I’m back at home now, knee-deep into the berry harvest. There’s nothing like the meditation of picking berries and then the subsequent consumption. You can not go to the store and purchase this kind of fresh and tasty berry and so it’s tallied in the column of Smart’s Mountain blessings. Any thru-hiker would go mad for this kind of fresh fruit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always appreciated these berries but they do seem to taste just that much sweeter when I come off trail.
The trail is a beautiful and tricky thing. Previous trail experiences can help you and they can hurt you. I’ve learned how to be mentally tough and to push myself. I’ve learned that my body is capable of far more than my mind understands. I know where things are in trail towns. I’ve logged a certain trail memory and I mostly know the terrain that’s coming. But that doesn’t mean I’m all knowing. There were many mutterings to myself this year of, “I don’t remember that being so hard.”
Certainly, the physical challenge of the trail seemed to be ever more present this year. Yes, I am knocking on the door of 40 and yes, I started the trail the heaviest (~220 lbs.) I ever have for a thru-hike. It really did seem like during the first hundreds of miles that my feet were aching as if I were at the end of a thru-hike. And so the thoughts rolled. Am I just getting old? Am I just too overweight? Have I lost my tough edge? Am I too old for this pace? Coupled with the physical challenge came the heat. The heat is tough but I get used to it. Or at least I used to. My temperature comfort zone is small, like a cramped 300 sq. ft. studio apartment. And this year’s heat seemed harder than ever. My body would often be overheating and threatening to shut down on me and that feeling really sucked. It’s a great lesson, or more like a reminder, that in life the things that once were moderately doable become harder to do.
But my biggest downfall this year was the memory of times past. It’s that place where comparisons and prior knowledge get you into trouble. And it was the thing that I could not shake. The trail culture has changed. I’m not saying it’s all bad out there now, because I did meet some really incredible, nice, friendly, loving people. I guess I’m old school because I harken back to a time when hikers actually acknowledged and said hi to one another. I won’t dribble on here but I lost count of how many hikers passed me without so much as a word. Even in towns, where it’s pretty easy to profile a thru-hiker, my “hey hiker” hellos were often answered by blank stares. The friendship and comradery of the trail was perhaps the thing I loved most. The bond of hiking through waterless sections, through snow storms, through lightning and thunder is certainly unmeasurable. Yes, you can have that within a small group but are you then a clique? I think once you’re in a tight-knit group you often don’t look beyond the walls of your group. Is it too hard to know and care about all of those who are hiking in your trail bubble? I don’t know if it’s my age or it’s the way of the millennial. I don’t know if there’s just so many people on trail that you can’t meet and care about everyone. I don’t know if there’s just too many hikers out there only for themselves. I don’t know if some millennials have not learned how to interact with other humans. I do not have the answer. But I do know that I deeply missed the bonds built with hikers through shared experiences.
And so as initial reports started to come out of the Sierra my gut knew that it would not be safe to hike there by the time I arrived in mid-June. At the end of May, a 5’9″ person had crossed high in the Evolution Valley meadow and reported that the water was up to their chest. I’m 5’7″ and the water is sure to be higher by mid-June. Another unknown, which I guess remains unknown until I try, is the effect of submerging the majority of my body in freezing cold water. Will I be able to get out totally soaked and keep hiking? Or will I have to stop and put on dry clothes to keep from dipping into hypothermia? And dry clothes are only good until the next stream crossing anyway. Would I be so cold that I’d have to get into my sleeping bag after a deep crossing? And if this were the case, no group would be able to wait for me.
That’s kinda the deal. You push through the last few hundred miles of SoCal because you have the Sierra reward ahead of you. So when I opted out of the Sierra the internal motivation to hike into Kennedy Meadows absolutely vaporized. My heart was no longer in it. And from those valuable, previously learned trail lessons I knew that I was done. There was no reason to push on. I have nothing to prove.
So what’s next? I really do love the trail life but I’m not sure if I’ll be back out this year. I pretty tempted to save my left over hiking savings and put it towards a future trip. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep gorging on scrumptious berries and watching baby birds.