December 5, 2017:
Why do we thru-hike? Every year thousands of normal people set off on the PCT or other long distance trails around the world, giving up jobs, family, friends, stability, comfort, adequate food, warmth, and convenience to spend months in the harsh conditions of extreme heat and cold and adverse weather conditions. They willingly sleep on the ground, carry extreme weights on their backs, eat crappy food, and literally hike all day up and down mountains. When you sit down and think about this, it kinda makes us seem like lunatics. Most of the world aims to be comfortable and rich and have an easier life and here are tons of people who are purposefully aiming at doing the opposite. So why the heck are we putting ourselves through these grueling conditions?
There are many reasons that people embark on a thru-hike. For most, it is a challenge. Can I really do this? Can I spend months out in the wild and survive, testing my physical abilities to the limits? For most, there is the draw of the wild. The idea of spending your whole summer outdoors, being able to unplug and get back in tune with nature. To see some of the most beautiful sites in the world. To gaze into mountain lakes and see wildlife. For a lot of people, there is the need to find oneself. There is just something missing in life and a journey alone in the woods might be the best place to figure out what it is or to reset and think about what you want to do with your life. These are all reasons that people embark on these long distance hikes, but after completing a five month journey in the wild, there is a very good reason that people actually finish thru-hikes and continue to hike and come back year after year to try a new trail. And that reason is emotion.
What is life about more than emotion? Whether it is joy, anger, sadness, or excitement, extreme emotion is what makes us feel alive. It is what sets us apart from the rest of the animals of the world. Yes, emotion can be hard and messy and confusing, but without emotion, life just isn’t as good. We live to feel alive. That’s why people ride roller coasters and do drugs and travel and try new things. Because it makes us feel alive. Because it evokes extreme emotions in us. And while hiking and sleeping on the ground and being cold might not seem very exciting, it somehow has the ability to make us feel very emotional.
Thru hiking is hard. It is very hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. It is physically hard. There were days where I literally didn’t think I could walk another 100 feet because my feet hurt so bad, yet I still had miles more to go that day and somehow I kept going. It is mentally hard. Spending so much time alone, without the distractions of every day life can bring up some very hard thoughts and realizations about life and it can be a struggle to deal with these. Being so cold and hungry you can’t sleep, so tired you can’t stay awake, so sore you can’t stand up.
But hardship is what makes us feel. When we physically or mentally exhaust ourselves and our brains don’t have the energy any longer to contemplate things or worry or stress, they do all they can do, and they feel. They feel raw, real emotion.
I can’t tell you how many times on the trail I would break out in the biggest smile and feel such a surge of happiness at the worst possible moments. When I was stuck in a snowstorm and couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me and couldn’t feel my hands or feet. When I was fearing for my life scaling an icy mountain that a fall from would have meant my death. When I was so tired from climbing up miles of mountains day after day, with barely enough food to keep me going. While these things beat me up so badly, made me feel so much pain and exhaustion, I felt the happiest I have ever felt doing them. Because the only way we can feel real, true happiness is by doing the really frickin hard things. By completely exhausting ourselves to the point that our brains can no longer think and can only feel gratitude and joy. Hardships are what make life worthwhile. No one gets joy over accomplishing something easy. We feel joy and bliss when we have overcome something so hard it actually hurts. And when you hurt every single day as you do in a thru-hike, you feel joy and happiness every single day too. That is why people thru-hike. And that is why we live and not just exist.