What the Trail Taught Me

What the Trail Taught Me

It is difficult to put into words how the trail changed me, or how much it taught me; I just know that I am not the same person I was when my tender feet first stepped out of Blue Moon’s car and into the powdered dirt at the southern terminus.

It isn’t always obvious to me how much I have changed, or how much I learned. It pops up in the smallest ways, and often when, and how, I least expect it. It was not one big lesson; it was hundreds of smaller lessons that now weave their way throughout my daily life.

My mom says I never crawled; I was one of those kids that went right to walking. This is not me bragging about my only other athletic feat before the PCT, it’s an explanation of a common problem I have had throughout my life. I never liked the “curve” in the learning curve. I would rather go right from start to finish. From not knowing to being an expert. From idea to goal. From concept to finished plan. I have no problem omitting the tedious bits in between. We live in a world of instant gratification. We live in a world that promotes success without having to try too hard. The trail taught me to appreciate the curve and that there is beauty in the process.

Since the PCT, I find myself tackling everything the same way we tackled the trail, step by step, section by section. It doesn’t matter if today’s progress is less than I expected, because tomorrow will be easier, and I will be stronger and know more than I did today. It doesn’t matter if I take an unplanned break; all that matters is that I don’t lose forward momentum and that I never give up. You don’t walk from Mexico to Canada in a day; you walk there step by step, day after day. The process works, and I trust that it will, every single time.

I learned that I am strong; stronger than I ever thought possible. It is fascinating to me how far you can push yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally if you want or need to. This knowledge alone has expanded what I view as “possible” for me to accomplish.

There is magic in finding your path and following it; it’s as if your soul connects to the center of the universe. Call me crazy, but I have felt it, seen it. Heaven and Earth will move for you when you follow your destiny.

Well if that’s true, why did we get snowed out in Washington? I wondered that too, for two long years. Why, when everything seemed so perfect, when I felt so connected to something so much bigger than myself, when I wanted it so bad, were we denied our finish?

A lot of what I learned came from being snowed out in Washington. They were lessons I needed, and lessons I would not have learned any other way. Funny how it’s often the worst of times that end up teaching us the best of lessons. Getting snowed out in Washington was a part of the journey I have come to accept as having been necessary.

I grew up in a family where no, meant no. It didn’t mean “maybe later,” or “ask your dad,” or “if you keep asking, I will give in.” No, was just no. I am happy my parents chose this tactic, lord knows “no” is a huge part of adulting. The trail, however, taught me that no doesn’t necessarily mean no. When it comes to your dreams, no simply means: you aren’t ready, not right now, not like this, or try harder.

The end of the trail was that much sweeter because we worked for it. It wasn’t handed to us; we pursued it relentlessly, as we had the time until it was ours. In doing that, I learned to pursue my goals with equal relentlessness. I learned to never give up on myself, or my dreams. Applying this lesson is a work in progress.

On our through hike of the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand (2015), I learned an entirely new set of lessons. The most important of which is to be very specific about what you ask for. That, and that sometimes prayers are answered in a completely different way than you want them to be.

Last summer, Bearclaw asked me if I wanted to thru-hike the Great Divide Trail in Canada. I didn’t and to be honest, I still don’t. Not because I don’t want to spend three months wrapped in the loving arms of Mother Nature; that I do. It was deeper than that, and the answer lies in a lesson I had been taught a long time ago: a lesson, about lessons.

When I was growing up, I had a mentor named Gloria. I cleaned her big beautiful bed & breakfast for eighty pesos a day. Gloria was a saint. A recovering alcoholic, she would have told you differently. She had made plenty of mistakes in her life; mistakes that had cost her dearly. Not wanting me to make those same errors, she took me under her wing.

One of the most important things she taught me was to look for the lessons. She taught me that our entire purpose for being on this earth was to learn and grow. Everything that happens to us, good or bad, happens for a reason – to teach us a lesson. She taught me that I would never be done learning and that if ever I thought I was done, I would be wrong.

“Everyone you meet has something to teach you,” she would tell me, “even if it’s as simple as how not to behave, or how not to treat other people.”

It was my responsibility to seek these lessons out and to learn them. You have no idea how many times I heard the phrase, “And what did you learn from that?”

At sixteen, it could be rather annoying. Sometimes you don’t want to learn a lesson; sometimes you just want to complain that life isn’t fair, damn it.

“If you feel like you are stuck in a rut,” she would tell me, “it is because you aren’t learning the lesson you are supposed to. If you find history repeating itself, it’s because you didn’t learn the lesson the first time.”

I was destined to repeat the same mistakes until whatever it was I was supposed to learn had finally sunk into my thick skull. Gloria did not beat around the bush.

This advice has served me well. Even though Gloria has been gone for many years now, I regularly hear her in my head, “And what did you learn from that?”

Thru-hiking is an easy rut to get into. On the trail, you feel so strong, so connected to everything. You see everything so clearly. Life seems so simple, so pure. The real world makes no sense. Then suddenly, the trail ends, you are broke, and you’re forced right back into that nonsensical “real” world to make money to go back out and hike. There are so many thru-hikers that live for their next hike; there is only hiking. I get that. I can respect that. I’ve been there.

For me, I have chosen to accept the lessons the trails I have hiked have taught me. I choose to get out of the rut. Life is far too short to be stuck in a rut. There are too many other things I want to experience, too many other lessons I need to learn, and too many other ways to learn them. I am grateful for the lessons my thru-hikes have taught me, and am excited to see how I can use them to fulfill my dreams and accomplish my goals.

Bearclaw and I have so much we want to do, and so many places we want to explore. We know, with every fiber of our being, that the lessons we learned on the trail will forever be with us, and will help us in the next adventure life throws our way.

That’s not to say one day we won’t find ourselves on another long trail, but for now, we are working towards other goals, and whatever adventures they bring.

Life truly is a great adventure.