Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: Be Prepared to Change

The Trek Editor’s Note

Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now, and you can find upcoming book tour events here.

Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on. If your question is chosen for our next Mailbag, we’ll send you a signed copy of JPD’s newest book.

Question:

Hi Jen! AT 2016’er here. A lot of people always ask how the trail changed someone psychologically. I was wondering how completing long distance trails has changed your behavior, if at all? -Justin Richardson

Before my first thru hike, I attended a thru-hiking workshop put on by the man who has completed the AT more than anyone else. At his Appalachian Trail Institute, Warren Doyle covered the logistical preparation of a 2,000-mile journey, but he also spent majority of our time together discussing the mental and emotional aspects of the Appalachian Trail.

Warren stated, “The trail will change you.” Then, he asked, “Are you ready to be changed?”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the group of participants. I was still pondering my answer when Warren added, “Are the people in your life prepared for you to come home a different person?”

After completely a journey of 2,000 miles you are guaranteed to be different. It’s healthy and helpful to expect these changes and discuss the maturation with your loved ones before, during, and after the hike. Different hikers experience different transformations and there is a great deal of truth in the hiker adage, “The trail gives you what you need.” Here are some common results of being a thru-hiker that I have both experienced and witnessed.

Simplicity

Most hikers who I know will finish the trail, go home, and feel a need to throw everything away. Material possessions no longer have the same importance after a thru-hike. Learning that you can be content with the items that you carry on your back is liberating. Instead of investing in things or stuff, you will be more likely to invest your resources into experiences, adventures, and relationships. Expect to downsize after a thru-hike.

Success

Finishing the Appalachian Trail is one of the hardest and most rewarding journeys out there. There is a great sense of pride that comes with completing a thru-hike. But that’s it. There’s no trophy, t-shirt, or finisher’s purse. For many of us, the trail shows us the worth and importance of an intrinsic reward; it redefines success. Instead of seeking wealth or recognition, the trail proves that our greatest hours are spent away from the public eye and apart from the cultural measure of accomplishment. Expect your life goals to look different.

Focus

Even after setting the FKT on the Appalachian Trail, I still had difficult adjusting to the everyday pace of life off trail. There is a huge difference between traveling two miles per hour (or 3.5 on an FKT) and driving 70 miles down the interstate. Everything off trails feels rushed: our conversations, commitments, even our thoughts. I’ve found it very difficult to multitask or quickly jump from one tasks to the next after a long hike. Expect to feel more present and singleminded in your everyday life and frustrated by the pace of modern America, including the constant transitions and overwhelming onslaught of new information.

Current Events

I really disliked the news after my first long hike, and that was way before the current political climate. Headline events don’t matter much on a hike, and most backpackers feel healthier and happier without being bombarded with the government affairs, sports scores, celebrity gossip, and lifestyle opinions, collectively paired with international war and unrest. The 24-hour news cycle strips our empathy and feeds our fear. A detachment from current events isn’t in effort to remain ignorant. On the contrary, you recognize how much you can positively impact your immediate environment and community when you aren’t demoralized by global unrest. Expect your world to feel smaller and more significant after a thru-hike.

Empowerment

The trail makes you realize that you can do more than you once thought possible. It exposes you to people and opportunities, which can widen your worldview and impact your path off trail. Thru-hiking also serves to refine personal skills and uncover abilities that were undeveloped or unrealized before the trail. Empowerment is both a gift and a responsibility. Expect to be challenged with the weight of recognizing and realizing your potential.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Bridesmaids (among many) is when Kristin Wiig and Helen Hunt share a seething-yet-polite exchange about whether people truly change or simply stay the same and evolve. Their comedic, yet poignant, back-and-forth debate can also be applied to the trail.

I’m not sure if the transformation of thru-hiking is a complete reinvention or a metamorphosis, but more important than whether or not we are recreating ourselves or simply peeling off a layer is the fact that most of us change for the better.

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Comments 1

  • Avatar
    mike : Jun 19th

    Great commentary on change and transition/transformation!I was fortunate to distant hike in the 1980’s before immense popularity. The solitude, especially doing the PCT in 85 was intense. I looked to Transpersonal Psychology for some ways to re-entry after major Spiritual Emergence experiences. Perhaps the biggest change is how “reality” is filtered. Ego structures change and changes seem most felt when trail stressors are in place-like distance, duration weather etc. These are internal stressors. Now that more are hiking , there are ontrail social factors previously nonexistent. Most importantly, hiking is a physical example of mindfulness. I feel that distance hiking can change some of the cognitive structures that involve perceptivity-especially in self, self -other arrangements and visual spatial acuity. The visual vastness of panoramas and endless fractals creates imagery that the brain really likes and needs to make neural connections maybe not created in “everyday’life. Also, the sometime lack of ambiant light creates darkness that is needed fro restful sleep. There are alot of things that distance hiking does that are ineffable but we know they exist. i encourage folks w interests in Transpersonal Psychology, Health Psychology to explore more ways to validate psychological attributes that contribute to the changes manifest in the distance hiker so that more transformative experience s can be enjoyed that promote healing and wellness. 2 Spirits

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