Last year I hiked the 2660 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the US/ Mexico border all the way into Canada.
Those five months of hiking, sleeping on the dirt and carrying all my possessions on my back were the best months of my life. I learned many lessons I didn’t know I was looking for.
Sure there were the obvious “you can go further than you thought” kind of lessons, and the more practical “here is how to hang a bear bag” kind of lessons, but here are some of the unexpected lessons I learnt.
1. Being stinky is awesome.
I was frequently a week between showers and laundry, and I think it took a week of scrubbing my feet when I returned home to really get all the dirt out, but that’s what happens when you are hiking 20-30 miles a day, every day, in all weather. It became horribly obvious just how bad I stank when I hitched a ride for the first time (into a town to resupply) and the driver immediately put down all the windows of the car, and said “sorry” with a look and shrug of the shoulders that cleverly said “you are a reeking cesspool” and “you know I’m going to bleach those seats as soon as I drop you off”—all in one small movement.
So why on earth should we stink? Because it is a stink borne of struggle and achievement. It is a stink well earned to wear with a badge of pride. All of a sudden I was aware how much our daily routines of cleaning and pampering have very little to do with hygiene (some of it of course, yes) but mostly to do with societies’ expectations, our fear of what others will think of us, with a good measure of vanity thrown in.
So go do something hard and forget what you look like, forget what other people think of you and embrace the freedom that comes with it. It’s stinking beautiful.
2. Tell yourself that you are amazing. Then tell yourself again.
There is a trail register at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail where you write your name and a deeply profound message to other hikers behind you (such as, “hi!”). I wrote “You chose this”. This was my little mantra I would say to myself if I was miserable in a situation, that it was my fault for putting myself there, that no one was forcing me to do the thing I was doing, that I had no right to complain. How depressing!
Somehow along the way I learned to turn that negativity around and celebrate the small victories. I remember the most amazing moment of peace, confidence and joy when I was halfway up Mount Whitney and realised I was doing it with ease. It was phenomenal when I learned to look at mountains (actual mountains) and was able to see that, yes I had already done this before! Or when I realized that I’d already climbed a slightly smaller mountain, so this next one would be a cinch.
By the end of the trail my mantra was more like “You can do this. You’ve already done this. You’ve done this a million times already on the trail. You are freaking strong. You are bada**.” Devotees of positive affirmations already know this lesson well, but it took me a few hundred miles before it really rang true for me.
We can accomplish so much more if we ditch the negativity, recognize how capable we are and how far we have come. We are amazing.
3. Don’t quit on a bad day.
We all have them. Whether it’s from lack of sleep (snoring hikers), a particularly gruelling section of trail (work), unexpected obstacles jumping in your way (Bears? Rattlesnakes? Bosses?), sometimes it really feels like you’ve had enough and this is it.
But here’s the thing: we never really know what is around the corner.
I got stuck in a bad weather pattern one day in Oregon and was soaked to the core from freezing rain. I was borderline hypothermic when I made camp, it took an hour bundled up in everything dry I had and shovelling food into my mouth for me to stop shivering. It snowed overnight and I was miserable to the point of seriously considering if I could finish if the weather continued in this cold vein—my desert-raised body wasn’t made for this!
I hiked out of camp the next morning and I rounded a corner just as the fog was lifting. It revealed the magnificent Middle Sister—a volcanic mountain covered with a perfect dusting of fresh snow. It wouldn’t have looked nearly as impressive if I had arrived a day earlier and missed the storm. It was moments of beauty such as this that reminded me why I was there, and were enough to reset my attitude and keep me going.
Go a little bit slower, take a few more breaks, eat a bit more chocolate—do whatever it takes to reset and see the situation more completely, then make your decision. Often what seems unbearable one day can turn into something spectacularly beautiful the next.
4. Bears aren’t really that scary.
They are actually quite cute. Just don’t get too close.
It turns out that being away from the busyness of “normal” life, having to fend for myself, and truly connecting with nature is one of the best sources of education I’ve found. You probably don’t even need to go as far as 2000 miles to find that out.
Author: Rebecca Brockwell
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Samantha Levang at Flickr