Beauty in Discomfort: The Struggle is the Joy
I thru-hike because it forces me to be uncomfortable, cleanse my dopamine addiction, and find the joy of radical acceptance in hardship.
Rain fell for 90 of the 108-mile stretch from Steven’s Pass to Stehekin, the second to last section of my 2021 PCT thru-hike.
When I say rain, I mean a Forest Gump-style continuous downpour. Whenever I dared to look up from my feet and glimpse at whatever view the cloud breaks were momentarily willing to offer, a sheet of freezing rain scraped against the narrowly exposed skin on my face. Above the tree line, the rain dramatically turned into a flurry of hail and snow, and my feet smashed semi-frozen mountain streams into watery ice chunks. I often found myself implementing ujjayi breath just to feel some momentary heat on the inside crevices of my lips.
After 72 hours of incessant precipitation, I hit my ultimate and absurd emotional low point.
The last thing I needed to do before leaving camp was to put on my freezing wet toe socks. I took a deep breath and then released my innermost hysteria, wailing like a crazed toddler. I slowly and painfully put each fleshy toe inside its frozen cotton cocoon, wiped my damp boogers, and half laughed half cried myself out of the sheltered campsite and onto the drenched trail tundra, once again.
Whether you’ve lived through something this agonizing or not, the instinctive and ego-driven questions are bound to arise.
Why am I doing this? Why do I choose this? Why willingly subject myself to freezing rain, unbearable winds, discomfort, fear, exhaustion, starvation, and danger? The only way I could stay warm was by continuously moving at a sluggish 2 mile per hour pace — god forbid I take a still moment to nourish my depleted body or take a piss. Every possibility of where else in the world I could be spiraled into my mind. My inner dialogue became a battleground, where I had no choice but to fight off the incessant inner demon.
But right at the pinnacle of when I struggled to answer “Why am I doing this?” more than ever, I found the ammo to obliterate the demon for good.
It was the third night of the five-day Northern Cascades storm. With just enough daylight left after selecting a campsite, I set up my tent, stripped down naked, and hopped inside before darkness fell. I attempted to become less wet —I’m hesitant to say “dry off”— and slid into the only dry equipment I had left: sleep clothes and the inside of my sleeping bag. My hands robotically boiled water for dinner while making sure not to spill any salty ramen on myself. Suddenly yet slowly, and without thought, the answer to “Why am I doing this?” became evidently clear.
After enduring days of torturous terrain, I reached a point of perfect contentment alone, warm, and fed in my tent. It’s not simply being happy — it’s knowing that you have everything you need and being okay with only that. I no longer needed, and therefore no longer wanted, anything else. I was transfixed in my reality. I was satisfied with simply what I needed to exist.
To quote David Goggins, “There is peace on the other side of suffering.”
I hike to absolve myself from unnecessary stress and superfluous pleasures and find genuine satisfaction with existence. We are a dopamine-addicted society constantly looking for the next hit to bring us back to baseline and make us feel okay. By stripping my dopamine, I was able to restore my happiness internally. That quiet night in my tent, I stopped asking myself those questions. My body and mind were at peace with each other and with my greater surroundings. With myself, I was enough.
That’s not to say that I’ve never tried to talk myself out of doing something uncomfortable after. But I did have a clear answer to the question “why?” We thru-hike embrace joy in the discomfort. Without first feeling uncomfortable, we will never balance out our dopamine; our constant conquest for happiness, comfort, and peace. It’s not just important, but necessary to place ourselves outside our comfort zone. Feeling uncomfortable is feeling human and tranquility only comes after challenge.
I paradoxically write this while on my soft recliner, gazing out the window towards slushy February snow piles.
The ego never disappears: Why go outside today unless I absolutely have to? Why face the frigid February air and the partially thawed ground when you can hop in the car instead? Why not take the path of least resistance?
When I step outside today, I will inevitably ask “why?” as I willingly transition into the discomfort. But facing that cold wind head-on, for even just a few minutes, will undeniably force me to feel both present and alive. Sometimes nature doesn’t give you a choice besides being right there with her. And perhaps upon returning to my comfortable home, when the inner chill subsides into a warm hot cup of tea, it will, albeit momentarily, be enough.
Book References: (I listened to both books on trail)
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke
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