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Oct 292015
 

 

DSCN1132

Walking alone in the wilderness is one of the most instigating-of-inspirational-thought activities a person could do. I’m positive. But that same solitude and rhythm that inspires creative thought can also create a little too much room for predatory loops of thinking you’d probably rather not entertain. But they’re easy enough to identify in their very beginnings. If you “hear” yourself thinking any of the seemingly harmless thought seeds listed below when you’re out hiking in the wilderness for long periods of time, STOP.

Dangerous Thoughts to Entertain When Walking Alone in the Wilderness

“Is this real?”

“What if the apocalypse happened and I’m the only one left?”

“Can my body handle this?”

“Where are my keys?”

“Someone could do whatever they wanted to with me out here.”

“Is that an anvil cloud?”

“I wonder how long it’d take them to find my body here.”

“I wonder what my ex-husband would say about me at my funeral.”

“Why am I talking to myself as if I were four different people?”

“Am I a good person?”

“What am I doing with my life?”

“I bet this forest was clear-cut once.”

“Is it lay-down or fight-back with black bears?”

“What if one of my shoes falls apart?”

“Is this the trail?”

“I feel old.”

“If I could have anything I wanted to eat right now it would be…”

“Did I say something wrong? Is <insert person important to you> mad at me?”

“What if that ‘spring’ water was on the surface once?”

“<insert bad pop song>”

“I can’t.”

“I wonder if <insert current physical complaint> is a symptom of cancer?”

“How many miles to camp?”

“How am I ever going to go back to my life?”

“Did I pack up my tent stakes?”

“Why am I doing this?”

“It’s not broken.”

“What’s that noise?”

“Maybe I could live out here.”

“Would I cut off my arm to free myself from a boulder?”

“<insert any story of hiker demise>”

“Do I look scary?”

“I’m at the summit. This climb is over.”

“It’s just snow.”

“I wonder what my mother/spouse/child is going through because of me.”

“Is that MY smell?”

“It’s hunting hour for mountain lions.”

“Am I hiking fast enough?”

“I wonder how many nights of sleep deprivation it takes for a person to go technically insane.”

“How can she/he love me if she/he <insert words/behaviors of romantic partner>?”

 

I’m sure there’s a million more, unique to your own life and constitution. But these are the ones that span across all generations, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses. Stay vigilant, friends.

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Jun 162015
 

IMG_0211Nothing happens at the end of a trail. There is no reception, no grand prize, not even a decent popsicle. The trail just ends. And you stand there at the artificial boundary that is the terminus and wonder why you raced towards it beyond human capabilities with the conviction of a mother in the throes of delivering a baby.

I had reasons at the beginning of all of my thru-hikes. I wanted a story. I wanted to prove myself to myself. I wanted passionately to become what 5 months out in the wilderness would make of me. They all seemed important at the time, but I forgot about all of them very shortly into the endeavors. Maybe it was because I HAD delivered a baby in this life and knew that to succeed relatively gracefully, you really have to completely surrender to the process throughout all of the challenges and pains and don’t have the luxury of fathoming anything other than the present moment. And I also learned that what happens next, after you finish, is much more difficult than getting to that finish. Goals are not endpoints, but gateways into what’s next, which never happens to be a back-step into ease. Conscious or not, the body never seems to forget these things.

The methods of successfully completing a thru-hike perfectly mimic the basic structure of attaining any large goal. I didn’t rely on any acquired lifetime goal strategies in this way, however. I didn’t have any. But rather, thru-hiking itself taught me how to do this. This is the structure of achieving it taught me.

  1. Make it important. There’s a difference between a “pros and cons” kind of important and an “I’m driven beyond even knowing who I am anymore” important. It has to be made into the latter. Lists of reasons in my head have never gotten me through extremely challenging moments in working towards something. They can easily be reasoned out of. My thru-hikes were important enough because I had woven them deeply into my soul through the use of time and emotion.
  2. Stop making decisions about it. Once you have decided, whether by whim or with excruciating deliberation, call it done and get it out of the decision making part of your brain. You WILL forget why you decided to do it or trivialize those reasons, but you must just trust that you really do want the gifts it will give you. You already figured that out. You don’t need to keep figuring that out. Once you have truly stopped constantly making the decision to do it, you can focus on solving the immediate problems in front of you, or just enjoy yourself. I was going to make it to Canada. That decision, though I still am not sure really why, was never in question.
  3. Make as many aspects of it as you can completely automatic. Cultivate habits that support the goal as quickly as possible. This makes all of those baby steps something you don’t have to make decisions about, or think about with any intention. It creates a force in you that is impelled to do it, beyond your own thinking, forging neural pathways that make your exertions automatic and easy, make them who you naturally are. Habits are much easier to form than you think. Basically you just do the same thing over and over at about the same time everyday until you can no longer not. This is extremely unavoidable on the trail.
  4. “Little picture” things. Narrow your vision when the large vision looks exhausting. This is pretty standard goal achieving advice. On the trail, it translated into just taking the next few steps, or making it to the water source, or to the next trail town. In life, it means stepping back from my 5-year goal and looking at getting through my 5-minute goal.
  5. Take pleasure in the process. I knew there was nothing for me in Canada. I honestly had no desire at all to be in Canada. The goal was about whatever happened on the way there. A lot happened. And the “Canada” part of the goal didn’t play too much into the story. I’ve heard it a mazillion times, “It’s not the destination but the journey.. blah blah blah”, but thru-hiking experientially taught me this. And every single cherished goal is exactly like that. There is no popsicle. It’s the road the goal steers you down and the things that lie alongside it.
  6. Manage your expectations. I haven’t yet found any experience or person or accomplishment that has satiated all of my heart’s desires in life in one fat go. They haven’t rescued me from myself, made me feel “complete”, or done any of my dishes reliably. Finishing the Pacific Crest Trail didn’t do this for me either, even after all I’d been through. Knowing that there is no one circumstance or person that is going to be my big answer to life manages my expectations and keeps me from abandoning goals from disappointment.

