Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I wish real life was like trail life

Hello out there! I am back from my John Muir Trail thru-hike, and I will be posting about it soon. I am still adjusting to not waking up in the wilderness, packing up and hiking for eight hours, up 2000 feet, down 2000 feet and back up again. Nineteen days in the wilderness changed me in many ways, not all of which I can articulate right now. This hike was one of the hardest but also one of the most wonderful things I have ever done. Though it is all on a trail, just the elevation changes alone make it very challenging. The unofficial statistics say that the total elevation change is about 84,000 feet, and with the mileage we were throwing down, we often stumbled into camp only to fall asleep at 9 pm (hiker midnight).

I still have a lot to think about, but I am really missing trail life. I can see why people hike long trails like the PCT. Life on the trail is simpler, easier, more pure somehow. Here are some examples:

  • People were their best selves. We leapfrogged the same people for weeks, passing them at creeks, campsites, on passes. They offered encouragement, advice, bandages, and even, once, a camp stove. Then they would fall behind, or cross a pass before we did, and disappear from our lives. We worried about them and missed them; we were a trail family.
  • It didn't matter what you did in the "real world." We didn't know what professions people had or even their last names. We made up trail names for them but mostly didn't share them (Tweaker, Chatty McChatterson, Eye Candy, The Gang of Four, Floppy Hat, Hot Smoker Guy, Black Dress). Our group trail name was the Blue Crew, bestowed on us by the Two Bears.
  • Water, snacks, shelter, getting over the passes before a thunderstorm: life was boiled down to simplicity. There was time to think and to breathe. This became the only world there was, and it was a world that made sense; climbing from the valleys into the sub-alpine zone, predicting weather from the early morning clouds, finding a flat spot for the tent.
  • No buildings. No roads. No cars. No sounds except for the rivers, the crunch of my feet on granite, my breath. Two hundred and thirty miles, all on foot.
We saw several people who were "fast packing", getting through the country as fast as they could. While I can appreciate the challenge, that isn't for me. I wanted to immerse myself into the place, dive deep into the canyons and forests and ridges. Why hurry? What is so important to get back to? Nineteen days was not nearly enough.


  1. I find myself leaning to your perspective when I do destination trips, why rush? I think that's the main reason I nixed the R2R2R Grand Canyon this fall.

    I'm glad you're back and had a great time! Can't wait to hear more!

  2. Congrats on a successful thru-hike! I can't wait to read more about it.

  3. I totally agree.

    Just a note on fastpacking, many of us could never take 19 consecutive days off. I suspect that's part of the motivation for many to fast pack (though not all).

  4. Through hikers make a strange society, don't they? You immediately have a bond when you meet each other, since you're together on such an amazing adventure. And when you say goodbye you're never sure if you'll be seeing each other again for weeks (months for the longer trails) or if you'll never see each other again.

    The Long Trail coincides with the Appalachian Trail for a hundred miles, and even though I felt kind of like a minor leaguer when I started, compared to the AT hikers who'd been on the trail for four months, to them I was just another through hiker.

  5. Danni, it seemed like the fastpackers were less motivated by time off work than by talking about how many miles they could accomplish in how short of a time. Not a one mentioned having to be back for work. In fact, one party seemed sort of upset that we hiked more than they did one day "we were wondering when we would catch you". Not to denigrate anyone--if I had carried less weight and was alone I would have done more miles just because I could have more easily. In most of my working life I could never have taken 19 days off either. I am fortunate to have a great and supportive employer now and I am also working on weekends to make up for it. :( It was worth it though! I think if any boss won't give you three weeks vacation, it is worth examining the job. (of course it is easy to say this in hindsight, because for years I slaved away in jobs where the boss would not let me go. I am lucky and I know it.)

  6. Well, it's sort of the nature of my profession. There's a limit on how long you can easily get away before clients get frustrated and there's a window on periods of time without court dates, depositions etc. I like what I do so it's just the way it is.

  7. Congratulations! Glad your hike was successful and I can't wait to read more about it.

    A few different people I know recently completed fast-packs on the JMT. I wonder if they were the hikers you saw out on the trail. I dream of completing a through hike and admit I am currently thinking in terms of fast-packing. For me, it's obviously not a work thing, and I'm not even approaching it from a competitive mindset. I simply love to push my limits. For me, it's an important piece of the overall experience. It's one thing to experience great beauty when I am within my personal comfort zone, and quite another when I am so close to the edge that the usual muddle of my mind fades and the beauty of the moment takes on startling clarity. However, if I were to plan a trip with friends, I would absolutely favor more reasonable daily hours. Social trips are a different experience than solo trips.

    Speaking of competitive hikers, isn't it funny to encounter these types on the trail? While I was crewing Beat in Hardrock, I went for an early-morning hike up Handies Peak, a 14er in the San Juans. Three different hikers who seemed to have no knowledge of the 100-mile race commented on the fact I was the "first" person on Handies that day (obviously, thanks to the race, I wasn't, but the racers did not descend the main trail, and I did.) Two of them seemed a bit irritated about it. Funny culture, that 14er culture.


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