The Why: Continuing to Grapple With “Why” We Hike

People always want to know about the AT vs the PCT.  They want to know about the stats on the trails, which one is longer, which one is harder, which one has more elevation gain and nastier bugs.  But shockingly very few people think to ask if our reasons for hiking the two trails are the same.  In my last post about “why” we want to hike the PCT I got into some of the thoughts or experiences that keep me invested (I have to stop saying we because I cannot honestly say if Kyle feels the same way I do and I should probably ask him), but I realized, by the end of the post I still wasn’t saying “why” I want to hike… I am not sure if we will get there in this post either, but I do want to explore the differences between our motivations to hike the two trails.

When we decided to hike the AT we were in a very different place than we are now.  We were both, at that point, on a very big, new, shiny adventure.  Kyle and I had both moved to a new state, started a new job, met lots of new people, and taken some big risks (although we both had the springy safety nets of our middle class parents awaiting us should we fail).  The AT did not seem like a crazy out of the blue adventure, it seemed like the natural escalation of our recently woodsy existence.  It seemed like the obvious way to take our escapades and our relationship to the next level (maybe not what most people would pick but hey, maybe you should consider living in a tent together for five months as a nice way to spice things up).  The AT came out of no where, we embraced it recklessly, and it changed our lives forever.  It was, in a nutshell, very exciting.

The PCT on the other hand was not a sudden decision.  Instead it has been part of the plan for the last three years.  It has been at the root of every decision, omnipresent.  Instead of feeling like another “upping of the ante”, riding on the coattails of the adventure that came before it like the AT did, the PCT feels like a ready respite from the toil it took to get there.  The the architecture jobs, the restaurants jobs, the city, the money.  We have been chasing a dream these last two years, the PCT dream, but in doing so our daily life has been planned for a purpose.  It has been predictable and, decidedly, risk free.  I feel like I am playing that game you play when you go through a tunnel and you try to hold your breath until you get to the other side.  But it isn’t the release of the breath I am looking forward to, it is the first breath I get to take in once my lungs are empty of all that stale air.

Because of all this waiting, and planning I am, in some ways, more terrified for the PCT than I was for the AT.  With the AT we had nothing to lose.  We were trying something completely new.  It didn’t matter if we failed because we didn’t have a matrix for what success was.  As it turns out that success, in that scenario, was finishing the whole trail, South to North and still loving each other afterwards.  Because we were able to do that I feel fairly confident about our abilities to finish the PCT but as a result the PCT is one expectation after another, and in the back of my mind is the expectation that success will look the same.  We have theoretically spent the last two years preparing our lives for the next five months, allowing ourselves this adventure, building up to these moments.  Thanks to the AT it isn’t the mental strain that scares me, I know we can push ourselves to some pretty crazy limits, instead it is the complete unknown and uncontrollable.  What if one of us twists an ankle or any number of other plausible scenarios and we can’t finish the trail, for reasons completely outside of our control?  Will the last two years spent preparing have been a total waste?  Thinking about it makes me sick.

When I am rational and logical about it I know that these last two years have not been a waste.  In this life of waiting for the PCT we have had many joys and accomplishments.  We have built some incredible new friendships and spent quality time with old friends in ways that are impossible to do when you are off hiking across the country.  We climbed many mountains and practiced new skills.  We accomplished some of our goals for the last two years, like paying on a significant amount of student loan debt and I had some really cool summer seasons working on trail and in the conservation field.  Despite often feeling like these last two years were spent waiting when I actually focus in on the substance of them I see that they stand on their own as happy times, full of growth and marvelous adventures.  And then I turn that same logic to the trail and I remind myself that every adventure is about the journey, not the final destination (apparently my logical mind is full of sappy clichés, but it helps).  I have to trust myself and Kyle and know that, even if our trip is ended by some unforeseen circumstance, we are strong and we will take what we have achieved and move forward in a way that is best for us.  Thus I am constantly soothing my fearful side.

