"Lessons from the Continental Divide Trail" [Part 3 of 3]: The Universal
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Thru hiking changes your priorities. Thru hiking reminds you that water is more important than money, that food is more important than fashion, and that shelter is more important than social media. After walking a few thousand miles in the wilderness, lessons about the self begin to emerge from some hidden place within us. You learn about your tolerance to extreme discomfort, what matters most to you in life, and what you want to become after you finish your walk and go back into the civilized world.
Thru hiking has the potential to change you and how you interact with the world after at large. And it teaches you some of the big lessons that, from what I can tell, we’re supposed to learn in one form or another between the cradle and the grave.
In the first two sections of this piece, I’ve tried to focus on the practical and personal lessons that I gained by walking the Continental Divide Trail. Of all the reasons that I’ve become so consumed by thru hiking however, it’s the big-picture lessons that draw me to the trail more than anything else. Now that my walk of the CDT is finished, I look back now and what holds the most significance to me about that journey is what I learned about the world outside of myself—the lessons of universality that I learned one mile at a time.
Of all the things that I’ve written about the CDT however, trying to get these universal ideas into a coherent form has been the most challenging. It’s felt as impossible as trying to define “god” or explaining “love” to someone who’s never felt it. In spite of how impossible it is to make sense of some of this however, I’ve still tried, and for my efforts, I have the following.
It could always be worse.
This same idea has been reworded, reiterated, and retold time and time again, and in its simplest form, it means this: “Count your blessings.” When things are bad, remember the good that you still have. This was something that I learned long ago, but the importance of this teaching had never before struck me like it did on the Continental Divide Trail this summer. It took seeing weather and trail conditions at their worst to really appreciate the fact that things could always be worse than they are right now. Simply put, if you haven’t seen the worst, then it’s hard to imagine anything so terrible. But once you’ve witnessed the true brutality of an unforgiving wilderness, everything else in life that you formerly labeled as “bad” gets turned down by several degrees.
There were days in the desert sections of the CDT where temperatures crept up into the 90s and approached triple digits. Alongside the heat of the Great Divide Basin came the flies. Add to it the scarcity of water along those miles, and you have something close to the worst desert hiking that I’d ever encountered. Even in those awful miles however, I was still able to make forward progress. If you’re moving forward, then you’re getting through, and if you’re getting through then eventually this too shall pass. It’s only when forward progress is no longer possible that you can say “this is as bad as it’s going to get.” As long as you can still take one more step, then things could always be worse. If you’re still moving and breathing then you have blessings to count.
It’s a lesson that I’ve needed to relearn several times over during the time that I’ve been alive. Especially in this world where we are privileged to live lives of such relative luxury and comfort, it’s easy to forget that how grateful we should be for each moment.
We complain about the corruption of our political system because we’ve forgotten that we could be living under North Korean dictatorship. We bemoan the incompetence of our coworkers and supervisors but forget that the Great Depression would have left us grateful for work at all. We don’t like what’s for dinner because the thought of having to go without food never even crosses our minds.
The truth is that even in the hardest moments that I encountered on the Continental Divide Trail—and getting pulled out of the wilderness by Search & Rescue ranks pretty high on that list of “hardest moments”—things still could have been worse. Even after the Search & Rescue extraction I was able to walk away with all my fingers and toes, in spite of how close I was to developing frostbite that night. If your heart’s still beating, then things could be worse.
Since returning back to the civilization after my completion of the CDT there have been several instances where I’ve used my experiences from the trail as motivation in my day-to-day existence. When the treadmill workout is becoming too tiring, I try to remember that I could be doing it for days on end through rain and snow. When I find myself bored at home on the weekend, I try to have gratitude that I’m not forced to walk through seemingly endless stretches of desert. And when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, I remember what a blessing it is to have a soft bed and warm shower at my disposal.
It’s too easy to acquiesce to the comforts of modern living. It’s too easy to forget how good we live. In the worst of life, remember that things could always be a little worse, and count your blessings that they’re not.
The mountains don’t care about you.
The mountains don’t care about you.