Next time I am standing dumbstruck at the terminus of any trail, or other major life accomplishment, wondering why the hell I just made myself go through all that, I will try to remember what the one big goal I have is that absolutely every decision I make is crafted around. Loving who I am, loving others, and loving Life more is my real drive. Tapping any endeavor into my passion for that goal almost perfectly insures its successful completion.

 

 

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Jun 092015
 

recite-16qnb0f

Steve Fugate is a man that has profoundly affected my life. I have never spoken with him, but in 2003 on a return trip home, way out in the middle of the Nevada desert, I saw him walking along an empty state road at 4 in the morning. We were a zillion miles from anywhere and he was out there alone, pushing a shopping cart that contained nothing but a large hand painted sign that read “Love Life”. I burst into tears. Those two words summed up everything I felt I was blessed with in this world, and wanted to share in this world, that I could never quite simplify in my own mind. He brought me together with a purpose I’ve come to call “home”. Whenever I feel lost, I can rely on this profound image of him in the empty Nevada desert burned deep into my psyche to remind me.

At the time, I wasn’t positive I hadn’t hallucinated him. Long car rides on empty highways do that to me. But 7 years later, someone had read my blog post about it , filled me in on his story, and I began to make more sense of it. Another 5 years have passed and I’ve learned that Steve has just finished an unbelievably long walk of over 30,000 miles, crossing the United States six times. He wasn’t trying to test his limits or set any distance records or create a fascinating outdoor adventure for people to read about. He was trying to heal and to spread an important message. He was on a mission. Walking great distances just happened to be the most logical way for him to accomplish that. I highly encourage you to head on over to his website, trailtherapy.org , and read about his journey, his experiences, poetry, thoughts, and see videos others have done about him.

Here is an excerpt from his site that offers his story:

  ” In 1999 I lost my only son to suicide.

             Stevie was operating my business for me while I attempted a “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail. I had traveled just over half the trail when I received word that my son had placed a gun in his mouth and effectively ended both our lives.

             I am convinced that there is no pain equal to that of losing a child. The grief was indescribable. I felt as though someone had taken an axe and chopped out my heart while I was yet breathing! My son, this living, breathing, precious life, my beautiful contribution to the universe, was suddenly gone. I can in no way fully describe the pain, I don’t know how to scream on paper…

            Eight months later I returned to the exact spot where I had stopped my hike and proceeded to finish the “AT” as a tribute to my son. I screamed and cried almost every step of the way but I finished, having walked the entire 2,167  miles. While out on the trail in solitude, surrounded by the magnificent, inspiring beauty that encompasses that soothing and healing footpath, my life took a turn. For me, the Appalachian Trail became a pathway back to life… Trail Therapy. After completing my “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail I adopted a creed; I want no other parent to suffer the horror that I had to go through and I wanted no other young person to miss out on the chance to.. “LOVE LIFE”

            I came up with the idea of walking across the U.S.A. I put a sign over my head..”LOVE LIFE” and off I went! I conveyed my message to all I encountered. I felt it so successful, I did it again. Only this time I walked around the United States.  My beautiful daughter helped orchestrate both walks.

         I was about four weeks from finshing my walk around the U.S.A. when I recieved word that my 36 year old daughter  who suffered from M.S. had died from an accidental drug overdose. Again, my life seemed to be ended. Yet again I  faced the horror! The answer was right there over my own head, I had to push on and.. “LOVE LIFE”… “

 

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Jun 022015
 

  big trees

No, this is not another “benefits of” article. Instead, it’s a personal example of why walking somewhere or even nowhere has come to be my knee-jerk response to just about every stressor in life, positive or negative.

Two weeks ago I was given an experience to voraciously chew on. A little backstory, I am in the middle of a nursing assistant certification program, which requires me to work with the very elderly and with persons in varying stages of illness and disease, some of them dying. Injuries, body fluids, open wounds, needles… none of these things cause any kind of repulsive reaction from me, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I wouldn’t be emotionally triggered by people who were clearly standing on death’s door and were in fear. It’s a hard door to stand at. I know. I stood there. So before I was to begin a round of clinical hours in a hospital setting, I decided to devote a weekend to do some inner housekeeping around death, making sure I had nothing in my psyche I’d impose upon vulnerable others. I purchased a used copy of Ram Dass’s “Still Here”, a book I highly recommend for getting your head on straight about aging and dying, and dove into it, enjoying one of those perfect Portland days streaming in through my open bedroom window. I wasn’t even an hour into it when I heard an enormous commotion going on in the street outside my window. A man was screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs and there were others screaming back at him. There is a man who lives across the street from me who regularly laments rather loudly every time his girlfriend splits up with him (which is often) and I’ve become accustomed to ignoring some yelling and plea-ing. But I can’t ignore the sound of gunshots. I heard five of them and more screaming. I brought myself to the window in time to see a bloodied man running from 4 or so police officers straight into the side of the house across from me, falling onto his stomach into eventual silence. The police had shot him. He didn’t die, but I didn’t know that at the time. A whole bunch of drama continued from that point onward and I don’t particularly care to relate any of it to you. You can imagine.

