I like to divide my 3 weeks of vacation per year into three parts: One week spent visiting family, One week spent on others (friends, missions, weddings…etc.), and One week for myself in the form of a challenging solo adventure like hiking the JMT or an unrecognized 120 mile loop in the Grand Canyon or maybe even a destination mountain running race.
Why does it have to be a hard-core adventure? It doesn't but I want to really remember it. While sitting in the office, I never drift back to the time I slept on the beach for 6 hours and soaked in the sun’s rays. However, I probably drift back to life on the “trail” nearly every day. Something about the challenge and accomplishment beckons me back to that place. I can say the same thing about running a marathon or ultra-marathon.
The setting of a goal, working really hard to achieve that goal, and actually achieving it is one of the most satisfying things to experience in life. Set out a loop or trail to walk or a marathon to run, and take the steps to achieve it. It is one of the most remarkable things in life.
Hiking for long periods of time alone and in beautiful places is like hitting the reset button on life. Even if you don't have a mega goal like completing the John Muir Trail, it is still valuable to get out alone in the wilderness, break the cycle of life, and reflect. I always seem to want to be a better person on the trail. After 3 or more days walking alone, my mind drifts to an abstract me in the real world where I am accomplishing great and impossible things: starting an orphanage in Vietnam, writing a letter to an old friend, changing career path, mustering the courage to tell that girl I love her, stopping one of my bad habits, reading more, writing more, learning guitar, volunteering in the community, not slamming down 8 cookies for no reason while sitting at the computer at work…Any number of things that I am just thinking about while being attacked from all directions in life.
You won’t remember the pain or uncomfortable situations of the hike. I know for a fact I have been through hell to finish some of these adventures. Blistered feet, tired legs, never able feel satisfied from the bland food, backaches from sleeping on granite boulders, dehydration, always being cold at night, lingering sinus infections the entire trip, unstoppable nose bleeds. The list goes on and on. I even walked 38 miles my final day on the John Muir Trail…with a stress fracture in my femur. I don't really remember the discomfort but the exhilaration of finishing at Whitney Portal and the sight of my car still intact waiting for me will never leave my brain.
I said you won't remember much of the pain when you finish the race, but it will have a constant presence during the challenge. That ongoing feeling of vulnerability that maybe I will starve or freeze or might not find any water for 30 miles or get stuck in a snowstorm or that ever present thought that maybe "I will slip and break my leg and no one will ever find me" feeling reminds me that I am human. I have been conditioned to feel comfortable, numb almost, during my day to day life. If you are cold, turn on the heater. If you are hungry, go to the store. If you are sad, drink alcohol or eat a bunch of donuts to feel something. If you are afraid to commit to something or someone just avoid it. It is so easy to forget what it feels like to be vulnerable and that makes or a numb existence. Getting out on the trail puts you in the moment and allows you to experience those often closed off feelings.
I understand there are many things to experience in life. Far too many to do in a lifetime. But I believe hiking a long trail alone has to be one of the most incredible.
Photo: Me standing atop Mount Whitney (1450ft) in a snowstorm on the final day of the JMT.