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[CDT-L] Thruhiking - Random thoughts on attitude (Long)
- Subject: [CDT-L] Thruhiking - Random thoughts on attitude (Long)
- Date: Thu, 17 Dec 1998 23:57:16 -0500
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Yeah - I'm back to the head stuff again. Why, you ask? Because with
the exception of those few males who think with other parts of their
anatomy, most of us are driven by what's in our heads - and our hearts.
Presumably by logic and emotion.
The Trail isn't about equipment, it's a head game -- and a heart game.
If you start the Trail with that realization, you'll increase your
chances of finishing immeasurably. And barring serious physical injury,
there are attitudes that will get you to the end of the trail -
regardless of what equipment you're carrying. Too many people get on the
trail with their brand-new ultra-modern high-tech equipment and expect
the equipment to carry them through the rough spots. But it doesn't
work that way. Even if the equipment works faultlessly, it doesn't walk
the miles in the rain and snow and heat -- you do that. And you get to
carry the equipment while you're walking those miles. How much
equipment do you want to carry?
It's what's inside you that gets you up the mountains and along the
miles to the end of the trail. And if you stop, it's very often also
because of what's inside you. If you've got the desire, the
determination, the guts and persistence and sheer bloody stubbornness to
keep walking when your friends drop out or when it's raining or snowing
or hotter than the hinges of Hell or when you're hot, tired, sore,
hungry, thirsty and smellier than a bear that's just rolled in a dead
moose carcass --- then you just might make it. Your "attitude" is
infinitely more important than what pack or stove or water filter
you're carrying. And the foundation for your "attitude" is laid long
before you ever take the first step on your thruhike. It begins with
the decisions that you make in the planning process about how and why
you want to hike the Trail. It begins with the contract that you make
with yourself about how you're gonna walk the Trail and what you want
out of it. It begins with who and what you are - are you willing to
learn, to change, to be flexible? Are you willing to accept the trail
for what it is, rather than fighting it because it's not what you want
it to be? It begins in your head and your heart. So let's take a
random walk through this thing called "attitude" --
If you don't love walking - you'll hate thruhiking. That doesn't mean
you can't or won't or shouldn't do it - or that you won't complete your
thruhike. I know several people who have thruhiked (some of them
multiple times) even though they don't like walking. But it does raise
the question - Why do it? Why not spend your time, energy and money on
something you like rather than on the trail? But then - I don't need
the answer to that, do I? As Ginny wrote at one time:
> I knew one woman on the trail who had many problems along the way and
> finally, happily, went home after 300 miles. What she said really
> shocked me - she told me, "Well, I never really liked to walk." So
> what was she doing there? No wonder she was miserable. If you don't
> love to walk - day after day after day - you will not be able to
> stand the trail. It isn't physical, it is mental. Likewise, if you
> don't like camping, or getting dirty, or are afraid of strange noises
> in the night, or strange companions sleeping next to you, you probably
> won't finish the trail. A lot of people like day hiking but hate
> backpacking. My point is, find this out before you totally disrupt
> your life. Life is too short.
For most of us thruhiking the AT (or the PCT or CDT) is not recreation,
it's not a vacation, it's not "just a hike" - it's the fulfillment of a
dream, an education, a job, a challenging task and/or a journey of
It's a job because, if you finish, it'll require more time, effort,
sweat and commitment from you than any boss you'll ever have. Yeah,
that's right - I said "commitment". There's a difference between just
doing something as long as it's fun, and doing it to the finish because
you're committed to it. And for most people finishing a long trail will
require commitment - to the trail, to the task and to yourself.
Thruhiking is not "just a hike" - too many people change in too many
positive ways for it to be "just a hike". If a thruhike were "just a
hike", how would you explain the numbers of people who come back again -
and again - and again?
Is it important to finish? Not for some people - but it is for most of
us. We know people who sincerely believe that the journey is separate
from and more important than the destination. And I wouldn't argue with
them. But for some of us the destination is also important. I'll
quote Ginny again:
> Finishing the AT was extremely important to me for a lot of reasons.
> When I started the trail the first time, I didn't know if I could
> finish. I thought I was too slow, too unathletic, whatever. When
> I finally realized that yes, I really could do it, there was a sense
> of total liberation. I could fly. I saw that any limitations I had
> in my life were self-imposed. There was a realization that anything
> I truly wanted could be mine, if I was only willing to pay the price.
> Finishing the AT gave me wings.
Thruhiking is an education because you'll learn about yourself, about
nature and people and the world you live in - and possibly even about
God. I can't tell others what they'd learn - much less what they
"should" learn. But I can tell you some of the things that I learned.
And by now, of course, you know I WILL tell you. :-)
I learned that the Trail IS. It is what it is and it won't change for
me (or for you), so I had to change, to adapt my mind and body and life
to the Trail. I learned to not fight the Trail, but to flow with it. I
learned that the Trail has no respect or sensitivity for my man-made
comfort level or my desire to control my world; that the Trail knows
neither prejudice nor discrimination; that it's inherently hard; that
it's a "trial".
I learned that my "level of comfort" is a cultural artifact - and
neither necessary nor useful on the Trail. I learned to reduce my
material possessions while concentrating on my physical and spiritual
needs. I learned that the avoidance of discomfort generally increases
discomfort. I learned to not waste my time and energy complaining about
things I can't control. And I learned that pride, shame and prejudice
are too heavy to carry.
I learned (again) to laugh, to cry, to be foolish, to feel fear, to be
optimistic, to adapt, to look inside myself as the source of happiness
or depression, contentment or discomfort --- to be free. I learned to
live without the "masks" that "civilized" people use so effectively as
both weapons and defense mechanisms.