Besides the emotional significance of witnessing a man shot and (I had thought) killed, there was a visceral shattering of my own feelings of safety by witnessing police officers shoot a person who merely had a kitchen knife in his hand. I became paranoid. Luckily, I had a friend arriving from Arizona, and she wanted to go backpacking. We loaded up enough to exist on for a few days and headed into the Columbia River Gorge. My friend had never been to the Pacific Northwest and had *gasp* never stepped foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, so we did the mandatory walk up Eagle Creek and up and over the Benson Plateau on the Pacific Crest Trail. The stress began to leave my body as soon as the sun hit my face and the exertion flooded me with hormones. The ground was wet and receiving. Natural shapes and beauty softened my vision. The quiet cleared my mind of abstract stresses and perceptual structures. I felt safe there.

What an unbelievably thorough and rich response I received to a simple intention to understand what lived in my psyche about death. I had naively picked up a book, and instead been given an experience that would ride me through my very deepest reactions and feelings about it. I had already made peace in my life with my own death, and now I was given a real beginning to making peace with the death of others.

Walk. Walk out there. It cures everything.

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May 262015
 

benson plateau

Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the single most blissful and transformative experience of my life. But I was also pissed off about 8% of the time. Here are some potentially aggravating scenarios you may encounter to fuel your 8% :

