This is something I think a lot about: every thru hiker I’ve ever met is addicted to thru hiking. We ask each other not “Will you ever do another long hike again?” but “When (or what) is your next big hike?”
Why is it addicting?
Seriously, why? In the moment, much of the thru hiking experience sucks. You put yourself through physical discomfort and pain on a daily basis, you contend with difficult environmental factors, you make many decisions throughout the day that are vastly simple yet extremely important, like, “Do I make the slog to that water source that’s a half mile off trail, or continue on with this liter I have to the next water 8 miles down the way?” Or “Should I leave town now, and head into this wilderness with my phone (re: maps) and battery half-charged, and make some headway on this trail on which I am already behind schedule, or do I wait and make sure I’ve got the electric juice to navigate my way to the next outpost of civilization?”
Those questions. And their answers. Like everything in life, thru-hiking is a risk. When taking a risk, a reasonable person often asks questions and seeks answers to determine the possible outcomes to taking said risk. Sometimes you think you have good answers, and they’re actually really shitty answers. Like my answer to that last question up there. I chose to make headway, and I found myself two days later in the middle of the most remote wilderness in Arizona, alone, lost in the thickets of a long-overgrown trail, running low on water, and kicking myself for having to be thrifty about checking the map on my phone. It was a bad situation that I got through with some determination and skill, and probably a lot of luck.
What if I hadn’t been lucky? I like to think of thru-hiking as being one of the less risky outdoor pursuits. The likelihood of bashing your ankle or your brain hard against a rock wall, or succumbing to HAPE and drowning in your own fluids is pretty low. But here is something that is fairly unique and definitely risky about thru-hiking: depending on the trail and/or personal preference, almost every thru-hiker is going to find themselves alone in a remote setting, perhaps even for days on end. And being alone in the wilderness is a mindfuck.
Being alone in the wilderness is a beautiful, privileged mindfuck. Being alone in the wilderness is a terrifying, gut-wrenching, shit-your-brains-out mindfuck. Being alone in the wilderness makes you question whether you are truly alone. Being alone in the wilderness makes you feel utterly, hopelessly alone.
Here is the reality: it doesn’t fucking matter what being alone in the wilderness makes you feel, because you are alone, and you have to rely on you. There’s no one else. Don’t know where the trail is and can’t read your map? Well, figure it out, or press your SPOT, or die. Scare a bear 50 feet away? Yell and hope it wants to get the hell outta there as much as you do. That water source is dry? No one around to share water. I guess there are real risks to thru-hiking…alone, at least.
But I have digressed, because even with this reality of risk and mindfuckedness, we are all hooked. We are addicted to these experiences and we remember them with such fondness that our hearts ache and we want to cry, or we do cry. Why? I think, because, thru-hiking reaches down to something very primordial: the challenge and reward of surviving, or of achieving success through your own hard, hard work.
Everyone says that life on the trail is simpler, and I agree. Life is hard out there, but it is simple. There is no human drama in the decisions one makes on the trail. The bond of fellow “hiker trash” unites, and sure while there is plenty of dirtbag gossip, it is ultimately the environment at which we lash out. We hate the driving rain or the deep sand or the incessant wind, but we do not hate each other. We see the kindness and generosity in other hikers and in the people, strangers and friends, who help us along the way. We have a renewed sense that maybe humanity is not so shitty after all. And even though the environment is so often harsh, if we look and try hard enough it gives us what we need, and there is something…something very glorious in observing landscapes bereft of human touch.