How Expectations Can Kill Your Psyche
Are you thinking of thru-hiking a major trail? There are plenty of physical obstacles and necessary supplies to keep in mind, but a key to a successful thru-hike is nothing physical at all: it’s perspective. Perspective is everything. It varies from person to person, how something—anything—affects their attitude. This applies especially when making an attempt to thru-hike. As someone who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016, and stopped in the middle of my second thru-hike on the AT this year, I can personally attest to the mind being the final obstacle.
You must be crazy.
Out of all the people outside the hiking world that I’ve talked to, I’ve heard the word “crazy” thrown around a lot. Crazy is an easy term to assess onto a thru-hiker because we are leaving our normal lives to live one out of society. The idea of walking in the woods for half a year can make someone ask, “Why?” If you’ve given the simplest thought to going on such a journey, give yourself time to explain why. The reason doesn’t have to be intricate—people already have their own reasons why they can’t. Most would tell me “I could never do such a thing” or “I wish I had time for that.” It is hard to leave certain commitments, and everyone has different kinds. Whatever they may be, you must be ready to leave those commitments behind in order to thru-hike.
I quit my job, but once I returned from the trail, I had the offer to come back to another branch even though I told them I wasn’t planning on staying long. I saved money working once again and ventured back to the AT, but with a different commitment this time. It was easy to stop my 2nd thru-hike to seal the deal with my girlfriend. Once you’ve got your reasons and prioritization in order for accomplishing such a “crazy” trek, you have the obstacle of keeping your sanity during your hike. So how does one go about making it the whole way without going insane (or by normal standards, even more insane)?
The mental preparation must be neutral. Of course, you can have an idea of what a thru-hike may be like, but you won’t fully know until you’re actually hiking. There’s actually no preparation to be ready for such a journey. If you always look forwards or backwards in time, not focusing on the present, you will fail on what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve encountered many thru-hikers with a certain attitude about their trek, always ready to hand out a complaint towards something they’ve experienced or aren’t excited about doing. Perhaps that’s their usual demeanor, but when the reward of a fantastic view comes, the complaints usually falter. To me, focusing on the present was a bit of a learning process. At times I looked forward to the next trail town for a burger and soda, only a certain amount of miles away, not taking in the scenery, feeling tired and worn.
My second thru-hike attempt left me reminiscing about the memories from before, and although focusing on the present more this time, I could not help but recount the fresh memories over the already trotted path. If any of this behavior is persistent, that’s when your expectations become an obstacle. If your expectations make you miserable the whole time you are hiking, your psyche is going down.
It boils down to positive thinking. There will be days where you endure lament and torture, but wherever you are on your journey, you must know there has to be some good to follow. Your mind may tell you that you are worse off than you actually are. One thing I would do when I reached a challenging peak was to flex my muscles. My psyche would go through a wave of emotions during that challenging period. Thoughts would rise, “Are you almost there?”, “This is such a pain in the a**!”, “My feet hurt!”, and then I’d reach the top, forgetting my psyche’s persistent negativity. I’d revel in the inspiring scenery that gave reward to a grueling physical climb, and it boosted my mentality. On my second outing on the AT, I’d go through terrain and challenging mountains, noticing my attitude a little more positive than the last time. I wondered, “Wow, I can’t believe I thought this climb was miserable!” Perspective is everything.
I always tell myself that when I’m no longer having fun, I need to stop. After having thru-hiked the AT in 2016 and attempting another in 2017, I decided I was done after hiking over 800 miles. People go out to hike for different reasons, but it’s always for a certain learning experience. Ask yourself what your reason is for attempting such an incredible feat, and whatever your reason may be, make sure that you learn from your experience. That is the major driving point for thru-hiking the AT. Most of us live in a house with heat and air conditioning, and when we go to live outside for even a few days, it may come as a shock to our psyche. We must learn that the life we live is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that the fact that we are even attempting a thru-hike is a boost to open the mind. Give yourself room for the unknown, expect the unexpected, and go outside your comfort zone. You may learn to like it.
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