Plans for a 2,000+ Mile Hike and the Obligatory “Why?”
The “why” is hard to articulate for me, and as you’ll find, took about 14 months to arrange itself in my brain to come out in (at least semi) coherent thoughts. A couple things to keep in mind:
1. This is a reflection of the PCT, but it’s much of the reason I’ll be heading back out to the trail — the Appalachian Trail this time.
2. I wrote a lot of this a little over a year ago, venting to a friend who happened to be experiencing a similar sentiment after his 2015 PCT hike.
3. I was teaching English and living in Thailand when I wrote this, hence the discussion of culture shock.
If you’ll join me on a time hop to a year ago, and an imaginary trip across the world to a little studio apartment in Chaiyaphum (Chai-yah-poom) off the beaten tourist path, then by all means, let’s delve into the “why” of my mind:
Multiple instructors at my training warned us the first couple of weeks are going to be tough because culture shock is going to hit, and it is going to hit hard. I prepared by downloading communication apps, collecting emails, and trading promises to write. I went to the exact opposite side of the world from my friends and family, after all.
I’m not necessarily worried about melting down; maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t.
Either way, I’ve been conditioned as a thru-hiker, and out of everything I learned on the trail, I learned I can put one foot in front of the other when things get rough. For five seconds, then two minutes, and when that’s not so bad I can do ten minutes, until it becomes a day, a week, a month, and then I’m living and breathing those steps and I can’t even remember how I started.
So how does culture shock fit into the PCT?
It doesn’t, not really, not in any direct lines to each other, anyway. I dropped myself off in a foreign country with new people and fully expected to miss my people in Buffalo. Which I do, in a totally expected way.
I also miss the trail, in a totally unexpected way. I miss the fresh air, the fresh water, the hikes above treeline, the ridges, the people, the storms, the unknown, the mindset, the feeling of invincibility, the list goes on. Why? It’s been over a year, why now? And why in Thailand? I thought I had been able to successfully compartmentalize the hike in my life, but clearly, the PCT refuses to be compartmentalized.
I finished walking from Mexico to Canada on August 18th, 2014, and in the months that followed, I wasn’t in any condition to write a reflective piece because, in short, I was a little bit of a disaster. I had gone on a couple other multi-month trips (including one on the PCT) before, and I returned home without missing a beat; I adjusted smoothly, I went right back to work, I kept active and busy. Not this time. I scrambled somewhat for employment (which Zach talks about in his book and to me is the most valuable lesson, for exactly this reason), all the while trying to allow my body to adjust to its new schedule. I went from exercising 12-13 hours a day to nearly nothing and to make it worse, my ankles healed slowly and painfully so even if I wanted to go for a run, it wouldn’t have felt good.
I went from bubbling streams to tap water. From sleeping under the stars to becoming claustrophobic within the four walls of my bedroom and sleeping far past the sunrise, waking up feeling sluggish and out of sync. I had to think about mindful eating again, whereas on the trail, I ate high calorie foods all the time. I shopped for them. I needed them. But the trail ended and my hiker metabolism ended, too.
The Psychic Party Game Changer
Yes, you read that right, like a Lia Sophia or tupperware party but instead of buying jewelry (or tupperware), you get a reading with a psychic. I thought, well hey, I’ll drink some wine, hang out with friends, it’ll be fun and maybe I’ll be told I’ll become astronomically successful. The woman and I chatted for a couple minutes and she finally started in on my professional life.
Slowly. She took a deep breath.
It must be big.
“You have no direction.”
… I’msorrywhat? “Uhhhh…”
“You have to make a timeline. You have to make pro and con lists and decide what you’re going to do going forward.”
I can’t say I was pleased with a psychic telling me I needed to get my shit together because even she couldn’t sort through the mess, but I can’t say she was wrong either. As disgruntled as I was, I went home and I did exactly what she said because solid advice is solid advice. I categorized my potential future plans (I had a lot), I made lists, I made timelines, and went after it.
She was right: nothing happens just sitting around on your ass, waiting for the Bus of Opportunity to pull up nicely at your doorstep and wait for you while they roll out a red carpet and hand you a cool beverage. No, sir. You have to hunt that damn bus down in the middle of the night and jump on as the driver barely bothers to tap the brakes — if at all — and even then, it might only be a chicken bus. But a chicken bus is better than no bus and maybe that chicken bus gets you to another bus. Maybe.
I wanted to find out.
Hiking my own hike
What was I to do next, but tap into my hiker mode? I recalled my 30 mile days in the desert with my friend on the same brain wave. I remembered how we crushed miles into the night just to see if we could. I remember when he asked me why I was setting up my tarp in the middle of desert and my fumbled answer, which, let’s face it, was no answer at all and based in a false sense of security. Almost like, “Well, because I thought I was supposed to,” to which he answered, “It’s a tarp. It’s to keep out the rain. We’re in the desert.” I cowboy camped from there on out.
Because of that, I exposed myself to the magnificence that is a mountain night. I remembered the passes, sleeping under the open sky, and rolling over in the middle of the night to see the galaxy. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen before, more vividly than I’ve ever seen them before.
