The Thruhiking Papers

Attitude and Happiness

Attitude is what really makes a thruhike work. Attitude is what allows - or perhaps drives us to finish the Trail when so many others drop out. It's what determines whether we enjoy the trip - or are miserable for 6 months. And it's what allows us to keep on challenging ourselves, both on and off the Trail. Attitude is the bottom line in nearly every conversation that my wife and I have had about hiking for the last 16 years - and we talk about it every day. I think it just might be important.

To a large degree, "attitude" is the only difference between a thruhiker and other hikers. It doesn't make us better - just different - and maybe a little crazier.

Each one of us - each person - has developed, or is developing, a set of attitudes about life, hiking, weather, ourselves, our fellow hikers, the Trail -- about everything we see or hear or touch or live with. Defining attitudes isn't easy because they're based on individual experience, knowledge, outlook on life, willingness to learn, flexibility and a lot of other factors. Changing them is even harder - but it's not impossible.

This isn't a one-lesson course in "proper" attitude, because there's no such thing as "proper" attitude. Your attitudes are yours and you have to live with them - and with the consequences, so I'm won't tell you what your attitude "should" be about anything, including thruhiking.

But there are some "attitudes" that you might want to think about, because they can affect your thruhike - either positively or negatively. Let's take a look at some of them and you can decide for yourself what they'll do for you - or to you:

Happiness Is !!

At one time I made the mistake of reading my Trail journal - and I realized that I could see the changes in my attitude at different times on the Trail. And that maybe others could see it too. So I'll give you 'pieces' of two days of my journal entries and then I'll tell you how it really was for me.

On Big Bald, North Carolina, April 1992
Big Bald, North Carolina, April 1992

Tuesday, 28 April 92 - stayed at the NOC hostel last night - very little sleep - too many grunts, groans, snores, farts, etc. Bed springs were too soft so I threw the mattress on the floor. Left at 0730 in fog and rain. Hail started at the 2000' level, then turned to snow at 2500' and never stopped. The bald (Beauty Spot) was beautiful - cold (20's), snowy (4" - 6") & windy (20-30 knots) - but still wet, so my feet were wet. Camped at the spring at Deep Gap at 1330. Took 45 minutes to set up the tent - my fingers were frozen. Socks were frozen when I took them off. Toes not quite frostbitten, but close. My right knee hurts from the downhill yesterday, left elbow, knee and ribs hurt from the 3 falls today, both ankles hurt because of the rocks and ice (the trail's been rough and slippery), somehow jammed a finger on my right hand, my toes hurt (from being frozen), I'm sore all over, I've been rained, snowed, hailed and sleeted on for the last 4 days, my boots, tent, socks, gloves, clothes, pack, food, maps and matches are wet and I'm 3 days from a shower, a laundromat and a hot meal that doesn't consist of noodles or mac & cheese or spaghetti. And my attitude is one notch above whale dung.

Friday, 1 May 92 - I'm feeling good right now. I'm at the motel in Roan Mt, had a shower and dinner (and ice cream), made a laundry run and got the mail. And all this after a six-pack of beer while we were waiting for Jersey John. I've finally managed to dry out my clothes, socks, boots, tent, gloves and matches - again. And I've got enough pain killer in me that I don't feel the sore muscles from hauling the pack up and down 5000-6000 ft mountains for over a month.

OK - there was more to it than that, but that's all you get. This wasn't my "low point" on the Trail - everything here is "normal" thruhiker complaints - rain, snow, aches and pains, hunger, cold, heat, wet socks, heavy pack, etc. The point is that there was a BIG difference in my attitude on those two days. And the only difference in my situation was that on May 1st I was warm, dry, fed and didn't hurt (much) or stink (at least not noticeably). The point is that my happiness centered around "little" things - a meal, a laundromat, a shower. I didn't need a BMW or expensive clothes or a big house or TV or (pick your own poison). My "comfort level" had decreased to this point in about a month on the Trail.

By the time I got to Kent, CT my "comfort level" had decreased even further. Happiness became a supermarket, a laundromat and a pint of ice cream - no shower, no soft bed, no meal, no mail.

