What Surprised You About Your Thru Hike? A Shift in Perspective

Each week, I will explore a different answer to the question, “What surprised you about your hike?” Nearly every person who completes a long distance hike has done some kind of preparation, and most go into it having at least an idea of what to expect. Despite all our mental calisthenics however, every hiker is caught off guard by something. The trail is full of surprises, and this week I was reminded of a lesson I learned on the trail about perspective.

I celebrated my 45th birthday at the base of Mount Katahdin. I’m not shaking my fist at rowdy teens just yet, but I have been around long enough to accumulate a bunch of stuff. I’ve got a TV, a fridge full of food and a comfy couch. This morning I was thinking about buying a new steam wand for my espresso maker because the foam hasn’t been quite right lately. As I was having this thought, a picture from my hike came up on the TV’s screensaver: a pot of water atop glowing coals, steaming in the light of my headlamp.

There is nothing particularly artistic about this picture. It’s out of focus, poorly lit and tilted, but I kept it for a reason. I was thrilled just to have water, something to put it in and the ability to make fire. In fact, those three little things brought me more pleasure than the thought of tighter bubbles in my latte. That simple arrangement was completely portable while my fancier option restricts me to a circle with a radius equal to the longest extension cord I can find.

I drank my hot beverage by that tiny fire that night and thought about how far I’d come. I was grateful for this metal pot and a lighter. Meanwhile back in my kitchen, a thousand miles away, there sat a heavy metal box which cost more than my first car. Don’t get excited; I traded my brother a leather jacket for that ’79 Chevette with one hub cap. And he still has the jacket.

Boiling Water

Have a steaming cup of humility.


That moment in the dark with my hot cup gave me a dose of perspective so strong I wasn’t ready for it. I thought about important questions like, “What really matters?” and, “What do we really need to be happy?” Need versus want. I have a magical device in my house that lets me push a button, and in a few moments I have steaming espresso on my comfy couch and my reaction to this is, “How can I make it better?” Meanwhile, out on the trail every spoonful of instant Folgers is the best. When you minimize your requirements it’s a whole lot easier to surpass them and it feels terrific. This reminds me of the way someone described Buddhism to me once, maybe I should read up on that.

This wasn’t my only surprising dose of perspective. For instance, it’s amazing how long a hundred miles seems when you’re at the start. After a thousand, you don’t even bother with the last two digits anymore. Five dollars starts to seem like way too much to pay for a sandwich, and “I could go for a snack,” gets replaced by “I would fight a pregnant cougar for a single leaf of lettuce.”

One of my favorite things to do on the AT (if I could ever get a signal) was to fire up Google maps and slowly zoom out. Way out. The little blue dot representing me, stayed put while entire states rushed into view, surrounding me. As if I could leap to some great height, I could see the entire trail all at once. Sometimes at night while hiking by headlamp, I would imagine a satellite image of the whole thing, complete with tiny headlamps inching along in the dark. There are so many things on the trail that make you feel small. They sneak up on you and the feeling comes at odd times.

Near the end of last year’s hike, a good friend from Boston traveled up to New Hampshire to spend time with me on and off the trail. The night before he left we had dinner along with two of my closest trail friends. We ate and drank and Joe was curious about how the trail had affected each of us. How did it change the way we saw the “real world?”

“You still fly a lot for work?” I asked.

“Not as much as I used to, but yeah.” He sipped his beer and asked, “Why?”

“Well, remember when you first started flying how the world suddenly seemed so much smaller?”

“I do,” he said.

“When you cross those distances by foot,” I said, “you get exactly the opposite effect. The world is actually a whole lot bigger than you imagined.”


Trail magic - Photo by Mark Calcagni

Things we take for granted in the real world mean more out here.

I have a list of things that I and other hikers were surprised by during our hikes. I would love to read about some things that surprised you, too. Please share your thoughts in the comments or send me a message at any of the links below. I like to think I’m easy to get ahold of, and I really do enjoy knowing what you think. Happy trails!

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