Planning My Second Thru-Hike: Purpose and Whimsy
After completing your first long-distance hike, it is common to go through several hiking phases. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I experienced three such phases after completing my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. They manifested in the following manner:
Phase 1: Post-Trail Blues
Initially, I wanted almost nothing to do with hiking. I went out for a handful of day hikes with friends who were either eager to reconnect or wanting to test my trail legs (or both), but the hikes were nearly void of enjoyment. During this phase, the seemingly meager scope of a day hike, even in the pursuit of bagging new peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, seemed insignificant and unsatisfying compared to the grandeur of the adventure that I had just left behind. This threw me for a bit of a loop. Prior to my AT thru-hike, hiking new mountains and exploring new territory was incredibly exciting to me; now, I did not really care. The common phrase “post-trail depression” takes many different forms for different people, but I believe these emotions likely fall into this category.
Phase 2: Fooling Myself
This first stage of hiking ambivalence lasted for about two months, at which time an incredibly sharp rebound took place. For two years I operated under the assumption that the AT would be my only opportunity to thru-hike for years. I discovered during this second phase, however, that a sub-four-month attempt at the PCT in the summer of 2020 was feasible with my course schedule.
For a couple of weeks, I was giddy with the thought of another grand adventure. My passion for the outdoors was seemingly renewed. Prior to hiking the AT I engaged in copious mental preparation to ensure that I did not enter the trail starry-eyed, but the time off trail had crystallized in my memory the positive aspects of trail life. I realized that I was in danger of neglecting the reality of the physical pain, emotional hardships, and logistical hurdles involved with such an endeavor. A course correction was needed.
Phase 3: Now
And so I descended into phase three, the phase that I continue to work through now, that of uncertainty. In the past months I have become increasingly involved with my school’s outing club (shoutout to NUHOC). Through this club I have been able to regain a sense community through interaction with like-minded outdoor lovers. This had been missing since finishing the AT, and my passion for hiking was, thereafter, restored. Nonetheless, the planning of my second thru-hike lacks a certain whimsy that was present for my first thru-hike, and I still struggle with the why of this second hike.
As far as the so-called whimsy deficiency present with the planning of my PCT hike, I think this is to be expected to some extent. When planning your first thru-hike or long-distance backpacking trip, everything is fresh and new. Tens of hours of YouTube content and ultralight backpacking subreddits only add to the mystique of the adventure; you can’t know what you don’t know, and, in the hiking world, you don’t know what you haven’t experienced.
This is not to say that you or I know everything about the subject after one thru-hike. Far from it. The PCT presents challenges totally foreign to the AT, and aside from the difference in trails, there are always ways to improve how you hike. That said, 2,000+ miles is a whole lot more experience than zero miles. After one thru-hike, you certainly understand many aspects of hiking much better than before, such as thru-hiking culture, gear, practical application of LNT, etc.
This is neither here nor there. The point I am trying to make is that I feel as though there is less research that I need to do before my second thru-hike, and this lack of necessary preparation may be contributing to the aforementioned lack of whimsy. That being said, I will be joined on this thru-hike by my brother, Ben, who has not thru-hiked before. This exciting and extremely nerve-racking arrangement is a subject for another post on another day. Suffice it to say that I have certainly leeched a bit of excitement vicariously from his pre-hike preparation. (Although I will note that I have tried my best to retain a healthy balance of providing my knowledge on the subject when necessary while allowing him to discover as much as possible on his own.)
Larger than any lack of whimsy, a larger question looms over my PCT thru-hike—why do it? This is a question that is essential for all thru-hikers to answer before stepping foot on trail. Personally, once I step on trail, I consider there to be only three legitimate reasons for my getting off the trail: serious illness/injury, running out of time, and something cataclysmic occurring back home. I would not be able to bear it if I departed the trail for any other reason. Because of this, I know that lacking a sufficient answer to this question will not result in my failing to finish the PCT. Possibly even worse, however, it could result in my pushing myself through the trail without enjoying the hike. I would certainly prefer to avoid this outcome, and so I have been searching for a purpose for this hike.
Well, my purpose on the Appalachian Trail was to prove to myself that I was mentally and physically tough enough to do it. Check and check. It’s awesome to be able to say that, but a side effect is that this purpose is no longer overly applicable. Having a grand adventure with my brother is certainly a compelling purpose, (again, another post for another day), but such a purpose is subject to the whims of the trail. Just on a statistical level, the likelihood that we will hike the whole trail together is, uh, not great.
OK, well now I have conditional purpose. What happens if that purpose becomes, for whatever reason, not applicable? The best I have been able to discern thus far is my overarching goal of being a Triple Crowner. I am sure that many people have used this goal to bestow purpose on their thru-hike, and that is great. I tend to doubt, however, that a goal so distant will resonate strongly with me when I have been, for example, postholing through the Sierra Nevada for days on end.
Truthfully, I do not feel as though I have yet found a satisfactory answer to the question of why. Often the answer to important questions is not obvious, and that is OK. It is what it is. It will be what it could be. It is not what it isn’t. I continue to work through my thoughts in hopes to be as mentally prepared as possible come game time. May 10 will approach in time. Thank you, dear reader; I will update my thoughts as they arise.
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