The Why: My First Attempt at Explaining Why We Hike

The other day one of my friends called me “emotionally buoyant” on the phone.  She is right, I am generally happy, despite sometimes trying, boring, repetitive circumstances (aided, of course, by a relatively easy middle class white girl existence).  I am able to keep a positive attitude, always with a goal in sight.  Sure, I have my two-hour break down every time I start-up a winter season at a restaurant, pondering the direction my life is taking and why I am working yet ANOTHER server position.  But then I remember the PCT and I refocus, floating above what might suck someone else down and remaining energetically frenetic and excited.  Even though I appear consistently happy thru hiking must make me the happiest I can possibly be, right?  That must be “why” I do it.  That is the reason most people consistently site for their long walks: to find true happiness.  But as someone who is determinedly “happy” pretty much all of the time I can tell you that’s not what I am looking for, and despite what you think, that’s not what you find.

The “why” of thru hiking is not something I can put down in a single post and it isn’t something I have pinned down.  Currently hiking the PCT is a goal for me both on the big giant level of, “We decided to do this two years ago and now we are fulfilling that promise to ourselves,” and on many smaller levels that make themselves felt every day.  For example, I feel the need to hike the PCT when taking a shower feels just so-so or I eat too many sweets or I feel scared to sleep outside.  In those moments I feel coddled, fragile, full of fluff, and weak.  I need to be pushed, I need the PCT.

Let’s start with the bigger more over arching reason, the promise we made to ourselves two years ago.  When we finished hiking the AT, on the way down from Mt Katahdin, we said to each other, “So, when are we gonna hike the PCT?”  Really it wasn’t even a question.  In that moment, and I think for much of the hike, we knew that was going to be next.  How could we not, we were having the time of our lives (not all positive, I might add) and it seemed unthinkable that we wouldn’t try to do it again.  Now, two years later and many miles and moments in between, it is hard to remember that feeling exactly.  Hard to be sure that the PCT is the exact right thing to do.  What if we have changed?  What if trying thru hiking again isn’t fulfilling?  What it really comes down to is whether or not we trust our past selves.  It would be easy at this point in time, surrounded by creature comforts and “good” jobs, money and futures, to chicken out.  So what keeps us so sure that we were right, back then.

My memories of the trail nag me constantly, every one is shiny and sparkling through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.  Even the rough moments, being blown sideways by storms or hunkering down during tornado warnings in our tent seem like a good laugh now.  But many people smarter than me have written about the dangers of nostalgia, this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez for example: “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” I have learned from their wisdom to never trust nostalgia.  Instead I turn to the one thing that has kept me honest all these years, my writing.  I read my blog posts and I read my journal entires from out on trail and I see what life was really like.  I see that it was similar to life anywhere else in many ways, but that it was also more extreme, simpler, and free from stagnation and complacency.  It was a choice that we willingly made every day, without anyone telling us to do so.  It wasn’t for any reason, not to make money or advance our careers, it was just to walk and see how far we would make it.

I wrote my future self advice.  I wrote to myself, “You want, more than anything to keep hiking.  You want to hike the PCT right now, every bone of your body is aching for it.  Real life calls, debt calls, resumes call, but if all of those things didn’t exist you would just hike off into the sunset.” My past self was certain, in a way my present self cannot be because my present self is so far removed from the AT.  Even though I do trust my past self I also accept that people change.  My past self might recognize differences in me now if we met on the street.  We might not be identical.  So it is important for me to have “whys” that are meaningful to my present self, that touch me and inspire me today, that aren’t just a promise to my past, that aren’t just nostalgia.  It is important that my reasons for hiking stay relevant.  So we come to the smaller motivations, the daily things that I turn to when the past isn’t enough.

