Saturday, August 16, 2014

Top 10 ways through hiking changed me


Almost 10 years ago, on September 25, 2004, I, along with Esther and the many friends of our motley crew, Team Stone Monkey, stood at the Canadian border in Manning Provincial Park, at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thus ended my status as a through hiker. It was my second through hike. I'd hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in 2000. And as I said in the last video taken of me on the PCT, I felt so privileged to be able to do it again, knowing full well, even at the time, how rare an opportunity a through hike is.

 

And now, deeply entrenched in domestic life, paying a mortgage and raising a child, I know even more how lucky I was to be able to hike the long trails and see the best and often most remote natural beauty in the United States. Reminiscing, I wonder, how has being a through hiker changed me? What are the lasting effects of such a profound experience?

 

The following list is a compendium of my thoughts on the matter. No doubt, more could be added to it, and others have noticed different long term effects, but these are mine.

 

1. STEALTH SPOTS. Every time I go for a walk or run, I spot stealth camping spots. Maybe it's soft, needle bedding under a group of pines outside the bank or that picnic table in the park next to the water fountain. Trail life hones good camp spotting skills, and I unconsciously use those skills in urban environments. Honestly, I've only stealth camped in urban areas a handful of times, but I see viable spots wherever I go.

2. NO DOPPLER REQUIRED. I can predict, almost to the moment, when the weather will change. I've been outside on sunny, puffy cloud days and said, sure, we can do such and such activity, but it's going to rain in a couple hours. I'm not always right. Nobody's perfect. Weather is fickle. But I'm in tune to the slightest shifts in barometric pressure and the unnoticed-by-mere-mortals (i.e. non-through hikers) changes in wildlife behavior when the weather is going to change.

 

3. SPATIAL AWARENESS. My current job as a truck driver is easier and safer because I've been a through hiker. On the trail, while one spends an inordinate amount of time looking down a few feet ahead on the trail, one still develops a keen sense of the immediate surroundings and can quickly spot hazards. As a trucker, I use these same skills and take the necessary actions to avoid trouble.

 

4. MODERN MIRACLES. Although the jaw-dropping sense of wonder has diminished, I still find running water, flush toilets, refrigeration, air conditioning, and most other non-trail amenities to be miraculous luxuries. I can still spend hours in the grocery store, roaming the aisles and marveling at the color, variety, and smells of all the products available.

 

5. SENSORY OVERLOAD. I am still sensitive to the artificial smells of detergents, deodorants, and perfumes. Elderly folk who lay it on thick and youngsters emanating Axe body spray give me a headache. I can also smell the musk of urban friendly animals, such as raccoons and possums, before I see them and/or evidence of their passing. Wood smoke, body odor, Dr. Bronner's soap, DEET, peanut butter and any Lipton/Knorr rice/pasta dishes make me nostalgic for the trail life.

 

6. CAMPGROUND ODDITY. Yes, I'm the only guy at the campground using a tarp and bug bivy, and cooking meals using a beer can stove. I'm also the guy who pays for a spot at the campground, but then stealth camps in a spot a short hike away because it's cleaner, quieter, and prettier. And, yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've Yogi'd from other campers ("Wow! That's quite the spread you've got going there!"), not realizing I've done it until halfway through an offered hot dog or hamburger. People tend to be generous to the only guy in the campground using a tarp and bug bivy.

 

7. FAVORED UTENSILS. Even at home, with a wide variety of utensils at my disposal, I have that one spoon and bowl that I use more frequently than all others. I also tend to squeeze the most out of disposable products, such as toothpaste. And although I rarely buy water or soda, when I get a plastic bottle, I will keep using it until it's moldy or leaks.

 

8. PREFERRED BEDDING. I still love to sleep outdoors. When I do sleep indoors, I like to have the windows open so I can awaken to bird song. I also prefer the firmest mattress money can buy. When I am a guest, I often prefer to sleep on the floor or outside, if possible and I know my host won't think it's too weird. I can also sleep just about anywhere. Through hiking has made me very adaptable to any situation, whether that be a weekend with the in-laws or being broken down by the side of the highway during a blizzard. I quickly assess my basic survival needs and relax when assured they're met.

 

9. SOCIAL GRACES. When I see an old friend passing by on the street or at the grocery store, I'm more likely to stop whatever I was doing, lose all sense of time, and devote full attention to their company. As every through hiker knows, serendipitous reunions are precious. You never know when (or if) your paths will cross again. Ice cream may melt, but a chance meeting with a friend is worth the mess.

            Also, I'm keenly aware of fellow wandering spirits. It could be that hippie looking dude with all the National Parks stickers on the back of his Subaru Outback, a sinew-legged bicyclist with the full-on pannier system getting water at the city park, or even a rare backpacker on a city street corner. I will ask them about their journey or past travels and, if appropriate, offer assistance. After all, I have a lot of trail magic to pay forward.

 

10. PORTION CONTROL. This last item is the rare negative lasting effect of being a through hiker. I've had major fluctuations in my weight for most of my adult life and through hiking only exacerbated this problem. A through hike is a great way to lose weight. You can reduce an entire roasted chicken to a pile of bones in and eat one, two, or even three pints of Ben and Jerry's, all in one sitting, and still lose weight. Hiking 20-30 miles a day with a loaded pack on consumes a lot of calories. Unfortunately, for me at least, that ability to consume mass quantities exists in non-trail life. And, doubly worse, because of the starvation it endured on the trails, my body is super efficient at storing fat away for future burning.

Someday, my son will be grown, the bills paid, and with a nest egg of savings and a fattened 401k, I'll be that wizened old fart out there on the Continental Divide Trail, completing my own personal triple crown. In the mean time, there are National Parks to visit, places to stealth camp, and fellow wayfaring travelers to follow online and trail magic to administer in person.

 

As I've learned and live with every day, once a through hiker, always a through hiker. The intensity and beauty of the experience shines through in just about every facet of my non-trail life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was fun! You've inspired me to make one of my own! I too marvel at having had the opportunity to thru hike a few times... Right now that kind of freedom seems so precious!
T-dub