Nearly every time I meet another woman who is not out here hiking the trail, but is rather in a town, camping for the weekend or just driving by the trail, she usually says to me, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never do something like thru-hike a trail.” My normal response is, “Well, it’s not because I’m outdoorsy that I’m out here,” and the response is always a surprised look and a “Really?!?”.
Make no mistake, I am not outdoorsy. I like my creature comforts – my bed, a shower, food right from the fridge or pantry, and everything else that comes with being able to live in a clean, comfortable, temperature controlled environment such as a home. I do not hike because I like animals or trees, or even good views from the mountaintops. So far I’ve seen hundreds of birds and squirrels, about fifty deer, six snakes, three wild turkeys, and a bear, and that’s enough for me. If I never see another bear, I certainly won’t be disappointed. I pass up most views if I can’t see them right from the trail, and if they are right on the trail, I oftentimes say, “Huh, that’s a cool view,” and quickly keep on walking. Most days, the highlights of my days are eating, sleeping and taking off my hiking clothes and shoes, which you’ll notice, do not involve any actual hiking. The miles are rarely easy, both mentally and physically, and I think of quitting at least every other day.
This may sound like a depressing scenario, and I did in fact hit a low point a few days ago as I was walking in the drizzling rain, with about 15 miles to go for the day and no town in sight for four days. I was watching Optimist walk in front of me, as he was enjoying his lectures on his ipod, and I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” It is a question I ask myself every day, usually after I think about quitting.
So why do I do this? Why do I willingly choose to put myself in a situation with a high likelihood of physical, emotional and mental discomforts? Because it is one of the few lifestyles that lends itself to self-honesty, introspection, humility and gratitude for all things even a step above the most base level of existence. My “normal” life routine of work, running, cooking, sleeping and freedom on weekends does not lend itself to these aspects. It’s easy to go through months of normal life without ever hitting the pause button to really look at myself, to really question why I do things and what I really want to be doing. In contrast, I can’t go a day on the trail without some sort of introspection. The trail is so basic in its elements of eating, sleeping an walking, that it’s impossible not to look inwards and question why I do what I do, and what I really want to be doing with my time here in the world. This adventure will take a mere three months and I will have thought more about myself, my relationships with others, and my actions going forward than I did in the last three and a half years of my life while I focused on working and running.
While I could try and get the introspection I’m looking for if I took a week off work to go hiking for a section of the AT, it wouldn’t be the same as a thru-hike. I know during that whole week what’s piling up at the office, I know creature comforts aren’t far, and I don’t get near the satisfaction from hiking a couple hundred miles as I would in overcoming a challenge such as walking 2181 miles in one fell swoop. I have finished a thru-hike before, and I remember the wave of emotions that rolled through me at the finish of such a feat. I remembered all the times I wanted to quit, I thought of all the sweat on the hot days and the shivering on the cold, rainy days, the lows and highs, and I couldn’t hold back the tears in taking in all these memories. This just wouldn’t happen if I only went out for a weekend or even a week of hiking. The temporary pause button on normal life is not the same as cutting the cord and seeing what kind of person comes out on the other end of the trail.
Everyone hikes for a different reason. These are my reasons. While they don’t make the climbs any easier, the miles any shorter or the towns any closer as I’m out there in the woods putting in my day’s work, it is why I make the choice each and every day to keep walking, to not quit and to see what I find when I look inwards.