Weather doesn’t care about you.
Last winter’s snow accumulation in Colorado doesn’t care about you.
The 100-degree dry desert air doesn’t care about you.
None one of these elements of the wild give a damn that you so much as exist.
For me this is a lesson that’s easy to understand now that the journey is over, but in the midst of climbing mountains that feel like they go on forever, or breaking down your rain-drenched tent for the third day in a row, anthropomorphism of the awful things affecting you is becomes a natural response. When it rains every day for a week and you have to be out in it that whole time, you’ll want to curse the sky. After five miles of false summits and rugged mountainous trail, you’ll start to believe that the mountain’s sole meaning is to ruin your day. On the Divide it becomes natural to feel like the entire trail is against you—like it’s doing everything within its power to keep you from reaching its end. When the temperatures become so hot that you get light headed or so cold that you start to wonder what it feels like to die of hypothermia, I might argue that it’s hard not to feel like the target of some higher source of malevolence.
From what I can tell looking back on it now, the trail always was and always will be indifferent towards me. When it felt “against me,” it was merely the nature of walking a footpath that runs the spine of the globe. The Rocky Mountains never claimed to be hospitable, and where possible they treat everyone with equal hostility. Don’t take it personally.
Of all the things that I could have chosen to study in college, I somehow landed on English and proceeded to spend the following six years or so thoroughly invested in the composition of essays. Then I went into the teaching of writing and spent the better part of five years invested in the critique and revision of writing. In hindsight, my choice to take this path in my early adulthood was the most and least likely thing that I could have done. Nobody in my family had specialized in writing, but somehow that’s the direction that I chose to go.
You can be assured that in the current state of the American job market, my choice to pursue writing as a field of study has been the punchline of more than its share of jokes. I could have studied computer science, engineering, forestry, or accounting, but I chose to study English. Even so, the skillset, experience, and perspective that I gained from my collegiate years has played an invaluable role in my life and looking back on it now, I don’t feel much regret.
When I started writing from the trail, I found something that felt unexplored.
The world has hikers, and the world has writers. But there are a lot fewer who do both. I’m not the best hiker, nor am I the best writer, but I have enough passion for both that I am able to finish my long hikes now with a book’s worth of stories to look back on—many of which I would have already forgotten had I not taken the time to transcribe them each evening alongside the trail.
It’s unbelievable to me how much of my thru hiking experiences I would have lost were it not for my trail journals. Every single day on the trail holds a story worth telling, and I’ve thought many times that if you just took one day from the life of a thru hiker and let the “average Joe” live that same day on trail, it would be amongst the most memorable days Joe will have that year. But for thru hikers, it’s just another day. A week into the hike you still remember the miles behind you, but then a month goes by, and soon you’re looking back at two or three thousand miles and trying to understand how it all went by so quickly—wondering, amidst all the amazing memories that you now have, how many of them have already been lost and forgotten.
I would be embarrassed to admit how much of my journals I read back on now like I’m living it for the first time—how these disintegrated memories start to take shape again after reading back on my notes from that day. And it scares me to think that our memories are so fragile—that every moment of our pasts are becoming fainter and fainter in the rearview mirrors of our mind’s eye.
I’ve valued writing from an early age. I’ve poured a lot of my life into it. And today I can’t help but wonder if there’s a meaning to it all—if maybe the life I live was orchestrated by something larger than myself. Even if it’s just a fantasy or delusion, this life makes me feel like things happen for a reason. It feels like my choice to study writing was an acknowledgment that every memory eventually fades and that the only way to capture it is to get it on the page while it’s still fresh.
Take a picture of the mountains; eventually they’ll erode. It’s what cameras are for.
Take a picture of your mind; eventually it too will wash away in the river of time. It’s what writing is for.
Take notes while you can.
It’s all temporary.
Storms burn away. Nothing ever lasts. This too shall pass.
One of the deepest feelings of satisfaction that I’ve ever found is through losing myself in the present moment via a long hiking trail. It’s all about that “be here now” thing. But at the same time as you need to be able to be in the present moment on trail, you need to be able to think past the present moment in the midst of challenges. Successfully adapting to a thru hike means being able to juggle many contradictory ideas, but this is one of the most overwhelming to me personally.
