JMT training: a short saga (with pictures!)

I’ve been training like crazy for the JMT. This is mainly because I see this trail as having so many inherent hazards this year (e.g., snow on high passes, swollen creek crossings, mosquitoes by the bushel, to name a few), and I do not want my fitness (or lack thereof) to be added into this grab-bag of danger. Also, Timmy has legs that are about a half a mile long, and I am a much happier camper (and I’m sure he is too) when I can keep up. So alas, I have been doing a variety of hikes with a variety of weight throughout the spring and summer in order to feel prepared and ready to carry 35-40 pounds over some of the highest elevations in the lower 48.

Some of the more hilarious training experiences involved nightly walks with my mom when I was home in Kentucky for a few weeks, wherein I would carry my 65-liter pack, full of textbooks, craft supplies, cans of sand, cans of tomatoes, and the entire Harry Potter book series for weight, while she would push our two Pomeranians in their stroller (yes, they have a stroller). It was a sight to behold.

Some of the more epic training hikes included my trek to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine via the Hunt Trail, which comprises the last five miles of the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Penobscot Mountain Trail in Acadia National Park (by the way, Maine is rad. Go there). More recently, I hiked to the summit of Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona at 12,633, and only a slim 20 miles from my house in Flagstaff, in addition to a few other rad hikes around Northern Arizona like the Kachina Trail, the Abineau Canyon Trail (possibly my all-time favorite in the area), and the Little Elden Spring/Little Bear trail in the Dry Lake Hills. For each of the less difficult hikes I’ve tried to at least approximate the amount of weight I’ll be carrying on the JMT, while the more gnarly ones like Katahdin and Humphreys got a bit of the weight shaved off for time-saving purposes.

Although I haven’t even stepped onto the JMT yet, I can confidently say that this has already been one of the most incredible summers yet! Cheers to my mom and all my hiking buddies who have shared these beautiful trails with me so far this year.

9 days until liftoff!!





3 reasons why I am hiking the John Muir Trail (or, why type 2 fun is the best kind of fun)

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