“My thoughts wandered to my old camera, the one I’d used before I’d gotten a smartphone. The shutter didn’t close correctly, and the zoom had been pathetic. I remembered how upset I was that it could never capture the moment. Until one evening, as sunset caught my world on fire, I found the silver lining. It was then that I learned not to squander fleeting moments clicking through settings and framing an angle. Instead, I spent them fully focused on the experience. Getting rid of my camera taught me to drink in the vistas, the sunsets, the chance wildlife encounters with my whole being and my whole mind.” —Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail
I’ve written two trail memoirs—Mud, Rocks, Blazes quoted above and Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home. Each is a detailed account of my experiences while thru-hiking (the AT and PCT, respectively). However, unlike many hikers who turn their stories into books, I didn’t take many notes along the way. Perhaps it’s because, as my husband would probably tell you, I have an annoyingly good memory. But I also think it has to do with how I observe—how I listen.
For many years, I struggled to meditate. I knew it was good for me, but unlike eating my veggies, I just couldn’t seem to do it. I fidgeted and my mind raced. I ended up planning hikes, creating shopping lists, and going over everything that had gone wrong in the last 24 hours by the time the bell sounded at the end. Meditation sessions didn’t leave me feeling peaceful and less stressed, but they often left me ahead on organizing to-do lists!
Over time I began to discover that sitting cross-legged and closing my eyes was not a magical path to peace and stress reduction. I began to recognize that the mental state I was striving for on a cushion often crept into my psyche as I walked through nature.
Over time I began to discover that sitting cross-legged and closing my eyes was not a magical path to peace and stress reduction. I began to recognize that the mental state I was striving for on a cushion often crept into my psyche as I walked through nature. The farther I walked (or ran), the more peace I felt. Those to-do lists and annoyances still raced through my mind, but after an hour or so they dropped away. All that remained was the sound of squirrel chatter, wind, and the rhythm of my own breath.
At that vista—when I dropped my old camera and instead stood open-mouthed, marveling at each shade of light pouring from the horizon line—I’d been hiking for hours. When the last shades of pink and orange melted from the sky, I knew I’d found something that I’d been searching for elsewhere—awareness.
Any thru-hiker can tell you that time doesn’t exist the same way on the trail as it does off-trail. A six-month hike can feel like six years—or six weeks—at different moments, sometimes on the same day.
Any thru-hiker can tell you that time doesn’t exist the same way on the trail as it does off-trail. A six-month hike can feel like six years—or six weeks—at different moments, sometimes on the same day. There are nights when you sit in your cozy sleeping bag slurping noodles and reviewing the day, only to realize with astonishment that a mere 10 hours prior you’d been trucking through drizzle unable to feel your hands and concerned about hypothermia. This slinky effect demonstrates just how ephemeral our concept of time really is.
After many years, I have learned to meditate while sitting still. There are still days that the time drags on through a haze of manic thinking, but there are others when the bell rings and I’m shocked that I’ve spent 20 minutes simply being. This is proof that the time slinky can exist off the trail too, it’s just harder to experience in a world of busyness and distraction.
In order to write my memoirs with detail I employed a few techniques. Immediately after I returned from hiking the PCT in 2013, I spent many afternoons engaged in ex eventu journaling. These detailed writings were the basis from which I eventually wrote Thirst. I didn’t journal after my 2015 AT hike, but as I recreated the events of that summer in book format, I scrolled through my navigation app from FarOut Guides, as well as my photos from the trip.
But how did I remember what happened long enough to write it down, even with mnemonics?
The night I stopped using my camera I learned that awareness—and thus the creation of vivid, long-lasting memories—is not about force. It’s not about gritting your teeth and focusing on not thinking. It’s allowing yourself to listen and be attentive with your whole self. It means listening to your thoughts, but not allowing them to carry you away from the present moment. It’s seeing what is front of you as it really is. It’s tasting the faint acidity of rain as it pelts you in the face and feeling the way it tracks along your skin. It’s hearing the way the wind whispers ever so quietly through the trees and the explosive chattering of squirrels as you pass by. It’s the smell of one forest, just slightly different than another. I remember my experiences clearly because I witnessed them with my whole being.
The days on trail that I don’t remember in detail are often the ones when I was caught up in my thoughts or distracted by a to-do such as getting to town before the post office closed. Life off trail is often a string of days governed by distractions and lists. Is it any wonder that we frequently struggle to remember what we did on Monday?
Listening is a skill typically attributed to our ears. However, our entire body can listen to the environment surrounding us with great attentiveness.
Listening is a skill typically attributed to our ears. However, our entire body can listen to the environment surrounding us with great attentiveness. Learning to pay attention to that whole-body listening has made all the difference in the way I hike and in the way I go through my daily life. It has also made it easier to remember days well lived in the mountains and at home.
Tips for increasing awareness and remembering experiences from the trail:
- Stop (if it’s safe to do so) when encountering something you want to remember, or as soon after as possible.
- Make mental notes of every aspect of the situation using as many senses as possible. Committing details to memory before any other form of recording teaches you awareness, rather than reliance on external registers.
- Afterward, write it down, record a voice memo, and/or take pictures. These can serve as mnemonics and detailed backup for your memory.
Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net