Nothing 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.