7 Things to Ask While Thru-hiking
Seven questions for the 700-mile mark
The road I’m walkin’ up is / gettin’ good and steep / but I’m still lookin’ for a promise / even I can’t keep
– Brandi Carlile, “A Promise to Keep”
A promise I made to myself
Before I started the trail I promised myself this: I will stay curious. I will ask questions. I will pay attention to what’s around me and in me and I will not just endure this hike, I will wonder through it. I will inquire into the mysteries of stars and snakes and seasons and Snickers bars.
But as I stagger out of my sleeping bag in the morning, gripping the trekking pole that holds up my tent, deep questions are not the first thing on my mind.
I do not rise each day brimming with insight and epiphanies. I don’t greet the dawn with the accumulating observations of a field naturalist. I don’t even regularly make time for those morning sun salutations I promised my yoga teachers I’d do.
Though the writings of Thoreau, Emerson, and Mary Oliver inspired my thru-hike, my first thoughts of the day are neither transcendent nor poetic.
They’re more like: “Where’s a good tree to pee behind?” “Will my fuel canister hold up for breakfast oatmeal?” “Why did I stake my tent the wrong direction on a slope?” “Can I practice not scowling before I have coffee?” “Why are some people so loud at 6am?” and the ever-present, “How do I get rid of this damn poison ivy?”
Mundane queries like this are a part of trail life. But underneath them are other more probing questions. And maybe these will ring true for you too.
1. Are we still doing this?
Okay this is the truth: there are so many days where, at 6am, I roll over in my sleeping bag, which has somehow slipped completely off my sleeping pad, and groggily say, “Wait- are we still doing this?”
Isn’t the youth group trip over? Haven’t I completed study abroad? Are we still doing this thing that takes so much effort and does not include toilets or faucets or showers or smoothies?
This is when I have a choice. Will I wake up with drudgery? Or curiosity?
By this point on the trail- over two months in- not much is brand-new. As I trudge down the steep hill to filter water which may or may not have any flow, I can moan and whine to myself or I can wonder:
“What is it like for women around the world who start each day walking miles to fetch water for their families? Water that may or may not be clean? What do I notice as I slide down this hill? What changed during the night about these ferns? Who will I meet today? How do I want to show up in the world, here and now?”
This is not natural to me before coffee. Friends out here have laughingly grown accustomed to my near-comatose “gradually-ease-into-the-morning” routine.
But on a good day, I can push past the complaining teenager in me who groans, “Are we still doing this?”
I check in with the list I made back in early March, the one I jotted down in my phone’s “Notes” section. It helps reorient me as to why I decided to hike in the first place.
And when that weary voice inside persists, “Are we still- ?” I cut her off and say, “Yep. And we’re just getting started.”
2. What’s not wrong right now?
I got this question from Geneen Roth’s latest book, This Messy Magnificent Life: A Field Guide.
Somehow it works so much better for me than the preachy “What are you grateful for?” That question can be accompanied by an admonishing school-marm-y voice. One that silences all negative and uncomfortable emotions with a quick dismissal to buck up and be thankful.
But Roth’s question hits me differently. Even in the lowest moments, asking what’s not wrong sounds softer. It acknowledges with a non-judging voice:
“Hey, this is really hard right now! You are allowed to be bummed by the fact that you itch all over, lost your group, and ran out of oatmeal. You are allowed to miss your friends and your barre class and your blender. You are so allowed! You are awesome for still being out here, putting one foot in front of the other. Now…
“What’s not wrong? What doesn’t suck?”
And invariably I choke out an acknowledgment of the striking angle of sunlight, the relief of a cool breeze, the cushion of new shoes. I can rejoice in the soft pine needles under my feet, and the new friend who rescued my bear-bag rope when it got tangled in a tree the night before.
Always, there is something… that’s not wrong.
Including “What’s not wrong with me?”
My youngest thru-hiker friend, 17-year-old Liberty, startled me when she asked the first week, “What do you love best about yourself?”
As I stammered to answer, I threw the question back to her. And this moxie-filled girl from Wyoming had a whole list of things.
Holy cow, if I’d viewed the world through that lens at 17, I would’ve been unstoppable. The gift of her question has carried with me throughout the hike.
What do I love about myself? That I am creative and compassionate and “all-in.” I am generous and always want to learn.
When I got my new friend Frenchy an iced coffee yesterday, she said, “You are what the French call, Auvoir le cœur sur la main. You hold out your heart and give it from your hand.”
It was the kindest compliment I’ve received. I love being Auvoir le cœur sur la main. Especially when said in Frenchy’s elegant French-Canadian accent.