  1. Blisters.
  2. Waterless stretches. (So glad I spent all that money on ultralight equipment because 4 more ounces on TOP of the 22 pounds of water I have to carry would be cruel.)
  3. Animal screaming. (Shrill animal screaming just spanks any other reason you’re being kept up at night.)
  4. Unshakeably needy hikers. (They’re out of food. They’re out of water. They’re out of money. And they MUST talk.)
  5. Disappearing tread. (Wait. Is the trail over? Where’d it go? Is this Canada? Oh, there it is under all that poison oak.)
  6. Wash-outs. (Yes, indeed. The trail did just end.)
  7. Glacier water. (Killing hundred dollar water filters one liter at a time.)
  8. Sundays. (How dare they close the post office. Didn’t they know you were coming?)
  9. Things labeled waterproof. (Nothing is waterproof. Nothing.)
  10. Burn areas. (A big fat feeling of sad.)
  11. Day-hiker questions. (Of course, they might offer you some candy too.)
  12. Hitchhiking. (Bears? No problem. Mountain lions? Not even a threat. Getting into the back of a truck with a couple of drunken maniacs with an “I’m Your Bitch” bumper sticker? Unnerving.)
  13. Commercially dehydrated camping food. (You will find out fairly immediately that your body doesn’t acknowledge it as food.)
  14. The inability to dehydrate beer. (And you won’t carry it unless you’re an intervention level alcoholic.)
  15. Hunting season. (Bullets being the number two sound under animal screaming as terrifying ways to be kept awake at night.)
  16. Raisins. (Raisins failed both “grapes” and “wine”.)
  17. Gear shaming. (Oh you carry a pillow? Wow, I guess you’re new at this.)
  18. People quitting. (You’re leaving me?)
  19. Oats. (Oats aren’t food either. Oats are shavings of cardboard feces.)
  20. The trail banked at about a 30 degree angle for over 80 miles, just enough time to crushingly compress one side of both of your ankles.
  21. Posts on the Facebook PCT page stating how awful all the hikers on the trail this year are. (Yeah, but they’re on Facebook. You’re on the trail. Who wins?)
  22. Gear failures. (It’s going to happen. But even expecting it, it will still piss you off because it will happen mid-section. It’s an unwritten law encoded in the gear’s construction.)
  23. Wilderness fires. (Besides the sad, you’re body wants to behave as if there is an emergency afoot. Cuz there is.)
  24. Infringements of your off-trail universe. (Bills? Damn. Emails from work? Really? Family drama? C’monnnn.)
  25. Your plans. (see: 100 Factors That Will Make Pre-Planning the Details of Your Thru-hike Certainly Ridiculous)
  26. Other people’s plans.
  27. The news. (I’m sorry but I’ve just spent a hundred miles convincing myself that the world is a wonderful and beautiful place.)
  28. Having to stop for a break because your legs are shredded but it’s 45 degrees out and pouring rain. (Collapsing or hypothermia? You decide.)
  29. Empty water and goodie caches. (And yes, you also have to be ashamed that you’re mad about it.)
  30. The McDonalds at Cajon Pass that you’ve been running towards for 15 miles will make you sick. (You ARE about to climb 4000 feet through poodledog bush in 110 waterless degrees after all.)
  31. People that stay awake after 11pm. (This is 2600 miles of parteeeeeee, right?)
  32. $100 hotel rooms that don’t allow hiker room sharing. (You can’t blame them, but ouch.)
  33. Not bringing enough toilet paper.
  34. Post-holing in what you didn’t notice was a creek bed underneath.
  35. Exaggerated weather reports. (I bet you didn’t have any idea how frequently armageddon could occur.)
  36. Absolutely 100 percent incorrect weather reports. (As in, did that storm literally just pop straight up out of the inside of the earth because it certainly wasn’t on the radar map.)
  37. That guy that charges $120 per person to drive you to Lone Pine.
  38. Butt chafe. (Bringing you right back to your infancy.)
  39. Gnats. (Hovering at an eerily constant rate right in front of your face just waiting for the right moment to skinny dip in your ocular juices.)
  40. Water sources labeled “unreliable”. (Can you count on nothing in this world?)
  41. Lava fields. (Were your feet just starting to feel better?)
  42. Just missing an outrageously elaborate trail magic event that everyone’s talking about.
  43. The underwhelming halfway point. (You really don’t know what to feel here. And you’re still in California.)
  44. Mean plants.
  45. Having chocolate melt all over everything in your pack. (and not grieving for the gear, but grieving for the chocolate)
  46. Trail closures for “bridge maintenance”. (What did people do before a bridge was ever there? Turn around and go home? I’m waterproof.)
  47. Unmarked bags of white powders in hiker boxes. (Is it cocaine? Nido? Protein? Butt powder?)
  48. Gas station resupplies. (6 microwave burritos and some Slim Jims should take care of you for a section)
  49. Bear can requirements. (Calm down. I know it’s a good thing. But it still sucks to carry it.)
  50. Mountain bikers on the trail. (It is factually terrifying to have a biker screaming towards you at 35 miles per hour in 18 inch wide tread. It just is. Controversy aside.)
  51. A closed restaurant. The only restaurant. Closed.
  52. People thinking you’re homeless. (I mean, you are. But still.)
  53. The first 100 miles of Washington. (I’m just going to let you find out why for yourself.)
  54. Occupied camping spot. (That’s MINE. I was aiming for it so it’s mine. I believe that’s called “dibs”.)
  55. Having picked all of the M&M’s out of the trail mix by day 2.
  56. False summits. (I’m always speechlessly perturbed when I’ve declared victory on a climb too soon.)
  57. Unburied human feces. (complete with toilet paper… bonus points if it’s actually IN a campsite… extra bonus points if a small rock or stick was placed over it)
  58. Aggressive dogs. (However, nice dogs are the BEST)
  59. Road walks. (Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.)
  60. Anyone being creepy, especially to single female hikers. (And I’ve seen both hikers and supposed “trail angels” doing it)
  61. Someone thinking YOU’RE being creepy when you’re just being nice.
  62. That one tablespoon of instant mashed potatoes that always seems to miss the rehydration cue.
  63. Pitching next to a colony of red ants. (and being too tired to re-pitch)
  64. Someone building a campfire in southern California. (Do you not SEE the state burning down around you?).
  65. The wind disfiguring your sunbrella.
  66. Being in a trail town longer than you want to for reasons beyond your control. (Like snow. Or sickness. Or the damn post office hours.)
  67. Being needy and knowing you’re being needy.
  68. Having to leave the Sierra. (You could totally stay for at least three weeks easily.)
  69. Missing something really cool happening in a loved one’s life. (Can’t you schedule your graduation/marriage/baby/art opening around my thru-hike please?)
  70. Unmarked mystery trail junctions. (It’s probably just a cow path. Right?)
  71. Condensation creating the rain storm of the century inside your tent while you sleep.
  72. Pain. (Oh right. That. That happens a lot.)
  73. Tree plops. (When it’s actually not raining, but a small group of trees decides to gang up on you and discard all collected moisture from the past on top of you at once as you amble beneath them.)
  74.  That one, and there’s only one, slime coated rock discovered during a creek crossing.
  75. That sneaky 500 foot climb you didn’t know was there right before you arrive at your campsite.
  76. Realizing you only have ramen left, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
  77. Deer that eat your clothing. (Didn’t happen to me, but I saw it happen to someone else. He was mad for a WHILE.)
  78. Large hiking groups. (It’s just an overwhelming amount of wahoo in a pristine little wilderness solitude.)
  79. Northern faces of snowy mountain slopes at 4 in the afternoon. (It’s a posthole-a-palooza.)
  80. Getting skinnier than your hip belt can cinch.
  81. Somehow gaining weight. (Thanks estrogen!)
  82. Getting a bad song in your head. (Usually Huey Lewis or Prince. They might even have songs being broadcast into the wilderness.)
  83. Obsessively thinking about anything. (“What am I doing with my life” and relationshit issues seem especially aggressive.)
  84. Persistent fear of heights. (You’d think that’d dissipate after a while wouldn’t you?)
  85. Rocks that navigate their way through your gaiters and into your shoe less than an hour after you put them on.
  86. Leaning into your trekking pole when it’s placed on top of a gopher tunnel. (probably pisses off the gopher more though)
  87. Hikers with giardia passing around their trail mix bag.
  88. Mosquitos that can bite through clothing. (Usually they can’t bite through rain gear, but its wayyyyy too hot to wear rain gear.)
  89. Hike shaming. (You’re doing it wrong. You’re doing it really really wrong.)
  90. Complainers. (Otherwise known as “negative Nancies” or “Debbie downers” or “why are you even out here anyways”. Of course this entire post is one long complaint I suppose.)
  91. Food portions. (The whole “serving size” designations are a fiasco of deceit. There is no way there are 4 servings in a box of mac and cheese. No way. And since when is a hamburger under half a pound?)
  92. Realizing at noon that you’ve walked about 4 miles less than you thought you had. (that math thing)
  93. Large patches of clear-cut forests. (There’s got to be a better way.)
  94. Knowing you’re in a spectacular section of trail but not being able to see due to weather/fog. (Pretty much all of Washington)
  95. Hikers a couple of days in front of you that behave like assholes in trail towns making everyone hate you when you get there.
  96. Persistent bears that check to see if you’ve let go of your food every half hour or so throughout the night.
  97. Having at least 4 miles of exposed ridge hiking both in front and behind you when a lightning storm hits. (I guess I’ll just die now.)
  98. The trail itself becoming a creek. (especially after you’ve ninja-ed across so many to keep your feet dry all day)
  99. Backtracking. (Having to backtrack for any reason whatsoever, usually because you are lost or left your trekking poles,  is infuriating.)
  100.  Sunscreen, Deet, and daily handfuls of ibuprofen. (You know it can’t be good for you.)
  101. The trail ENDING. (How can it do that? How can it take away the most fulfilling and entertaining endeavor you’ve ever had and thrust you so cruelly back into a world of pavement and paperwork?)

