Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Why I Love Hiking


This isn't my personal before and after x-ray, but mine looks very similar.  Four days ago I had a partial knee replacement on my right knee.  This is the knee that took me off-trail in 2017, 2019, and 2022.  Basically I had a pretty bad tear in the meniscus, but only in the medial compartment.  My initial recovery is going well, and ideally I should be able to day-hike as early as August, just three months after the surgery.  

Resting and recovering has given me plenty of time to just sit and think, and with the prospect of a working knee I've started thinking about backpacking again.  I've also watched some PCT thru-hiking videos and I've thought more about the experience of long-distance hiking.

As context, I hiked the PCT in 2017, but didn't quite finish, partly due to my knee and partly due to the heavy snows that year.  Then in 2018 I did a full-hike of the PCT in one season, aka a thru-hike.  I've chipping away a little at the miles that I missed in 2017 and have about 250 miles to go to finish a "section hike" of the PCT as well, which I hope to be able to conclude in 2024.

Completing the PCT is a significant accomplishment.  It requires persistence, effort, endurance of discomfort, toleration of risk, and skills, especially during stream crossings and crossing steep snow fields.  Overcoming injuries and pain is almost inevitable during a long hike.  Many hikers will fall at least once during a thru-hike, and many will have to overcome blisters, sunburn and other over-use injuries.  Snow-covered trails, fire closures, difficult weather, and finding water require problem solving.  Conditions sometimes require hiking at night or in very uncomfortable weather.  All together, when a hiker finishes the trail they have achieved something.  

At the same time, it's possible to develop a grandiose assessment of this attainment.  You can quickly confirm this tendency by watching a few "my PCT hike" videos on YouTube, where hikers conquer "heinous" mountain passes on their "epic" journey.  It is after-all just a lot of hiking on a rather well-maintained trail not too far from civilization.

Looking back from the age of 66, five months thru-hiking the PCT does not stand out for me as a singularly defining milestone in my life.  Married life, having a career, raising children, and renovating our property all took more time and effort.  Getting up everyday and hiking was easier in many ways than getting up every day and working a corporate job.  So, this is a very roundabout way of saying that the "achievement" aspect of hiking isn't too important or meaningful to me.

Despite vague expectations that hiking the PCT might be a deeply spiritual and life-altering experience, most hikers find that the changes to their perspective are subtle.  Attitudes toward cleanliness, creature comforts, and food shift, but after a period of readjustment most people get reintegrated into ordinary life within about a month, and this was true for me as well.

So, what is it about hiking the PCT that is so compelling, so enticing, so invigorating, and so addictive that people will quit their jobs and take six months out of their life to hike the trail?  Here's my own working list of what typically makes the experience worthwhile:

  • The Beauty and Diversity of Nature:  To some degree just the number of hours of walking combined with the many different ecosystems that you will walk through give you opportunities to see nature in more of it's variety and beauty than if you just went to an arboretum or visited the many different viewpoints along the road.  To be sure, there is a lot of repetition, but the constantly changing landscape keeps it interesting.  I have a friend who only wants to see the most spectacular vistas.  If that's you, then you will be disappointed by the PCT.
  • Immersion in Nature:  During a long hike you are immersed in nature far more than on a day or weekend hike.  You aren't even sleeping in campgrounds, just finding a flat spot to throw down your tent at the end of the day.  You are drinking water from streams.  When the sun goes down the air gets cold, and in the afternoon it can be baking hot.  When it rains you are wet, and in a storm sometimes you can't see 100 feet.  Where there is a ridge you hike up and over it, and where there is a valley you hike into it.  That intimacy with the landscape and the realities of nature is uniquely soul satisfying and it really kicks in after weeks rather than days.
  • Constant Awareness and Attention:  Without overstating the risks, when on a long hike you can never forget about water, weather, where you can camp next, your own body, and your very-next step on the trail.  It's not a high level of attention, but it's constant, and this gives it an almost meditative quality.  Your mind can wander, but part of you needs to stay with the hike all the time.  If you snap off a hiking pole by not paying attention, you can't just pop down to the store and get a new one.  If you step on a loose rock and sprain your ankle, you could suffer a lot limping off the mountain.
  • Operating Near your Limits:  The experience of hiking nearly to exhaustion day-after-day is strangely invigorating.  Rather than feeling oppressed, you feel completely vital and alive.  You come close to your limits, ideally without crossing over into over-use injuries.  Some people try to find their limits by doing the "24 Hour Challenge:" trying to cover as many miles as possible in 24 hours.
  • Kinesthetic experience:  I ran into a woman on trail near Big Bear who was about to quit her hike for the reason that "hiking is boring."  If you don't enjoy the movement of your body as you swing down the trail, there can be many miles that will simply seem monotonous.  Hiking through a forest, there isn't a lot of variety visually, but (when I'm not in pain) every step has a kinesthetic pleasure within it.  This feeling often builds as your body gets stronger.
  • Social Experience:  At a minimum, most of us enjoy the simple comradery of a shared experience.  When on trail you feel like you belong to an exclusive club.  Even if you aren't tightly connected to a hiking partner or a "trail family" you will inevitably run into other hikers, make friends, hike together, share life stories and meals together.  It's pleasant and affirming.  Trail angels also create a positive social experience along with snacks and rides into town.  Many people make long-term friends hiking the trail together.
  • A Different World:  In the simplest terms, in long-distance hiking I've gotten used to hitch hiking, night-hiking, USPS general delivery, Amtrak, Greyhound, coin-operated showers, bumming TP from strangers, and the wonderful properties of Ibuprofen.  I've met nurses, pilots, financial wizards, wildlife biologists, baristas, and smoke jumpers.  I've eaten tortillas with peanut butter, ramen with fresh eggs, and way too many kinds of freeze dried dinners.  Variety and change is good for us.
I'd be interested in other people's experiences and thoughts on hiking or whatever you enjoy.

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