Yeah - I'm back to the head stuff again. And you ask - Why? Because with the exception of those few males who think with other parts of their anatomy, most of us are driven by what's in our heads - and our hearts. Presumably by logic and emotion.
The Trail isn't about equipment, it's a head game -- and a heart game. If you start the Trail with that realization, you'll increase your chances of finishing immeasurably. And barring serious physical injury, there are attitudes that will get you to the end of the trail - regardless of what equipment you're carrying.
Too many people get on the trail with their brand-new ultra-modern high-tech equipment and expect the equipment to carry them through the rough spots. But it doesn't work that way. Even if the equipment works faultlessly, it doesn't walk the miles in the rain and snow and heat -- YOU do that. And YOU get to carry the equipment while you're walking those miles. How much equipment do you want to carry?
It's what's inside you that gets you up the mountains and along the miles to the end of the trail. And if you stop, it's very often also because of what's inside you. If you've got the desire, the determination, the guts and persistence and sheer bloody stubbornness to keep walking when your friends drop out or when it's raining or snowing or hotter than the hinges of Hell or when you're hot, tired, sore, hungry, thirsty and smellier than a bear that's just rolled in a dead moose carcass -- then you just might make it.
Your "attitude" is infinitely more important than what pack or stove or water filter you're carrying. And the foundation for your "attitude" is laid long before you ever take the first step on your thruhike. It begins with the decisions that you make in the planning process about how and why you want to hike the Trail. It begins with the contract that you make with yourself about how you're gonna walk the Trail and what you want out of it. It begins with who and what you are - are you willing to learn, to change, to be flexible? Are you willing to accept the trail for what it is, rather than fighting it because it's not what you want it to be? It begins in your head and your heart. So let's take a random walk through this thing called "attitude" --
If you don't love walking - you'll hate thruhiking. That doesn't mean you can't or won't or shouldn't do it - or that you won't complete your thruhike. I know several people who have thruhiked (some of them multiple times) even though they don't like walking.
But it does raise the question - Why do it? Why not spend your time, energy and money on something you like rather than on the trail? But then - I don't need the answer to that, do I? As Ginny wrote at one time:
I knew one woman on the trail who had many problems along the way and finally, happily, went home after 300 miles. What she said really shocked me - she told me, "Well, I never really liked to walk." So what was she doing there? No wonder she was miserable. If you don't love to walk - day after day after day - you will not be able to stand the trail. It isn't physical, it is mental. Likewise, if you don't like camping, or getting dirty, or are afraid of strange noises in the night, or strange companions sleeping next to you, you probably won't finish the trail. A lot of people like day hiking but hate backpacking. My point is, find this out before you totally disrupt your life. Life is too short.
For most of us thruhiking the AT (or the PCT or CDT) is not recreation, it's not a vacation, it's not "just a hike" - it's the fulfillment of a dream, an education, a job, a pilgrimage, a challenging task and/or a journey of discovery.
It's a job because, if you finish, it'll require more time, effort, sweat and commitment from you than any boss you'll ever have. Yeah, that's right - I said "commitment". There's a difference between just doing something as long as it's fun, and doing it to the finish because you're committed to it. And for most people finishing a long trail will require commitment - to the trail, to the task and to yourself.
Thruhiking is not "just a hike" - too many people change in too many positive ways for it to be "just a hike". If a thruhike were "just a hike", how would you explain the numbers of people who come back again - and again - and again?
Is it important to finish? Not for some people - but it is for most of us. We know people who sincerely believe that the journey is separate from and more important than the destination. And I wouldn't argue with them. But for some of us the destination is also important. I'll quote Ginny again:
Finishing the AT was extremely important to me for a lot of reasons. When I started the trail the first time, I didn't know if I could finish. I thought I was too slow, too unathletic, whatever. When I finally realized that yes, I really could do it, there was a sense of total liberation. I could fly. I saw that any limitations I had in my life were self-imposed. There was a realization that anything I truly wanted could be mine, if I was only willing to pay the price. Finishing the AT gave me wings.
Thruhiking is an education because you'll learn about yourself, about nature and people and the world you live in - and possibly even about God. I can't tell others what they'd learn - much less what they "should" learn. But I can tell you some of the things that I learned. And by now, of course, you know I WILL tell you.
I'll also tell you that Warren Doyle was my "rabbi" for the AT - he taught me about attitude and it's importance on the Trail. And much of what he taught me - I just didn't believe until I got out there and experienced the Trail - and found out how true his teachings were. Some - possibly much - of what follows came from him. And I can no longer deteremine which of these lessons came from him - and which came from other sources. But I CAN give him credit for starting me on the road to learning them. And I'll tell you that you should find your own "rabbi" to teach you what YOU need to know.
So - what did I learn?
- I learned that the Trail IS. It is what it is and it won't change for me (or for you), so I had to change, to adapt my mind and body and life to the Trail.
- I learned to not fight the Trail, but to flow with it.
- I learned that the Trail has no respect or sensitivity for my man-made comfort level or my desire to control my world; that the Trail knows neither prejudice nor discrimination; that it's inherently hard; that it's a "trial".
- I learned that my "level of comfort" is a cultural artifact - and neither necessary nor useful on the Trail.
- I learned to reduce my material possessions while concentrating on my physical and spiritual needs. I learned that the avoidance of discomfort generally increases discomfort.
- I learned to not waste my time and energy complaining about things I can't control.
- And I learned that pride, shame and prejudice are too heavy to carry.
- I learned (again) to laugh, to cry, to be foolish, to feel fear, to be optimistic, to adapt, to look inside myself as the source of happiness or depression, contentment or discomfort --- to be free.