The trail is a gift. The trail experience is a gift. Besides parenthood, I can’t recommend anything more highly. But it WILL piss you off, at least 8% of the time.

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May 052015
 

Balancing-on-Blue-3d

So I have been avoiding my beloved blog, right here where you now sit, like the plague. Why? Because it reminds me that I’m not doing anything, and by “anything” I mean that no matter what magnificent accomplishments my mind is conjuring, my ass sits firmly within a receptacle somewhere in the same 30 square mile radius. I’m still. And April, the month that would usually seduce me from anywhere, has come and gone. Sitting still is rough. Sitting still in April is cruelty. But alas I am on a different “trail” towards a different “Canada” and firmly attached to the follow-through. So I’ll just keep padding my bruisey ass and plough forward.

And Fozzie has thrown me a line. Not an actual line of rope or cord which I might need after so much inactivity, but he’s thrown me a line of sanity by mailing me a copy of his book, “Balancing on Blue”, telling the story of his 2012 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’d known from reading his PCT memoir, “The Last Englishman”, that Fozzie knows how to walk me through an experience. Of course I can relate. I’ve done thru-hikes. But the way he brings you into the story, makes you care, even if you  can’t relate, is masterful.

He starts “Balancing On Blue” having a cast of characters, including himself,  introduce themselves to you. At this point in the story you of course have no idea why you want to hear these people’s voices, but as the story progresses, you are happy they poked in and said hello. They develop into their own adventures and it’s wonderful to know where they came from. The story is linear, following the line of the trail itself, letting events and revelations present themselves organically, as they would if you yourself were walking the trail. It’s funny, it’s soft, it’s endearing, and it’s honest. Though a unique story, it’s everyman’s thru-hike, and the next best thing to being there when your ass is ensconced in a receptacle.

I don’t want to give away the story so I won’t, but the end of the book has an epilogue where the peckle of characters we came to know and love throughout the story, including Fozzie, poke in and speak to you again. You find out in their words, what happened to them, in the experience of walking the Appalachian Trail, and the reverberations felt through their lives afterwards. It wasn’t just a bunch of declarations of how great it was or wasn’t, but thoughtful and very actual descriptions of what a thru-hike like that does to one’s life. It made me want to read an entire book that was only that, titled maybe “Now what?”.  It also provides some insights into what is the “dromomania” urge, the nomadic urge to continue wandering and adventuring one’s way through life. It took me many years to make peace with that urge, and his writings help me to celebrate it.

Fozzie has already set off on a new adventure, thru-hiking all 3,100 miles of the Continental Divide Trail. His compass points to Canada once again. I wish the greatest adventures upon him and also the fertilization of a new story to share. If you can’t wait for the book, follow his blog at www.keithfoskett.com. You can also buy his book there or on the Amazon links posted earlier.

 

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Mar 312015
 

exhaustion

It’s 3:43 am. No, I didn’t stay up this late. And, no, I don’t have to be up this early. I’m just awake. My body does this, under the strict micromanagement of my mind, more times than I’d like it too. The busier the next day is going to be, the more likely it is to happen and true to form, my day is packed with all kinds of demands that insist upon a certain chirpiness. And you know what also requires a certain chirpiness? Hiking. Thru-hiking. Traveling. Van-camping. These are all fairly vigorous physical activities, done with a particular expectation of enjoying them, no easy feat when exhausted. Lack of sleep was my number one obstacle on the Arizona Trail in 2010, in Scotland in 2011, on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012, and sure enough I didn’t have the  problem solved on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 either. I wrote whiney pleading blog posts about it. I even offered a $200 reward once if someone could come up with the brilliant solution that would let me sleep out there. No biters. My quest eventually became NOT to figure out how to sleep, but instead to figure out how to enjoy sleep deprivation, which has its merits after all.

