"Lessons from the Continental Divide Trail" [Part 2 of 3]: The Personal
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The practical stuff is fairly straight forward. It’s basically a list of things that helped me to stay alive and somewhat sane along the trail this year. By comparison, the personal lessons from the CDT were a bit harder to learn and will be harder still to explain. These weren’t necessarily the lessons about staying alive. These were the lessons about maintaining my personal sense of self and sanity.
We all have some inner demons that we haven’t taken the time or energy to work through, and I’m not exception. The trail has been the place where, for many years now, I’ve been able to explore the dark spots in my life and do some work in making them better.
Thru hiking reduces me to something more authentic—more of what I feel like I’m supposed to be. It’s an introspective lens into the life that I was living before the trail and the life that I want to be living after the trail. It’s a chance to face insecurities and rearrange priorities.
As with my list of practical lessons learned from the CDT, this list of personal lessons is far from exhaustive. I’ve learned enough about myself via thru hiking that I should write a book about it sometime. This list is merely a sample of something much larger –a compilation of the things that stick out to me the most as I look back.
It’s possible to thrive in the midst of extreme discomfort.
There have been studies that compare people’s expectations of their own abilities with what they can actually do when placed in challenging situations. What the data shows, time after time, is that we often underestimate ourselves until we’re put to the test. Some evidence indicates that that what we believe to be our limit is only 40-60% of what we can actually take if the right situation calls us to give our all. But today we live in a world of such relative comfort that it’s rare for our threshold to discomfort to ever be tested.
As such, it’s hard to know what we can do until we’ve tried.
I learned this lesson the first time back in 2011. Before my walk of the Arizona Trail that year my longest hike had been just under 100 miles. That year I went into planning for the AZT thinking that this would be four times longer. It wasn’t until well into my telling the world that I was going to set out to hike from Mexico to Utah via the AZT that someone pointed out to me that it wasn’t just 400 miles long… it was 800 miles from end to end!
Somehow I’d misread the mileage of the trail when I skimmed over the Wikipedia page, and well into my planning phase I’d been thinking that it was only half as long.
If I’d known from the beginning that the AZT was going to be 800 miles long, I doubt if I ever would have had the balls to hike it. I already thought that 400 miles in a single hike was going to push the limitations of what was possible… and this was going to be that distance twice over. Like we all do, I was underestimating myself—believing that I was capable of far less than I had in me.
After that summer I had a strange urge that I’d never quite felt before. The Arizona Trail had taught me that my limits were a lot further out than I thought them to be, but that only meant that I no longer knew what I could do. If I was able to finish the Arizona Trail, in spite of it being twice as long as I’d expected, I wanted to push the limit farther by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Once that one was done it only made sense to find one that was longer still. And in a nut shell, that’s how I ended up on the Continental Divide Trail.
The CDT wasn’t like the other trails that I’ve walked though. For a while I tricked myself into believing that the differences between the CDT and the other trails I’d hiked didn’t matter and that at the end of the day this was just another long patch of dirt stretching from one point to the next. But after encountering Colorado with all the snow that was left over from last winter, I had to change my tone. After the lessons that the Colorado CDT had to teach, I feel like it would be silly to even try and convince you that the CDT is like the PCT or the AZT or the CT. Anymore I’ll tell you this about the CDT: it’s just like every other hiking trail, but at the same time it’s completely different. The challenges of the CDT are all turned up in comparison with what I experienced on trails that I’d hiked before this summer. The colds are colder, the hots are hotter, the solitude is more overwhelming, the climbs are longer, and the miles stretch on for just shy of infinity.
I’d never seen a trail that was so hard to follow… but I followed it anyway. I’d never seen trails where wildlife was such a major concern… but I still managed to carry on all the same. I’d never seen a trail where snow stretches on for what feels like forever… but I still kept walking along.
Unfortunately I finally met the limitations of my physical ability at around 2,900 miles into the trail. I was a hundred miles short of finishing. I’d been walking for more than 145 days. I’d seen what I thought was going to be the hardest stretches of the trail.