During the worst days, it’s critical to remember that the storm will always pass. In the driest of deserts you hold onto faith that eventually winter will come and it will snow again, even when that “someday” seems so far away that it no longer feels real. There are stretches of the CDT in Southern Wyoming where it feels like the scorching-hot grasslands will just go on forever. An hour feels like an eternity, and in that hour you’ll cover a mere three or four miles, which feel like a drop in the bucket compared to the vastness ahead.
But remember that even this storm will pass.
In the hottest of deserts, hold onto that memory, as it’ll serve you well in the snow-caped mountains ahead. In the deepest of snowstorms, grab onto a piece of that too; you’ll love it the next time you’re hiking in temperatures above 95 degrees. And on a long enough trail, you’re virtually guaranteed a little bit of both.
Trails have taught me a lot about impermanence. Over time I’ve become better at embracing the good times and holding onto faith that the hard times will fade just like the snowcapped mountains eventually melt.
The greater the challenge, the greater the story.
There were several mantras that I used to get through the harder miles of the CDT, but this one rang true from the start of the trail to its finish.
Early on in the hike it became clear that the CDT was going to be unlike any other trail that I had ever walked. Harder to follow, more logistical challenges, harsher weather, and more miles. And as I published journals from the trail and collected a readership over the course of the summer, it became clear to me that there was a direct correlation between the challenges that I’d faced on any given day and the quality of the story that unfolded in that same period of time.
The few instances where the trail was mellow and forgiving offered little insight into the inner-workings of my mind. It was only through hardship that I felt a “peeling back” of the layers of self that unveiled new understandings and perspectives—two things that I was keenly focused on gaining from my walk of the CDT.
Want to read my most boring journal entries from the summer? Find a few that were written from the trail towns. The days where I was just resting and refeeding are anything but page-turners. If you want the good ones, look for high mountain peaks or arduous dry stretches in the Great Divide Basin. That’s where the action lives. That’s where there’s something to learn. Read about what happens to the mind and the ego when it’s put into a long-term strife if you want the good ones.
In the hardest of moments from the trail, I got by partly by remembering that it was all going to make for a better story. No challenge, no story. No story, no memories. And without memories, what’s the point of it all?
Lest ye confuse others’ fears for those of your own.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I started thru hiking was the culture of “fear mongering” that exists along the trail. The first time you meet Farmer Bob in a trail town and he tells you all the reasons why you can’t make it to the end of the trail you’re on, it can feel disorienting. Then it happens again some 200 miles up trail. “Sure you’ve walked a long way to get here,” they’ll tell you. “But I’ve been living here all my life, and you’ve never seen anything like what you’re going to encounter in the miles ahead. Might just as well turn back now while you still can.” And just like the first time, you persevere through the climb or the snow or the desert or the rain or the *whatever they were warning you about* just like every other mile you’ve ever walked before.
After it happens a few times, a pattern starts to emerge. It’s more than a pattern though. It’s more like a culture of trying to instill one’s own fears on others. As you hike through the mountain-towns of Central California, for example, you might be apt to meet the local who’s lived at the base of those peaks his whole life but has always been too afraid to climb them for himself. Then he has this stranger calling themselves a “thru hiker” passing through town and treating those same mountains that give him nightmares like they’re nothing at all. And the best thing he can do is try and instill his own fear on you. If you’re scared of the same jagged mountain tops that he’s been afraid off all along, then that makes you equals in this world, but some people seem to believe that if their fears aren’t felt by others then they might be inferior. It’s all a fallacy, but so too is much of each man’s subjective experience based on a foundation of logical instability.
As a result, every third town you cross you might meet with that person who will explain to you the many reasons why—in spite of the thousands of miles of trail that you’ve hiked before—this is the section that’s finally going to do you in.
Remember not to confuse his fears with those of your own. Similarly, don’t let the fears of others become your own. Fear is highly contagious if you don’t take steps to avoid it and stay strong.