What is interesting is that when I first wrote that sentence I wrote that, “I am constantly battling my fearful side” but then I erased it because I don’t want to depict it that way.  Fears can be useful, they can be motivating, informative, and frankly, they can keep you safe.  It is not anyone’s job to battle their fears until they are all gone, instead I think it is our job it learn how to work with our fears, welcome them in, and figure out how to live with them.  I write this about fear because I think that the flavor of my fears has evolved from pre-AT to now.  Before the AT I was scared about bears, snakes and ticks, oh my!  My fears now are more nuanced but the way I deal with them has also matured.  And why shouldn’t my fears be more complicated?  Because of the build up the PCT is a much bigger risk.  But a bigger risk promises a greater reward, whatever capacity we “succeed” in.  It also promises more fear and another opportunity to learn and grown, encompassing that fear inside a stronger self I have yet to meet.  That’s the plan anyway.

Through all of that rambling I think I have actually hit upon one of the key “whys”.  I hike as a way to confront fears that are growing in me every day, take them by the hand and walk down the trail with them .

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

10 thoughts on “The Why: Continuing to Grapple With “Why” We Hike

  1. Very well said. It can be hard to elaborate upon our reasons but you do a wonderful job of describing growth and maturity all the while remaining mindful of the benefits that you have enjoyed and are experiencing right now.

  2. This post is beautifully written and so insightful. “I feel like I am playing that game you play when you go through a tunnel and you try to hold your breath until you get to the other side. But it isn’t the release of the breath I am looking forward to, it is the first breath I get to take in once my lungs are empty of all that stale air.” <– This is a fantastic use of words. <3

    Have you guys heard of the Liebster Award? It's this silly thing that gets passed around the blogosphere — you ask someone 11 questions, and they answer them on their blog, write their own, and nominate someone else. At first I thought it might be kinda spammy, but it's just a fun way for bloggers to promote one another and introduce their readers to new content.

    It looks like Tandem Trekking already has a decent following, but I really love your stuff and decided to nominate your blog. I'd love to see your responses if you can take the time to post! You can read my post about it here: My questions for you are at the end.

    1. Thank you for nominating me! I have been nominated a couple of times and never actually followed through, mostly because the questions weren’t inspiring to me. But these questions!! Great job, I can get behind these! Also loved your answers. I’ll get right on this 🙂

  3. I used to share your anxiety, but no longer. Our circumstances are very different, but also similar is some ways, so I can understand your viewpoint.

    I Decided to retire two years early to thru hike the AT. That put a lot of pressure on me not to fail. Unlike you, the financial and career pressure was absent.

    Although I had a ton of outdoor experience, I had never undertaken a six-month 2,000 mile hike. I really couldn’t get my head around the logistics. This would be by first time ever on a long outing not having complete control over my logistics. The money, the weather and terrain weren’t much of a worry. (F-ing rocks!)

    My approach was one of the former collegiate athlete that I am. I imagined my hike and hiked it as a 2,185 mile endurance event. By the end I realized that my approach had been wrong. It wasn’t a contest about anything, even if I was only competing with myself.

    If I were to do the AT again, I’d be much more relaxed about it. If I didn’t finish — meh!

    My approach to the PCT this year has changed accordingly. I will hike it in two sections over two years starting NOBO in the middle. That way I get the long distance hiking experience without any context of contest. I can take my time and soak in all that great real mountain scenery. No green tunnel!

    As one who enjoys following your adventures, one of your true fans so to speak, I will cheer each step you take and rejoice in all that you accomplish no matter how many miles you log, and whether or not you ever see Canada or skip a section to reach the border at the end in season. It may not be enough for you now, but believe me, in time you’ll have as much appreciation for what you can accomplish and regret less what you may not. As someone said, “It’s the journey, not the destination.”

    Good luck!!!

      1. Would like to meet you two. Unfortunately I will probably be at least 250 – 500 miles ahead; more of snow conditions allow.

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