What’s Your Motivation?
When an actor speaks, moves, or shows emotion, he does so according to his character’s motivation. Motive is what makes the character, rather than the actor, believable to the audience. The first step for a thru-hiker is also finding this inner drive—the why—to take on the role of a long-distance backpacker.
Even though an actor changes characters and motivations from movie to movie, it is claimed that all stories adhere to seven basic plot structures. Given this paradigm for the fictional world, the same rules should apply to real-life situations. So what are the seven reasons someone would attempt a thru-hike?
Thru-hikers experience the beauty and tranquility of nature over an extended period and through a variety of environments. For some, this interaction with nature is far greater entertainment than anything man-made. Outdoor spaces—parks, forests, deserts, waters, and wilderness—allow us to escape all traces of domesticity. Immersion within and appreciation of the natural world has served as inspiration for the most important works of artists and thinkers like Georgia O’Keeffe, John James Audubon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. While marveling at the magnificence of nature, we can learn lessons about being human from the earth, water, flora, and fauna.
As early as 1864, Americans began clamoring for the conservation of natural spaces for the enjoyment of all. Until that time, nature was viewed solely as a commercial resource for the production of food, clothing, and shelter. Today, the federal government owns and manages about 640 million acres (28% of the US) with most of that land intended for public use. Of that public land, the National Trails System offers more than 50,000 miles of trail for recreational use, nearly 8,000 miles of which are covered by the Triple Crown trails, allowing anyone with enough wherewithal of spirit the freedom to enjoy a thru-hike.
Long-distance hiking tests the limits of a person’s physical, mental, and emotional fitness. Aside from the mandatory walking of thousands of miles over four to six months, thru-hikers need a multitude of skills that include planning, budgeting, outfitting, resupplying, navigating, orienteering, mountaineering, hitchhiking, surviving, etc. Additionally, these adventurers must be able to adapt and thrive within a group or alone. Failure presents itself in many forms on and off the trail, and a lack of preparedness almost guarantees it before the journey begins. Many argue that assessing our capabilities should be the sole reason for attempting a thru-hike.
Discover the Unknown
Thru-hikes provide everyone on the trail with numerous opportunities to conquer literal and metaphorical mountains. There will be moments when everyone’s intestinal fortitude gets checked, and hidden stores of spirit and energy come to the surface—when the trail becomes a path to self-discovery. Journeys into the unknown can also be external. Long-distance trails pass through multiple states that contain diverse environments with plant and animal species found few other places in the world. Trail towns are typically off the beaten path, offering a brief glimpse of the simple life. Learning things about yourself and your place in the world is the ultimate reward for taking these unpaved roads less traveled.
Perform a Pilgrimage
Performing a pilgrimage fosters an individual connection to a sacred space, assigning spiritual, historic, or personal importance in reaching a destination. Religious pilgrimage routes like Mecca and Jerusalem are nomadic rituals for devout believers. Allowing hikers to follow in the footsteps of giants, the National Park Service lists 19 historic trails, which include the Lewis and Clark, Trail of Tears, and Iditarod, among its roster of 31 national trails. By completing any of the Triple Crown trails, thru-hikers may take it upon themselves to honor a person, belief, or cause significant to their lives.
Getting outdoors provides numerous health benefits like the production of vitamin D to protect teeth and bones, endorphins to trigger positive feelings, and melatonin to maintain the body’s circadian rhythm, but clarity of mind may be its greatest benefit. When the head becomes the most cluttered space in your life, a thru-hike might help reorganize the mental sock drawer. Confining yourself to nature removes everyday stressors, connects you to the environment, and focuses your attention on being present for the experience. It’s only in moments of absolute clarity that one’s life purpose can truly be revealed.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social belonging ranks third of four deficiency needs a person must acquire before personal growth and self-actualization can occur. Through familiarity of circumstance, strong familial bonds will develop among coworkers, athletes, students, volunteers, pet owners, victims, criminals, etc. Shared struggle creates empathy among strangers, but more than that, it establishes a brotherhood from the communal experience. After completing a thru-hike, you become a full-fledged member of a trail family, despite all preexisting sociological differences, where you and your siblings can commiserate over the obstacles faced and goals achieved.
For the past few years, I have become a potted plant, content with the trappings of comfort and low expectations, trying to remember what life was like on the other side of the window. Fully embracing the HYOH mentality, a few of the many obstacles that I need to overcome on my thru-hike include peakbagging Mount Underachievement, fording the River of Regret (200+ times), crossing the Great Loneliness Basin, and passing through National Figure-Out-What-Makes-You-Happy Forest. At the very least, if the end result is indistinguishable from the starting place, I can just add this adventure to my already long list of poor life decisions, satisfied that clarity reached is clarity gained.
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