Wild Human Things
Someone has asked us all this question at some point.
Some out of curiosity, some out of repulsion, some out of amazement. Why? Why are you hiking from Mexico to Canada? Why are you putting your life on hold? Why do you want to live like this for four to six months? Why are you being so selfish?
Like many other hikers and people who have chosen a nomadic lifestyle, whether permanent or temporary, my answer is multilayered and my story has many beginnings.
In a way, it began when I was six and a group of thru-hikers came to talk to my school about the PCT.
In a way, it began when I discovered the minimalist movement while attending the University of Puget Sound as a freshman.
It really started to take shape when I discovered Cheryl Strayed’s Wild about six and a half years ago, when I was twenty-two, heartbroken, disillusioned, feeling like a failure, and like so many of my generation fresh out of college, lost and lost and oh so very lost.
Of course, it’s become a cliché at this point: Wild ushered in a new generation of thru-hikers. The reason why I include it in my story is that I found it completely by accident with no frame of reference. I felt like Harry Potter walking into Olivander’s, where the wand chooses the wizard. It’s corny, I know, but it’s the truth.
It could have just been a crazy coincidence, but on a chilly night in Portland, OR, I found myself walking in a sort of trance to Powell’s City of Books, a failed relationship and a failed internship echoing in my head, like coyotes yipping in the middle of the night. I found myself staring at the store’s best-seller list: the first, a book of poetry, the second, Wild. My eyes kept flitting back to the image of the brown Raichle boot with red laces, and like a movie, time seemed to slow and the book seemed to be calling out to me. It may as well have flown off the shelf and cracked me on the head.
Here, stupid: read this.
So, okay, I read the book like so many others. So what? Why did I quit my job? Why did I research gear for hours, and hours, and hours on YouTube? Why did I find solace in films like As It Happens and Only the Essentials? Why did I put on a backpack and take my first steps down the slope away from the Mexican border? Why did I come back after failing a thru hike attempt in 2019?
Why did I actually want to make this happen?
It wasn’t so much ‘why?’ as ‘why not?’
I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose not to leave their lives behind and start over. As the years went by after reading Wild, I found myself becoming more and more bitter and cynical towards the lives I saw people, and myself, living. A life of mass consumption. A life of climbing ladders. A life where people with bank accounts resembling phone numbers would scream at the owner of a pizza shop because an old arcade game ate their daughter’s quarter (true story). A life where enough was never enough. A life of hustle culture. A life of grinding. A life that wears you down, like the eraser on a number 2 pencil, until you’re scraping at mistakes with a jagged metal edge.
I found myself becoming burnt out after five years of working in retail and food service. I was unable to stay silent while customer after customer slew insult after insult at myself, coworkers, and at times, other customers. I was losing faith in the goodness of people. I was unhappy despite living in privileged circumstances. I hated that I was allowing myself to live a life that I felt was not my own. I hated that so many others I knew felt the same.
It was the language of the hiking community, long after the last pages of Wild, that brought me out here. It was feeling like I was connecting with people I’d never met before, while feeling disconnected from friends and family who had known me my entire life. It was the way they spoke with passion in their voices and tears in their chest and brightness in their eyes, about freedom and choices and becoming better versions of themselves. It was enough to know that there was a trail that you could walk for days and weeks and months and know that you were always walking toward somewhere better than here. It was enough to know that they were out there and that it was possible.
I am here because this is where I have felt the most at peace with myself.
I can cry without judgement. I can curse without resentment. I can smile without guilt. I can connect with people who believe what I believe. People who have made the same sacrifices I have, some more so than myself. At the end of three weeks I have found enough kindness to fill my pack and a hiker box in every town. I have heard people share their own stories of wanderlust and disillusionment, disappointment and regret, adventure and dreams. I have heard nurses share their stories of working in the ICU for the past year and how, finally, they have space to breathe. I’ve heard from lawyers who couldn’t take the seventy-hour weeks anymore. I’ve heard from other retail workers who did not have the luxury of working from home this past year. People who did not get a break.
I am here because there are those who cannot be here, whether by choice or circumstance. I am here to learn to be a better person. I am here for the mountains and the desert and the rivers and the trees. I am here for the pain and the pleasure. I am here because I choose to be here. I am here to grow. I am here to become stronger. I am here for kindness. I am here for the people. I am here for myself. I am here because I can’t help but wonder what Strayed didn’t see: the things that wait for us beyond the Bridge of the Gods.
But really, I am here because I’ve yet to find a book with a better story that might turn my life inside out, empty all my pockets of shiny little nothings, and fill it up with dirt, sweat, blood, and other wild, human things.
“If I have to fall on my head
every night of the week,
it’s gonna be my fault
and no one else.”
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