3. How can I add value today?
This is a question I mentioned once before in my blog, a main theme from leadership guru John Maxwell.
He says, “Are you adding value to people or are you wanting them to add value to you?”
You quickly see the difference between these two in a community: in a church, office, family, neighborhood, and on the trail. And the truth is, we all have both.
Maxwell continues: “When we add value on a consistent basis, things become absolutely amazing.”
And I have found that he’s right. But it’s also a conscious choice. My instinct upon arriving wet and cold to a shelter-site during a thunderstorm (like the one that struck the other night) is to claim my space, hunker down, change into dry clothes, and start making dinner.
But I think it was my mom who reminded me, “When you feel low, do something nice for someone else.”
So that night I asked if anyone needed water. People always seem surprised when I offer this. Getting water is a royal pain. It usually involves slipping and sliding down a hill of 50 feet or more, patiently waiting for the trickle of water to fill your bottle, and then climbing back up with heavy wet containers that squirm out of your arms.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what I can offer others here. Not that all our value comes from what we contribute, but I like feeling of service and of use.
When I left for the AT, I left two jobs (church ministry and fitness instructing) that I loved- jobs I felt fairly good at and energized by. Work where I felt I could offer something.
Here it is different. Bear-bag hangs still challenge me, and my backpacker skills are novice at best. A voice inside quietly asks, “Who are you if you you’re not useful? Who are you without your competence? Can you still be enough?”
But water I can do. Offering a cup of tea I can do. Sharing food I can do. Making a bad night a little brighter, I can do.
4. What’s the trail teaching me?
Most of us came out here- left our jobs and homes and comforts- in large part because we love nature.
We love walking on the earth and summiting the peaks and taking in the views. We love the dirt and wind and wildflowers. We love sleeping outside (most of the time).
But once you get used to these things day in and day out, you can quickly become distracted. The same things that taunt us off-trail: “Am I liked? Am I happy? Am I important?” can follow us on the trail.
The great opportunity of the trail is to go beyond that. What does the long trek have to teach you? Are you willing to jump off the Cool Bus and start walking to a new rhythm?
What helps re-ground me are something called 15-second freeze-frames. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that when our minds begin to ruminate on low-level worries and fears, these thoughts form neural pathways in our brains: deep-grooved ditches that are hard to climb out of.
The only way, says Rohr, to fill the old grooves and form new paths, is to consciously focus for at least 15 seconds on something true and lovely and beautiful.
So when I see something like this:
I do a freeze-frame.
When I stop to notice this:
– and my brain cells nod, “Yeah… that’s good.”
My tired neurons declare: “Less obsessing. More this.”
Recently two of my favorite author-speakers, Liz Gilbert and Glennon Doyle, said something to this effect:
“The transformation you’re seeking is just on the other side of the work you’re not doing.”
Do I want to finish the trail and be the same person who gets stuck in a shame spiral of “What will they think? How can I matter? If only I were thinner/taller/faster/younger/(fill in the blank)”?
And “the work” doesn’t have to be hard. It can consist of these 15-second freeze-frames to re-route the brain.
It can mean taking two minutes to be silent and still at mid-day, sunning on a rock.
It can look like going lighter, carrying less, and trusting I have all I need in my pack.
It can mean resisting my selfish insistence that we eat Mexican food at every turn simply because I love it and it has all the taste-texture food groups I need and after hiking 20 miles I have ZERO CHILL when I see a Mexican place that’s still open. (Click on exhibit A)https://photos.thetrek.co/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/05144441/img_2476-1.mov
I can ask instead what others in the group would like. (But how does anyone not love guacamole?)
And also maybe I could do a little more sharing of – ahem- the chocolate bar my friend just sent me in the mail.
Training my heart in considerate-ness? My family would applaud.
5. How can I make this 5% better?
On the toughest days, I try to ask this one: “How can I make this fun?”
What cold-soak stream would make my feet hurt a little less? What snack in my pack would take the edge off? Which hiker wants to walk to music with me? Or play a silly trail game?
When I feel inexplicably sluggish and lousy, I ask, “Where is the inflammation coming from? Can I do one small thing toward my wellness?”
A rest break, more water, a greens powder, or a call to a friend- all help.
And let’s be real- when in town, life can become way more than 5% better with an iced coffee and a haircut:
When not in town, sometimes the hours stretch on and you feel this long, hard, monotony. You are sure that everyone else is having a way better time, full of speed and vigor and thoroughbred muscles, all set to a soundtrack of social delight: inside jokes, spontaneous singing, and deep meaningful connection by a sunset.
