When I was dreaming about thru-hiking, I used to read through as many hiking blogs as possible, keeping track of where hikers were, what challenges they were facing, what successes they were celebrating, and what advice they would pass on to me, the future trekker. During this time, I used to look with scorn upon those who quit the trail. Sure, there were people who broke bones or suffered hypothermia (problems I, in my wisdom and foresight, would avoid), and those people had every reason to abandon their forward progress. Others might be drawn away by family issues or other life tribulations. But those who simply felt homesick, or just didn’t have the heart for it, were weak: quitters who didn’t have the courage or conviction to continue. Never, I vowed, would I be one of these if I ever got the chance to do the hike.
And then I did get the chance, and now I have become one of the quitters.
I write this for those who are reading blogs and dreaming of their own thru-hike, who have their own fears of not completing the long journey or have determined that they shall never fail as others have.
(This is a long one. Strap in.)
This is a strange position in which to be. You spend so long planning and plotting, and devote so much time and heart to preparation, that it’s almost unimaginable that you would not succeed. So many people are pulling for you and following your progress (those you know and those you do not) that the pressure moves you forward. You work so hard to secure the time and opportunity to undertake such an epic journey that you simply must make it.
And then the real thing happens. You take your first steps on the trail, into the sunlight and sage. And everything turns out differently than you had imagined. The romantic fantasies of an epic journey marked by wonder and adventure (even with an intellectual assent that these would come with difficulty and hardship)—fantasies which you labored to make realistic and sensible—end up being further from reality than that for which you had prepared.
While I was out on the trail, I was not finding the joy that I was looking for. Perhaps I made my decision to stop too soon—many hikers suggest it can take weeks to adjust to trail life. Maybe had I continued, I would have discovered bliss. While I was hiking, though, I was feeling frustration and misery. The beauty around me was always shrouded in my own discomfort and a constant low-grade sorrow that the beauty I was seeing all around me was tainted by the constant need for progress and miles, miles, miles.
As you read the advice of hikers, you will find much that is contradictory. This is just the nature of advice: different people have different experiences and we pass on what seems right to us. Hikers are bombarded with the advice to relax, slow down, enjoy the journey. The phrase, “Canada will still be there,” is thrown around with some regularity. Yet you will also be inundated with the constant warning to hurry. The weather window is narrow. If you’re not in Manning Park by mid-September (which used to be mid-October, and then early October), you will get snowed out and you will fail.
As I walked, my consistent thoughts were about the next mile marker: how far I was going to make it that day, how much further that still meant I had to go, how I needed to increase my pace, and how I could not allow a pause or I would fall yet further behind. This is probably at least party due to my own obsessive, anal-retentive nature; starting behind the pack didn’t help, either. (A younger, fitter, less neurotic man would have most likely done far better.)
I think that to be a successful thru-hiker, the miles must be your overriding goal. All else has to fall before that (at least for hikers like me). My purposes were about writing, reflection, contemplation, worship, and the journey was a means to that end. But I think the journey for the thru-hike has to be the end itself. There are hikers who do 20 miles, then write brilliant reflections of their experiences at the end of the day, probably pausing to have brilliant insights into the nature of reality and solve quantum physics equations along the way. I did not prove up to this task, and the strain was killing my heart.
I was told not to quit on a bad day, but I was lacking other kinds of days. When I wept upon the mountainside the evening before I left the trail, I thought that a night of rest would make the morning light seem sweeter and the next day more hopeful. But all I could think as I emerged from my tent on that last day was that I was no more hopeful than I had been the night before. I recognized that the title of “thru-hiker” wasn’t something I’d miss as much as I was missing my family and the friends I’d left behind. I wanted everyone to be proud of and inspired by me, but I longed for their presence much more than I would have imagined. My greatest regret was not that I should not finish, but that I would be letting so many people down.
Sometimes I believe we don’t know what we want until we try something out for taste. In my head, though I strove to be prepared and thoughtful and realistic, I was building the thru-hike into a fantasy that reality did not support. It reminds me of the truism that a famous author stated: he didn’t meet many people who really wanted to be writers, but met a lot who wanted to have written. The same seems true of thru-hiking (perhaps at least partially explaining the 30% completion rate): I love the idea of having completed the thru-hike, but I didn’t love the thru-hiking itself enough to carry on day in and day out. I don’t know if I could have discovered that without trying it out.
I am not without regrets, but I do not regret being present for my family or the other activities I’ve had the chance to enjoy. The next post will include more of the positives about coming in off the trail, but for those either worried about their own ability to complete the trek or considering walking away, know that it is truly not the end to step off the path. It’s simply the beginning of something else, and possibly something that will bring you as much joy as those who make it to Canada have found in their journey. A few images of Port Townsend, a lovely place I might have missed had I not changed my plans.