Reason #1: “Fun”
I ran cross country all four years of high school. In the summer, as soon as the conference rules allowed us to practice, we met five times a week at 7 in the morning for runs that ranged from short-distance speed training to long, grueling, sweaty Kentucky 12-milers. When I started I could barely jog two miles, and by the end of my first season I could make it through ten in a reasonable time. I was never fast, no matter how hard I tried, and I’m sure I had a really dumb-looking gait, but I loved it. I loved the hazy pinkish light of those humid early mornings, the cool fog descending on the lakes, feeling the miles dissolve beneath my feet, experiencing my body grow stronger, slimmer, and more able to endure the distance. But if you had asked me during any of those runs – particularly the longest, hottest, most solitary ones – if I ever wanted to run again, I probably would have screamed a ragged “HELL NO” in your face before painfully slugging back to campus in what could only in the most liberal definitions be considered a “jog.” But later, once the run was over, having gulped down a liter of water and a Clif Bar, I would instantly look back on that run with fondness and earnest joy, remembering only the strength and the pretty morning light, the raw feeling of glory in possessing the ability to go so far on pure strength and determination – and I would be fully ready to do the whole thing over again, and again, and again.
This, friends, is what the outdoors community likes to call “type 2 fun.” It’s grueling, endless, and painful while you’re doing it, but when you look back all you can remember is the glory. Much like running cross country, hiking presents this kind of experience to its adherents. There are gnarly ascents and descents. Dangerous wind speeds. Snow-covered miles of trail. Pure, unabashed distance. Big creek crossings. Altitude. Finding a decent campsite. Physical ailments. The challenges are numerous and the task seems gargantuan, but it is in these situations where some of the best stories are made and some of the most valuable lessons are learned, and where people can really develop connections with themselves and the people around them.
The word “fun,” much like the word “happy,” is too shallow to describe the reasons why people hike (or climb, or ski, or run, or do anything they love). It doesn’t encompass the complicated emotions of watching the sunrise or making it to the summit. It doesn’t do justice to the satisfaction of knowing I was there, I did that. It doesn’t reach the pure, indescribable state of being really out there, beneath the mountains and the trees and the sky, vulnerable and humbled in the face of the Divine. It isn’t big enough or good enough for the wilderness. There are no words good enough for our wild places. I think even John Muir himself would agree with that.
Reason #2: Wilderness
We live in a world of connectedness, closeness, and ease. Everything is at our fingertips, transportation is miraculously fast, and communication is mercifully convenient even across distance, and thank God for that. I’m not going to go all Edward Abbey and say that I’m not grateful for civilization and modern achievements – any good hiker worth her salt appreciates a shower and a tall cold one on a zero day, let’s be real. And I love being able to call or message my family and friends who are thousands of miles away from me. There’s a miraculous comfort in our connectedness.
But I must confess that despite its benefits, society terrifies me, and frustrates me. Terrifies, because it’s so easy to fall into comfort and fail to question, to act like this world is disposable and that all its resources are free for the taking. And frustrates, because I think people would live a lot differently if more of them could see what’s out there, what this planet has to offer, and what horrific things we are doing to our environment and, consequently, ourselves. We are so focused on humanity, as if we were so great, but this world could surely survive millennia beyond our extinction. Wilderness, more than anything else, reminds me of our deeper responsibility and our deeper connection – not the instant, moment-by-moment connection we are used to in the 21st century, but the older, ancient, purer connection we have to this planet and to all of its inhabitants.
Wilderness is in our very blood. And this sacred wilderness, the Sierras so beloved by the quiet, saintlike conservationist for whom the trail is named, has been calling me for quite some time. The AT certainly possesses its own unique beauty, and the mountains of Arizona are a joy to experience, but the rugged High Sierra presents so vast, so humbling, and so regal a landscape that it is impossible to deny the opportunity to experience it.
I make no promises about how far I will get, how well I will do, or what the conditions will be like. We very may well have to bail at Kearsarge like a lot of PCT hikers are doing now, or we may make it to Yosemite. Who knows. Whatever the outcome, I will have been in the presence of some of the most incredible mountains on the planet, and for that I will be truly grateful.
Reason #3: Being Better
While some may call hiking an inherently selfish endeavor, I disagree. Of course I hike for myself – because there are so many parts of this incredible world that you just cannot see from the side of the road, and I want to see as much of this blessed planet as I can. But it’s also for others. Hiking, much like running and climbing, gives me the headspace and the meditative time to become less impatient, less stressed, less frustrated. It allows me the space to observe life from a distance and reflect on my behavior and my direction. Because of this, it makes me better – a better teacher, a better daughter, a better girlfriend, a better friend. It’s hard to keep the lessons of the wild to yourself, and the trail makes me want to turn outward, and be more aware of the world and the people around me. I’m very far from perfect, and the trail makes me even more aware of that. But it also makes clear what needs to change.
So there you have it. Three (of many) reasons why I am hiking the John Muir Trail. Now it’s time to stop procrastinating and get back on that training grind…
Happy trails! -S