This is when the white hot loneliness strolls in, pulls up a chair, and says, “Whaddya got, kid? You call yourself a thru-hiker? Why are you still struggling?”
(For real one of my first trail-family members said to me last week, “We were worried about you for a while there, Sprout. Those first couple weeks you were kinda ridin’ the struggle bus.”)
(Bless those 20-somethings’ little hearts).
(Also: what’s with all the buses??)
Buddhist nun and writer Pema Chödrön says, “Even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that is the journey of the warrior.”
That’s the work, warriors.
And on the other side, something- however subtle- transforms.
6. Can I relax 10% of the effort?
My first-ever yoga instructor is an extraordinary teacher named Kate.
And among her many tips and lessons, stories and jokes, I remember her saying as we grit our teeth in a complicated side-crow, eagle, or bird of paradise pose:
“Can you let go 10% of the effort?”
What? I remember thinking. You’ve given us all these spectacularly specific instructions on form and breath and balance and now you want us to “let go of effort”?
But years later as I’m death-gripping my trekking poles and stomping up the mountain, I hear Kate’s voice of permission:
Can you release 10% effort?
And I breathe,
and soften my grip, free my fingers, and walk – just for a moment – in the way of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”
7. Is there a better way to do this? If so, who could show me?
Okay, true confessions:
One of the many bullet points on my list of reasons for hiking the AT was to better understand…
I have a dad and two brothers and a few guy friends; I even used to be married (briefly). But my world back in NY is overwhelmingly female.
Now I realize the men I hike and camp and eat with are a specific subset of outdoorsy guys. But they span a range of ages, nationalities, professions, and geographic backgrounds.
They are military, machinists, craftsmen, Boy Scouts and athletes. They are tattooed and bearded, clean-cut and exacting, punk rockers and pastors.
But here’s what I’ve found-
Nearly all of them love being experts.
If you want to better understand men, set aside your need for most of the following:
observations about human interactions
shared stories of your epic-fail moments that day
goals for self-improvement on the trail
pondering the meaning of relationships
thoughts on whether you ever wanted to be a parent
conversations involving too many words
(I could go on. Forgive the generalizations. I used the words “nearly” and “most.”)
Men do, however, like to show what they know.
And since I am surrounded by so many men out here whose help I legitimately need, this is one way we connect. Mainly around gear and miles and survival skills.
It’s kind of like when I call my dad and he asks how the car’s doing (back when I had a car). What I know he means is, “I care about you. I want you to be safe. I love you enough to know you’re transporting yourself with ease.”
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t play the damsel in distress, fake helplessness, or pretend I have no power. I do not act as though I am incapable of being the resourceful and competent adult that I am.
I just know that many of these guys have backpacked and hiked a lot. Many know things I don’t.
This is true of the women too. There are just fewer of them, and I find it easier to connect with them in other ways. Ways that feel effortless and natural coming from my nearly-all-female context (I work at a church and fitness studio, which tend to be high in estrogen).
Girlfriends of mine, it is not even fair how good you are to me. My phone battery cannot handle all the gigabytes of your love:
(We now interrupt this blog for a female friend extravaganza)
(I can’t readily find photos on my phone of all the other women who mean a lot to me, but suffice it to say I feel rich in treasured female friends! This is not even to mention my beloved family back in Kansas City, who merit a whole ‘nother blog).
Back to men and women and trail connections:
Some of my new female friends here have taught me practical and appreciated hiker skills.
But my experience is that they don’t possess as strong a desire to be experts, teachers, and guiding lights of all things gear.
So it’s a win-win: many men seem to love strategizing, fixing, and brainstorming solutions.
And in a much more daily and elemental way than in my normal life, I am in need of said strategies, fixes, and solutions.
If I’ve discovered something cool that works on the trail- trekking pole exercises for upper-body strength, for example- I share that with them too.
What I’ve learned is that when a guy fixes your pack or stove-igniter or tent, or when they provide something you need or carry your pack, it’s at least in part a way to connect.
Akin to a girlfriend exclaiming:
“I missed you last week! That new hiker shirt looks great on you, by the way. Totally your color. Hey, tell me about your 25 miles of hiking yesterday- you should be so proud! It was really hard for me too. Oh, and how’s your poison ivy?”
(Yes this is how my friends and I talk, and yes we mean it, and yes I LOVE EVERY SECOND).
I should also add that I have met a handful of men on the trail who can handle tears, know when to offer a hug, and don’t shy away from sharing and hearing personal histories, hopes, and fears.
And when in doubt with dudes, there’s always food, fire, and posing as Lewis and Clark:
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