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Psychology of a Thru-hike

Would you cultivate walking as a fine art, learn to see and hear what the world, which man has not made nor has entirely marred, is telling you of the wonders of that life which she kindly nourishes upon her bosom.

— W. J. Holland

I was bored one winter day in 1987 and found myself looking at books in the library in Concord Massachusetts in the “Outdoor Recreation” section. I saw a book named “The High Adventure of Eric Ryback,” and it drew me like a magnet. This book told the story of the first ever thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada in 1970 by Eric Ryback. I was captivated and spent the next few hours sitting in the library reading the book. A whole new world opened up to me in those pages. The words ‘epic transformational pilgrimage’ filled my mind. I was hooked and wanted to do such a journey myself. My Pacific Crest Trail hike began that winter day, but I didn’t start walking for another 14 years.

I didn’t have a clue how to survive out in the woods. Clearly, I needed to start from square one. I went to Eastern Mountain Sports and bought the book “Complete Walker III” by Colin Fletcher. I learned all about backpacking from Colin’s point of view, and started purchasing his gear recommendations. I also learned about spirulina (blue-green algae) as a high protein and nutrient dense food source in this book. Colin claimed that a number of thru-hikers had hiked for up to 100 miles on nothing but spirulina. Based on this recommendation, I decided to give it a try and started consuming spirulina on a regular basis even before I went vegan the following year.

After a few months of acquiring gear, I was ready for my first trip. I planned a 300-mile trip from Mt. Washington in New Hampshire to Mt. Katadin in Maine along the Appalachian Trail . Some times you look back on your life and see certain common themes that give clues to the essence of who you are. On this first backpacking trip of my life, I decided not to bring a stove. My idea was to immerse myself in the natural world and let the Earth work its magic on me. I didn’t feel good about carrying ‘unnatural’ stove fuel and a high-tech stove in my pack. I figured that, since I liked granola, why not bring granola for breakfast, lunch, and an after dinner snack.

Doug at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail
April 22, 2001

With these thoughts, I found myself at the Pinkam Notch trailhead at the base of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in late June of 1987. There happened to be a scale at the Appalachian Mountain Club hut at this trailhead that allowed you to weigh your pack. My pack with food and gear weighed 72 pounds. I was planning to walk about 18 miles in 3 days to Gorham , NH . I put on my heavy hiking boots that weighed 5 pounds each, shouldered my burden and hit the trail. By the third day, I was exhausted and gagging every time I tried to eat granola. Obviously, I had more homework to do before I could accomplish a long walk. I got off the trail and bought a stove.

I spent the next decade building my experience in the outdoors. By 1998, I had a lot of experience but had practically forgotten about my goal to someday walk the PCT. In the summer of that year, I hiked the 222-mile John Muir Trail on raw foods. This trail goes through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California and often matches the route of the PCT through these mountains. The Sierras are stunning, and the beauty on that trail was heartbreaking (see photos to left)..

Bighorn Plateau

Bullfrog Lake

Muir Hut at Muir Pass

Camp at Island Pass

North from Mather Pass

Lower Bullfrog Lake

South from Mather Pass

Wanda Lake

As fate would have it, I met some PCT thru-hikers near 12,000 ft at Muir pass. These folks were more alive than anyone I’d seen in along time. Their eyes sparkled with the mystery and hope that all pilgrims share. I remembered my dream.

Some routes to happiness are easier than others….Carefully follow the path that seems like the most fun.

— Tensin Gyatso, XIV Dali Lama of Tibet

The Soul speaks to us through our feelings. When something captures our imagination and fuels our excitement, we must follow it, or we become dead while still alive.

When the Soul is heard but not engaged, we fall into a type of sorrow, a soul depression.

— Bill Plotkin in “Soulcraft”

When I met those thru-hikers at Muir pass, I knew I had to walk the PCT. In fact, my life depended on it. Once the decision is made to follow the heart, the mind usually objects with all the reasons why this is impossible. Usually, the thoughts start with “I can’t do that because….” It takes courage to ignore all those thoughts and boldly move forward in the directions of your dreams.

If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life you have imagined, you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. You will pass an invisible boundary. New, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within you, and you will live with the license of a higher order of beings.

— Thoreau

All those thoughts that discourage you from following your heart do not take into account the magic that swirls around someone who chooses the Soul path. Making the commitment to Soul causes many magical events to unfold that you never could have predicted would happen which will open the doors for you. All the unseen powers of the Universe will support you. You have to have faith in this and take the leap out into the unknown in order to follow your heart. I highly recommend the book “Soulcraft” by Bill Plotkin.

April 22nd, 2001 I watched friends drive away after dropping me off in the middle of the desert on the Mexican border at the beginning of the PCT. My first thought was, “What was I thinking?!” Yet I really hadn’t been thinking at all, it was my heart that had led me to this place. There was really nothing to do but start walking. So I did. I quit walking 4 ½ months later at the Canadian Border. Along the way, there were many times when I ran into various obstacles and found myself having the ‘what was I thinking’ thought. The intelligent way to deal with an obstacle is to realize that it has been created because your attention has drifted from your intention. Thus, obstacles can be thought of as gifts that help you refocus.

