Will You Finish Your Long-Distance Hike?
What makes or breaks you on a long-distance hike?
With the summer season in full swing, the thru-hikers are showing up in my little town situated over halfway on the Pacific Crest Trail, mile 1,730 of 2,650.
The eager hungry eyes, I met in the first 150 miles of the desert out of Campo, have turned into perpetually hungry bodies. The bouncy legs have become sinewy brown bundles of muscle. The soft curves around the young faces are hidden by beards (for the men) and show angular jaw lines for the women, disappearing into the hollows of bone and flesh along the shoulder ridge. The smell of sweat is perpetually soaked into their clothes, even washing and clean bodies don’t take it away.
What drives them at this point? Oh, I understand what got them started. In the beginning the eagerness of taking on a challenge shone through. I understand the doggedness of meeting and overcoming difficulties on the way. I understand the rhythm and beauty of the long trail. But 2650 miles?
Why do it? “Because it’s there”. “I want to see who I am when I’m deprived of soft comforts.” “I want to get away from the stress of work and career.” “A sabbatical from life.” “I’m depressed/traumatized/don’t know what to do with myself, and the trail will heal me.”
Does it take 2,650 miles to answer these questions? Of course not. But yes, for some maybe it does….
At this point on the trail I see tired eyes, I hear the question, “What am I doing this for, still..” Everyday the same routine, make the miles, haul the pack, eat the same foods, find water, traverse the ever changing wilderness and find a place to sleep at night.
Each day the ever-changing wilderness, brings new sights, variations of elevation challenges, river crossings, blow-downs, unstable rocks, but also soft duff, that quiets your steps in the great stillness all around, vistas that rip your heart out of your chest as you breathe the thin air, waterfalls, rivers, and springs that teach you that water is life, water is sacred. And yet, does it take 2650 miles for the wilderness to share itself with you into your bones?
In my fairly long life I’ve challenged myself, and life has challenged me, both physically and mentally. I have sat long retreats in silence, I have fasted for periods of time. I have gone for days in silence to experience the chatter in my head, to learn how much energy goes into constant verbal expression. I’ve experienced great loss. I’ve swam distances that pushed my limits, rowed head races, that made me stronger. Now I walk, and I walk the distance because I know what it takes to get out of the daily mind chatter, to let go of attachment to comfort, to experience the expansiveness that sets in when you do a simple activity, day in, day out. I know the sense of belonging that occurs when you put yourself in a bigger realm.
Does it take walking 2650 miles to get these experiences? No, absolutely not. I remember after many years of meditation practice still wondering when I would reach my goal of enlightenment. And then it hit me one day, while trekking to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. “There is no place to end up, there is only the trek; there is no enlightened state to reach, there is only mindfulness while I sit and breathe; there is no complete unity in love to get to, there is only the warmth of loving fully. As Ram Dass said in Be Here and Now—yes I’m old enough to have known this teacher—“After you get enlightened, you go back to chopping wood and carrying water.” It looks the same on the outside, but it’s different on the inside.
In hiking terms: after you get it, what hiking in the wilderness is about, you go back to walking and carrying your pack. That may mean you walk in your neighborhood as you go to your job, but when you do that you will feel the swing of your legs and your arms, and you have a visceral memory of movement that harmonizes you, unites you with yourself and the walking is your practice to stay mindful. And you carry your pack in the form of daily tasks, daily necessities of things that need to get done, and you keep it to a minimum, mindful of lightening your load as you walk through life.
Hike Your Own Hike
Maybe you will be enlightened about the meaning of your long hike at mile 100, maybe at mile 900, maybe not yet at 2,650. It all depends on what other things you’ve done in your life so far, it all depends on how mindful you are.
The long hike is an individual hike. The distance doesn’t matter. Do you think that you fail in life if you don’t reach the age of 100? Boredom on the trail will come and go, it’s not a reason to quit. Challenges on the trail will come and go, they’re not a reason to end your hike. The length of the trail is arbitrary, you can’t take 2,650 miles home with you.
When you reach fullness with yourself, when you experience joy and contentment while you’re walking all day, day in, day out, you’ve reached a goal you can take home with you. The answer about the length of your hike, lies within.
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