It's been two weeks, and I still think about the trail constantly. These thoughts, and the absurd amount of love I have for my BCM experience, has me asking a lot of questions. While I don’t have too many answers, I do know a few things for sure:
I'm my best self when I'm out on a trail.
The longer away from civilization, the better. For a while now, I've known I'm a better version of myself when I meditate, or exercise, or go on a hike, but this trip was the pinnacle. The best I've ever been. Outdoors 24/7 for days on end, with inspiring young people and uplifting co-leaders, I tapped into depths I didn't think possible: more patience, more resilience, more strength (physical and emotional), more humor, more energy, more playfulness than I have on any day in the city. Prior to the trip, I fretted whether my introvert self could handle being around people all day, much less people I didn't really know yet. Would I crash? Snap? Retreat? Nope. None of those things happened.
I love being on the trail.
I mean LOVE. It felt like home. In a way I'm not sure if I've ever felt in San Francisco. When I search for someplace that feels like home these days, I'm striking out.
Back in Texas, where I'm from, my mom has sold the childhood home we grew up in, moved to a different suburb, and settled down with a man who I haven't gotten a chance to truly know. When I visit their house, it feels foreign. Something I have no claim over. I feel like a stranger, not a former resident. Strike.
Here in SF, where I live, the city holds weird memories and I find myself fighting against what the city is and what it is becoming. Strike.
Amongst my peers, I have a hard time finding others who operate on my wavelength: an interest in improving ourselves and the world around us, exploring constantly (for the sake of the adventure and not the 'gram), and prioritizing health and nature over socialization or partying. Strike.
Strike strike strike.
Out on the trail though, all this falls away.
We all live on the trail. It doesn’t matter, at least temporarily, what our permanent homes are like or where they are. It doesn’t matter what we do with our free time when we’re at home. The trail attracts like-minded people. We’re all out on the trail, actually enjoying nature—not just saying we enjoy it. We all have an interest in appreciating and preserving the bounty around us. We all dabble in journaling and meditation and reflection, for the trail and nature’s bounty reminds us that we must show gratitude, soak this in, enjoy it while it lasts.
How is it that a trail brings all of us together, forms such strong friendships, bonds us so closely in such a short amount of time?
I need to leave SF.
I don’t like living in a tech Mecca. I don’t even like tech these days! The people I see on the street and encounter outside of work constantly annoy me. I know this is partly a fixable mental state, but I also know being annoyed more days than not isn’t a good thing for my quality of life. It’s not sustainable, and it creates a lot of unnecessary frustration in my life.
I no longer care what start up someone is working on, which giant tech company they’re employed by, or how many coding languages they know. Perhaps I have blinders on, and can’t see the cool, good people amongst the tech bros, but the people I meet and see annoy me. Almost a daily basis. I have a large pent-up frustration towards San Francisco and the elite nature of engineering and the tech community, and its lack of diversity. In fact, there was more diversity in my home town in Texas than in the purported tech capital of the world in which I now live.
I need to backpack more.
This experience was incredible. Plain and simple. I would do it every week, if I could. I want to find ways to weave backpacking into my life more often. Perhaps doing more weekend backpacking trips, rather than just car camping?
I’m healthier in the wilderness.
For the past three years, I’ve been battling a hip injury and the chronic pain that dogged me during recorvery. Most days, it left me aching in pain, weak, and hesitant about what my body can do. After a few years of doctors appointments and physical therapy, I finally reached the correct diagnosis and learned to manage the pain somewhat. Then I discovered the anti-inflammatory diet. Slowly, month by month, the pain that had been anywhere from a 6 to an 8 on a 10-point scale faded to a 1 or a 2. Earlier this year, my PT suggested acupuncture to flush out the last of my residual pain. It is the most zen, revelatory experience I’ve ever had. It takes me outside my body and my own mind. Finally, on a day hike a week before I left for the BCM expedition, I realized I no longer felt any pain in my hip. Tightness, sure. A bit of muscle atrophy, yep. But no pain. A weight was lifted. Tension literally left my shoulders. Releasing the idea that I was in pain allowed my brain to recognize I truly, actually wasn’t in pain. Pain had become my second skin. We wear pain like a threadbare coat, using it to keep ourselves warm but not fending off all the chills.
Something about being in the wilderness amplifies this pain-free feeling for me. At work, the constant standing or sitting (but lack of real, natural movement), the unhealthy food temptations, the indoor air and unnatural light, the stress of constant emails, and the negative energy of commiserating with coworkers all serve to wear down my body. Sometimes, after a long day or week of work, the pain sneaks back in. Not just to my hip, but to my back and my shoulders and my feet too.
