Pre-Trail Reflections: Anxiety and a Flip-Flop Hike
I hiked in the rain last month.
I set off for the short day hike with anticipation in my stomach. I thought that by putting myself on a trail in the rain I would get an idea of what it would be like to hike the AT. As so many articles online like to remind me, the AT will be wet. So I went to experience what that would actually feel like.
But then I got out there, and it wasn’t raining hard enough. The downpour I wanted to experience was nothing more than a light drizzle, making the hike just a pleasant stroll through damp and misty woods.
At one point I removed my hat, to try to simulate the feeling of being out in the woods after hours of rain. I wanted to feel the rain running down my face, wanted to endure being wet and miserable with nowhere to go but forward.
I hiked onward, but soon became annoyed with the feeling of water hitting my head. Specifically the fat drops that always seemed to find their way directly to my scalp. I tried to push on, but after ten minutes of agitated walking a wave of realization washed over me. I was going through the woods, miserable with the rain on my head, ignoring the perfectly good hat I’d tucked away in my pack.
I felt silly for a moment as I realized I was making things harder than needed. I stopped to put the hat back on, then resumed my hike.
As my dad said when I texted him this picture, explaining I had willingly hiked in the rain, “You’ve got it bad, kiddo.”
I think the best way I can describe my emotional state right now is an anxious yearning. I am anxious to be on the trail so much it fills my thoughts every day. I long for continuous time spent outdoors so often it makes it difficult for me to focus on my day-to-day routine.
It’s only in the past month that I’ve realized I’m going to hit my savings goal for the trail. Barring any unforeseen hiccups I’m actually going to have enough saved to get out there as a thru-hiker. And that’s exciting. I’ve spent the past six months funneling my energy toward working and saving, evaluating each week whether the hours I’m working are enough to get me to my goal. Now I have time to focus on more detailed planning of my thru-hike, and that’s opening the door to more worry than I anticipated.
In the early months of saving, if I felt anxious about not making my goal, it was easy for me to turn off the worry and pick up another shift or look for another job I could do on the side. I’d direct my attention toward work to keep my anxiety from festering.
Now the newness of my change of lifestyle has worn off. I’ve settled into a barista job I enjoy that pays me enough money to save for the trail. No longer am I going through each week, needing to pivot from plan A to B to C to make this dream a reality. I’m on track. I’m going to get on trail.
But that restless energy still persists. The anxiety is there, but now without a productive task to focus on.
Instead it’s recently focused on how long I have until I start my flip-flop hike in May. While my fellow NOBO thru-hikers are posting their gear lists and shakedowns, excitedly counting down the days to Springer, the three months to my start date feel like an eternity.
No longer do I find the same enjoyment I once felt walking around the beautiful trails in Durham. The hike up a 200-foot hill just can’t compare to what it will feel like to hike an elevation gain of 1,000 feet in a handful of miles. The gift of an unseasonably warm January hike is lost on me as I yearn to feel the sweltering heat of mid-July.
I’m getting restless because I want to know if I’ll be able to handle it.
But here’s what I realized on that rainy January day. What I’m anxious to experience, no approximation is going to come close to the real thing. What I wanted was not to hike in the rain, but to find out if I have what it takes. I wanted assurance that after months of working and saving, once I’m out there on day five-plus of nonstop rain I’ll be able to keep going.
I thought that if I willingly put myself out in the rain the day of my hike, I could prove that I would have the mental fortitude to push through when actually out on the trail. I viewed the hike as a kind of test, one that would allow me to add “ability to hike through downpours” to my toolkit, almost like checking off another piece of gear on my list.
But no day hike can simulate the mental state I’ll be in after weeks on trail. It’s one thing to push through when the miles are low and my dry car lies at the end. It will be completely different when there’s no easy out. And I have to accept that this is something I’ll only be able to confront when it happens.
Toward the end of my hike the rain did start to pick up. I put on my rain jacket and enjoyed the feeling of dry warmth it provided. I resolved that I was missing the point of being out there that day. If I couldn’t simulate the potential misery of the future, I’d appreciate the luxury of the present.
As I hiked toward my car, I reflected on the reason for my training hikes in preparation for the AT. Though I may not always be able to quiet my anxiety, there is a point to what I’m doing. It’s not to make myself so tough that I can withstand getting pelted in the head with rain and still love what I’m doing. The point is to trust that when the challenges come, I will be resourceful and do what I need to push through. To trust that even when I can’t see the path to the finish line, I will find the determination to keep going.
The point is also to remember to pack a hat.
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