Cole, Andrew Soares, and I recently thru hiked the Cohos Trail which is 170+ miles of wilderness hiking from the southern end of Crawford Notch to Quebec, Canada. It took us 5 days and 9 hours and the second half of the trip we did not see any other hikers on the remote trails. Below is an account of self discovery and some of the wonderful lessons that nature has to offer.
Take everything you use on a daily basis. Go through the items in your mind; there are a lot. Now try to fit all of those items into a backpack. Even one pillow and some comfortable bedding would bust the seams on a pack. Yet, when someone decides to skip town and enter the trail for several days or months their view of what’s necessary changes.
Our comfort, appearance, and scent off trail are vastly different from on trail. During the workweek I ensure I am showered, my teeth are brushed and flossed, I’ve slathered enough lotion on my skin to preserve it for hundreds of years, and my clothes are freshly laundered. Yet, once I’m passing through the forest I’m happy to brush my teeth next to a stream and wear the same clothes for several days in a row. I also forego using a pillow at night and settle for a rolled up shirt to provide some type of “comfort” while sleeping. Within 24 hours of beginning a trip my outlook on the world fluidly shifts and I begin to live a simple, appreciative, and raw existence.
Simple! It’s such a subjective term and its connotation depends on what we are recounting. While I would not describe myself as simple I believe that the time my life reflects that adjective accurately is when I’m on trail. My focus is simply on route; finding, looking at my surroundings, and deciding what my next meal will be. I don’t worry about a strict schedule, traffic, or socializing. I don’t set an alarm. I simply let the sun dictate when I rise and rest and nature determine where I travel. My mind finally has time to reset and clear itself in an organic way. The simplicity is wonderful.
Appreciation! I cannot express how much appreciation for small things in life I begin to recognize. Every food I consume on trail tastes incredible and every drink of water, even warm, is refreshing. Having dry shoes and a stream to rinse my hands off in become luxuries. Suddenly, the ability to rest my back against the wall of a lean-to is magnificent. Without consciously trying I find the natural ability to feel grateful for small things. In my daily life I generally am frustrated by what is unplanned (flat tire, traffic, etc.) and take for granted what goes well; never on the trail, though. Out there I appreciate every precious moment.
Raw! The moment I’m on trail I become transparent, authentic, and genuine. There’s nowhere to hide. My thoughts, introspection, and mood flow without any ability to fully be regulated. I’m alone with my worries, fears, hopes, and dreams. Anything that I’ve been distracting myself from during my daily routine cannot hide and comes to the surface. There’s a level of comfort and lack of judgment of each other when people are outdoors and removed from their general neighborhood. The entire journey becomes a continuous line of self-discovery.
My most recent backpacking trip I learned a wonderful lesson about myself: I need thicker skin. I mean this both figuratively and literally. I often chaff on my upper body, which is incredibly painful and a reminder that my skin takes a few days to toughen up for a heavier pack. I also had time to experience the “raw thoughts” previously mentioned and discovered that I was hurt and sensitive to some interactions with people that had minimal involvement in my life. I gave so much weight to their opinions that it was cluttering my mind and as I continued to walk I learned that I would benefit from thicker emotional skin. Just as my physical skin took a few days to become harder and more resilient, my mind and feelings also required some time to rebuild and gain confidence.
Now for my favorite part: application. Since I cannot thru hike for the rest of my life I get the opportunity to take my experiences and eye opening moments on trail back to my day to day life. The moments I found a way to push through pain or mental fatigue translated to when I opened my business and had days that were not successful or had setbacks. I am more flexible with setting life goals because on the trail there are several factors that can alter your plan (weather, trail conditions, health, etc.), but having some flexibility allows me to stay motivated and not feel discouraged or like a failure. Applying these lessons to my professional and personal life has been incredibly valuable.
While hiking provides physical benefits for improved health and endurance, it also provides mental health advantages. Every time I spend a prolonged stretch on the trails I am amazed by how the experience teaches me something new. I am always be grateful for the journey and that some of the paths I’ve chosen in life are made of dirt.