But winter came early to the northern states of the CDT this year. Whereas I had been hoping and praying for the winter snow to hold off until late October or maybe even November, I ended up encountering my first fresh snow on September 10th. From there it went from bad to worse.
The absolute worst of it hit me just outside of Augusta, Montana—the town that I needed for resupplying before going into the Bob Marshal Wilderness. While I was in Augusta, the largest early winter storm that any local had seen in decades landed right on top of the CDT. In some places there was as much as four feet of fresh snow accumulation in just 36 hours.
Well, the story from there is a long one that I’ve written about at length in my blog titled “After the Storm: A Two-Month Check-In.” The basics go like this though: After seven days of winter hiking through snow that was sometimes above my waist, a second storm descended onto the trail and trapped me in the mountains where I was eventually extracted by Search & Rescue on the evening of October 8th.
I met the limitation of my physical abilities about thirty seconds before hitting my Spot “SOS” beacon that day. Doing so was one of the hardest choices that I’ve ever had to make, and one that I still lose sleep over at night sometimes. Ultimately however, I know that it’s the choice that led to having my life saved that night, so I try to not be too hard on myself.
This short version of a long story is really just a long way of saying that the limit isn’t where I’d drawn a line for myself back in 2011 before I ever got into thru hiking. The limit for me is much, much deeper into the wild. It’s in a place that I never would have met if I’d not put so much value into thru hiking over the last ten years.
You don’t know your own limitations until you’ve pushed beyond the point that you thought was possible. The little advice that I’ll give on the subject—although I stress the inferiority of any advice that I’d ever offer up for the taking—is to seek personal empowerment by searching for your own limits. But approach them cautiously and maybe not alone in the Bob Marshal Wilderness, if at all possible.
Rain sucks less after you’ve hiked a couple thousand miles in it.
Said differently, “pain and discomfort fade like anything else.” It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that some bad things will last forever, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been in the storm that felt like it would go on until the end of time. I know the feeling all too well when that first raindrop of a storm hits my bare skin. Anymore however, the revulsion is measurably less than it used to be, because I’ve been in enough rain to know that storms pass and that the sun comes out tomorrow.
I think back to how I felt at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail, standing next to the United States border with Mexico and how different I felt 124 days later at the Canadian border. At the start of the PCT I felt overwhelmed; it looked impossible in every way. I understood on a fundamental level that thru hiking was just about taking things one day at a time and letting those days turn into weeks and letting the weeks turn into months, but to stand at the beginning of such a long trail and imagine the miles ahead can be a lot to take in all at once.
It scared the hell out of me when I began thru hiking.
At the end of that same trail however, it was no longer a fear of being alone in the wild that left me overwhelmed. That’s what I had feared standing next to the Mexican border, but now that fear had been replaced by the fear was having to go back to the world that I’d lived in before the hike began. I went from being afraid of having to spend all that time alone to being afraid of having to give it up.
The fear became the comfort after the passage of miles and time.
I never got much into hiking during the 20 years that I spent growing up in Alaska. That isn’t to say that I never hiked, but that hiking wasn’t an obsession for me like it has become over the last ten years. Although there were a lot of amazing hiking opportunities around where I grew up, a lot of the reason that I never took to hiking while I lived up there was because the weather in Alaska can be so terrible. In the summer it rains, and in the winter it snows. The sun comes out sometimes too, but rarely enough that for the sake of this conversation, it’s a moot point.
More often than not, if I made plans for a multi-day hike, the weather would turn bad and I’d have to cancel going out at all.
Then, when I moved to Arizona in 2006, that problem went away. The weather was almost always beautiful, and so I fell into hiking down here because it was a way that I could spend my time that gave me fulfillment without having to worry much about the weather.
When I went out to hike the Arizona Trail in 2011, I was far from over my fear of rain. But with a trail that long, I was bound to encounter bad weather along the way. It wasn’t until that hike that I really started to acknowledge that weather seems to affect me more than it does for others. I mean, nobody really wants to be out on trail for days on end in the rain, but for me, that rain has always seemed to penetrate a bit deeper into my bones than the. A day of rain on the trail would throw me into a funk for up to a week afterword. I hated it!
