Because I Choose To: Why I Am Hiking The PCT
When I tell people I’m off to California for six months to hike from Mexico to Canada, I invariably get one of two responses. Half the people come back with something like, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” The others respond, “Why would you do that?”
I reply to the first group with “You can if you choose to.”
My response to the second group is typically one or more of the following: Why not?
We all get about 70 years to play around before we no longer get to decide anything, so why not choose to do things you like while you can? It sounds simplistic and maybe it is. I find hiking and being outdoors enjoyable, so why not experience as much of it as possible? We read things in children’s books and hear lessons in Disney movies and after-school specials, where the lessons are “follow your heart” and “seize the moment.”
Well, I’m doing that.
Dare I quote from the “Dead Poets Society?” “Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”
The Masters Program
I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail in two big stages, over the course of 1997 and 1999. It was close to home, the terrain was familiar, and it was a good starter trail. Not to minimize the difficulties I faced – it’s still over 2,000 miles. The PCT is occasionally called the Masters, with the Continental Divide Trail being the big daddy of them all. After having hiked the AT and some other long-distance trails, doing the PCT seems the next logical step. Plus, the point of challenges is that they get harder. And once you’ve done two, you might as well go for the Triple Crown.
Based on my family history, I have one foot on a genetic banana peel. If I wait too long, I may not get the chance to do this. I’m surrounded by diabetes and cancer on both sides, ALS a generation ago, and an degenerative eye condition called Fuchs Dystrophy, which at 46 I’m now starting to have to deal with. I want to see spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plains while I can still see them clearly, vs. looking at them like it’s through wax paper. Also, nobody I know gets any younger.
Immediacy Of Consequence
This is a biggie for me, and mentally, maybe the biggest. The thing that attracts me most to the outdoors, and to physical crafts like gardening and woodworking, outside the sense of accomplishment, is that your actions have immediate and unavoidable consequences. I find that the longer the time between the action and consequence, between cause and effect, the more people are able to evade, equivocate, and simply ignore the inevitable reaction. Without the reinforcement of the full context of your decisions, the harder time you have making the right ones.
I’m reminded of this all the time at home; we have a domestic canine in the house. When we’re trying to shape his behavior, unless the response is immediate to his actions (good or bad), then he doesn’t learn. And why would he? The longer you can get away with something, the more you try to get away with. You see this everywhere – politics, economics, culture.
Working in an cerebral and virtual field like IT, I find I crave concrete results to my actions. It’s an important feedback loop – the farther we are from the consequences of our actions, the less real the world is. Don’t believe me? Try a simple experiment – pay with cash for a week, or write checks. Having to physically count out the dollar bills at the register vs. swiping a magic card will give you that immediate, tactile sense of actually buying something. You’re physically connecting to the other party, trading the fruit of your labor (money) for the value of a good or service produced by someone else.
At the risk of sounding completely pretentious, I’m going to quote Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Years ago I read a book which literally changed my life – Wilderness Ethics, by Guy Waterman. In it he discusses what makes something wild, and how that can be so easily lost. I hike and explore the backcountry, and some not-so-backcountry, because I want to capture and experience as much wildness as I can. I find it rejuvenating. While experiencing wildness may sound like an oxymoron, there are ways to minimize your impact. Practicing LNT can even help reverse the damage others and time have done.
Everyone has their own motivation. I hike because I have to.
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