Obstacles are those frightful things that you see when you take your mind off your goals.

— Author unknown

One obstacle I experienced on the PCT comes to mind: I was at my last resupply town on the PCT a mere 90 miles from Canada , the lovely and peaceful town of Stehekin , WA. Stehekin is cut off from the rest of the world by Lake Chelan – the third deepest lake in the world. You can’t drive to Stehekin; you must take the 50-mile long boat ride up Lake Chelan . I got there on a Saturday and my food package had not arrived at the post office. I had enough food with me to make it to Monday so I figured I’d wait and see if my package showed up then. Monday morning at the post office and my package had not arrived. I was stuck. There was nothing at the small grocery store in Stehekin I wanted to eat. My only option was to take the ferry down the lake to the town of Chelan . Unknowingly, as I got into the boat, I laid my pack down in the pile to be dropped off at another town stop along the lake. When we got to Chelan, my pack with all my money and ID and gear were no where to be found. I went into the office and inquired about my pack. They suspected I’d put it in the wrong pile and called up to the other stop. Sure enough, there was a blue pack that no one had claimed sitting out on the dock. They promised to store it safely overnight and put it on the dock next morning, so I could pick it up on the next ferry back to Stehekin. I could only hope they were honest.

So I had no food, no camping gear, and $20 in my pocket as I walked into the town of Chelan . I decided to use the $20 on food at the grocery store before I caught the boat up the lake the next morning. It was Labor Day weekend and fairly cold at night in Chelan at that time of the year. I needed somewhere to sleep. I began walking to hotels hoping for some kind of charity. All the hotels were booked solid and none were open to me crashing on a couch. I walked away from the last hotel feeling a bit strange. I looked down a dark alley behind the hotel and remember thinking something like, “So it has come to this. I walk all the way here from Mexico and I’m sleeping in this alley tonight with old newspaper for covers.” As soon as I had that thought, I caught myself. I remembered all the trail magic I had experienced so far and shifted the thought to “I’ll be OK. Life will take care of me. At worst, I’ll survive one night of being uncomfortable.” As soon as I had that thought, I heard a voice behind me that said, “Are you OK? You look lost.” I turned around to meet a pleasant old man out walking his dog. I told him my story and he said, “I have an RV out behind my house. Why don’t you spend the night there.” I thanked him profusely and accepted. And as I was settling in to my home for the night, he brought me a fresh cut cantaloupe. Angels appear regularly to dispense magic when you are on your Soul path. The next morning I spent my money on food and picked up my pack on the boat ride up the lake to Stehekin. Along with the dates and almonds I bought at the grocery in Chelan, there was enough food left in my pack to get me to Canada

A big trail is just a metaphor for your life. There are emotional ups and downs in life, just like the elevation highs and lows on the trail. The elevation changes on the trail mirror the emotional terrain of your life. Through it all, you just keep walking in the direction your heart wants to go, one step at a time. Obstacles come up as you walk, and you learn to use them as reminders to refocus. A trail thru-hike is elegantly simple. You sleep, you eat, you walk, you take in beauty. You carry everything you need in a small pack on your back. There are very few distractions. Life in the modern world, however, can be full of distractions which pull you off your path by drawing your attention away from your goals. A trail thru-hike is practice for the thru-hike of your life – practice for the skill and art involved in keeping your attention focused on your intention. A trail thru-hike is kindergarten. Life in the modern world is College.

A thru-hike forces you to be in the moment. Walking is a slow process. Our modern transportation makes it easy to focus on the destination rather than the journey. You can’t do that when walking 3000 miles. The physical trail mirrors the time-line of your life. You are always moving, always walking away from the landscapes and campsites of your past and into the new terrain of the present moment. You never linger and try to hold on to a moment. You sleep in a new spot every night. You can see the future coming in the terrain ahead, but it takes a long time to get there. Navigational challenges and the ever-present sensations of your body draw you into the present moment. Everything in nature lives in the present moment and is in flow with the Source of life. You are surrounded by these energies and they work there magic on you. Walking is the way for a human being to move at Nature’s pace. Walking becomes your meditation, your way to flow with the Source of life. Only by being present can you access the Power that can create the future of your dreams. One step at a time turns into Canada.

Finishing a big trail is a moment you never forget. You see your life from a whole different perspective. You are way outside your old box. You have become someone else. You know that anything is possible. At the same moment, you feel a sense of loss, as you realize that this simple way of connected living in nature has come to an end. You don’t want to stop walking. Yet you must in the physical sense. Metaphorically, however, you never stop walking. You apply the wisdom the pilgrimage gifted you with to the rest of your life. You identify your dreams in the world, and you begin walking. Walking may mean starting school, or ending a bad relationship, or moving to the place that calls you, or learning to paint, or improving your health. You combine the power of intention and focused attention with the faith that anything is possible. It is after all, just walking . . . .

 

Doug at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail
September 6, 2001

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