Fear is a product of ignorance and unknowing. We’re scared of the monster in the closet because it’s too dark to see in there at night; we can’t see what is in the wardrobe so our imaginations construct what could be there. And until we see the mountain top for ourselves, all we have to go off is the advice (or fears) of others.
All this is to say, go into a long trail having done your research. It’s 2019. If you have access to a library then you have more than enough information at your fingertips that can prepare you for what to expect. The more you know, the less you fear.
I wish then that I could leave it there and say that the only source of said “fear mongering” is from locals who are inexperienced in thru hiking. But the truth is that in some cases that culture of instilling fear from one person to the next is propagated by thru hikers themselves.
It would be unfair of me to speculate the reasons why the thru hiking community is so notorious for spreading FUD, but of all the things that I was prepared for and expecting from my first long trails, this was one thing that caught me by surprise. I want to say that it springs from individuals’ natural desire for camaraderie. When we find a fear in ourselves, it gives us some hope if we’re not the only ones who are afraid. Maybe it’s that and countless other reasons. Maybe it’s things that I can never understand.
Regardless of the cause, I wish someone early on would have said to me clearly how important it would be for me to remember that the fears of others do not have to be my own. If they did, I would never set out to thru hike in the first place. I would never leave home in the first place. I would never get out of bed in the first place.
But most of us choose not to live in a bubble. We all take risks every day, and the process of choosing which risks we take on and which ones we leave behind is a process that is called “life.”
I don’t know why I go to the trouble of making it into a list or grouping all of these lessons into categories as I’ve done in the three sections of this narrative. In fact, now that it’s all on the page, I wonder whether the points that I set out to make are the same ones that still matter now that they’re in written form. Am I trying to pass down wisdom? If so, I’ll be the first to admit that I barely know what I’m talking about in the first place. Any wisdom that I could pass to you should be consumed with heavy skepticism and critique. Because really I can only speak for myself in listing off the things that the trail has had to teach over the last ten years that I’ve been thru hiking.
Along a 3,000-mile trail you’re going to find yourself with a lot of time to think. You’ll think of the present when you can, you’ll think of the past too often, and you’ll think to the future with the time that’s left over. If you’re anything like me, you’ll wonder about the trail and about life. Then, once it’s over and done, you’ll wonder what was the point of it all. Why go out into the great unknown? What’s it all for?
It took me awhile to find anything approximating an answer to that very basic question, and as I’ve found different ways to address it, I’ve slowly grown increasingly comfortable with the life choices that led me to continue walking these long-distance trails. I do it because there’s something to be learned by going into the wild. Maybe giving ourselves a physical challenge by burrowing into the bosom of Mother Nature has the power to change something in us—change it for the better.
These are things that I believe.
I can’t prove them, nor do I care to. Because truth and proof operate in a categorically different realm than that of the subjective and personal. And it’s the latter that continues to draw my interest as the years and miles go by.
There’s a quote from the psychedelic philosopher, Terrence McKenna, in which he says that, “If you want a teacher, try a waterfall, or a mushroom, or a mountain wilderness, or a storm-pounded beach. That’s where the action is.” I’ve taken this idea to heart from the first time that I heard it. I’ve made a conscious decision to live a different lifestyle with slightly different priorities than those which are commonly held up by upstanding citizens as models of greatness. As someone who spent a good chunk of my life as a teacher, the irony isn’t lost on me. For years I collected a paycheck by trying to impart lessons the students who enrolled in my classes. But I couldn’t teach them how it feels to ride a bike. Only through riding it themselves would they ever understand. The important lessons need to be learned first-hand; not by listening to the dictations of others who went before you. There are lessons that the mountains have to teach, and the only way to learn is to visit the thin air yourself.
I can shout at you all day about the lessons that I’ve learned from surviving the storms and walking the miles, but in the end, they’re just stories until you to go and do it on your own.
If you want a teacher, don’t seek it from me; try a waterfall or a mushroom or a long, long walk.
That’s where the action is.
That’s where you’ll learn.
That’s how you’ll know.