What Do We Miss When We Hike Too Fast?
So we’ve gone 250 miles now, with the Sisters on the horizon and the soles starting to peel off my shoes, and the land around us looking more and more familiar with every step. But the lesson this time around is that it isn’t about that number, the miles done, though it’s so easy to get sucked in. You’d think this is a solitude experience but no, every day you meet 20, 30 people and they are hiking farther and faster, and it’s easy to want to know just how far can I go. If we just walked a little more today?
And so everyone out here pushes and pushes and forgets to rest and sit by the lakes and the mountaintops.
We forget to breathe in the air and watch the foxes run across our paths, and to climb the rock piles and look around the forest and just.sit.still every once and awhile.
At our last resupply point (these are the resorts and towns along the way where we are having our food boxes delivered), we had a day off to recover aching feet and limbs and tired willpower minds. So a kind lady at the campground offered us and another thru-hiker a ride to see Salt Creek Falls, Oregon’s second-highest waterfall, rather than sit around eating french fries and playing checkers and badminton all day (though also not bad options). Only a five-minute drive from Shelter Cove, Salt Creek tumbles over volcanic rock while birds dive in and out of its spray and it roars all around, and the other hiker says to us, “I wonder what else I’ve missed along the way. I’d love to come back and hike this area again and take in the sights. The PCT is just a totally different thing.”
But no, I don’t want to value miles over moments, distance over discovery, pride above all. Now that I’m feeling comfortable on trail and around these new people and setting up my tent and stove and life every day, I want to remember this: It’s not about the mile-grabbing.
You can’t win the PCT. The faster you do it, the faster it’s done.
Instead, it’s about when Alex and I had to hitchhike to get our food boxes and the wind in my hair and my ears and my eyes in the back of a truck next to lava fields, and the way the stars shine at night now that the smoke is to the south, and the soft feeling of Oregon lake water as I swim and wash off my dirt-covered legs. About finding the time to sit back and drink beer and laugh with trail angels and other hikers, and those moments alone at dusk and dawn cuddled up warm in my sleeping bag watching the moonlight dance on the tree trunks. The crunch of twigs at night that I’ve learned is just the mice and chipmunks, the taste of blueberries growing right next to the trail, and those strange little Oregon neon mushrooms and gel-like plants pushing up under the dry dirt. I’m here for the sun on my skin that I’ve been craving for months. To wake up to bird song. The shape of clouds in the sky, the moments when you enter an area burned before by forest fire and suddenly through the matchstick trees you can see all the mountains around. It’s about the nature, but more than the nature, the way we coexist with it out here. Humans not as separate but as a part of this web, this ecosystem, just like the birds and the deer and yes, even the mosquitoes.
And oh, I do understand how good it feels to walk fast, to use these muscles, to test my strength. A distance runner for life, I know the physicality of the challenge is part of the joy. But when you run you still take slow days and time off and remember to stop and stretch and look around and celebrate where your legs have taken you.
So let’s not make the backcountry about achievements and goals and competitiveness and outdoing one another.
I’ll do my best to leave the perfectionism and stress at the (metaphorical) door. And the more we make this about experiencing wildness rather than going farther, faster, longer, the more it becomes open to more people no matter if they have five hours or five months to spend out here. So stop to smell the roses, or whatever the cliche is. I’ll get off my soapbox now and it’s a reminder more for myself than anyone. More naps and breaks and breaths. More stops and pictures and wonder. More drinking from crystal clear mountain streams, more feeling the dirt with my hands, more touching the trees and stopping to listen to the silence. That’s all. And anyway, with the number of blisters I have growing, I’m going to be walking slower for quite a while anyway.
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