Many days, happiness became something even smaller - like the view of Katahdin from Rainbow Lake, or watching the stars march across the sky the night we camped on Pleasant Pond Mt, or taking the boots off after a 15 or 20 mile day, or the smell of dinner cooking, or miles of mountain laurel, rhododendron and azalea blossoms in Virginia, or a moose feeding in South Pond in Maine. It was even, at least in retrospect, the sight of the bear at Ethan Pond Campsite eating our food. It was the people - thru-hikers, Trail angels, weekenders and maintainers - that I encountered. It took me a long time to realize that happiness on April 28 was the softness of the rain as I left Nolichucky; it was standing under the overhang at a Forest Service signboard and watching the forest floor turn from brown to white as the hail carpeted the ground; it was the dark, pregnant clouds that raced across Beauty Spot dumping snow as I came out of the trees; it was the gradual warming of my toes after I camped at the spring at Deep Gap; and it was the sunlight on the snow and the red spruce the next morning as we crossed Unaka Mt.

How do I know those things are happiness? Because they're the things I remember today. I don't really remember the pain - those memories tend to fade with time. The rain is only a counterpoint to the sunlight - and it carries its own kind of beauty. The hunger has been satisfied many times over - too many. But the things that remain, the things I flashback to every day, the things that draw me back to the Trail - and to other trails - are those things that provided the small moments of happiness or beauty or love every day. And those moments are sweeter and clearer because of the pain and the rain that surrounded them.

In '92 we often used the expression "Life is good". It's an expression of the happiness, the contentment that comes from the many small sources of beauty and pleasure that one encounters, not only on the Trail, but in everyday life. For those who thruhike this year, I hope life is as good for you as it was for us.

Some of you don't yet realize that I wished the rain on you, do you ? Just remember - life IS good - even on the bad days.

After 4 days of rain/hail/snow what will your attitude be? Will you be brave, clean, cheerful, optimistic, etc? Probably not - I wasn't, why should you be? But I realized that it was OK for me to be miserable, lonely, cold, tired, wet, hungry and sore. None of those would kill me. All of them are finite - they don't last forever. And they make the happiness more poignant, more complete and more memorable when it does occur.

I've said the same thing a couple different ways here. What is it? Simple - look for the good in every day, every situation. And you'll find it. There's no day of my AT thruhike that I remember as being "bad". There was something good or beautiful or happy about every day out there.

It's a lifestyle

Those who are happiest on the Trail are those who accept it as a lifestyle for whatever time they intend to spend out there. For me, it was whatever time it took me to get from Springer to Katahdin, whether that took the 6 months that I planned or another year. It meant that I accepted the rain and the snow and the bugs and the heat and the cold. That doesn't mean that I didn't do what I could to mitigate them - but it means that I accepted them as part of my life and my hike and didn't bother whining and complaining about them. It means that I learned to flow with the Trail rather than fight it. It took me 600 miles to learn that - but I did learn.

Some people think they're out there to conquer the Trail. And most of those people either change -- or go home. A few of them even make it to Katahdin - but they've still failed if they haven't learned, or changed, or grown --- or adapted. For those people, the Trail was just fresh air and exercise - and they could have gotten that a lot cheaper and easier without ever leaving home. Those people are rare - but they do exist. I know of several people, both singles and couples, who went all the way - but never learned anything about tolerance or love or flexibility or happiness. Their hearts and their minds were closed - and they failed to learn what the Trail could have taught them.

Don't sweat the small things

Some things matter, some don't. The critical question is - which ones do? And when you're on the Trail, you'll likely find that a lot of the things you thought so important at home really don't matter that much. Errors in the maps or guidebooks may be irritating - but there's no reason for them to stop you from finishing - so they can't be that important.

Weather is gonna happen whether you hike or not - or should I say that you're gonna hike whether weather happens or not. So it can't be that important.

The food is boring - no matter what kind of food you use - after 4 or 5 months it's still boring. But as long as it gives you what you need to hike the Trail, it's not that important.

The Trail is gonna go places and do things that you won't like. So what? If you're out there to hike the Trail, then quit complaining - suck it up and hike the Trail.

One of the keys to a thruhike is flexibility - before I started, I planned my hike down to the last detail. But there's a military adage that says "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy". I knew that no matter how much planning I did, my plan was likely to fall apart once I was out there - and it did. And it'll happen to you too. Don't let it upset you - you're out there to hike the Trail, not to prove how good a planner you are.

