Why “Embrace The Suck” Needs To Die

This week, twice in the same afternoon, day hikers commented that I was “pretty cheerful for a NOBO!” The first time was a pleasant surprise but the second had me wondering: do we really all seem that depressed by this point on trail? I’m near the beginning of the White Mountains (Mt. Moosilauke, Mt. Wolf, and the Kinsmans are behind; Franconia Ridge, the Presidential Range, and the Wildcats are still on the horizon), and I’m about to backpack some of the most spectacular trail the AT has to offer. I’ve been looking forward to this section since I started at Amicalola Falls. Of course I’m in a good mood! Livin’ the dream, ba-by!

If I smiled any wider, my cheeks might literally explode

But as I thought more about it, I realized how right those day hikers were. By the time NOBO thru-hikers hit the White Mountains ~ mi. 1,800, the tiredness has settled deep in our bones and it’s starting to show in our creased faces and crooked half-smiles. I’ve heard the phrase “just gotta make it to Katahdin” more and more every day. Whatever happened to “the journey’s more important than the destination”, y’all?

In Zach Davis‘ excellent book, Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, he breaks thru-hikers down into three groups:

1) Those who succumb to the mental challenges and quit

2) Those who rely on sheer determination, grit their teeth, and press onto Katahdin despite being at odds with the process

3) Those who enjoy most, if not all, of their experience while successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail

I think about this all the time. I’ve consistently been Hiker #3, and I think anyone who’s met me on the AT would agree. My secret to happiness? Don’t fixate on what you can’t change (the weather, the trail, other people) and focus on what you CAN change: your attitude. Experience is almost entirely framed by perspective, and that’s why we need to burn, bury, and forget that awful AT cliche: “Embrace The Suck”.

Yes, I Am That Guy

I should admit that I’m an optimist by nature. Folks even tried to give me the trail name “Mr. Brightside” back in GA. But it’s not just blind positivity. I’m attempting to logic my way to happiness via internal downward comparison and intentionally positive memory-making – and it’s working. (Stay with me, I promise there’s a payoff for all this psycho-babble.)

Where are you going? STOP RUNNING AWAY!

I come from a long line of Irish men and women who’ve wryly observed “it could always be worse.” It’s pouring rain? At least it’s coming straight down, not blowing in your face. You fell and broke your arm? Good thing you didn’t break both! It’s all about perspective. In the grand scheme of your life, is your current pain that terrible? Thought of in this way, past suffering becomes a source of real strength: it shows you what you’re able to endure and overcome. And each new low point becomes the bar to measure future pain against. Once you’ve hiked 25 miles up and over mountains in snow and wind with frozen boots, nothing’s really that bad by comparison. 

I’ve also recognized what I can and cannot control in this life. I’m not going to turn a rainy day into a sunny one by wishing it so. I can’t make the trail flatter or people kinder. The only thing I can affect is my attitude. So when something unexpected or potentially unpleasant happens, why not try and make it a positive memory? Find a way to laugh about the massive puddle you stepped in or broken trekking pole. I’d rather die with a lifetime of positive memories than negative ones – even if those memories are of cackling like a crazy witch while sprinting through a torrential thunderstorm (has happened more than once). Better than crying, amirite?

The only thing that makes me cry is running out of trail

“Embrace The Suck” Misses The Point

Life is only as bad as you think it is – or, said another way, life is exactly as bad as you think it is. The Appalachian Trail is hard. You’re choosing to hike almost 2,200 mi. along steep mountain ranges that span the entire east coast of the USA. And if you think it’s going to suck, guess what? You’ll be right! It will suck.  Expectation of pain and suffering is always worse than the thing itself.  If you anticipate that an experience will be terrible, you make it so.

But it absolutely doesn’t have to suck.

Just because something is difficult and painful doesn’t necessarily make it “bad”.  Challenge and discomfort create growth and change. And the AT is an undeniably gorgeous stretch of natural land, capturing the soul of the East Coast’s beauty, state by state.  That’s the reason most people attempt a thru-hike: the challenge and beauty, pain and pleasure, make for a truly transformative experience.

