Mentally Preparing for a Thru-Hike
Questions I am often asked:
Q: “How do you take on such risks without anxiety forcing you to back out?”
A: I am stubborn. A special kind of stubbornness that you have probably never experienced before. I am convinced that it may be the cause of my death one day.
Q: “What is it like deciding to do something and going through with it?”
A: I do not have a lot of patience for people who say they are going to do something and then don’t. So, when I decide to do something, when I tell people about it, and when I choose to spend my time and a small amount of extra money on it, I absolutely have to do it! Even if it is just an attempt, I would much rather be brave enough to take a few steps toward something my heart desires than to sit on my ass and wonder if it would have worked out or not.
Q: “But aren’t you afraid of being alone?”
A: Yes. This is why I seek out experiences that make me feel like I am not alone. And if that is a confusing concept to understand, then maybe you haven’t taken enough risks in your life that teach you we are never really alone.
Photo: Tara Dower @tara.dower
The countdown for my next adventure began long ago, but now my start date is within reach. My last weeks of work are ticking by and every time I see a friend, I know it may be the last conversation or hug from them for a while. As someone who has become accustomed to taking off, my innate fear of leaving the comfortable life I have built has quieted down to a low murmur but there is, and always will be, a level of anxiety that threatens my sense of peace.
Before my first long walk, the anxiety took over as the days of my ‘normal’ life dwindled and I became a shell filled with fears. I cried, panicked, and could not keep my head on straight. I let the possibility of failure convince me that I was crazy to attempt to beat the statistics of people who had successfully hiked the full number of miles that I was about to take on by way of the Appalachian Trail. I thought about giving up before I even started but luckily, I used my ever-present desire to go against the grain to give it a good old college try! And as I walked away from the most southern trailhead and from an entire season of life I so thoroughly enjoyed, I finally felt a wave of calm wash over me. It was like my soul had found a purpose that my heart had never known it needed and every ounce of fear disappeared. Since that day, I have hiked over 6,000 miles and the majority of those distances were covered as a solo female.
Currently, the anxiety associated with the unknownness of the next 2,650 miles that I am headed off to has manifested into a few bad habits and an intense lack of sleep. I have struggled with depression for most of my adult life, which only amplifies my need to fill the space where worries fill my head. I feel that I am waiting until the last minute to get everything together which causes more stress, and yet I find myself spending my free time doing other things that have nothing to do with trail preparation! Distractions come in all forms and some of them are valid, I swear! Examples like trying to spend as much time with my friends as possible, partaking in my other hobbies like climbing and biking, and working to make sure that I leave my job having set up my replacement for success. But the list of little things to get done is full and a few bigger tasks cannot be done all at once. Each time I check something off, I feel more and more excited and less anxious, but it has still been difficult to keep my productivity level up. Some of the tasks are strange but are so fun to go out of my way to do! Have you ever melted the handle off a travel-sized hairbrush to cut the weight of your pack or visited five different fast-food establishments in an afternoon just to collect condiment packets to spice up your resupply boxes?! I recently told someone that I feel like I am preparing for the ‘high school’ of long-distance trails! My first trail was like elementary/middle school where everything was new and I went out of my way to make friends because there is safety in numbers, and we essentially taught each other how to be thru-hikers. Now that I am much more confident in myself and have more than a few thousand miles under my legs, I know what works for me and no longer consider myself a rookie. I feel safe starting alone and being alone on the trail and am willing to give others advice if they are new to the hiker trash community!
If you are unaware of the specifics, the Pacific Crest Trail spans 2,650 miles from Campo, CA to Harts Pass on the Washington/Canadian border. It crosses through desert terrain as well as the tops of snow-covered mountains in the Sierras before leading into the lush Oregon forests and along the Cascade ranges of Washington State. I have never experienced most of this type of trail or the difference in elevation compared to the east side of the country that I have lived on for my entire life. To say that I am nervous would be a slight understatement, but this time around I am only fearful of two things that are out of my control. Number one is my body. With the intense increase of miles over the last year of my life, I have developed a dangerous tolerance to pain. After finding a love for trail running that grew into a love for ultra-running, I pushed the distances and pace a little bit beyond a normal rate. Rest and recovery are two of my biggest weaknesses and because of this, my body has finally gotten to a point where it is almost never in a homeostatic state. My PT and I have been working on my hips, knees, calves, and IT bands for a little while now but there is no guarantee that I can negate further deterioration. Embarking on this strenuous journey will go one of two ways: my body will either adapt and adjust to hiking 20-30 miles a day with a pack on my back after a short period of taking it slow…or the pain will become worse and I may end up causing more permanent damage. I am fully aware of the fact that I am no longer a young buck who can bounce back quickly from physical injury and honestly, I am quite frustrated that I have not been able to push my limits for a while now. I may end up having to make the responsible call of ending my foot-powered travel much sooner than I want to. I guess it is a good thing that my mind has become much stronger than my body if I am willing to trust that the trail holds my fate along its miles. While most of my family and friends worry about me, those who have been where I understand why I feel the need to take the risk.
The second factor that would induce painful emotions is fire. You would have to live under a rock to not see the wildfire trends that have been increasing over the past few years. The west coast no longer has four seasons because in between summer and fall now comes fire season. I personally know so many hikers over the past few years who have had to evacuate trails, suffered from the smoke-filled air, and missed out on beautiful landscapes that may never be seen again. And of course, my hiking timeline has me entering the most fire-prone sections of the PCT at the worst time of the year. Not only could this end my hike, but the fire season is one that ends lives. I do not fear being caught in a blaze as news of such events travels quickly through the hiking community and I will bump off trail if need be, but I am already burdened by the damages that will be done. Homes, lush foliage, animals, and countless resources will be lost to the heat. Rescue services and wildland firefighters will have to risk their lives to contain the flames and do their best to keep the nearby populations safe. It should be noted though, that not all wildfires are bad because when they are prescribed and/or contained, the soil is revived, and new growth will be much stronger and healthier. However, the rate that the west coast is seeing the uptick in burn time continues to support the fact that our planet is quickly being consumed by the negative effects of climate change. And yet, our world's leaders continue to drag their feet when it comes to doing something about it. I am willing to change my idea of what a thru-hike looks like if fires threaten the areas that I am routed through, but I would much rather experience the full mileage of the PCT without road walking, section skipping, logistical headaches, and/or ending before I get to see the northern terminus.
I cannot fully comprehend that I am again embarking on another long walk, but there is no longer a fear of the challenges that I will face every step of the way or even the failure that this may result in. I have developed a sense of contentment with my progress as a badass outdoorsy female that pushes myself to only live up to my own expectations and not those of anyone else. It is a privilege to have learned this lesson somewhat early on in my life and continue to create opportunities to pack it up and hit the trails! I am continuously amazed by those who support me even when I take on the big and wild ideas I conjure up in between all the adventuring, and I am grateful to share my stories when conversing with strangers about my out-of-the-box lifestyle. One of my biggest sources of motivation is to continuously work to inspire folks to take on their own daydreams and I can only hope that more and more people fill their lives with experiences and relationships instead of money and material possessions.
Fear has become an emotion that breeds contentment in our society, which is something that scares me more than almost anything. So, I will squash my F.E.A.R, false evidence that appears real, and I will continue to breathe through the anxieties that arise with the amplified life path I choose to take on.