The Other Mountain
There are many long distance trails throughout the world such as the Appalachian Trail, Great Himalayan, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and many more, all over 500 miles long. Trails like these are what make serious backpackers stand out among the rest as they must overcome many obstacles ranging from life threatening weather, high elevations and incredible fatigue. Many of these long distance hikers would agree that one of the greatest challenges however, comes in a different form and can be much more debilitating. It is a challenge of the mind. One of mental fortitude and steadfastness in the midst of overwhelming discouragement.
The psychological burdens come in many forms and vary with each individual. For some its the relentless monotony of walking each and every day for the entirety of the day for weeks and months at a time, or its homesickness and being away from loved ones. Often times the physical fatigue can generate depression in some hikers and raises questions like "Am I as capable as I thought? Can I even do this? Is all of this worth it?" and for some, those questions won't be answered until the trek is completed or they relent and return home.
It is argued by many that hiking is 90% mental, and while that may depend entirely on the individual, it can't be refuted that mental attitude significantly affects performance and certainly how much enjoyment is experienced on a hike.
In 2015 I attempted to hike all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian trail in 6 months in what is referred to as a "thru hike". I expected to be met by incredible physical hardships and had prepared myself to meet them and beat them. And for 3 months, I did. I hiked every mountain, traveling over 20 miles a day in both biting cold and sweltering heat from Georgia to West Virginia (1,023mi). But the mountain in my mind became larger and more impassible with every day and I decided that my hike would end there in Harpers Ferry, WV.
In 2016, my roommate Stephen suggested that we finish it the following year so on march 31st, 2017, I set off again to complete the hike. This time, I remembered to prepare for the physical difficulty and this hurtle was easier than the last time. However yet again, the emotional burdens weighed on me heavier than my 35lb pack and nagged me more than my constant hunger. Some days were easier than others but it seemed that consistently, my attitude when I woke up in the morning, governed my mind's integrity for the duration of each day. This year's journey was different for many reasons but most significantly in that this time, I left the love of my life at home. I wanted to hike less than half as much as I wanted to be back at home with her and the Appalachian Trail felt to me like a second rate adventure compared to every day spent with her. This homesickness brewed in me a heavy discontentment for hiking.
The very nature of long distance hiking, is one of great monotony. Of course there are beautiful vistas, sights, sounds, smells and wildlife that could never become old or lose there potency and all these things made every challenge worth it for a while and worked as an anecdote to discouragement. As I discovered their place on the trail, they planted themselves in my mind as the sweetest memories from the journey and even now they're the subtle call that beckons me to return to their place. But every day's habits developed into routine and in turn became (at least for me) monotony. Each day slipped into abstraction and held no difference from the last or the next. I woke up, ate breakfast, packed up, walked, unpacked, ate, went to sleep and repeated this routine. With the exception of what was going on in my book, all things were much the same. It required conscious effort to occupy myself and preserve my wonder for the world around me. Sometimes that meant stopping at a beautiful sweeping view for several hours, or maybe stopping to stare at red eft salamanders as they crossed the trail on rainy days.
I also included journaling into my routine every day and this helped as it allowed me to break down and write specific thoughts from the day and dissect and process the days challenges.
Often times physical difficulties created feelings of inability. A long difficult uphill might encourage disappointment and ideas of inadequacy. This became even more true with injuries or illness. For about 2 weeks I hiked with constant pain and swelling in my achilles heel and the constant pain made it very difficult to continue, I'd be forced to take frequent breaks throughout the day and this caused us to get to shelters later than usual allowing us less time to rest. The constant fear that the injury might become worse and potentially escalate into permanent damage made me question regularly whether or not all of this was worth it.
I expected to experience all the positive things of the trail with my mind. I expected to think, feel, experience clarity, receive from God, and reflect on the beauty of nature and become a better person through all of it. Perhaps even experience my own form of enlightenment. So it only makes sense that much of the pain and difficulties would be from my head as well. And after 426 miles, I decided once again to return home.
I don't regret my decision and I don't expect to. Many responsibilities were calling me back home and I know that I returned when I needed to.
That being said I encourage my fellow hikers to never underestimate the mental and emotional adversities. Learn yourself and know to the best you can how to combat your discouragements. I love hiking and I'll never lose my passion for trails and parks and I hope to never lose my wonder for nature and value for creation.
Whether hiking requires 90% from you mentally or only 20%, It's important to recognize the importance of a positive attitude and never lose the love that we all share from being a hiker.
Director of Marketing