Day 42. Mile 1329.
I’ve never been more smelly, dirty, hairy or sleepy. Dried blood streaks cover my legs, and my hair has begun dreading itself. Essentially, all I do is walk about 10 hours a day and think about the next meal I get to eat (all meals are nearly identical and mimic a 6-year-old’s dream diet: poptarts and candy bars). All this, and I’ve never been more happy.
This overwhelming sense of joy seems pretty universal among hikers. Sure, some days are really tough, and some miles are painful. Sometimes I’m charging up a hill and I begin to think about why I’m putting myself through this, and then I get over the summit and all of a sudden I’m beaming with excitement about how much I love this trail. It’s a complicated love. At the end of the day, though, I almost always think, “whoa that was the best day ever.” It seems like fellow hikers think the same. People talk about how the trail has changed them and there’s a reoccurring dialogue about how this is “so good for the soul.”
I’ve been trying to figure out why and how this strange lifestyle sparks so much joy. Why is living out of your backpack miles away from civilization so rejuvenating? And then I realized that this crazy, challenging trail simulates so many of the attributes that have been proven to create happiness. Here’s what I’ve got.
My life is in my backpack. Everything I need never weighs more than 35 pounds. I even got super extreme and cut off all my tags off of items because one woman said she shed eight ounces of weight off her pack by doing so. I don’t even think I lost an ounce. But the point is: everything has a purpose and it’s so simple.
My daily activities are incredibly simple too: wake up, eat breakfast, walk, second breakfast, walk, lunch, nap, walk, first dinner, walk, set up camp, second dinner, sleep. That’s it. I really can’t complain when my only worries are walking, eating and finding a place to camp. Mixed with incredible views, convos with other hikers, music, podcasts (I’ve started trying to learn Arabic, but all I know how to say is: “Why don’t you cut his hair?”), this simple life is actually incredible.
There’s a trail angel named Legend who told me, “all you ever really need is in your heart.” It sounds pretty cheesy, but coming from a man who lives out of his truck by choice, I think it means a lot. Living out here, so simply, has taught me this. Everything is in my backpack or in the heart.
It’s inevitable to get caught up in the speed of things in everyday life, especially since speed is associated with success and slowness is seen as lazy or unproductive. But out here, everything is slow. The fastest I ever move is 3.5 miles per hour (only exception is when I’m hitching into town and I realize what takes only 40 minutes driving would take me two days to walk). It’s so much easier to be present in life and to notice the little things when you slow down. Plus, there’s just a lot of cool things to notice out here: sunsets, bears!!!! (saw a brown bear the other day), quirky towns (like one with only seven full-time residents), wildflowers, lime green moss, massive pine cones. I’m gonna try to keep this slow mojo up forever.
This one’s a big one. Probably the most important to me. It’s almost impossible not to be grateful on trail. And all of a sudden you’re raving about things you never even once appreciated: toasters, pillows, bridges, cheap pizza, hair brushes, outlets, soap, pens with ink in them, cheese, watermelons, napkins. All these things are so awesome!!! And they all seem so much more special when the little luxuries are stripped away. Packing out salami to eat for lunch? Luxury. Drinking water straight out of a tap in town? Luxury. Clean socks? Huuuuuge luxury.
I’ve become so much more thankful for the people in my life too, both those on and off trail. Back in Madison, I was so incredibly lucky to have at least a dozen supportive, loving friends all within a mile of me. Out here, it’s different. Way different. Sometimes there isn’t even a single person within a mile of me. It can be isolating, but really it just reminds me of how lucky I am: lucky to be out here living this crazy slow, simple life, and lucky to have another life back in the Midwest full of friends and family.
There are just so many reasons to be happy, and this trail has reminded me (and a lot of other hikers too) how to find all these joys and appreciate them more than ever before.
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