Lessons of the TrailI hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican Border to the Canadian border through California, Oregon and Washington. I hiked the trail by myself in large and sometimes overlapping portions in 2008 and 2009 and continue to hike segments whenever possible. The trail is home to me and has taught me more than any other experience I have had in life.
Hiking such a long distance is more a mental challenge than a physical one. I walked 12 to 14 hours every day. It got boring. Mosquitoes or other unpleasant events can wear away the joy, bring morale down and make you want to quit. As a solo traveler, I fought loneliness and homesickness. As a person whose personality doesn't lean toward daredevil behavior, the anxiety of scary challenges approaching, such as swift stream crossings, precarious log crossings and snowy mountain passes wore away at my resolve constantly and I had to steel myself to keep going. Gnawing hunger more ferocious than anything I had ever experienced literally ate at me from the inside out even despite the joy of being able to guiltlessly eat a pint of ice cream in one sitting. It became a job. But the rewards are great and if the mental challenges can be met, they and the physical experiences have a lot to teach.
One evening after several days of hiking with shoes ill-suited to the hot desert and a package of food in the Post Office waiting for my arrival, I approached a city that was reported to have an outlet shopping center. I could get new shoes tomorrow morning! I was near an Interstate Highway in view of a towering Indian casino. I stepped off the trail onto a road and began walking toward the tower. Unfortunately, the road ended at a dead end with private property signs all around. What little traffic that came by would not give me a ride. Nobody could provide directions I could follow on foot. So much of our modern world is designed against those who travel without a motor. The sun was going down quickly and I began to worry about where I would go if I could not figure out how to get to town. If you have ever been to an unfamiliar place with nowhere to stay, you might be familiar with the feeling. Where will I sleep? What will I do? Who will help me? Who will hurt me?
Then I remembered I had a tent on my back and a trail full of other friendly travelers who already knew me and cared about me. All I had to do was continue down the trail and I would be home. That was when I came to understand that the trail was my home. Every day I woke up and began hiking at 6 a.m. and stopped hiking around 6 p.m. not knowing in advance where I would be or if there would be a place to stop for the night. Without fail, every evening a place to set up my tent would appear. I was always already home because I was self-contained and minimal. Because all that I owned—all 12 pounds of it—was on my back, it left me open to receive. From campsites to gear replacements to extra food and even psychological counseling, I found that trail magic took care of my needs. Free from the constant striving to obtain that modern life trained me for, I learned that whatever I needed was provided to me when I needed it most. I was awakened to an understanding that needs can be met outside a consumer economy. The way this works is full of surprise and delight and taught me I need very little to be happy, and in fact, the less I have the happier I am.
One day I hiked into a community on the shores of a very large lake. People in this community kept very nice homes with green lawns and beautiful gardens of flowers. I realized that because of those lawns, and the boats on the lake and the roads full of cars dripping pollutants to run off into the lake on rainy days, this large lake would not be safe to drink. I had walked hundreds of desert miles with water sources usually 20 miles apart and often up to 35 miles apart. Through the desert I drank from piped springs feeding cattle troughs and from plastic bottles left by kind strangers. Seven hundred hot and thirsty miles formed within me an acute understanding of the value of clean water, a visceral understanding more urgent than the intellectual one I had before. Living in an arid land where no matter how long a drought lasts, fresh water always comes right out of the faucet, it is possible to be told water is precious, to sense its value from the water bill, but until you face the true thirst of 35 miles of waterless desert, you really do not know. We need clean water to live. Without it we die. Our way of life works against this basic fact in almost every conceivable way.
On the Pacific Crest Trail I walked 20 to 30 miles every day. I saw the mountains approach and recede. One thing I learned from over 3000 miles of hiking is my own physical power. Seeing a big volcanic mountain approach over the horizon, just its snowy tip showing above the curvature of the Earth, finding myself on its shoulder the next day, and seeing it fade into the haze behind me the following day was one of the most life-changing experiences I had on the trail. It showed me I am powerful, strong and independent. I do not need machines and cheap oil to move my body vast distances over the earth. I can travel a visible arc on a globe with only my two feet. If I can do that, I can certainly grocery shop or attend a lecture or reach a trailhead to go for a hike on foot, too.
While hiking the trail I saw four rattlesnakes, nine bears, countless birds and one fox. I saw hundreds of millions of ants, velvet ants, mosquitoes, locusts and beetles. Bird song and warning screeches followed me everywhere. Deer and fawns leaped away from me in fright. I chased Spring up the side of the globe always turning the corner to one amazing floral display after another. I climbed huge mountains every day and walked through every climate zone of the West from desert floor to high alpine. I grew to believe myself to be a creature of the forest like my wild friends (and enemies, oh those mosquitoes!) When the trail encroached upon the edges of civilization, I sometimes would peer out into the common world of modern life with curiosity and then slip back into the forest unseen. I rejoiced that the Earth is still very much alive and beautiful and that I was a part of the web of life even if all I really was was an out-of-place weed just passing through. I stopped buying hotel rooms on my layover days in towns. I slept better right on the ground without a pillow or mattress or indoor plumbing. The living Earth cradled me and kept me safe.
As a hike leader with the Sierra Club I often encounter people for whom the first response toward being out in nature is fear. They want to know if I was afraid, if I carried pepper spray for the bears or if I had a gun to kill rattlesnakes. Some are shocked when I tell them I carried no weapons of any kind. The only knife I had was the kind with the little scissors and nail file. Some respond with anger that I traveled alone, carried only 12 pounds of gear and hardly any first-aid equipment. This is because many people have a complete lack of experience with nature or what experience they do have has been mediated by a "be prepared for danger" ethos that fosters and reinforces society's belief that civilization is safe (when the reality is that it is full of hazardous chemicals and machines that intend to proceed full speed ahead to ultimate destruction of all life) and nature is deadly (when in fact it is what sustains us and gives us life). Their deficit is so profound that the only honest feeling they have about nature is fear. Intellectually they love nature, but viscerally they are terrified of it. Sierra Club outings are a way for people to get started being out in nature. It helps them learn about their bodies, how to manage hydration, sun exposure, hypothermia and physical fitness. Most people have a political understanding of the value of nature, but when their immediate bodily response to nature is terror, something very important is missing. When civilization appears safer that than which gives us life it is easier to kill life with every day acts of transporting, bathing, shopping, working, consuming, investing, eating etc. It becomes easy to believe that token acts of voting or writing checks or driving "green" cars are enough to let us live with our comforts, that our shopping to "save the planet" will earn us a pass should a day of reckoning ever come.
Because of the trail, I gained a sense of freedom more real than the standard political kind. It’s a deep feeling I carry inside myself as I navigate my off-trail life in a world that wants me to believe I’m powerless, weak and dependent. A world that attempts to mold all facets of my life toward its aims. I broke out of it for 6 months and came back with clear eyes and a knowledge my cells already understood but had to have awakened so I could know, too.
If I had never taken time out in the wilderness to learn all these lessons I would not have known what I know now about being at home in nature, living simply with serendipity and trust and understanding the size and shape of the Earth and my place within it as a living organism. I stepped outside industrial culture and found a chink in the fence. We do not need industrial culture to be happy and we'd be best off if we could find a way to end it.
Traditional political activism at best slows down the relentless march of industrial civilization toward environmental destruction but does not and cannot ever stop it so long as most people are unaware of the kinds of things I have learned. Somewhere deep inside we all know this, but it lies dormant, waiting. If I can open the door to another person awakening this knowledge I feel that I will have accomplished as much as a thousand successful political campaigns.