None of that had changed when I set out to hike the PCT. But by then I’d seen enough bad weather on trail to have learned to tolerate it—as if there was really any other option but to tolerate it. Tolerate it or get off the trail and go home. Thru hiking isn’t for fair-weather-friends.
Then somehow, by the time that I got to the Colorado Trail in 2018, I found myself feeling almost indifferent to the rain. Were it not for the rain, I wouldn’t have been able to hike that trail in the first place. That summer a severe drought had hit the state and two major wildfires caused the southern miles of the CT to close altogether. Within a week of my starting the hike at the southern terminus however, rains fell, the fire was extinguished, and the trail reopened.
It changed how I felt about precipitation. You’d think that I’d have learned that lesson in the deserts of Arizona, but in the end, it was passed down to me from Colorado.
I don’t think that I’ll ever reach a point where I’m completely impervious to the effects of rain on a long trail, but I have come to peace with the fact that the rain, just like everything else in nature, is indifferent to my existence. It’s easy on a long hike to feel like the trail is fighting against you or that mountains were formed specifically to impede on your northbound progression, but none of that is really true. As you start to come to peace with nature’s disinterest in your existence, you become less hurt when the weather isn’t to your liking. Then you can get back to the tasks that really matter—like walking.
So long as it’s not snowing, you can keep going.
Once the hike was over, I could look back and say with confidence that the weather and trail conditions that I encountered on the CDT were by far the worst that I’d ever seen in my life. Hell—it’s not even too far-fetched to say that they were the worst conditions that I’d ever so much as imagined! And a great deal of that had to do with snow.
It was a terrible snow year for NOBO hiking through the Colorado CDT because of what still remained from the previous winter’s snow accumulation. Additionally, it was one of the worst years to NOBO hike through Montana because of unprecedented early-season snowfall that started in September and only continued to dump as the season went on.
Before the CDT I had some experience in winter hiking and snow navigation, but nothing that could have prepared me for what I would encounter in the South San Juans of Colorado. After that however, I began feeling fairly seasoned in winter travel and its unique challenges.
The trail had a lot to teach me this year about tolerance to discomfort. The main take away was this: I can keep pushing when it’s too hot, when it’s too cold, when it’s too wet, when it’s too muddy, when it’s too anything… except for too snowy.
Snow is the one thing that I found this year that can turn a three-mile-per-hour hiker into a nine-mile-per-day hiker. And since fresh snow in particular brings sub-freezing temperatures, the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia multiply many fold in blizzard conditions.
Since the CDT is literally a trail that follows the mountainous watershed of the Continental Divide from border to border, a great deal of its miles are at high elevation where snow is a more dangerous variable than it is for a lot of other hiking trails. Take for example the comparison between high points on the CDT and the Appalachian Trail: The highest Point on the CDT is at 14,278 feet above sea level, whereas the high point on the AT is at 6,643 feet. There’s just more high elevation on the CDT than you’ll find on most other trails. And where there’s elevation, there is snow.
So long as it’s not actively snowing however, and you’ve done your due diligence to keep your gear as dry as possible, you can keep hiking and you probably won’t die, even if sometimes the conditions absolutely suck. Remember that the rainy days are there to make you grateful for the clear ones and that the snow is there to help you find the limitation to your perseverance.
Nobody really cares about your damn thru hike.
Okay, okay, okay. Slow down! Let me try to not get ahead of myself here…
I should start off by acknowledging that I have readers and viewers of the material that I produce about the trail. Many of you are loyal fans of my written and video work, and some have even supported me financially over the years. I’m not trying to dismiss any of that.
What I’m really trying to point to is a lesson I picked up this year from the CDT that somehow just hadn’t fully dawned on me until this summer. It goes like this: how I experience a thru hike is categorically different from how anyone else experiences it on the outside. They see the photos of the desert sunset, but they never know the feeling of relief it brought after walking through the heat all day. They see the blankets of snow that cover every horizon, but they never feel the agony of trying to walk through it for days at a time. They see the finish photo, but they never feel the sense of accomplishment.
