Discussion: Pre-Hike Nerves

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

John Steinbeck

At just around 40 days from my start date and having completed the last logistical step – purchasing a 1 way ticket to San Diego – the reality of this hike is setting in. In an earlier FAQ post one of the questions was: “aren’t you afraid?” Lately I’ve been giving some thought to this question so I figured I’d lay out some of my musings in this post.

To start, yes, I definitely have a lot of nerves going into this hike. However, to say that I’m afraid would be a bit inaccurate since I really don’t know what to expect. I’ll put it like this: I know I’m afraid of heights because I’ve stood in high places and felt that very real, tangible fear. I’ve never done anything like this hike. I have nothing to really compare it to and so the fear is more of anxiety about the unknown. Regardless, I think it’ll be fun to look back after I finish the hike at what my biggest pre-hike fears were and to compare them with the reality of the trail. So here’s just a few of them off the top of my head.


Freedom

One of the big draws of doing a trail like this is the sheer unregulated freedom of the journey. You get to decide everything – how far to walk, what to eat, where to sleep, when to sleep, when to to wake up, if you want to swim in that lake, stay in that town, or belt out that song when you’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s been stuck in your head for miles.

The flip side of the freedom coin is that you are responsible for everything. There is no one telling you what to work on, no perfect 9-5 schedule with deadlines, no rigid social expectations, no cut-and-dry framework for daily action other than the one you form yourself. This means that – while yes, I have the freedom to stay in my warm sleeping bag until 10:00 AM, or only hike 5 miles that day – I am responsible to myself alone to get myself moving and have a good time. Since I’m hiking solo, no one is there to keep me accountable for hiking 17+ miles/day except myself. And if something goes wrong, it’s me alone who is responsible for getting things back on track. Whereas in “normal society” if something goes wrong there are all sorts of avenues for help: friends, family, emergency services, even the internet to an extent. On the trail, these traditional resources are limited.

Everyone knows the saying “with great power comes great responsibility”. I think the same is true for freedom. You have the freedom to do incredible, beautiful things but the same freedom to really mess things up or just have a mediocre experience if you aren’t making the effort. I can’t say I’ve ever really had this kind of freedom so hopefully I’ll use it wisely.


Injury/Physical Discomfort

I like to think I’m fairly in-shape. I lift weights 4+ times a week and I try to hike decent mileage nearly every weekend. I’ve hiked 26+ miles in a day and 100 miles in 5 days during my LSHT thru hike. I’m also young and thankfully free of any major injuries or joint/muscle problems. Despite this, I know the PCT will be the most physically challenging undertaking I’ve ever done.

Am I ready? I think so. Physically I think I can do the work – the climbs, the descents, the fords, etc. What scares me most is the possibility of getting injured. Of taking just one wrong step, twisting my ankle, and being forced off the trail. Or – less dramatic – developing foot/ankle/knee issues slowly over the course of the hike as many hikers do. There’s simply no way to know what might happen injury wise. I might make it through without anything major or I might be forced off in the first week after having given up so much to do this.

Outside of major injuries, one thing I can be certain of is the general physical discomfort of a hike like this. On some level this scares more. Whereas a major injury is a swift and instant hike ender ala death by guillotine, the 5 month day-in-day-out physical discomfort of a thru-hike is more like death by a thousand cuts. And it’s unavoidable.

To begin with, you have the relentless sun and heat of the desert with all it’s accouterments – sweat, grime, sand, chafe, and constant thirst. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada will likely offer no relief however, see: altitude sickness, massive climbs, deep snow, frigid river crossings, and mosquitoes. By the time I make it to Northern California and Oregon the heat of summer will be upon me and the same trials of the desert will show themselves again. And in Washington, likely having avoided it for most of the trail, I will probably need to contend with cold and rain and if I’m unlucky, snow. On top of all this I have to factor in the general discomfort of being on my feet for 8+ hours per day carrying a pack that will weigh sometimes more than 30 lbs. I’ll be doing this all while sleeping on a thin foam pad and eating snickers bars and ramen noodles, drinking instant coffee brewed with questionable water. To say that the trail will be physically uncomfortable is an understatement. I know this, and it’s precisely why I’m doing it. I have been preparing myself mentally, but for obvious reasons it still makes me nervous.


Mental Stuff

As I understand from my research, thru-hiking a long trail is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. I can certainly see how this is the case, but I also think the two are pretty much inseparable.

To begin with, doing anything for 5 months straight – especially one as physically demanding as a thru hike is going to demand much from your mind as well. From keeping yourself motivated through the rough times, to figuring out the bewildering logistical challenges that come with walking across the country, to simply just staving off the boredom that is inevitable doing the same thing for 5 months, this trail is fraught with mental challenges. On top of this you are often alone with your own thoughts for long stretches of time which can be very challenging if you’re not used to mental and physical solitude.

When you hear about so many people giving up because it wasn’t what they expected or the mental aspect just became too much you can’t help but worry yourself. Will I be able to stay motivated for 2650 miles? Do I have the will to do something like this? Will I get bored? Will I get lonely?

There’s just no way to know until I get out there. So I try not to worry too much now and instead do what I can to prepare myself to meet the mental challenges. I have been meditating daily, training myself to just accept things as they are – good and bad, learning to “embrace the suck” as it’s known in the thru hiker community, and finally just cultivating a love for the outdoors and being in nature. At the end of the day if I’m enjoying myself and just flowing along with my surroundings and circumstances then the trail will be more than doable.

I always liked the metaphor of granite and limestone. The traditional approach when dealing with difficult situations is to be like granite. To stand firm and strong and let the waves crash and break against you. Alternatively, one can be like limestone. Instead of taking the full brunt of the waves, the limestone lets the water pass through it’s many pores and holes. In the context of a thru-hike, being like granite involves gritting your teeth and putting your head down to slog your way through the trail. It is a battle against the trail and only through sheer will and determination will one make it to the end. On the other hand, being like limestone means flowing with – rather than battling against – the trail and it’s challenges. It means treating the hike not as something to strive against to complete but rather something to fully enjoy and experience in each moment. I think by cultivating this kind of cooperative rather than combative mindset I will not only improve my chances of completing the trail, but also have a much more enjoyable time overall.


Hazards

Snow, fires, heat, cold, rain, falling trees, lightning, getting lost, falling off mountains, drowning, snakes, bears, scorpions, questionable water, questionable people (maybe?).


Quitting

If I do have to quit for whatever reason (be it physical or mental), will I be okay with that decision? Will I be proud of the effort I made or will I beat myself up over my inability to finish? Will my friends and family be disappointed after I’ve devoted so much time talking about this journey only to quit?


Finishing

I have no idea what I’m going to do when I finish and this scares me more than the entirety of the hike itself. Whereas I can plan and prepare down to the flavor of Clif bar for this hike, planning for my return to society is so much more nebulous.

What will I do? Where will I live? Will I want to get another corporate job? How will I reintegrate back into a ‘normal’ way of living after having essentially been a wanderer for half a year? Will I have the post-trail blues as so many hikers experience after completing a thru-hike?

But those are questions for future Adam. Right now I know what I need to do to complete this immediate goal and that is where I am choosing to place my focus. I’ll have plenty of time out there to think about my return to society.

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