The thing about thru-hiking is…you’ll hear about people who do this thing, this crazy thing, taking time out of their lives to hike thousands of miles in the wilderness, and you’ll think YES. That. I want to do that. You’ll keep it a secret for a while, finding a few hours here or there to pore over thru-hiker blogs, learning about how they did it – their gear, their planning, their journey, their struggle, their triumph. The spark inside you burns deeper. You shift from dreaming to doing. To buying gear and planning. Figuring out the how and the when, how much it will cost, what gear you will carry. Telling the ones you love who inevitably shake their head in disbelief, and ask “why?!”
And no matter how much you try, you won’t be able to articulate it to others to their or your satisfaction. No one who hasn’t felt this spark will understand. Even if they express awe and admiring wonder at your crazy endeavor. They. Won’t. Get. It.
But you go anyway. You put on a brave face for your loved ones. Tell them there’s no need to worry. You’ve done the research, the planning, the buying of gear and dehydrated food. You have a spreadsheet with mileage goals and resupply packages stacked in neat little rows in the closet, ready to be mailed out to mysterious places you’ve never been, but whose names you know well. Tehachapi. Kennedy Meadows. Crater Lake. Snoqualmie Pass. Stehekin.
You’re ready. You tell them and yourself that you’re not scared. But deep inside, you are. You’re venturing into the unknown. The wilderness that is both outside and inside yourself – this vast wonderland of deserts and mountains and valleys out there and the deep well of guts and strength and willpower within. Every day you’ll dip into this well, deeper and deeper, wondering when it will run dry and finding through all of the pain, suffering, self-doubt, and mental demons thrown at you that somehow it never does run dry so long as you keep stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. One. Step. At. A. Time.
Miraculously each steps adds up to hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of steps which carry you 2,650 miles from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border and you’ve done it. Your dream. This crazy, beautiful, incomprehensible act and it’s done, it’s finished. By now you’re tired of sleeping in your tent and going days without showering. The dehydrated food and instant coffee is a little old. And bugs. You’re really tired of bugs. Not to mention the daily drudgery of digging a hole to shit in the woods. You’re ready to trade in the nomadic life for the creature comforts of home, a sense of normalcy. You float home in the brilliant glow of your triumph, excited to see your friends and family and share all the glorious and gritty tales of your adventure.
And they’re happy to see you. Thrilled for your achievement. Still in disbelief that you did this awesome thing. They rave over your pictures and want to hear “all about your hike”, but in a few sentences. Maybe twenty minutes max with a few follow-up questions for the extra curious. And that’s it. You feel deflated. But you can’t blame them. They don’t get it. And that’s ok. If you’re completely honest with yourself, even you don’t completely get it. How could you possibly sum up this story, take the long line of steps in your journey that took you from the dreaming to the planning to the walking to the completion of your dream and tie it up with a neat little bow in a few sentences or paragraphs?
You post photos on Instagram of breathtaking landscapes that most people will never see in a lifetime. Remote places you can’t drive to or even reach on a long day hike. Your phone won’t stop lighting up with notifications of “likes” and comments. But you know the photos only show the spectacular highlights, which in themselves seem like a good enough reason to go out there. Jaw-dropping scenes like these were a huge part of the allure of doing a thru-hike. But when you were actually out there, you discovered it was so much more. The sum of so many ineffable things impossible to capture in a photograph.
You can’t photograph how ridiculously heavy your pack felt when you put it on fully loaded, at the heaviest it would ever be, laden with six days of food and six liters of water for the first long waterless stretch of trail. Or the slight panic you felt inside when you realized you could barely lift this bag out of the trunk of the car, so how could you possibly put it on your back and walk with it for the twenty miles you plan to conquer that first day, let alone twenty miles the next day, and the next day, and the next day. But for the first of many times on the trail you act like you know what you’re doing, that you know you’re going to make it even though you’re completely clueless, and then it’s on, you’re strapped in, it really doesn’t feel that bad and you start hiking.
You can’t photograph the nearly sleepless night you spent camped in a dry creek bed in the desert listening to an animal pacing back and forth near your tent while your friend is cowboy camped nearby and you’re too afraid to turn on your headlamp to try and get a better look at what’s stalking you, you just know that it’s big and whenever you think it’s gone away, it comes back, softly but persistently padding through the tall grass while you toss and turn on your air mattress, clutching your safety whistle and gazing at the host of sparkling stars in the dark sky overhead and sleep somehow eventually finds you and mercifully cloaks you in darkness for a couple of hours. Then the dawn comes and you wake up and pack up your tent and keep hiking.
