I’ve just had a week off-trail. During that time I’ve been planning for the next section, running errands, and enjoying the many comforts of non-trail life such as movies, food, and chairs with backs. I’ve also been reflecting on my experience so far.
So what has the trail been like so far? It’s been full of surprises.
There are the expected surprises, such as the snakes, bear, and bobcat that have shown up and remind me that the wilderness is untamed and that anything can happen at any moment. There are sudden, unexpectedly intense experiences of beauty, such as the Sierra sunrise when summiting Whitney, or the shooting stars and the clarity of the Milky Way when I was night hiking along the LA Aqueduct, or the pure, clear moonlight shining on Banner Peak over Thousand Island lake.
There are also surprises related to the work of the mind:
I believe that fully living requires us to put ourselves in the way of fear, not by doing dangerous things, but by confronting irrational fears and overcoming them. The little sounds that frighten me at night are usually rabbits, mice and birds. “All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing”. It’s nothing to be afraid of, but I still must confront the power of my “what if” mind nightly. I imagine that the “what if” mind is a skittish personality in the wheelhouse of my mind, oversteering the ship at every sound. I place a hand on his shoulder, and calmly offer to take control so he can relax and get some sleep. He has difficulty handing over the controls at times, but he knows that the rational “I” is a better guide and that he is exhausted from being on high alert all the time. The danger is almost never anything close to what “what if” imagines. As long as a hiker is prepared, the wilderness is far less dangerous than it seems. The biggest danger on the PCT is getting hit by a car!
Backpacking also forces an improvement in resilience and flexibility. Something always goes wrong on these trips. During the first week of the PCT, Lindsey and I had to figure out how to repair our tent when 90mph wind gusts broke a pole and tore the rainfly. As a dangerous heatwave swept through the desert, I had to find a way to change plans and rearrange my hiking schedule. Hitchhiking is something I never thought I’d become comfortable with, but it has turned out to be an enjoyable way to meet and talk with new people who have completely different ways of looking at the world. Mind work surprises me because it allows me to meet myself. I know that I’ll grow from this sort of meeting, but I never know in advance how it will happen.
I expect most of these sorts of surprises, and they are the reasons I return to the wilderness again and again. But there have been some other surprises that I didn’t expect:
I didn’t expect how difficult this would be. There are days when hiking feels like work. After 3 or 4 days of long, 20-plus mile hikes without a town, I just want to sit down in a chair with a back and read a book. After 4 days of 99-degree heat, I just want some air conditioning. After 5 days where I don’t see another human soul, I just want to have a conversation with someone, anyone who can say something that isn’t already in my head. After weeks of swatting bugs, I just want to be inside. These are all temporary feelings, and there hasn’t been a single day where I’ve seriously wanted to quit, but the frustrations are real, and this hike is hard work.
I didn’t expect the depths my mind would plumb. The nicer part of experiencing days of solitude is that the mind can go much deeper. I’ve found myself thinking deeply about ego, relationships, and many other topics, and I’m fairly certain that these mental journeys are changing my fundamental nature for the better. This is work that I simply can’t do when I’m reacting to all of the new information that is constantly thrown at me in “real” life.
I didn’t expect how little free time I would have. I generally hike from about 6am until 7pm. The rest of my time is spent making food, eating food, scrubbing dishes, making camp and breaking camp. I usually write in my journal for about 30 minutes each night, which leaves me with about a half hour for leisure time (usually I read my book). When I’m in town, most of the time is spent on errands of one sort or another: laundry, hygiene, buying and consuming food.
I didn’t expect the extremes between total solitude and overwhelming numbers of people. Due to the way I’ve jumped back and forth on the trail, I have been in and out of “the bubble”. My sojourn through the Sierra was a walking party. Campsites were crowded and the trail was overrun. I’d rarely go 30 minutes without passing a hiker. More often, I’d be among 7-10 hikers in a traffic jam trying to climb a pass. After the Sierra, I skipped back to the desert, and I only saw one person in 6 days. That sort of sudden contrast can be overwhelming, and really got me thinking about the place of people in my life. I’ve always known that I don’t like crowds, but I was quite surprised to find that I also missed being around people.
I’ve been surprised the largeness and diversity of California. Enormous vistas open before me. I cross them in a few hours or occasionally an entire day, and then another enormous vista appears. I’ve been doing this for close to two months now, and I’m only a little further than halfway through the state. I don’t think I can impress upon a non-thru-hiker what that experience is like. It’s one thing to know the state is large, it’s another thing to experience it directly.
I’m surprised by how quickly and dramatically the ecosystems change.
I’m regularly surprised by new, stunningly beautiful places within a few hours of home that I never knew existed. And by old, stunningly beautiful places that I’ve visited before, but make me think “I still can’t believe this is in California”.
I’ve been saddened by how much of California is burned. It seems I rarely go even a full day without walking through the graveyards of trees.
I’ve warmed to and begun to truly appreciate the diversity of lifestyles within California. Having lived most of my life in towns and cities, the rural communities and solitary ranches and isolated trailer homes were nearly invisible to my consciousness. They served mainly as a backdrop to long car rides. Walking amongst them has brought them to life. I’ve talked with the people who live there and watched from a distance as they work their land, and I now have a wider sense of possibility. I would never have considered living in a trailer in the desert before, and while I don’t think it’s for me, I can appreciate that choice and understand why someone might make it. And also importantly, it opens my mind to other possibilities that might be more fitting for my life, which I would never have imagined as possibilities without this experience.
More than anything else, I’ve been surprised by the incredible kindness of people. Occasionally I listen to podcasts while hiking (only one earbud at a time, so that I can still hear the warning of a rattlesnake or other creature), and one story was about the horrible treatment that a transgender woman had experienced. She spoke about her dress bringing out the most horrible side of humanity, a side that she hadn’t fully seen until she began to dress as a woman. That horrible side is very real, and I don’t wish to negate that in any way, but I found it an interesting contrast to how I am experiencing the trail: I am seeing the absolute best side of humanity. People who offer me rides, cold beers on hot days, food and other treats when I least expect them. People who lug massive amounts of water to remote locations just to make sure that we are safely hydrated in the desert. People who think of little things to make us happier, like chairs and footbaths and shade. Some of these people are probably the same people who are judgmental, or petty, or hateful in other situations. But they are also good, and kind, and selfless, it has softened and opened my heart to see this side of the world so exclusively.
Every morning I have a hiking routine. I start with a body scan, working my way from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, relaxing and softening my physical and emotional tensions as I hike. Then, I focus on my breath for 100 breaths, redirecting my attention back to the breath whenever I get distracted (which is often). Finally, I list off all of the things that I am grateful for. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow this dream and experience the world in this new and beautiful way. I’m grateful for all of the people who are helping to make this happen, from family and friends who are helping with logistics, feeding me, and offering me places to sleep. I’m especially grateful for Lindsey—it’s no small thing to allow me to quit my job and disappear for months while she is left behind to pick up all the slack in a town far from most of her friends and family. She has been so incredibly supportive on this journey, and I have missed her terribly. And yes, I owe her bigtime.
The whole grand adventure has been amazing, and I’m excited to do the rest