So what makes me qualified to offer a post on strategies for sleeping outside? Nothing. Really nothing, because nothing worked for me. BUT, I have researched the holy hell out of it and want to put it on the table for you anyways, because anecdotal evidence points to me being kind of an anomaly. These strategies have worked for me at least sometimes, for others very frequently, and will work for you.

  • First, and most importantly, don’t try to sleep until you’re tired. Don’t go by watch time and don’t try to sleep simply because it’s dark now and you’re bored. Wait. The anxiety created by trying to sleep and not succeeding compounds throughout the night in some complex immutable algebraic way. Read. Eat. Whatever. But don’t lay there bug-eyed staring at your tent wall.
  • The drugs don’t work. Well, okay, they do, but they create other problems. Sleeping pills will make you feel sloggy the next day and give you the gift of a new addiction when you get off trail. Also some people sleep walk on them, which makes camping near cliff edges an interesting scenario. Benadryl, or something like it, seems to work best for other hikers if you must take something, but strangely, it spazzes me out.
  • Alcohol doesn’t work. Well, okay, it does. However, alcohol has that glitch of only working for about 4 hours before making you wake up and stare bug-eyed at your tent wall. It also seriously undermines next day chirpiness.
  • Get all of your hard miles done as early in the day as possible. Your body secretes all kinds of explosive energy potions into your bloodstream when it thinks you’re running like hell from something that wants to eat you, which is pretty much what it always thinks when you’re exerting like a thru-hiker does. Give it time to register “safety” before attempting to sleep.
  • Eat before you sleep. It’s important to help maintain body temperature and keeps you from waking up due to hunger. Chocolate, or any other stimulant containing food is probably counter-productive though.
  • Have “pajamas” or get naked and yes, clean up before you crawl in. Anything you can do to signal to your body that you’re no longer “surviving” but are now resting helps. And indeed I have been kept awake by my own smell before.
  • Try cowboy camping. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but your mind knows that your onion skin of a tent wall is not going to protect you from anything. Really nothing at all, except maybe mosquitos. You can’t trick it into thinking otherwise. When you’re sleeping in the open air, you can see what’s making that noise of doom and will actually feel more secure having the option of perception. Plus, if you are kept awake, you’ll have a deep open sky to stare at instead of your wet socks and snack wrappers.
  • Try “hippie meds”. These include melatonin, valerian, passionflower, chamomile, vitamin B12, magnesium powder, theanine, and warm milk (likely powdered milk in your scenario). For me, valerian and sublingual B12 were the most effective. These supplements invite your body to sleep, instead of slamming it into sleep like chemical drugs do. However, just because something is an herb or supplement instead of a “drug” does not mean it’s a great idea to take handfuls of it or become dependent on it.  Remember that most drugs are really just herbs and supplements concentrated. And they work because they are psychoactive in some way. Brain chemistry is a wonderful thing to keep healthy.
  • Massage. This is where having a love with you is such a gorgeous circumstance. Massage plus head tickles are a winning sleep formula. If you’re alone, squeezing your legs and feet for awhile feels good.
  • Keep your head and feet particularly warm. These are the two areas likely to wake you up if chilled and most likely to get chilled.
  • Sleep near the sound of water. If it’s the weird noises that are keeping you up, camp near a babbling brook or screaming river. It will mask the crunching brush at all hours of the night and soothe your nerves. But make sure you pee before you lie down.
  • Read something inspiring that makes your mind dwell on philosophical and spiritual things. Pray.
  • For women: Pad your hips. I used to wake up frequently because of the pressure on my hips, even though I had the Bellagio of sleeping pads underneath me. I solved this by getting a closed foam sit mat to place under my hips for extra padding. It added 2 ounces to my total pack weight and ended up having a zillion other uses as well.

There is, of course, one obvious and overwhelming strategy that will fix the entire melodrama of not being able to sleep well outside, and that is, become very okay with not getting any sleep. Relax into it. Don’t make it “a thing”. I am living walking proof that sleeping is not necessarily mandatory, certainly not for survival, and with the right mindset, not for happiness either. You WILL sleep, sometimes. And that will have to be enough. And it will be. Don’t let anxiety zap away the few granules of energy you do have from the 15 minutes of sleep you did get.

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Mar 162015
 
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Go ahead and Google “benefits of walking”. After you’ve sifted through the 227,000,000 hits (that’s really the number) for that string, Google “benefits of being in nature”. After you’ve sifted through the 744,000,000 hits for that string, you might have an educated shot at forming a decent arsenal of defenses for your hiking obsession should anyone hassle you about it. Or I could just paraphrase the consensus for you. Hiking will lower your blood pressure, cortisol, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. It will clear your mind and reduce stress, keep you from getting obese, and damn near do your dishes. It’s the apple cider vinegar of the activity world. But we all know that and those blah blah blah reasons comprise zero percent of the real reasons any of us head out there.  We go out there for our own weirdo reasons. But they’re hardly defensible to the general public. Here are my favorite 8 scientifically proven blah-blah-blah ways that a long walk in the woods is good for you, you know, in case you’re hassled about it (or more commonly, hassle yourself about it).
  • Because forest bathing.

