Four Ugly Truths and Four Beautiful Realities About the Suck
The suck is an inescapable aspect of long-distance backpacking; no one eludes it. It is savage and unrelenting. It also, if you manage not to flee from it, yields breathtaking life lessons of inestimable value.
The suck takes many forms; if you’re a backpacker or a regular Trek reader you’re familiar with more than one. You can scroll straight to the truths below. If you’re not sure what I mean, though, here’s one example:
It’s raining, and it’s cold. As you climb the steep, slick slope, top-heavy and off balance with an extra-heavy pack for an extra-long leg between towns, you try to keep to the edges of the path to stay out of the brown river that is its center, but this makes you do a wobbly penguin walk, and laterally is not where you want your energy going. No, you need your energy to take you upward and onward. So you try to walk on just the right edge of the path, but the edge is slanted into the center, so you lean heavily, unsteadily into your left pole and find no improvement in forward momentum over the penguin walk.
Your hands are cold because you’re not wearing your gloves because they’re pretty useless when wet, and the handles of your trekking poles are clammy and frigid, your fingertips pruned. Your nose runs.
You slip, and squelch! there goes your foot into the muck, and there goes icy water into your shoes and socks, and there goes your heart, sinking, because as grumpy old Uncle Ted told you every single summer when you wanted to jump in puddles and he wanted you to stay out of them: Easy to get wet, hard to get dry. The old bastard was right, of course, nowhere more so than 40 miles from the nearest clothes dryer with zero point nothing chance of sun anywhere along those miles.
But somehow you slog on, losing feeling in your foot, trudging along, until you get to the shelter. It’s full. The only spot for your tent is on a 45-degree pitch (you’re hyperbolizing, but given the day you’re having we’ll allow it).
Something seems off about the crowd at the shelter. They’re not as exhausted as they should be, so you check them out as you grumpily cook your supper and sure enough, they’re weekenders. You learn that they’ve hiked just a few miles in from a gravel lot. Loud. Drinking. Smoking. Mansplaining. Spreading their stuff all over. Ignoring Leave No Trace. Wide awake and showing no signs of settling down as hiker midnight approaches. You have ear plugs, but your tent is pretty close to the shelter.
Someone is posting something to Instagram and your heart lifts a little at the prospect that there’s cell signal here. A call home would help. A friendly voice on the phone would warm you like a hug. So you take your phone off airplane mode, but there’s no signal.
Of course not. You have AT&T.
So you hang your bag of food on the only branch that isn’t bent low under the weight of section-hiker-grade amounts of food, a branch that happens to be almost directly over your tent, climb into the tent and into your sleeping bag, insert your earplugs, try not to think about how it will feel in the morning to put on your cold, wet bra and your cold wet socks, and try to fall asleep.
The suck is ubiquitous enough to have earned its nickname and its maxim: Embrace the suck. But some truths about the suck can’t be known until experienced, can’t be deeply understood until lived:
Ugly Truth 1: When you are in the suck, the suck is all.
The phrase “embrace the suck” implies that it is a distinct, identifiable condition. Also that you will see it as such and not as a new, permanent reality. That you can separate the part of you that is in the suck from the part observing you in the suck. I’m sure this is true for Enlightened Zen Masters and Jedi-Level-5000 Spiritual Superheroes. It’s probably true for Badass Badge Backpackers (you know who you are).
It wasn’t true for me. When I was in the suck, that was it and that was all there ever would be, forever and ever, amen.
Ugly Truth 2: There. is. so. much. of it.
When you learn that thru-hikers have to “embrace the suck,” you might think, Oh, okay. Parts of this will be tough. Got it!
No. Parts of it are not tough. Most of it is tough.
Ugly Truth 3: The suck is one of only two states of being on the AT.
The other state is unadulterated bliss. There is no in between; there is no normal.
While I was out there I posted a blog entry expressing my surprise at the quantity of suck. A friend with lots of backpacking experience commented that backpacking could be thought of as stretches of hardship and drudgery punctuated by moments of joy.
Now you tell me. I thought. But she wasn’t wrong.
Ugly Truth 4: Sometimes, you can’t embrace the suck.
Up to a point, we may have that choice, but beyond some threshold, we might not. I both believe in our ability to choose our attitude and understand that sleeplessness, hunger, fatigue, isolation, pain, and depression deplete that capacity.
Sometimes, given how physically, spiritually, and emotionally weakened you are by the endeavor, you just don’t have it in you.
That is okay.
Telling someone in that situation to embrace the suck is like telling someone whose beloved partner just dumped him or her to look on the bright side. Not going to happen—not in that moment. In that moment, all you can hope for may be endurance.
And that is a lot, because that will bring you across the chasm to the purpose of the suck, which is transformation.
Beautiful Reality 1: The suck may not get easier, but you will get better.
Things that you consider suck in the first 100 miles will be merely interesting to you by mile 350 and beyond—if you even notice them. I was afraid that my first rain, around mile 60, would literally kill me (because of hypothermia and how down works, not because of melting). But a few hundred miles on, I felt wonder and delight when a thunderstorm caught me on a bald.
However, other obstacles will take their place—accumulated body fatigue, different weather, longer stretches between towns, deeper hunger. The AT is a video game; every time you level up you unlock harder challenges. But that has its own reward—the sense of accomplishment, strength, and mastery that builds confidence unlike any you’ve had in your life.
Beautiful Reality 2: The suck is worth it.
The bliss the trail provides is accessible not in spite of but precisely because of the suck. This is part of the AT’s magic. The breeze at the top of the climb wouldn’t feel as good if you hadn’t made the climb. The mountaintop sunrise and the whoosh of owl’s wings in the dark wouldn’t fill you with as much wonder if you hadn’t earned them by spending the night shivering up there.
The ratio of suck to bliss on the AT is different for everyone. It might have been especially suck heavy for me, a mid-forties woman with no backpacking experience who traded a comfy, cushy life for it. Even so, and even if the ratio had more lopsided, I would not trade those moments of unadulterated bliss for anything.
Beautiful Reality 3: The suck has unanticipated benefits.
Every person I know who ever worked in food service tips better than every person I know who hasn’t. Why? Because once you know how hard it is, you don’t forget. Waiting tables has a lot of suck; enduring that suck gives you empathy. It’s no different on the trail.
The suck shaves off your psychic defenses, making you vulnerable and thus available for experiences you would otherwise miss. It’s what Thoreau was ostensibly after when he went into the woods to “live deep.”
The suck is what lets you live deep. It gives you no other choice.
And then, when you return to the ordinary world, you can’t not appreciate its everyday graces.
Beautiful Reality 4: The suck improves you.
While I was out there enduring it, I never forgot the advice to embrace the suck. I also never followed it. For the reasons listed above, I couldn’t. I was plenty hard on myself about it at the time, but sort of like beatings don’t improve morale, that didn’t help.
I needed to know the mechanism of the suck before I could even think of embracing it. I knew intellectually that it was good for me. In fact, it was the very aspect of hiking I hoped would give me the perspective to embrace a lower-paying but more-fulfilling job on my return home. But on nights when I was wet and cold and lonesome and sleepless, I just couldn’t see how. My suffering seemed pointless, self-inflicted, and ill advised.
But that’s only because of Ugly Truth 1. Of course I couldn’t see it; all I could see was my misery. But the suck is like quantum physics: you don’t have to understand it for it to work. The suck teaches you, for permanent, for real, that you can tolerate suck.
My perspective did change. I do have a lower-paying, more-fulfilling job, and (especially compared to living in the woods) it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. It’s the precise opposite.
I wouldn’t trade the person the suck turned me into for anything.
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