In the woods, I don’t have this pain. Sure, I have soreness or tightness or weariness, but it was earned, not given. Despite hiking miles each day, sometimes carrying 30-40 pounds, my body is okay. It revels in its own strength. It heals itself. It soaks in the sun and the wind and the green green green plants, and fuels itself.
This was a revelation to me. For the past three years, my expectations of what my body can do have slowly shrunk. First I cut out one soccer team. Then lunges and certain exercises. Then I let go of soccer completely. Finally I stopped running. I let the label athlete, a lifelong moniker, slip from my grasp. I tried to accept that walking and ellipticals and gym workouts were my boundaries. My future. I took up hiking with fervor, thinking that if the only thing I can do is walk, at least I can make it a damn hard walk. But I didn’t let myself contemplate a long trail. Or even strenuous backpacking trips. I didn’t think my body could handle it. But, it can.
When I’m outside, I consistently feel less pain, my muscles don’t get as tight, I don’t slip into mis-alignments as easily. Each time I come back from a week or weekend away, my PT and my acupuncturist, the people I think of as my team, exclaim how good my energy is, how loose my muscles feel given the work I put them through, how much less pain I feel in our ‘problem’ areas.
Being outside is good for me, and my body knows it.
I want to try a long trail.
I’m not sure if I knew what the Pacific Crest Trail was before I read Wild. I’m not sure if I knew it was possible to hike for weeks, let alone months, at a time. I am sure, though, ever since I read Cheryl Strayed’s book, that I’ve wanted to hike. The PCT has been a gnawing itch in the back of my mind, waking to scratch at my consciousness at least once a year.
The thought of doing the PCT both excites and terrifies me. Can I do it? Can I make it from Mexico to Canada? Maybe. Can my body handle it? I think so. My body feels great in the wilderness, as I’ve been discovering. Can my mind handle it? I think so. I spent eight years running cross country competitively. Cross country is as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one. A big part of running boils down to you and your mind. You’re alone with your thoughts for miles at a time. I like to think this has given me a good foundation for handling the boredom and brutality that come with hiking long miles, day in and day out. However, the thought has crossed my mind that my biggest obstacle on this hypothetical PCT journey may be my own disappointment. What if the trail isn’t everything I think it will be? What if it doesn’t speak to my hopes and dreams, the ache I have inside of myself for adventure and exploration and pushing boundaries? What if trail life is actually stressful, and I don’t have the freedom or time to write and take pictures and meditate, like I hope I will? What if I don’t even want to eat paleo-esque on the trail or write a lot or share my photographs with the world? What if this creative person inside of myself I’ve spent the last few years acknowledging isn’t actually there? What if I’m not actually who I think I am?
I know the only way to truly explore these hopes and fears is to dive in, so I want to do a long trail next summer. Summer 2018. But, do I really want to do the PCT? Or do I just want to say I’ve done the PCT? Do I merely want to be part of that club? Is the PCT the trail I should start with? I know your first long trail imprints on your heart in a way no subsequent trails can, so I want to choose carefully.
Perhaps I’ll start with a “shorter” trail, like the 486-mile Colorado Trail. Or the 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail. Something I can spend a month or two doing, rather than five. A way to dip my toe into thru-hiking, rather than diving in head-first. And, if I’m honest, something that isn’t as cliche as doing the PCT, alone, as a woman. Wild kind of ruined that idea for the lot of us.
The outdoor community is largely privileged, myself included.
We can afford to buy special gear, to travel far from home, to take time off work, to spend our leisure time exercising because our bodies aren't broken down by manual labor. We don't build cars or fences or roadways for a living, so when we have free time, we want to spend it outside. Mostly, we work in offices, or have remote computer-oriented jobs we invented for ourselves, or work menial jobs that give us freedom because "who needs money".
I know this privilege needs to change.
I know the outdoor community needs to become more accessible and welcoming and vocal. It needs to become a lot younger and a lot less white.
I'm just not sure how. Where to start. How to make a noticeable difference.
There are quite a few admirable non-profits that have popped up in the last few decades, focusing on getting kids or under-resourced communities outside. I'm so glad they're doing this work, and happy to volunteer with them, but when I think about the long term, what I really want to do, I want to figure out a way to get kids outside without sacrificing the efficiency, culture, and livelihood that comes with being part of a for-profit company.
Isn't there a way to do something rewarding and enjoyable without making less money than a teacher?! Is doing what you love at odds with making money? Is this honestly a zero-sum game?
Can we re-invent the non-profit model?