You can’t photograph the inner tumult of fear, doubt, uncertainty as you trudged through the snow to the bottom of Forester Pass, looking up at the tiny “v” shaped pass you’re supposed to climb to several hundred feet up, but the switchbacks are covered in snow and won’t you slip and fall trying to get up there in only your trail running shoes? But there are the footsteps of those who have gone before, kicked into the snow in a vertical line going, up, up, up and the only way out is forward so you put your head down, put one foot into the snow, then the other, diligently concentrating on each. And. Every. Step. Then suddenly you’re on a solid, rocky trail again, you reach the scary part you’ve heard about, the infamous snow chute you have to cross with a sheer drop to the left all the way down, but you find that the fear and dread you’ve built up in your head is so much worse than the thing itself and before you know it, you’re across, you’re at the top, you’re at the highest point on the PCT, your face is scorched from the sun reflecting off the snow and your head and legs and everything aches, but you’re elated, on top of the world. There are several more snow-covered passes to climb so you keep hiking.
You can’t photograph the terror you felt inside as you inched your way down that one sketchy snow field coming down to Sonora Pass then suddenly found yourself, slipping, sliding down a steep snow slope with sharp rocks beneath until you somehow stop yourself and, instead of bursting into tears like you want to, just start to kick in steps sideways while you cling to the snowy mountain face with numb hands and feet and somehow drag yourself and your pack back to a safe place where you then proceed to shake and cry and let go of all the feelings until it’s all out and you feel empty and exhausted. Then you get up, shake it off, and keep hiking.
You can’t photograph the day you woke up and started hiking at 4am out of Seiad Valley to beat an intense July heat wave while you tackled one of the biggest climbs of the trail and one moment you’re hiking along behind your friends, headlamps swinging in the darkness trekking in a neat line steadily up, up, up the switchbacks and the next moment you inexplicably start to have an intense emotional breakdown with waves of self-doubt gushing up, through, and out in the form of tears that you try to suppress, but can’t, so you just stop frequently and let your friends get ahead because you can’t explain to yourself or them what’s happening, you just feel like your legs are made of lead, and your insides are going to explode, and no way can you make it up this 5,000 foot climb, and is this where it all ends? But you find your way to the top of the first climb and sit, breathe, feel the wind in your face, and take in the incredible views all around you – where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re going – and then you get up and, no matter how hard it feels, you keep putting one foot in front of the other until you’ve almost gone 30 miles for the day and climbed more than 8,000 feet which will be one of the most physically demanding days of the entire hike. And still you get up the next day and you keep hiking.
You can’t photograph the speechless wonder you felt while standing surrounded by the most spectacular scenery you’ve ever seen in your life – ascending above the clouds in the San Gabriel mountains before descending thousands of feet to the dry desert valley below; climbing steep passes in the Sierra Nevada and seeing nothing but snow-capped granite peaks for miles; on the rim of Crater Lake gazing across the wide expanse of its impossibly blue waters; on the brink of the Knife’s Edge looking out toward Mt. Rainier then tracing the backbone of high exposed mountain ridges through the Goat Rocks Wilderness; walking shrouded in clouds and mist along rocky ridgelines in Washington, then turning a corner and seeing the clouds lift to reveal a bevy of crystal clear alpine lakes nestled in an emerald green valley far below. You take a thousand photos which are beautiful in their own right, but can’t begin to capture the essence of everything you’ve seen and felt.
You’ll look back at these photos in wonder for years to come, but you won’t just remember those magnificent landscapes, you’ll remember the miles and miles you walked, trudging through hot desert sand, traversing miles of snow fields in the Sierra, inching up and down steep rocky trails in Yosemite, racing through forests trying to outrun yellow jackets and clouds of mosquitoes, stumbling across jagged lava fields, gliding along exposed ridgelines in Washington when your hiking legs felt stronger than ever and your whole mind and body began to harmonize with nature as if you were a part of, not separate, from the land and air and creatures around you, and everything seems to hum and beat with the rhythm of your footsteps as if you’d tapped into the hidden heartbeat of the universe.
So the thing about thru-hiking is, you didn’t really take time out of your “real life” to go live some pretend life out in the wild. All of these things were just as real, sometimes a thousand times more real, than so-called real life, and even though you can’t explain it in a neat little consumable package for everyone else, you can look back in wonder at the places you’ve been both outside and inside yourself, all the sensations you’ve experienced – the pain, joy, suffering, highs, lows, fears, triumph – and realize that you loved it, all of it, none of those things could be had without the other and, inexplicably, the days you suffered the most were probably the best days of all, when you found the deep scary place in your head that said “no” and you resolutely, persistently said “yes” and pulled yourself up to the top of the mountain and found out how much you were capable of.
Best of all, the journey isn’t over, it’s never over, because you found that the incredibly transformative power of a thru-hike wasn’t even in the trail itself or in the accumulation of miles and experiences. That following your dreams means loving and embracing the work, even the hard parts, yes, especially the hard parts. Reaching the end of the trail wasn’t the pinnacle of some magical transformation or reception of transcendental wisdom, but finding the keys that unlocked new ways of living and seeing the wild, wonderful world around you, that there are no answers, only questions. And the journey continues by living those questions, living moment by moment, waking up every day and doing the work, often failing, but always trying and stubbornly moving forward, one step at a time.