Everything that happens to you on the trail is… well… happening to you. Your friends and family will want to know about it, but they’ll never be able to understand it in the way that you do. Even other thru hikers won’t get the same thing out of the trail as you have.
This walk is yours and yours alone to experience and try to understand, if you’re like me and find meaning in trying to do so.
The reason that I share this insight is not because I want to dismiss the things that others will get vicariously through my thru hiking experience; it’s to point in a different direction entirely. It’s to say that if your reason for thru hiking is based on what anyone thinks about you, then you might want to reassess your motivations.
There was a time when I hiked largely because I thought it made a difference in how people perceived me. I wanted to be seen as brave and adventurous, and so the trail seemed like a natural place to develop those qualities. Do I feel more “brave and adventurous” now that I’ve hiked a few trails? Sure. Do I think people see me any differently than they did before? Not really. And even if they do, it matters to me very little anymore.
At first I wanted to thru hike to prove that I could do something as remarkable as walking 800 through the Arizona wilderness. It sucked. A whole lot of that trail was miserable. There were good times too, but in my memory of the Arizona Trail, there were a lot more instances of hardship than there were moments of bliss.
As time went on however, I learned to hike for my own reasons. I continued to hike because I had experienced first-hand how much of a benefit it had on me as a person and because nothing else in the world could compare with what I’d found by hiking for so many months on end. If other people want to admire me for the simple fact that I’ve made thru hiking a priority my life, well that’s nice. But it no longer motivates me to keep going.
What motivates me to keep hiking is that I know it affects in a way that can’t be ignored. I do it because I feel like the best version of myself when I’m on trail. I do it because I genuinely believe that there are lessons that can’t be learned in a classroom.
Especially on the CDT, I encountered enough acute moments of challenge that if I’d had to get through by hiking out of spite or just to prove a point to someone else, then I never would have made it to Canada. I made it through the real moments of struggle by remembering that when I’m in my final years and I look back on the life I’ve lived, I will know that I did my best to live life to the fullest.
Remember then—nobody really cares about your thru hike. Do it for yourself.
Drink the beers when they’re offered to you, but don’t drink ten.
A lot of perspectives shift after enough time on a long trail. So what seems ridiculous off the trail doesn’t always seem that way at mile 2,500 of your walk across the country. Perfect example: think of how weird it would be to eat (poorly rehydrated) macaroni and cheese for dinner almost every night for 130 nights in a row, or wearing the same pair of underpants for five months straight, or consuming a candy bar with every single meal for the entire summer. But the trail is different from the rest of the world. It forces us to accept a new set of standards and learn that “normal” is all just a product of circumstance.
With that in mind, I’ll go a bit further: In the outside world it would be weird to take a beer if it’s offered to you at nine in the morning. On the trail, take the beer. You probably won’t see another one for the next hundred miles.
On the Colorado Trail I decided that I’d go without drinking. It had been six months since I’d had any alcohol, and although I hadn’t forsaken the bottle altogether, I had decided to take the year off. So it became awkward on the few occasions when someone on the trail or in a trail town and offered me a beer. “Thanks, but no thanks” just doesn’t have the same pizazz as “You bet’cher’ ass I’ll have a beer.”
On the Colorado Trail I had been sober for some time, so it only made sense that I’d refrain from drinking during the month that I was out there. And although it was of benefit to me in some ways, one of the few regrets that I really have from that trail is that I passed up the beers when they were offered to me. I had multiple instances both along the trail and in towns where someone offered to gift me a drink and I turned them down on principle. Looking back on it now, if I could change one thing about how I approached that hike, I’d tell myself to drink the beers and live a little.
But everything in moderation…
Hiking out of Leadore, Idaho was a weird experience in and of itself. Up to there I had hiked around a third of the trail completely alone, and the sections that I’d hiked with others were only with one to three people at a time. But leaving Leadore we were a group of seven! That’s basically unheard of in my experience with the CDT. We all walked together, more or less as a group for a couple of miles before I started to push to the front and plow ahead.