There’s a word. “Shinrin-yoku”. It’s a Japanese word that roughly translates to “forest bathing”. I’d love to stop the description right there, because the phrase “forest bathing” is seriously enough. But I promised to bring science in. Plants and trees, in their infinite wisdom, secrete a substance into the air called phytoncides that protect them from fungi and bacteria. When we breathe that substance into our own bodies, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor and virus-infected cells in our bodies. And, if you’re out there at the right time of year, you are also forest-bathing in tree sex, commonly called “pollen”. Pollen has been shown to increase capillary strength and inhibit atrophy of glands in humans. Killer cells and super-hero capillaries? Bathe me.

  • Because art.

When you’re out in nature, you’re standing in art. As a matter of fact, you’ve skipped the middle man. Nature and it’s nuances are most frequently what art is trying to communicate to the civilization-bound. And you’re right there!!! So? Well let me tell you what art, or the beholding of beauty, does to the human brain. According to a well-documented study, art viewing stimulates the ventral striatum, a set of regions in the brain involved in drug addiction and gambling. It also activates the hypothalamus (associated with appetite regulation) and the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with risk-taking, impulse control, and detection of social rules).  Simply put, it livens up the reward circuitry of the brain, increasing happiness and a mentally healthy state not bent on destructive behaviors.

  • Because the earth isn’t flat.

I don’t know about you, but I have experientially confirmed that I was not evolved to walk upon flat concrete. 2600 miles of dirt and rock have not bothered me. But have me walk a 5 mile loop of sidewalk? Ouchhhhhhhh… When you’re walking on uneven surfaces, such as dirt and rocks, your feet are forced to strike the earth in a different place with nearly every step which helps prevent overuse injuries. You also usually step with a great deal more care and deliberateness in a natural quest to maintain balance, which reduces the impact and can do wonders for your coordination and agility. The official word for this is “proprioceptive”. Also, it’s harder. You burn more calories and attain the beloved “endorphin high” much more rapidly.

  • Because germs and dirt and unpleasant temperatures.

Exposing oneself to temperatures outside of what’s comfortable does amazing things to the body’s circulation and adaptability. Exposing oneself to various germs and bacteria does the same to the immune system. In short, it’s not the healthiest choice to constantly princess your body through life.

  • Because walking is boring.

Unless you’re walking through some abandoned mine fields in Bosnia, nothing ever happens out there.  But this boring-ness has some incredible benefits for you and they’re called “meditation”. Since you still have a Google search window open, go ahead and Google “benefits of meditation”.  Once you’ve sifted through the 27,700,000 hits offered, carefully selecting only the scientifically actually factually proven ones,  you’ll be sold. Here’s the short list. Meditation lowers high blood pressure, reduces the levels of blood lactate which reduces anxiety levels, increases energy, boosts the immune system, and increases the body’s level of serotonin which simply makes you happen. I won’t even begin on the foo-foo reasons. But the reason I include meditation on the list of my favorite walking benefits, is because it’s a clear tool of meditating for those of us who do nothing but sit and think about what we forgot on our grocery list every time we try to sit down and “pay attention to our breathing”. It happens to a lot of us. I’m going to throw caution to the wind and even say it happens to MOST of us, saving the very experienced. Walking keeps our bodies busy, and the rhythmic repetition of it lulls me into a trance damn near every time. The lack of stimuli empties my mind, which is then free to be filled with God, brilliance, and most importantly, silence.

  • Because light.

We need natural daylight. Need it. Beyond our need to absorb Vitamin D and suppress the production of melatonin during the day, there have been studies that have concluded that we have non-visual retinal responses to light that mediate a number of neuroendocrine hormonal functions, which, in turn, regulate such mechanisms as pubescence, ovulation and a wide variety of daily rhythms. Ultraviolet radiation intensifies the enzymatic processes of metabolisms, increases hormone system activity, and improves the tone of the central nervous and muscular systems. And without it, well, SAD.

  • Because “SQUIRREL!”

Hiking in nature benefits cognition, but I’m sure you already encountered that fact ad nauseum from your initial Google search (you did that, right?). But I bet you didn’t encounter this particular reason for the benefit. This reason has to do with attention and quality of attention of which we have two types, involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes. It is the directed attention that plays a prominent role in successful cognitive and emotional functioning, including the development and preservation of short-term memory. Natural environments only invoke involuntary attention modestly (as in “SQUIRREL”!) and allow directed-attention  a chance to replenish. Doing this purposely is called “Attention Restorative Therapy”.

  • Because it’s not all about YOU.

I think it’s true that, indeed, hiking in nature will turn you into a superhero. But life isn’t all about you. It’s about so many other things including you. One of those “things” is the preservation of what is beautiful and precious about existence. Not FOR us, but just because. What you love, you protect. Being out there offers very few other options than falling in love with the land. It smacks you while you were trying to worry about your bills and what your coworkers said. I suppose there a few that this doesn’t happen to, but my experience has been that it happens enough. It’s important. And I hope it happens to you.

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Mar 022015
 

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I’ve been fasting from writing for approximately three months now. This very post is my “break fast”. I did it because a purge was needed to reset my developing maniacal attachment to a having a story when I should be busy having an experience. I’ll try to explain it in terms of photography.

