Part One: The Mind
Sitting on the couch in the break room at REI a couple weeks ago I took my shoes off, threw my feet over the back of the couch to elevate them and slouched until I was lying down. This is a pretty typical mid-shift position for me, trying to spoil my feel that I will be depending on so much in the up-coming months. A newer staff member sat beside me and we got to talking. Soon enough the conversation turned to the fact that I am leaving in a few weeks. He told me that he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I sit up and look at him, probably leaning forward with investment in what he has to say. Yes, I am that eager. I ask him either, What is your best piece of advice or do you have any secret tips? I don’t remember which, but those are the questions I ask people who have hiked long distance trails. He looked a little stunned which surprised me. I felt like he surely must have an answer ready to go. Soon enough though he started to remember and told me various little bits of useful information, tips and suggestions. One thing you will definitely want to do, he eventually said, is, you will definitely want to figure out why you are hiking and write it down. Or maybe don’t write it down. Do whatever you want, whatever you need to, but know it. You will need to know it.
In my head I knew that logically this would be an important thing to do, but yet I had not done it nor did I feel ready to do it. That’s a great piece of advice, I said, I have no idea. I giggled a little in embarrassment. I’ll have to do that, I finished and then excused myself to head back out to the sales floor. Now my journey is getting even closer and I am no longer working at REI, so that I can finish my final preparations and yet, I still have not done what he said and I still don’t feel ready to. This however will be my attempt because I think it is important that you know too. So I will try to tell you what is in my head.
Hiking with my pack loaded, though not with food, I plodded down the trails at Castle Rock State Park. I felt like flying. You might know that feeling of taking off a really heavy backpack, like one you might wear when you are backpacking, and for the next little bit you feel so light and so free, you feel like you could do anything. Well on the trail this particular day, I felt that way even without taking off my backpack, I just felt that way. There was a freshness to my step and a smile found itself on my face. Of course the feeling still became more dramatic when I took off my pack to make camp. Then I walk around with the sensation that each step may actually not only take me forward but peal me off the ground.
I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out of my tent and the sky was filled with stars through the trees and in the morning it was sunshine and birdsong that coaxed open my eyelids. I sat in still silence for a moment and then began to move, letting the air rush noisily from my sleeping mat as my body lowered to the ground and I started to pack my things. I am ready, I am ready not to go back. My brother however, was home for a visit and my long journey had not yet begun and I only had a 2.5 mile walk back to the parking lot. More on me I have the need to prove something to someone. I am not quite sure what it is that I need to prove or to whom I need to prove it though. I think maybe it might be myself. I think it might be my 5-year-old self. I always said that 5 was my favorite age. It was the age I met my two best friends, still my best friends to this day. It was when homework involved coloring and playing involved make believe games outside and street hockey and collecting insects and plants. My 5-year-old self was not scared. She was reasonable, perhaps bossy, definitely curious and in control, but she was not scared. As I have grown older, I have lost some of that fearlessness and its something I am constantly trying to recapture. Not obsessively just subtly. For instance, its probably why I rock climb, despite being scared of heights.
Sometimes I am that self. That fearless, adventuresome, yet usually reasonable self. When on a dinosaur fossil dig in Montana in 2012, I felt closest to that self. I left home to meet people I did not know and live out of a tent. The dig organizers said to look for a white truck at the airport. I did and I found many. After finally finding the right one, I pitched my tent near Egg Mountain, Montana and had one of the best times of my life. There have been other times like this too, but they are more scarce than I desire. All of them seem to have in common a couple things: being outside, being uncomfortable at the start, amazing strangers who become friends and having a challenge of sorts.
I want to live a life that is a story, I told my mom on a hike earlier this year. That’s silly, she said. You shouldn’t think of it like that, shouldn’t do things just for the story. Plus everyone’s life is a story. I know, I said, but I want mine to be a story I would want to read. I guess what I was getting at is I want to impress myself. I want to get hooked and just keep going and I want to shock myself enough to keep it interesting.
I am competitive. This is good and bad. I told a past PCT thru-hiker this at the bar the other day and he assured me the good side would win out. The good, I am extremely driven to do well and try my absolute best. The bad, sometimes I won’t try if I know I am going to fail. My dad has spent many evenings trying to convince me that if I did not finish the PCT it would be ok. I half-heartedly agreed. I understand appreciating the experience for what it is and gaining from every bit of it. I understand there are many unpredictable factors. I understand the point is mostly to enjoy it. I want to finish. I am worried. I worry constantly, in fact I am quite good at it. I worry even when there is nothing to worry about. Right now my worrying stems mostly from the fact that I have not finished my resupply boxes and my start date keeps getting closer. It consumes my dreams and is honestly rather paralyzing, but I am slowly making headway. So hopefully come the time I am leaving, I will have food to eat on my trip. I also worry about the snow and fording streams, probably a pretty reasonable worry. If I just think about it one step at a time though, my worries seem much less. There are things I don’t worry about too. I don’t worry about bears and rattlesnakes and bugs and creepy people. Just poison oak, water, food, rain, river fording and snow snow snow.
For me meditation is not how I imagine it is for others. My brain does not go quiet. In fact my brain is a rather busy place, but I don’t mean that to say that I am exceptionally smart or anything, merely that I have many thoughts. When I am doing what I think could be close to meditating it is like I am in a soup of half reachable thoughts, like soft watercolor paintings; they are there but if you stare too long at them you notice the detail and precision is missing. And its fun as they slide in and out of my grasp. It will be interesting to see how thinking works after days on the trail. I have not yet answered. Why am I hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? I am hiking because I want to and I decided I could and I want to prove to myself that I can. I want to hike the length of my state and let it tell me about itself. I want to walk into the country where half of my family lives and is from and feel its embrace at the end of the longest journey I have ever taken. I want to see all the big places I have always imagined stepping into while staring at framed photos. I want to see all the little things like trails of ants headed home that people have forgotten about on their own commute home in the daily grind. I want to become more open and accepting, less stressed by a more constant spontaneity. I want to simmer my thoughts and try to stumble upon my essence in a way thats more focused than before. I want to breathe fresh air and miss people and good burgers. I want to feel so strong that I could bear Sisyphus’ labor of hopelessly pushing a boulder up a hill and yet never tire. I want to feel like the earth knows me and I know the earth. I want to push myself like never before. I want to roam, as I did when I thought I controlled the wind, tried to build spaceships in my basement, talked to trees, shared apples with birds and dreamed of adventure.
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