The Trail is. It's hard. It's a trial. And it won't change for you, it won't get easier for you, it won't be anything but what it is. If you're gonna be happy on the Trail then you'll have to change. You'll have to accept the Trail for what it is. You'll have to flow with it rather than fighting it. You'll have to earn whatever you get from it. You'll have to embrace the Trail, not try to conquer it. I had to learn this the hard way - let's hope that you're smarter than I was.

I don't need your advice

This is also known as "I'd rather make my own mistakes". If you're reading this, you probably don't have that attitude and I'd be preaching to the choir - so I'll say only this: I've always thought that learning through personal experience may sometimes be necessary - but it's a lot smarter to bypass the personal part and learn from someone else's experience.

It's just a hike - or - It's only a walk in the woods

For a very few people - it's true, the Trail is nothing more than fresh air and physical exercise or a different way to spend a summer vacation - kinda like Club Med with blisters. Maybe you're one of those people. But a lot of people go through major mental, physical and emotional changes on the Trail. And a lot of us, as the lady said "can't go home again." No, not everybody goes through that - and the timing and magnitude of the change is different for each of those who do. But if it was "only a walk in the woods", it wouldn't have that kind of effect on people.

And - if it's "just a hike", why would you want to do it? Why not spend that time and energy and money on something that you'd consider more worthwhile?

It doesn't matter if I finish

I've run into this several times, but it's meaningless to me. I don't understand partial commitment - not in my personal or professional life, and not on the Trail. My commitment was to climb Katahdin the long way - from Georgia. So that's what I did - and that's what I try to help others to do. But there are people who are only looking for a few months of fun and adventure. That's a perfectly valid way to spend a summer, but it's not a "thruhike". And it generally leads to a very loose attitude about hiking the "difficult" parts of the Trail. That's too bad, because the "difficult" parts are usually the best parts as well.

It's no sin to not finish the Trail - a lot of people don't. But if your intention is to thruhike, not finishing will have an effect on your life. I don't know what it would be for you. For me, there were a couple times on the Trail when what kept me going was that if I went home I'd have to bite my tongue when my sister-in-law got on me about not finishing. Like a lot of thruhikers, I have the kind of pride that won't let me quit because I won't give "them" the satisfaction of "poking" me about it for the rest of my life. I'm not saying that kind of pride is good - just that it's one of the things that keeps some of us on the Trail.

Even worse would have been facing myself in the mirror every morning for the rest of my life and wondering what I'd missed by not finishing. Then there's that question again - if it doesn't matter - why do you want to do it? Why not do something that DOES matter to you?

It only weighs a couple ounces

I know about this one - because I did it too. But I also had a "pack explosion" at the motel the day I started the Trail - and I dumped about 5 pounds of excess weight. All of it was things that I never needed and never missed while I was on the Trail. And all of it was in the pack in the first place because "it only weighs a couple ounces." And because, like most beginning thruhikers (and backpackers in general), I was trying to recreate my "home environment".

I hadn't yet reduced my "comfort level" to something that was suitable for thruhiking. But I learned - and so will you. We all learn - some sooner, some later, some too late.

The problem with "only a couple ounces" is that it tends to have an exponential effect on total pack weight. The candle only weighs a couple ounces, the tent is only 6 ounces heavier than that "other" tent, the 0 degree sleeping bag is only 10 ounces heavier than the 20 degree bag, the really comfortable pack is only 22 ounces heavier than the "other" one, the Crazy Creek chair only weighs a pound, the Thermarest only weighs 15 ounces more than the Ridgerest -- and on and on and on. No single item will overload your pack - but the sum of all those extra ounces just might. How much weight do you really want to carry? The bottom line here is that the extra weight for every one of those items is directly related to "comfort". How much are you willing to pay - in sweat and effort and pain - for your "comfort"? That's a personal choice - yours. To paraphrase what Brick Robbins said:

The more I carry, the more I'll enjoy my camping.
The less I carry, the more I'll enjoy my hiking.

I have to do the big miles

One of the things that a lot of thruhikers seem to acquire in the South is an attitude that they have to do big mile days in order to finish the Trail. So they get into a "push for miles" mode and start trying to do 15 mile days in Georgia and North Carolina. And it's not necessary.