Long long ago I ceased and desisted the activity of taking pictures when I’m out and about on a adventure. It happened all of a sudden in a moment when I was in a very spectacular place in Scotland. I had worked hard to get there with a friend of mine and was overwhelmed with the joys of both endorphins and the unbelievable beauty I was standing in. So I took out my camera and began clicking away from every possible angle and aperture, clearly irritating my companion. Eventually he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it.

“You know, if you google this mountain in images you will get at least 4,000 pictures of this exact location you’re standing in right now and they will all be better than yours.”

Point. I put the camera away.

On the hike back down the mountain, I thought about it more. Not about the pointlessness of scenic picture taking for the non-professional. That was an epiphany derived in totality from a single sentence. But I thought about why picture-taking was my first impulse when confronted with beauty and what it did to my experience of it. I came to understand that picture-taking for me was likely an expression of whatever consumer mentality lived in my brain. I wanted to own some of that beauty, bring it home, keep it, identify myself with it. Turns out I had an outright agenda with beauty, and photography was going to be my tool to achieve it. Without photography, I was just, well, IN it. And being IN it was exactly what I was avoiding by being a passionate picture taker. It made me approach each expanse, each mountain, each vista, each fellow hiker, each experience as a potential photograph, something capture-able within a frame, seen through a selective pointing of the lens. It separated me from where I was, almost as if I had surrounded myself with a wall of opaque bubble wrap and then carved a 35 millimeter hole to look out from. What I really wanted was to figure out how to BE with beauty, you know, just hang with it, so I started leaving my camera at home and haven’t picked it up since.

But many years later, I made the discovery that the “story” is really another camera lens. I love writing. I’m passionate about it. I truly wake up in the middle of the night because yet another metaphor for beets is dying to be born through my hands. But like a camera lens, it narrows my focus. Approaching an experience with the agenda of having something to say about it, keeps me from actually having that experience. I am “selecting” the best story and steering my perceptions accordingly. I’ve then stepped out of the experience and into the frame of my “story”. I’m a firm believer that a writer should genuinely have something to say, something authentic to share, or not write. A writer has to have experiences, be IN them, be changed by them in complete surrender to them. Approaching them with a consumer mentality, a story “neediness”, undermines their impact. For me. In my mind there’s nothing necessarily wrong with having an ability and a desire to share life experiences, perspectives, and beauties with others, through photography, writing, art, whatever.  It resurrects it within ourselves to do so. It’s joy. And it’s what I’m passionate about. But I won’t sacrifice the actual beauty or experience to do so, and so an occasional purging of a perceptual agenda is necessary.

So letting go of the “story”, I just did nothing but sit IN a whole whollop of living for the past three months. I lost family, gained family, found a new “Canada” for myself, did a whole bunch of putzing all over the place and …  well… really I don’t have a damn thing to say about it.

 

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Nov 122014
 

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I’m just going to say it, even though I’m sure there will be a riot of defense for it, that I don’t really like the term “Hiker Trash”, so commonly used to refer to other people in the trail community.  I know it’s said warmly, fondly, with an intent of inclusiveness and pride. But I don’t think it adequately pegs the average long distance hiker. I am a member of that community, but I’m not trash, I’m absolutely badass royalty out there <a-hem>, and should therefore be called “Hiker Queen”. But I’d settle for “Hiker Chick” or maybe even just “Hiker”. Regardless of what I’m called, this is what it means to me to be a passionate long-distance hiker.

  • Time on the trail is “real life” and time spent in civilization is the “sabbatical”, used mostly for preparation for “real life” back out on the trail.
  • All challenges that do not involve immediate survival needs or trip plans are considered abstract and tiresome.
  • There must be cold air on my face for me to sleep.
  • When wildfires run out of control, I grieve more for lost wilderness than lost “properties”.
  • Walking now solves every discomfort  I become burdened with, physical or emotional.
  • Anyone encountered out there is family.
  • I’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen about routes, gear, trail stories, plans, food, and map sets. Usually only other hikers will listen.
  • Life stays interesting.
  • Asphalt has become nearly impossible to tolerate as a surface for walking, or *gasp*, running.
  • I become really not okay, both physically and emotionally, if I’m not active for very long.
  • “Hike Your Own Hike” has replaced “Live and Let Live” as the mantra for tolerance.
  • I no longer judge people for how they look or how much money they make, but instead judge them for their average baseweight, the number of miles they walk a day, and whether they bury their shit properly or not.
  • I love life, and have renewed faith in the ability of nature, beauty, and solitude as valid pathways to the Divine.
  • I know that almost everything is survivable.
  • I don’t work out to stay healthy or look good, I work out to “train for —“.
  • I always have the gear and full supplies to be able to take off at a moment’s notice.
  • Everything I own fits in a backpack and a “town clothes” duffel and I get that weird feeling in my gut when I start to acquire more.
  • Outside is always better, regardless of weather.
  • I’ve become less afraid of natural things and more afraid of people and cars.
  • Life has facets of wonderfulness I never knew existed before my trail experiences.

Though I am becoming more and more settled into life off the trail, harboring ambitions to maybe even instigate a new career path that would keep me at a home base with some regularity, I will always crave the trail journey. I will want dirt, hypothermia, and dehydrated refried beans. I will feel underweight without 30 extra pounds on my back.  I will be antsy if I’m physically comfortable. I will always be a Hiker Chick/Queen/Trash.

 

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