Why long distance hikes aren’t the panacea you seek and why you should do them anyways.
The second to fifth day are the hardest. You started full of energy, hope, and anticipation, only to wake up to aching muscles, a throbbing back because you slept on a stone you rolled onto in the middle of the night, hurting feet, and the sudden realization that you have made barely a dent into your distance.
That morning you dig out your cell phone from its plastic wrapper in the bottom of your backpack and turn it on. A few miles down the road you finally get a weak signal, updating the weather report. It’ll rain for the next few stops along your way. Mud creeps into your shoes and you can not shake the idea that this was, maybe aside from dating that someone in high school everyone warned you about, the dumbest idea in your life.
On the sixth day your trail legs are finally growing. You walk with firmer, more measured, steps. Your backpack feels no longer like an intruder, a face crab attached to your back, but a part of you. When you leave it behind to get water from a nearby stream you feel strangely naked. The mud no longer settles everywhere, the sun has come out, and your journey completion percentage is no longer too low to be calculated.
It takes about twenty days until you stop missing your cell phone, shower gel, bed, or that day in front of the TV. You’ll long have quit wondering about Facebook, thinking about things in terms of Instagram factor and Twitter friendliness. Like Heroin, getting it out of your system is only half the battle, though, the other one is not letting it back in. At least until the next town comes along.
And then something else happens: you meet people. Not just a few, a whole lot of them. The couple hiking behind you, the guy who passes you every other day because he does fast/slow intervals, and the woman you spend some time talking to, who later turns out to be the author of the book you once read that made you want to hike this route.
But, this lede is buried for no other reason as to regale you with pictures, all the above isn’t your panacea. It’ll happen here, out in the woods, or in the concrete canyons of your city. Hardships, whatever they are, happen everywhere and nowhere, a week on beans and dry bread won’t magically make you a talker or approachable by strangers. Nights on rocky ground, like coding in Emacs, can have the same outcome as a comfy weekend at Yes and Yes Yes, or a leisurely stroll along the Oregon coast — just because it’s harder doesn’t mean it’ll be a stronger win. In fact, in the world of Lowest Needed Dose, a stroll will likely give you enough time to also deepen that relationship or follow up on that idea. Without the fear of being bitten, falling, or getting rained into a shelter between Craptown and Shitville.
Hiking, like most other non-essential activities, is best done for itself. Hike to hike. Hike to see, take the photographs as an added, non-required, bonus. Anyone hiking to lose weight will inevitably return disappointed, anyone doing it to become a better person will, unless there’s a book deal and a chance at painstaking reinterpretation for sales (and movie rights), return the same they were.
Hiking is the Bass Player of sports. Large are the numbers of those who picked it up because it sounded easier than guitar (running Marathons), a chance at a less hard earned date with a groupie (walking epiphany). But it ain’t. Walking is hard. Walking 20 miles every day, for weeks, carrying 30lbs of things, isn’t just hard, it’s outright no longer a healthy activity.
Still, I hike. And I think you should, too. Start slow, do days and weekends. Sleep in your backyard over the early spring days, when the ground is still biting cold and the water is everywhere. That’s a fair approximation of a summer night in the mountains. Stop taking the car or bus and walk the ten miles to work and back once a week, getting up early, coming home exhausted. Or, if you have a longer commute, park somewhere five miles out.
I hike because I like to hike. I hike because I like the feeling of being totally exhausted, hating my life and my night or day, feeling depressed and oppressed, alone, cold, and weak. And then, somehow, finding the euphoria, the warmth, the freedom, and strength in me. I (and you) could do this in San Francisco, Berlin, or Dubai. But, hey, this thing out there, it also comes with an added briar rash as a bonus.
I hike not to send Instagrams or write books. The people I meet out here are the people I appreciate along the road, they would make rotten friends in the asphalt-and-car world I spend the rest of my life. They, like me and you, aren’t who they are once their sleeping location has an address and running water.
I hike not because some book tells me someone found themselves. Or because it’s something that gets me adoring (for less than five seconds, then it’s on to the guy who pivoted his startup) glances from girls. And I definitely don’t hike to lose weight. I do, but eating less and twenty minutes of gym would do the same.
All that is, maybe, why I love hiking. And why, if you do the same, you’ll love too. You’ll love hearing the birds wake you up every morning. Love the dust and the rain and the aches. You’ll enjoy the clear air, the sun, and eating freshly cooked bread at a clearing in the woods before climbing 1600 feet to look down and move on.
I love watching the moon rise and the stars come out and not to have to deal with light polluted horizons. And, above all else, I love doing all this without ever having to share. Neither on- nor offline. My hikes are mine, my activity, my experiences, my path. I don’t care if I change profusely or not at all, if I lose weight or become a better person. I get something only I have. And, if you pack up now and go out, you can, too.