Even if that transformation is into a feral animal

But there’s a healthy limit – challenge yourself too much, too fast, and you’ll only experience the hardship without the growth. We all start the trail from different places, physically and psychologically, and we all adjust at different rates. If you’re pushing yourself so hard you can’t enjoy anything, can’t find a way to reframe the experience and enjoy the journey, and your only way forward is to “embrace the suck” – dial it back, man.

Easier Said Than Done

This is a lesson I’m relearning all the time. I’ve been on some extremely punishing backpacking trips over the years, so I have a long list of gnarly memories to down-compare my current situation against when I’m cold, wet, or hungry. But I have never physically pushed myself as long and hard as I did from central VA to CT. After more than a month and a half of 25-30 mi. days trying to catch up to a tramily that was not slowing down, I slowly realized I was having less and less fun. My body still felt strong, but I was having trouble looking forward to each new day.  Getting out of bed was progressively more and more difficult, even though the mornings were warm and comfortable.  I knew I was at an important threshold – I was about to transition from Hiker #3 to Hiker #2.

So I slowed down.  Not easy on my pride, but definitely the right move.  I still have plenty of time to finish, and I wasn’t about to rush through the greatest adventure of my lifetime.  I shifted my plans to 16-20 mi. days and immediately started having a way better time.  Suddenly, I could stop and swim when I wanted, sit and read a book at an overlook when I wanted, even stare vaguely into the distance and contemplate how infinitesimally small I am in this massive universe – instead of solely focusing on relentlessly crushing miles.

Vermont does make for some pretty excellent vague staring

Here in the Whites, I don’t have a single day I’m planning on doing more than 15 miles – and I even have a few single-digit days planned. I’m not going to grit my teeth, put my head down, and sprint to Maine at the cost of my enjoyment of each step along the way. It’s all about smiles, not miles.

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Comments 6

  • Red Squirrel : Jul 20th

    Love this! I don’t have a sunny disposition, but I enjoy the challenges way more than I let on. Like yesterday, I waded across a thigh-deep river in my shoes, came out the other side, and excitedly complained about it to some very grim-looking SOBOs on the other side. They looked pretty shocked lol.

  • Bill : Jul 20th

    Excellent post! And agreed. I live right next to the Smoky’s and encounter alot of SOBOs and NOBOs. Most look grim and determined, but not having all that much fun.

  • Zach : Jul 20th

    Type B fun is the best and it creates memories you’ll never forget.

  • Fly : Jul 20th

    Embrace the suck is the very point you just made!! Embrace means joyfully grab hold. The term embrace the suck comes from the military, where I spent 39 years. Don’t bury it, live it and do like it says…embrace!!

  • Chase : Jul 20th

    Embrace the Suck means EXACTLY what you are trying to say. It doesn’t need to die, it needs to be understood.

  • Krazy Fox : Jul 21st

    I have to echo what Chase and Fly have said… It’s all about how you interpret “embrace the suck”. For me, it has always meant taking all that hurts, all that is uncomfortable, all that I want to run away from and instead choosing to embrace it. Learn from it. Allow it to challenge me, push me, and help me grow into a stronger and more resilient person. It’s
    acknowledging the reality of living in a moment that sucks and remembering that the suck matters. It’s the suck that’s important. Waaay more often than not it’s the suck that makes us who we are and gives us the exact perspective that you pointed out – that it can often be worse. Embracing the suck has helped me get through trauma and tragedy and it helped me immensely during my AT journey. I think it is with this saying as you are saying it is with “the suck”… It’s all about interpretation. ?

    I hope good weather for you in the Whites because with that, they are everything and more. But in bad weather, man oh man they are a LOT of suck to embrace! But I have to say, having experienced them both ways, I learned a lot more facing them at their fiercest then I did at their most beautiful. So either way, enjoy, and may the forest be with you!


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