Once you have been on trail and tasted what a good meal is like after a hard day, learned what a shower feels like when you are truly dirty, attuned your ear to nature and learned that the forest doesn’t give a shit about you, it is hard to go back to “real” life.  This is what people are referring to when they say they have an addiction to thru hiking.  It is an addiction to being tough, to extremes, to the highs and lows of trail.  When you are back in the “real world” and you start to notice yourself going soft those are the moments when you really long for the trail.  The most frequent experience that hardens my resolve to hike is when I am laying in bed at night.  Bed is such a safe place, surrounded by pillows and my baby blanket, Kyle snoring away, and a cool wind creeping across my face as I snuggle down in the blankets.  In those cozy moments, if I let my mind stray to the future when I will be sleeping in a tent on the PCT, I feel fear well up inside me.  Fear of the dark, of the fragility of the tent around me, how exposed I will be to the woods and the critters and the weather.  And then, from somewhere deep within, my AT self shakes her head, and I suddenly pity myself for how stagnant I have become.  This isn’t the real me, this isn’t where I am the best version of myself, even though it might feel that way when I am comfortably snoozing in my bed.  I may be comfortable but am I strong, sure, growing, jubilant, proud, elated, confident, happy?  No.  This is one of the small daily experiences that help me keep my reasons to hike relevant.  I use this moment and many other to remind myself that out on trail there was something more, something deep and unnamable, something that I am never going to find at home in bed.

I have written all of this and then immediately realized that I have actually done very little to answer that question of “why”.  Instead I have offered two different thought processes that I experience which keep me motivated to hike.  And thus the “why” continues to evade my attempts to put in down in writing.

Bloody “why”.  *British accent required.*

P.S. Kyle doesn’t actually snore.  I have publicly accused him of snoring twice now, simply because it paints a good picture but I have to be honest because it hurts his feelings, he doesn’t snore.  He occasionally snorts.  That’s the extent of it.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

22 thoughts on “The Why: My First Attempt at Explaining Why We Hike

  1. As always, I enjoy your posts! Ditto to what Meghan said. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a few hours of respite hiking a trail in the Salt Lake mountains. It was a spur of the moment adventure so I didn’t have any gear or proper attire. It started to rain(and I was wearing light tan khakis which my grand-daughter later helped me clean up saying Grandma, what were you thinking wearing white? She treats me like a child, LOL). At first it was only misting, but I kept at it until it began to come down faster and the temps dropped considerably not to mention the terrain became slipperier. Given that I am just shy of 70, not as agile as I once was and alone, I made the decision to turn around just short of my goal. (It snowed later, so my brain does still work.) Up until then, what a rush! All I could think of was “I’ve got to start it up again”. (You are inspiring) The whole time, I took pictures and when I had reception, I sent them to my husband telling him “wish you were here, we’ve got to come back”. Yes, I still remember climbing the Trinities in Colorado without ropes when others opted to be tied on and I wonder where my brain was then. I remember the hard times and wondering what on earth I was thinking, pummeling my body like that and now wishing I could do it again? I had a climbing buddy once who was a stronger hiker than I and he was in his 80’s! Yup! I do want to do it again and why not?

    1. Why not!! Many of the great hikers I know are in their 70s and we met 60+ hikers on the AT! I only hope that if I keep moving I won’t have to stop 🙂

  2. I totally loved reading this post. I too have had moments of getting swept up in nostalgia and had many moments of feeling soft and weak now that I’m traveling in much more comfortable circumstances, and with company. And reading your journal and being reminded of the realities of the time, good and bad, is the best advice I’ve heard. In fact, just reading your post this morning has made me think a lot about the time when I thought I was embodying my best self – and for that, I thank you. But (one of) your point(s) about recalling what you wanted – what made you feel alive and your true self – is so important since real life can distract you and dull the connection you had to your real/best/true self and what you’re meant to do. The “why” question to me is both complicated and simple because it’s so difficult to explain, but it all seems to come back to what makes your heart sing, what brings you joy. Anyways, I’ll stop rambling. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this wonderful post.

  3. Yes, I agree the “why” is elusive. But here’s the thing: after my AT hike, I couldn’t stop dreaming about the next big adventure. The PCT is definitely on my bucket list, plus what seems like scores of other trails…instead of why, perhaps we can ask, “Why not?”

  4. You might not feel like you answered the why, but suddenly I want to hike the PCT, and take on every adventure I have ever considered (especially the most terrifying ones). So you definitely answered something for me.

  5. Ah, loved this! Can’t wait to read the rest! I grew up in India hiking with my mom who is 78 today and still hikes and is happiest and most fulfilled in the mountains trekking! 😊

  6. Another great article Lindsey. Oh and while Kyle may not snore, he bloody (no Brit accent required) well does fart!

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