8 Ways Thru-hiking Prepares You for Life’s Falls
An unexpected training for life off trail
Lying in bed in the ER
Right after the doctor confirmed that my ankle was broken and my thru-hike finished, I had two rapid-fire thoughts:
“What the hell?! This was supposed to be the thing that worked.”
The story with the happy end. The universe throwing me a bone, the win after a string of losses, the consolation prize for what hadn’t worked out.
My second thought was:
“Girl, you’ve been through way harder things than this.”
A different set of muscles
My friend Darren calls these our “resilience muscles.”
When you’ve had plenty of chances through the years to face setbacks and figure out how to keep going.
And by some combination of upbringing and mentoring and practice and desire? You develop what I call “resiliency trail legs.”
You start packing emotional and spiritual protein bars. You begin foraging for remedies for life’s crueler wounds.
In other words: you’re not walking through the woods unequipped.
There’s no pain like heart pain
A friend said this once after a break-up and I instantly knew it was true.
That’s what came to mind when I stared at my temporary cast in the ER. “A broken ankle’s got nothing on a broken heart.”
No one can define heart-pain for you, but I think it’s whatever causes ache in the very cells of your soul.
Over the years heart pain for me has meant break-ups and miscarriage, the loss of a mother-and-family dream, and the struggle to forgive certain people – including myself.
Heart pain is the actual worst.
And yet I can think of of no one on my most-favorite-persons list who hasn’t had their share of heart pain.
It’s part of what makes them deeper, kinder, funnier, more empathetic, and most interesting.
The other thing I know about heart pain is that after that, your other pains pale in comparison.
It’s like this little voice popping up on the trail, the ER, the waiting room: fist-bumping you, “You got this.”
Here is what I know
Oprah asks her guests on Super Soul Sunday, “What do you know for sure?”
Thru-hiking is an often misunderstood experience:
But here is what I also know for sure:
That thru-hiking prepares you for the pain of life, however and whenever it comes.
As a thru-hiker you learn…
1. To start slow
How well I remember the slowness of my first month hiking the AT:
My pace was slow. Setting up my tent was slow. Assembling my pack, lighting my stove, making a dinner- all of it painfully slow.
I found myself repeating my friend Anna’s mantra: “Incompetence before competence.”
I would remind myself when I got impatient, “Slow is better than fast.” “Soft is better than hard.”
And now each day is an exercise in patience as I make my way through the crosswalk with crutches- self-conscious about the waiting cars.
In spite of my pre-coffee clumsiness and the balance required to hop on one leg, I summon the effort to get out of bed each morning.
Instead of preparing to hike 20 miles, I manage small goals like making breakfast without spilling on the floor.
Now these are my people
While I know that my handicap is (hopefully) temporary, I feel a new solidarity with all differently-abled and elderly people who struggle to do basic tasks.
I see folks in town in wheelchairs and walkers, people slowly making their way with a cane, and think “I’m with you.”
Slowing down, especially when it’s not by choice, forces you to notice things. It puts you in the vulnerable place of needing others’ help and not always feeling competent.
A gesture as small as someone pausing to open the door for me and smile, rather than rushing around me as an obstacle in their way, feels like trail magic.
2. To adjust your goals
How recent it seems that we were confidently crossing into New Jersey, oblivious to all possibility of harm:
I see this and think, “How am I kneeling down like that, pack on and all?”
“How long will it be before I put that kind of weight on my right foot and ankle again?”
The next time I see Django we are working on my new modest goal: crutching the quarter-mile to this park bench on a hill:
Slowly by slowly, my Kenyan friends say.
Revising the goals.
And your appetite
Remember this breakfast in Damascus, Virginia, after my first marathon hike day (26.2 miles) – the one that caused a woman at the restaurant to ask:
“Can I take your picture? I’ve just never seen a girl that small eat a breakfast that big!”
Enter my new breakfast menu, or what the nearby café serves when I ask for a “very small order of pancakes.”
Even in a larger sense, my appetite has shifted. What I found so freeing on the Appalachian Trail was how little I needed.
And how little I want now of shoes, self-pity, proving myself, worrying what people think, nursing old grudges, and taking things personally.
Adjusting goals and appetites means loving myself enough to feed on what I really need.
3. To call in the reinforcements
My friend La Leche said if she ever got to a point while thru-hiking where she didn’t know if she could keep going, she would “call in the reinforcements.”
That is, family and friends to come walk alongside her for a day or two or three.
The way my friend Jeff came to hike with me on one of the hottest, rockiest days in PA:
Well, the reverse also works.
Cue Grubber and Salamander, Jerry and Django. All trail friends of mine who went out of their way and put their hikes on hold to come visit my injured self.
I especially love this text exchange with Jerry:
White blazes or no, they found their way here and it meant the world to me.
As did my other “trail family” of New York friends who celebrated my homecoming:
And soon I’ll get to see my flesh-and-blood family in KC!
Stuck in a rut? Call in the reinforcements.
And be a reinforcement whom someone else can call.
We don’t have to do the hard things alone.
4. To celebrate every trail angel and trail magic
One truth about the trail is that you savor every kindness.
Someone puts out gallons of water on the hottest day, on a stretch of trail where water is scarce? Hallelujah!
Someone shares their chocolate when you need a pick-me-up? Rejoice!
Someone gives you an amazing place to stay, complete with shower, food, and laundry? Dance a jig!
And so it is off-trail when anyone extends me a kindness. I feel beyond grateful for friends who visit me, play board games, share a meal, give me rides, and provide a place to stay.
As I prepare to leave NY next week for the next stage of my healing in the Midwest, I celebrate all the “trail angels” who have made these first weeks of crutch-life so bearable.