I remembered the rattlesnake I almost stepped on hidden in debris on the side of the trail, and how I dropped more ‘f’ bombs on it than I’ve dropped on any other living creature in my life. In my defense, he was dropping just as many … in his own way made apparent by the incessant rattling. For those minutes, we were on the same page, “I’M NOT GOING TO GET HURT TODAY, HOW DARE YOU THREATEN ME (you blanked-y blank blank blank)?”
I remembered hiking the miles before and after Belden and Chester, walking on a locked-up hip. I remember lying on my side in the chiropractor’s office and answering her questions about the trail as she snap, crackled, and popped the stress out of my joints. I remember the Fourth of July shortly after that visit, my hip still aching so bad I wondered if I would be hitching into the next town to rest and reestablish if I had to tap out. But I still had mountains to climb, forests to walk through, rivers to cross, wildlife to see. I couldn’t get off.
I slowed into a tourist shop in Burney Falls State Park, overloaded on a giant lemonade and ice cream, made it only a couple hundred yards down the trail before I had to stop and let the sugar run its course a little. I woke up two hours later and walked faster than I had in three days.
I remembered walking through northern Washington grinning for a week straight, walking towards the next ridge, the next skyline, the next set of mountains that would destroy my theory that the landscape couldn’t get more stunning. I remembered the beads of sweat popping out from my hairline, sliding down my forehead and slipping off my eyelashes as I climbed to get there. I remembered in the same mountains, a storm so fierce with thunder and lightning so constant, I was afraid to look outside of my tarp for fear of seeing grounds strikes yards away.
I remembered that time of day when the sun settled low, and even though my legs ached, my brain thrived on the cool, calm air of the evening, and on the sounds of insects as the wilderness rustled to life in the revival of the darkness. I remembered the tired, dirty faces I walked with, and the conversations about nothing and everything at the same time. We had become Mountain Tough physically and mentally, out there to live and love the freedom of the wild.
Everything I remembered had anchored my sense of being somehow and added a tool to my pack for later. The bad counted for just as much as the good because we all knew you didn’t get to Canada on only good days. You had to make it through the shitty days, too, and to do that you had to pull out those tools and keep walking.
Chasing the damn bus
So when I looked at my pro-con lists, I knew I had to get after my future the same way I did on the trail: like a hellhound, adrenaline roaring, all cylinders firing, muscles twitching, and mind spinning. Sitting there with everything in front of me and those words of the psychic nagging my brain to get on with it, the first thing I decided I needed was activity. I couldn’t plan another hike right away (money, time, etc), but I did need a trail to look forward to. My friend (the same friend I hiked in the desert and the same friend I vented to a week and a half ago), posted a run he was going to do the following April: a 100k next to Zion. We talked about ultras on the trail some, and my response was always, “Hell no, that sounds like way too much work.” I looked at the post anyway. A day later, I looked at the post again. I visited the website to check out the registration. I read testimonials and race reports and, well … I think you know the ending. I needed activity, I needed a trail, I needed focus, and I needed an event big enough that would test my limits. I needed an event that I would almost certainly drag myself across the finish line, shake myself off, and say, “What did I just do?” in a delirious, exhausted, and awed daze.
I needed to believe in my own grit again.
The second thing I needed was an adventure, preferably a self-sustaining one. I’ve worked with kids since I was fourteen, and I’ve had numerous friends who have taught abroad, often extending their stay because they enjoyed it so much. The combination of teaching, traveling, and exposing myself to an entirely new culture was too much to pass up; I was in.
So bring it, Culture Shock, because I’m a thru-hiker and you haven’t seen motivation and resilience until you’ve seen a thru-hiker. I have no excuses because my benchmark days are 30s on a locked up hip with sugar overload. I can keep walking. I can keep chugging along until sunset, or sunrise, over mountains, through rivers, down and around and through the forest. I crave the vibrancy of lush and hydrated moss, to share the same space with trees hundreds of years old, and the feel of a breeze rolling over a pass. There are the nearly inexplicable elements of the trail, which are still hard to pin down, but they’ve built up my body and mind slowly and surely to make me more solidly me.
I can make it through new towns, new languages, and new schools. I got this. I have to forget about “supposed to,” because I can’t see the stars in a tent, right? I have to find my rhythm in Thailand, and I have to understand that shitty days are going to happen. But I’m excited to make it through and make it to the next line of mountains.
Maybe, just maybe, I should change my tune and say thank you, Culture Shock. Thank you for helping me articulate how much the PCT—a path in the dirt a foot wide—is worth. 14 months later.
Can’t shake it, don’t want to
In the past year, my thoughts about the PCT haven’t faded. Maybe the lines have blurred a little bit, but the colors are all there and vibrant. Once a hiker, always a hiker, so it’s about time I buckle down to make those lists and get back out there. To revisit the subject of the post, why am I planning a 2,000+ mile hike? Because I get to toe the line of possibility. In a few short months, I’ll get to march into the woods to open myself up to what the east coast mountains have to show me, much of it I can’t even comprehend yet but I know it’ll be worth it.
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