Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: Taking a Year Off Before Finishing a Thru-Hike

Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now, and you can find upcoming book tour events here.

Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on. If your question is chosen for our next Mailbag, we’ll send you a signed copy of JPD’s newest book.

As I gear up to get back on the PCT this year, there have been a few things that worry me, such as gear upgrades, mileage logistics, etc. But what I spend the most time worrying about is if the trail will be all that is was for me during my first go at thru-hiking. Will I make friends in the way that I did last year? What will I do if I hate it? Is it even possible to hate it after the amazing experience I had last year? How will my body adjust back to hiking an absurd number of miles on the daily? Will I be able to keep up? The questions I find myself pondering the most are will I love the trail as much as I once did?

-Alex Cremer

There is always an element of the unknown on a backcountry journey, but that first excursion is filled with an intoxicating sense of mystique. There is a thrill that comes from pursuing adventure, exploring gorgeous new settings, and availing yourself to new opportunities and new relationships. You don’t just experience the trail—you experience the emotions that come with falling in love with the trail. And that will fade.

You won’t feel that same nervous excitement coming back to complete your thru-hike of the PCT, and you won’t experience it to the same degree by tackling a different long-distance trail. At some point along your first journey you transitioned into a long-distance backpacker and you can’t ever go back to being a thru-hiking virgin.

The butterflies of long-distance backpacking never fully go away (literally or figuratively). But once the newness of thru-hiking wears thin, you will discover that you don’t love the thrill of a new adventure…. you love the trail. The experience of watching the sunset on top of a mountain with a close friend—who was a stranger three days prior—won’t be embraced for its uniqueness, but because it feels commonplace. The pride of overcoming the filth and fatigue of 20-mile days wears thin, but your comfort and capacity to embrace and overcome discomfort will continue grow. The frustration with late-season snow, the surprise of afternoon electrical storms, the inconvenience of wildfire closures will no longer be unexpected interruptions, rather accepted as part of the journey. And somewhere, within the familiarity of it all, you will realize that being in love is more fulfilling than falling in love.

If you are a thrill seeker, then you likely won’t remain a backpacker. You’ll look for your next buzz by cycling across America, trying your hand at technical mountaineering, or training for an Ironman. These are all incredible endeavors, and there is nothing wrong with moving on to a new adventure, but it won’t provide the same result as sticking with long trails. At some point you transition from falling in love to being in a relationship, and that’s where you discover the true transformation and deepest reward.

That is not to say that relationship will not evolve. With every new hike, you will change and the trail itself will be different. It doesn’t matter if you have the same path 20 times over it will never be the same experience. There is a quote from the Ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, that says, “You never step in the same river twice.” And, so it is with trails. Fortunately, these winding paths we walk are very welcoming of change.

My devotion to the trail started when I thru-hiked the Appalachian at 21 years old, but it grew when I realized that I could explore different trails throughout the US and the world, and when I recognized that I didn’t need six months of time off to fit in a trail run before work, or that I could enjoy a weekend backpacking trip with friends. I relearned and relived the thrill and challenges of learning to backpack when I married Brew and we took on our first trail as a couple. When I wanted to test my limits and try for trail records, the long trails let me explore my endurance. Now, I backpack with my kids… and sometimes to get away from my kids. I love the trail now more than ever, not because it has stayed the same, but because it accepts me for who I am, it welcomes me where I am, and it continually allows me to change and grow.

Last month my husband Brew and I celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary. Time has brought with it a few extra pounds, a few extra wrinkles, some gray hairs, stretch marks and cellulite. Suffice it to say we are not as sexy as we once were and I don’t feel a rush of excitement when he looks into my eyes but I feel deep adoration, strong trust, and transparent vulnerability. My feelings towards him have changed over the years but they have only grown stronger and deeper.

As you head into your second PCT experience, expect that it will be different and ask yourself what you can give to the trail. The experience may not look or feel as intoxicating as your first thru hike, but I have a feeling it will be even more beautiful and provide a deeper connection to the nature, the trail community, and your personal capacity to change and grow.

Looking for more? Find our entire collection of Jennifer’s sage wisdom here.

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