Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The secret of the PCT

As I drove home from my 5 day section hike of the PCT, the one where I endured mostly misery and terrible weather, I thought about the secret that the PCT showed me.

Our whole culture that we normally live teaches us to be concerned with three things: Comfort, security and status. It tells us the more of those things we have the happier we will be. The PCT turns all of that on its head and instead says that the less of those things we need the happier we are.

The PCT shows you how little you need to be comfortable. You need only to stay warm and dry and to eat, have enough water and a safe place to sleep. Anything more than that is luxury.

I remember when I was hiking toward a planned hiker feed in northern California. I and the two people I was with that day were hurrying, hoping to make it in time for the food. It became clear that we were probably going to be too late for the food, so we hoped there might be some leftovers. It became clear that we'd probably be late for even leftovers so we hoped there might still be chairs. Chairs! We worked ourselves into a rapture of desire over the thought of sitting in chairs. When we got there the hiker feed was gone, but there were chairs and apples. We were in heaven.

Hiking the PCT makes the tiniest things into enormous pleasures. A chair becomes a dream come true. A cup is a luxury that gives you fits of pleasure. The secret to happiness is not to have more. It is to have less. The less you have the more happiness you feel because little things bring you happiness beyond measure. In our culture we have too much and so endure a sort of law of diminishing returns where we keep trying to add things to gain happiness but find happiness eludes us. This is one of the big secrets the PCT teaches. Comforts should be minimal for maximum happiness.

Our modern world is obsessed with security on many levels. The most common level is the day-to-day preoccupation of securing enough money to afford a decent life. It takes a lot of work and a lot of money and you are never quite sure you've done enough to have made your life secure.

The PCT strips away most security from you. You are left only with a bag of stuff on your back and your wits. That stuff and your resourcefulness become your security. Your body becomes strong from strenuous exercise and you are able to do things you never thought possible. A marathon becomes an easy distance. Your resourcefulness tells you that you can fashion chopsticks from sticks if you lose your eating utensil. You can make a rain poncho from your ground sheet. You can just hike a few more hours or days to a shelter if needed. Your tools and your feet can keep you safe under most conditions.

On the PCT you walk through many different kinds of landscapes. No matter how austere the landscape, it is filled with living things. All these living things are meeting their needs for life. Nature is giving them what they need. There is no landscape that is worthless because it brings life to whatever is living in it.

You almost become a part of the landscape and the economic system that the creatures in it are living under. There is the phenomenon of trail magic, which I believe is the energy of the universe that governs the living things of nature. This magic force wants you to live and it shows you its benevolence by giving you the things you need when you need it. It is another economy outside the one we have built of money and greed. It is the economy of life, of love. Some people call it the Gift Economy where everything is freely given.

In the economy of money and greed, we never have enough. The things that give us life become mundane and taken for granted. You turn a knob and water comes out of a faucet. There is no wonder or gratitude. When you walk 20 or 30 miles in the hot sun to a spring flowing out of the ground, water becomes life embodied and you feel love and gratitude for the water. The universe wants you to be alive and it provides water. It is freely given.

I think often about the horrible things we do to the earth. The plastic filling the seas, the fracking destroying the water for a few minutes of energy and money. When we turn to money for our security we separate ourselves from the source of our true security. Hiking the PCT brings us closer to the source. You do not have to reach and grab to get what you need. You only need to walk quietly and you'll reach the next stream, the next town. Water and food will be waiting for you. We learn there is a hole in the fence of this prison we live in daily and on the other side is a different world. One of love and wonder, beauty and freedom, happiness, struggle, pain and pleasure. It asks only that we live fully and that we walk.

The PCT takes you through places that only hikers and hobos will ever see. Only a hiker or a hobo or perhaps a swallow can see a culvert under a freeway as a safe place to sleep. Only a hiker or a hobo or perhaps other woodland creatures will feel the safety and security of sleeping under a tree in the middle of nowhere. When you can sleep anywhere, the whole world becomes your home. You can never be homeless.

All of this makes you aware that we worry too much about the future. The PCT calms the fear that rises up in our daily lives that we won't have enough, that we'll lose everything, end up on the streets. There's a 2663 mile long unpaved, single track street waiting for you to call home. You carry inside your pocket the key to that street like a secret and it burns a warm secure feeling inside you.

On a long distance hike you meet people with made-up names. You don't know their real names or what they do for a living. The rankings of ordinary life go away. Being the kind of people we are, there still are ways to rank each other on the trail, but largely you are free from the status you came with. You can camp with someone of a far lower or higher social status than you and not even know it. The skills needed out there are different than the skills needed in society and it levels the field a bit. It's freeing.

At the start of a thru-hike people are very much concerned with their gear. How light is it? Do you have enough of it? What brand is it? As you go along, you realize your gear is just a tool. Everything you own is just a tool. Your possessions are only worth as much as the service they provide you. If they aren't providing any service, they are not worth anything. An aluminum can may provide as much utility as a $300 sleeping bag. Your expensive shoes may be destroying your feet and the cheap ones might be saving them. The money or brand name isn't what is important. What's important is the usefulness of the object and your skills.

PCT hikers are never truly outside society. (If anything, it is only because of our society that we can even do such a thing as hike the PCT.) We still need money. We still carry food bought in stores. Our gear is made with plastics and things that couldn't have existed without industrial society and made in processes that pollute the planet. We aren't at one with nature. We're just passing through. But we touch the edge of a world where you can just be and don't have to prove, and it feels good.

On the trail you learn that your body is strong. You can walk a long way. You can endure scary things. You can make it through a difficult night of bad weather. You can solve problems. It brings a sense of calm, a sense of pride. Next time someone treats you poorly you can see right through the attempt that person is making to position himself above you and it just doesn't work. You carry a secret inside of you. You can walk 2663 miles with very little possessions and endure hardships and still be comfortable, warm, safe and dry. You have the key to happiness and nobody can take it away.

This is the secret I learned from the PCT. Having less comfort makes life happier and full of luxury. Security is not fully dependent on money. The kinds of status modern society bids you to seek are irrelevant. Whenever the cold sweats come in the middle of the night, when you think of your future and how you don't have the millions of dollars the financial experts say you need to survive your old age, you can think of the trail, of the birds and other living things. They have no insurance. They have no portfolios. Yet they live in beauty that even then richest man on earth will never see. They have not hoarded and saved for the future and instead live in the present and let nature care for them. You can think of Billy Goat still hiking the trail in his old age. You can remember the hardships you endured and the priceless treasures you saw that can't be bought and you realize that somehow, everything will be okay.

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