- I learned to live without the "masks" that "civilized" people use so effectively as both weapons and defense mechanisms.
- I learned to be more flexible. Some people start a long trail with a "SCHEDULE" and insist on rigidly following it. A few of them actually stay on schedule, but most find "schedules" too rigid for trail life. Some of them can't handle that and go home. Others learn to be flexible, to flow with the trail, the weather, their hiking companions (if any), their feelings and physical condition and with the thousand-and-three unexpected surprises, irritations, and anomalies that conspire to introduce chaos into their well-organized plans. If you're thruhiking, you're out there to hike the trail, not to prove how good a planner you are, so suck it up and hike. Be flexible - or learn how to be. That sounds so simple - but it's hard to remember when you're out there and nothing in your life is going the way you want it to.
- I learned that you write the rules for your hike - and you can change them. And that what others say or do is their hike, not mine. I don't have to be happy with their hike - but I do have to be happy with mine. Otherwise I've wasted a piece of my life - and life is too short to be doing that.
- I learned more about what's really important in life. All of us think we know what's important in life. But many of those who thruhike find that not ALL of those things are REALLY important - we just thought they were. Most of us learn that not all of life's little irritations are worth getting irritated about.
- I should have learned to keep my planning as simple as possible. The essence of a thruhiker lifestyle is simplicity. It's amazing how many people unnecessarily complicate the planning process. And if your planning is complicated, then it'll complicate your trail life as well. I may have to re-learn that lesson.
- I learned that Life is good. It's certainly better than the alternative.
- But more than that, I learned (again) just how fragile life is - and how short, and I realized that every day of life is a victory and a cause for celebration. And I found myself seeing and appreciating the many sources of beauty and love and goodness that one encounters every day, both on and off the trail. The trail taught me to see and appreciate those little things that had gone unnoticed in my life before. Life is truly good - even on the bad days.
- I learned that people are much kinder and gentler than either other people or the newspapers/media tell you. Those who were out there to dispense Trail Magic (the real, unexpected, unlooked-for and undeserved Trail Magic) restored my faith in the inherent goodness of people.
- I learned that no matter who or what you are, you're much more than you think you are.
- I learned that "Happiness is" -- whatever I want it to be. It can be sunlight streaming through the trees or the view from the top of the mountain or a hot shower or a flower along the way or the softness of the rain on my face or a pint of ice cream or holding my wife or -- any of ten thousand other things.
- I learned that God knows what He's doing with my life - although sometimes I wish He'd tell me. I learned that I don't have as many answers as I thought when I started the Trail, and that I don't have as much control over my life as I believed.
- I learned to live "NOW. The past is untouchable and unchangeable and the future is unknowable, so the only time I have is right now. There's no guarantee that I'll have another day or week - or even another minute. So living in either the future or the past is a waste of the time that I do have.
- I learned that everything changes; that all things pass; that no matter how bad things are, they will get better - that the weather will change tomorrow; in 2 days, I can get a shower - and maybe even ice cream; my blisters will heal in a week or two; the stove can be replaced in the next town.
- I learned that the trail won't solve your problems or determine your future - but it may give you the time and perspective to find your own solutions.
I can't tell you what you'll learn or how (or even if) you'll change, but I can tell you that very few thruhikers don't learn - and with learning comes change.
I can tell you that for the most part the changes are long term (permanent) and that they're not necessarily instantaneous. Some changes occur on the trail - some don't become obvious until you've returned home and you find yourself reacting in different ways than you would have before you hiked. And some will take months or even years to show up. As Ginny once wrote:
In rereading my journals recently, I saw that the changes in me were very gradual. Many didn't really begin manifesting themselves until Maine. Many didn't come out until years after I finished. I needed all the time -- and more - that I took to learn some of my trail lessons. Three months would not have done it for me.
But then sometimes we find ourselves reverting to old habits and thought patterns, and we compare what we're becoming to who we were on the trail, and decide it's time to go back for another long hike. The level of happiness we find on the trail is hard to find in the "real world".
There are also people who hike the entire trail, and when you talk to them, it sounds like they're totally miserable. They do nothing but complain about everything - and yet they keep on hiking. Why? Sometimes because despite the rain and the pain and the boredom and whatever, they realize that they're happier than they've ever been anyplace or anytime in their lives before. The lucky ones bring humor and joy into everything they do - and on the trail they find an unending source of good people, beautiful sights and happy moments.
The other side of the coin is that not all thruhikers learn the lessons. A few of them remain rigid and inflexible - locked into the thought patterns and prejudices and biases that they started with. For a very few people, thruhiking is nothing but fresh air and exercise. As one former thruhiker told me:
Don't gimme that over-romanticized krapola about how Thruhiking is such an intense activity on so many levels. Hiking the AT or the PCT ain't that hard. It's walking. One direction. On an established, well-maintained path. Complete with guidebooks. And other hikers to boot. It is not a 2000 plus mile hike, but a series of shorter hikes. Yeah, other factors come into play (e.g., big-ass appetite), but that's really what it basically is all about.
That's one way to look at the trail - and while it may be true for him, I seriously doubt it. If it is, I'm glad I don't live in his head with that purely mechanical view of what I've done with my life.
The dilemma is that he went back for a second thruhike - and you don't do that just for exercise and fresh air. That makes it a lot harder for me to believe him. If I learned what I learned, how can I believe that he learned nothing but the mechanics of walking? I don't think so.
Or is it that I don't want to believe it?
Some people start out knowing all the things that I learned (or relearned) on the trail. I knew some of them too, but sometimes we have to be reminded of what we know. So we learn it again - and again - and ...