Behind me I heard someone say, “I want whatever Wormwood had for breakfast.” Then another hiker responded, “It’s what he didn’t have that counts. He wasn’t pounding tall boys before we got out here.”
I laughed for a bit since I had genuinely forgotten that they’d been drinking so heavily before we hitched back to the trail. In the parking lot, just before we started hiking again, one of them had passed a flask between the seven of us and everyone had a shot or two. So I wasn’t free of sin that day, but I had spared myself the tall boys for breakfast and was now for the better because of it.
A beer buzz on trail is great. It lasts about ten minutes before your heightened metabolism gobbles it up. And overall, a beer just serves well as a nice attitude adjustment after climbing mountains for the ten hours or so.
Walk your miles. Drink your beers. Live your life. We all get to set our own rules, and these are the ones I abide by after the CDT.
We all get tired of candy… eventually.
Some lessons I’ve had to learn more than once.
It feels like every trail I have to relearn hot to deal with foot pain, how to set and break camp most efficiently, how to pace yourself in the early stretches, and how to resupply in towns. Similarly, I it seems like every trail I have to remember what it feels like to grow tired of a formerly “favorite foods.” I always start my hikes with a list of go-to trail foods that I think are going to get me all the way to the end of the hike, only to grow tired of that food within two weeks and have it go from something that I crave to something that I dread having to eat.
After the Pacific Crest Trail I vowed that I’d never eat another Pop Tart, and I think that I’ve probably held true to that vow. And the foods that I’ll never be able to look at the same after the CDT are many. Hemps seed protein, raw honey, Rx Bars, macaroni and cheese, snickers bars, caramel M&Ms (yes, that’s a things), and dried instant potatoes are all dead to me after this summer. I’ll call them the tragedies of my 2019 thru hike.
As long as I’m mentioning food however, let me add one further note: Although it’s challenging to eat healthfully on a thru hike, putting added emphasis on fewer processed foods, fresher foods, and plant-based foods really seems to make a difference in how I feel on a day to day basis while on trail. This goes for both the trail and for the towns. Eat too much garbage in a trail town and I’m guaranteed to feel like garbage during the next couple of days on trail. Alternatively, if I carry something like an avocado and a couple of oranges with me out from town, it really seems to increase my energy output during that first day or two back on trail.
Who would’a thought of such an idea? Eat well and feel well. Mind-blowing…
If you want my real advice on this though, hike your own hike. If you want Pop Tarts, then all the power to you. In fact, you can even have mine.
It’s hard to work out on trail.
This is something that I should not have needed to learn. It should have been obvious. Still, for reasons that I don’t know how to explain, I have tried to maintain a workout regimen on every thru hike that I’ve undertaken. Usually that’s meant trying to do fifty or a hundred pushups every time I stopped for long enough to drop my pack. On a few occasions, I’ve managed to keep up the discipline for as much a month at a time. With something as long as the PCT or the CDT however, my attempts have all felt like a waste.
When I’m not thru hiking, I put effort into making sure that my workout routine is given its due significance in my day-to-day schedule. It means a lot to me to be able to carry a little bit of extra body strength, and it’s a constant battle as a thru hiker to go for long periods—sometimes years at a time—slowly building upper body muscle, only to go off hiking for six months and lose a large portion of what you worked so hard to gain.
If there had ever been a time in my life when I had enough mental determination to stick with a trail workout routine from end to end, it had to have been the Continental Divide Trail. And on multiple stretches of the CDT, I think I actually did a fine job at keeping at it. I tried to up my daily protein intake and (mostly) kept to my rule of doing pushups whenever I dropped my pack.
The CDT pushed me to my physical limitations though. Once I was at a point where I needed to use every single calorie consumed to fight my way to the next resupply town, I no longer cared if I lost a bit of upper body muscle. Everything looks different through the lens of survival.
Needless to say, thru hiking is in itself a massive physical endeavor. To try and add more exercise into something that’s already so demanding has yet to work for me.