In-N-Out Burger on the hike back to the trailhead, and then upon getting back to the car immediately decided we needed to drive the 5 hours to Bakersfield to In-N-Out. It was worth the drive.

  • Teresa

    Yes. The milkshakes at Smiley Creek Lodge in Stanley. I don’t know how many times I have daydreamed about them coming down a trail and then shoved one in my face 20 minutes later.

    The picture in your post is perhaps, my mostest favorite of all-time ever.

  • Andy

    One of the best things about thru-hiking is the (roughly) weekly return to civilization where you pig out on everything in sight. It’s enhanced by the fact that your body is practically starving itself due to lack of calories while hiking 20-30 mile days over and over. I do miss all the eating…

  • Pancakes

    After finishing the JMT, I had my credit card frozen after ordering 4 meals in the span of 5 hours at the same cafe in Lone Pine. I ate every last bit. I remember they had couches there and I didn’t want to leave. Good times.

  • AaronF

    So true…….been there many times. Most recently on my bicycle. One of my favorite rides EVAR is Old Fall River Road in RMNP, cyclecross up the dirt road to the visitors center & promptly eat the hell out of a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw, then finish the loop on Trailridge road while hopefully not puking my sandwich up. Hike/ride to eat, thats my motto!

  • Shawnte

    SO TRUE. We call this the “Get Me Off This Mountain” portion of the trip…that last mile or two when visions of clean armpits and warm french fries overcome any appreciation for nearby natural beauty.

  • Rob Rowley

    Many’s the time when on the way out of the Escalante Canyons or Zion, my compadres and I have obsessed over the thought of ice cold watermelon.

  • Kevin

    If you finish a trip anywhere near Salida you have to hit Moonlight Pizza at F ‘n 3rd for the best pizza and beer around. It’s our tradition now.

  • Dave A

    Beer and cheese burgers, yes. Instagram and mike shakes, no. I like a shower too!
    I’d like to sit and bullshit with you over a coffee some morning. I look forward to Thurs. to see what you are going to come up with next. Keep it up………..

  • SB

    Ha! I half choke don my chalupa…..just paid the equivalent of $220 for two adults and three kid s to eat a post adventure buffet on the ferry back to Norway. At least it included beer and wine!

  • ch

    This was EXACTLY what happened to me today.

    Also: Staring at that last bowl of oatmeal in the morning before your hike out like it is the most foul thing you’ve ever laid eyes upon.

    And: After finishing the beer / cheeseburger / ice cream buffet, thinking how what you most want in the world is to get back out there again.

  • Cujo

    I was reading down that list and thinking, “No, I don’t really miss those things much” … until I got to the shower. After days (or more) in the wild, that shower is transcendent.

  • Mark V

    After a couple days backpacking in Kings Canyon & drinking nothing but water, I craved (not In-N-Out Burger like the other Mark commenting here…!), but iced tea. It was all I could think about the entire hike out. I repeatedly longed for it out loud to my trip-mates.

    We decided to grab a hotel for a night in Bishop, but didn’t have any specific one in mind. As we were driving along looking for one, we came across the most glorious sign outside a hotel I’d ever seen: “Free Wifi & Iced Tea”. Nothing needed to be said – the driver pulled right in & I had half a dozen glasses of the sweet liquid before we even talked to the receptionist.

  • Michael

    Milkshakes or limeades at Sonic, then over to Taco del Mar for a Mondo burrito after a weekend at Smith Rock.
    Every, single, time.

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