5. You can always make things 5% better
This is Corey the boot and crutch specialist. You might not know this profession exists, but I do, and I can tell you it made a world of difference.
I have tears in my eyes below because at this point I still have pain, I still don’t know if I have to have surgery, and the loss of my trail community is still so acute.
But in 15 minutes, Corey changes out my boot, changes up my crutches, and shows excitement for how I hiked the AT.
He makes things more than 5% better.
As does a pedicure-
and these herbal healing concoctions sent by my trail friend Radagast:
When everything feels at a loss, move toward the things that make it 5% less of a suck-fest.
6. That there’s no such thing as a throw-away encounter
My AT mentor Mary Stewart said while we were eating breakfast at Amicalola Falls on the morning of March 17:
“Look around you and see who’s here; any one of these people could become your best friend for the next six months.”
It felt like one of those first-day-of-school or first-day-of-camp moments: I couldn’t even think about new friends yet. I could only think about saying goodbye.
But that morning we met Sherry, soon to be called “TBD,” who would indeed become a good friend.
And! Do not underestimate those fleeting encounters with section hikers and day hikers.
I know I’m not the only one who thought, “No point in making friends here. They’ll be gone in a second and they don’t know our thru-hiker life, and I already have my friends, and anyway what do we have in common, etc etc.”
Well, not only did I love some of my conversations with day-hikers and sectioners, they fed my spirit in ways that fellow thru-hikers couldn’t:
sending me encouraging notes about my blog, cheering me on from afar, bringing insight from the more immediate world outside the trail, and even sending me packages in the mail!
All of these folks now make up my wider trail community, and my experience wouldn’t be the same without them:
Army captains, ham radio experts, church deacons, and school superintendents; a man in his 70’s who grew up in a back-to-the-land commune in PA and later made lemonade for protest marchers in Greenwich Village –
their stories enriched my life.
Know this: nothing is a throwaway. You’re never already maxed out on friends.
You as a thru-hiker may meet someone at a shelter or parking lot or hostel who could change your life.
You as a non-hiker may meet someone at CVS or on the train or in line at a café who makes you rethink everything.
Open your heart.
7. Everybody’s got the brokens
This is a big one, you guys.
In researching best ways to heal a broken ankle, look what my came up online before I could even finish typing the word “ankle”:
If there’s one thing I learned on trail, it’s that everybody’s got something broken:
A broken heart, a broken marriage, a broken spirit, a broken relationship with a kid or parent, a broken bone that’s still tingly, you name it- something broken.
I cannot even count the number of people I hiked with, who- after an hour or so of talking together- shared that they deal with depression or anxiety or both.
People for whom the trail was a way to climb out.
Now is this a unique population of people heading to the woods to address mental illness or emotional pain?
But I suspect it is moreso a uniquely self-aware and honest group of people heading to the woods for a million good reasons – healing being one of them.
Broken = Normal
Can I impress one thing upon you if you’re still reading? Broken is normal.
We all have something that broke- whether long ago or just the other day. And there’s no more shame in this than a broken dishwasher.
Life gets hard. S#*t gets real. Things break.
And maybe for a while you lose your way.
So here’s what ya do
Over and over, as a pastor and a thru-hiker, I see this theme:
People think their pain is unique. And people think it’s their fault.
That’s not to say that certain griefs aren’t more uncommon in their specifics. And that’s not to say we don’t bear responsibility for our choices and actions.
But stop thinking you’re the only one who feels ______. Probably half the people hiking around you do too. That’s what I found.
Was I angry, hungry, lonely, tired? Then most likely the others in my crew were feeling it too.
Did something sad happen when you were younger? Has someone wronged you? Have you wronged someone else? Are you sometimes fearful for the state of your life and future and the world?
JOIN. The HUMAN. CLUB.
My recipe for reckoning with the brokens that inevitably show up in our lives:
a) Assume the best: about yourself. About others. We’re all pretty much doing the best we can with what we’ve got, says sociology researcher Brené Brown.
b) Ask for help. No one gets a prize for being the Lone Ranger of pain. Good grief, how do you think you made it to 5 years old? With a lot of help. How do you think you’ll make it 95? Same thing. So why not get over your pride and ask for some help in the middle stretch of life?
c) Reach out first. I can’t tell you how many times as a pastor and thru-hiker I’ve heard this refrain: “No one here’s friendly. I don’t fit in. This is a closed community. I’m the left-out one. I wasn’t even invited to _______” (take your pick of event- from cocktail party to church gathering to hiker outing to the bar).
I know, being left out hurts.
But here’s a big reveal about adulthood: you can reach out first!
Most people aren’t doing anything intentional to leave you out. They’re just doing what they do, tired and hungry and sore- setting up their tent, booking their bunk, going for a beer- and they’re thinking about themselves.
So if no one’s friendly or inviting you? You can be friendly and you can invite someone and trust me 95% of the time it works and you will have a fantastic time.
(Also it may have taken me like, 35 years to learn this).
8. A little bit of nature does a whole lot of good
Yeeeesssssss. There’s so much science to back this up I won’t even try to begin.
We need the nature like we need air and water. Injury or no, I still get outside every day.
It may not be Mount Greylock, Massachusetts or Bennington, Vermont (where-all my-friends-are-right-now-and-I-should-be-too-and-it-is-so-sad), but there is a balcony and there is a sidewalk and I am alive, ergo I go outside.
But please: if you are in fact ambulatory and can get yourself to the woods, DO IT.
There are berries and flowers and so many earthly delights you will almost forget the August bugs.
It is a sobering fact that I went from these mountains in the Smokies:
to these at the dentist’s office:
So for now I’ll talk to this heron at the lake…
… and see if he’ll take me to the moon.
One more thing
Find a way to laugh, okay?
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