And I learned to be more flexible. Some people start a long trail with a
"SCHEDULE" and insist on rigidly following it. A few of them actually
stay on schedule, but most find "schedules" too rigid for trail life.
Some of them can't handle that and go home. Others learn to be
flexible, to flow with the trail, the weather, their hiking companions
(if any), their feelings and physical condition and with the
thousand-and-three unexpected surprises, irritations, and anomalies that
conspire to introduce chaos into their well-organized plans. If you're
thruhiking, you're out there to hike the trail, not to prove how good a
planner you are, so suck it up and hike. Be flexible - or learn how to
be. That sounds so simple - but it's hard to remember when you're out
there and nothing in your life is going the way you want it to.
I learned that you write the rules for your hike - and you can change
them. And that what others say or do is their hike, not mine. I don't
have to be happy with their hike - but I do have to be happy with mine.
Otherwise I've wasted a piece of my life - and life is too short to be
I learned more about what's really important in life. All of us think we
know what's important in life. But many of those who thruhike find that
not ALL of those things are REALLY important - we just thought they
were. Most of us learn that not all of life's little irritations are
worth getting irritated about.
I should have learned to keep my planning as simple as possible. The
essence of a thruhiker lifestyle is simplicity. It's amazing how many
people unnecessarily complicate the planning process. And if your
planning is complicated, then it'll complicate your trail life as well.
I may have to re-learn that lesson.
I learned that Life is good. It's certainly better than the alternative
:-). But more than that, I learned (again) just how fragile life is -
and how short, and I realized that every day of life is a victory and a
cause for celebration. And I found myself seeing and appreciating the
many sources of beauty and love and goodness that one encounters every
day, both on and off the trail. The trail taught me to see and
appreciate those little things that had gone unnoticed in my life
before. Life is truly good - even on the bad days.
I learned that people are much kinder and gentler than either other
people or the newspapers/media tell you. Those who were out there to
dispense Trail Magic (the real, unexpected, unlooked-for and undeserved
Trail Magic) restored my faith in the inherent goodness of people. And
I learned that no matter who or what you are, you're much more than you
think you are.
I learned that "Happiness is …" --- whatever I want it to be. It can be
sunlight streaming through the trees or the view from the top of the
mountain or a hot shower or a flower along the way or the softness
of the rain on my face or a pint of ice cream or holding my wife or
----- any of ten thousand other things.
I learned that God knows what He's doing with my life - although
sometimes I wish He'd tell me. I learned that I don't have as many
answers as I thought when I started the Trail, and that I don't have as
much control over my life as I believed.
I learned to live "NOW. The past is untouchable and unchangeable and
the future is unknowable, so the only time I have is right now. There's
no guarantee that I'll have another day or week - or even another
minute. So living in either the future or the past is a waste of the
time that I do have.
Along the same line, I learned that everything changes; that all things
pass; that no matter how bad things are, they will get better - that the
weather will change tomorrow; in 2 days, I can get a shower - and maybe
even ice cream; my blisters will heal in a week or two; the stove can be
replaced in the next town.
I learned that the trail won't solve your problems or determine your
future - but it may give you the time and perspective to find your own
I can't tell you what you'll learn or how (or even if) you'll change,
but I can tell you that very few thruhikers don't learn - and with the
learning comes change. And I can tell you that for most part the
changes are long term (permanent) and that they're not necessarily
instantaneous. Some changes occur on the trail - some don't become
obvious until you've returned home and you find yourself reacting in
different ways than you would have before you hiked. And some will take
months or even years to show up. As Ginny once wrote:
> in rereading my journals recently, I saw that the changes in me were
> very gradual. Many didn't really begin manifesting themselves until
> Maine. Many didn't come out until years after I finished. I needed
> all the time -- and more - that I took to learn some of my trail
> lessons. Three months would not have done it for me.
But then sometimes we find ourselves reverting to old habits and thought
patterns, compare that to who we were on the trail, and decide it's time
to go back for another long hike. The level of happiness we find on the
trail is hard to find in the "real world".
There are also people who hike the entire trail, and when you talk to
them, it sounds like they're totally miserable. They do nothing but
complain about everything - and yet they keep on hiking. Why?
Sometimes because despite the rain and the pain and the boredom and ………
whatever, they realize that they're happier than they've ever been
anyplace or anytime in their lives before.
The lucky ones bring humor and joy into everything they do - and on the
trail they find an unending source of good people, beautiful sights and
The other side of the coin is that not all thruhikers learn the
lessons. A few of them remain rigid and inflexible - locked into the
thought patterns and prejudices and biases that they started with. For
a very few people, thruhiking is nothing but fresh air and exercise. As
one former thruhiker told me:
> Don't gimme that over-romanticized krapola about how Thruhiking is
> such an intense activity on so many levels. Hiking the AT or the
> PCT ain't that hard. It's walking. One direction. On an established,
> well-maintained path. Complete with guidebooks. And other hikers to
> boot. It is not a 2000 plus mile hike, but a series of shorter hikes.
> Yeah, other factors come into play (e.g., big-ass appetite), but
> that's really what it basically is all about.
That's one way to look at the trail - and while it may be true for him,
I seriously doubt it. If it is, I'm glad I don't live in his head
with that purely mechanical view of what I've done with my life. The
dilemma is that he went back for a second thruhike - and you don't do
that just for exercise and fresh air. That makes it a lot harder for me
to believe him.
If I learned what I learned, how can I believe that he learned nothing
but the mechanics of walking? I don't think so - or is it that I don't
want to believe it?
Some people start out knowing all the things that I learned (or
relearned) on the trail. I knew some of them too, but we all have to be
reminded of what we know sometimes. So we learn it again - and again -
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