Some simple math will tell you that 2,174 miles divided by 180 days means you only have to average about 12 miles per day to finish in 6 months. So why the push to do 20 mile days when it's not necessary? If you're out there for 6 months - do you really want to go home and get a job again after 4 months? Don't let the push for miles get in the way of your enjoyment - you're out there to do the Trail, not to prove how macho you are.

Not only is it not necessary, but it can be dangerous to your health and your hike. A significant percentage of the physical injuries on the Trail can be traced back to those early high mileage days because those people weren't ready for that kind of physical challenge yet.

It will also affect your enjoyment of the hike. It's hard to be aware of the beauty of your surroundings, to be alive and happy, when you're exhausted. Death marches aren't a lot of fun.

On the other hand - when you're ready, it can be fun to challenge yourself, to stretch your limits - just to see if you can do it. I started with 8 to 12 mile days in Georgia, was doing 15 to 19 in Virginia and averaged 20 Miles per day from Harpers Ferry to Kent, CT. But my first 20+ mile day wasn't until Virginia - because I wasn't ready until then. You'll have to make your own decision about when you'll be ready.

I can't wait for the end

This is also known as - "I can't wait to see my (family, kids, grandchildren, girlfriend, dog, cat -- whatever)". And I think it's become more prevalent recently. I lost a partner to this attitude - and I've seen a lot of other people get off the Trail because they couldn't stand to be away from their grandchildren or their wife or even their dog for another 3 or 4 months. I've also seen some of them come back - the next week or the next year. Some of them finish the second time - and some of them go through the same agony all over again - and go home again.

While the attitude isn't conducive to finishing a thruhike, at least some of them learn that they care more about their family - or girlfriend - or dog than they do about a thruhike.

Some of the people with this attitude even make it to Katahdin - some by blue-blazing or even yellow-blazing, some by just sticking it out, and some by changing their attitude along the way. One of the things that can help is to take one day at a time and decide every day whether you can stand just one more day on the Trail before you go home. It's nothing more than setting small goals for each day - and then meeting them. But it helps to alleviate the feeling that Katahdin is so far away that you'll never get there. And it gets you a little closer to enjoying the Trail and each day for the gift it is. It gets you a little closer to the "present moment" living that makes the Trail such a joy for some of us.

For those who keep on hiking - if you're divided between where you are and where you'd rather be, then you'll lose something precious - being fully alive and aware in the NOW. Present moment living is one of the gifts of the Trail - if you're open to it.

But it hurts!!

For a lot of us, pain is a pervasive element of the entire Trail experience - but it's tolerable pain. Blisters, chafing, even tendonitis are painful and annoying - but temporary. One of the things we joked about on the Trail was how much thruhikers love pain.

If you can't stand pain, then you might not like the Trail very much. Are there those who don't have that kind of pain? Absolutely. But for the average thruhiker, pain of one sort or another is unavoidable. Why would you expect to hike 10 to 20 miles per day, nearly every day for 6 months and not encounter pain?

For me, at least, physical pain is relatively easy to tolerate. Emotional pain is another bucket of worms. My low point came after my first partner left the Trail - and the physical conditions at that time weren't nearly as bad as they later became. But a friend talked me into staying one more day - and that one day made the difference between going home and finishing.

I had foot pain almost every night after I started doing 'big' miles (15+). I think it's endemic. I don't even remember where the numb toes showed up, but it took a year after the Trail for that to fade.

Blisters, tendonitis, bad knees, stomach upsets, etc. are almost universal - but they don't have to stop you. But you also need to pay attention to your body - if you need painkillers in order to hike, then you need to slow down or take a couple days off - or find a doctor and find out what's wrong.

My "attitude" was that the pain didn't matter because I was doing what I set out to do. For me, the pain was simply part of the price.

Attitude and Happiness Revisited

Are you beginning to see a little bit of what I mean by the word "attitude"? There are attitudes that will enhance your hike tremendously. And there are others that can make you miserable. Which ones would you choose to live with?

I won't tell you that the Trail was 6 months of continuous "fun" - but I was consistently happier than I'd been in a long time. And I still am. I hope it's that way for you, too. But that's your choice, because only you control your attitude, and therefore, your happiness.

Created: June 1997
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 1997-2017 Spirit Eagle