Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Hikes I Have Never Done (And Don't Care About)

I'm almost done reading M.J. (Nimblewill Nomad) Eberhart's "Ten Million Steps". This is a good book. Not great literature, and not excessively well written, but I didn't expect a diary to be, and this is essentially a trail diary. He has spirit though, and I'm learning a lot. It would be good to hike with him.

Even if the book isn't great literature you can't fault the man. He did what almost no one else can do. Go ahead. Raise an objection here. Lift your hand and wave it. Stand up and shout. Tell me about others who have hiked farther in a lifetime, or in a season, who have gone faster or lighter. Tell me something, and then watch me ignore you. That's all good, and irrelevant.

Last year Andrew Skurka hiked the The Great Western Loop, "a 6,875-mile footpath that links together five existing long-distance trails -- including the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and Arizona Trail -- and a trail-less segment through the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts".

I will never do that. I am incapable of it. That doesn't mean that I hate anyone. I admire the determination and mental toughness needed, not to mention the insane level of physical conditioning required. That said, I still say that Eberhart did what almost no one else can do. There are some like Skurka who have done "better" (farther, faster, flashier, with better advertising -- categorize it any way you want) but they haven't really. The pool of those who can hike from Florida to Quebec in one year at age 59 is so vanishingly small that I have to consider all of them as superior beings, members of one clan comprised of entities I can barely comprehend.

I'd like to see those who are now in their early 20s to mid 30s pass by about 30 years from now, heading out on 10-month trips that no one else has done. Given the way that people are leaping at new things every minute, virgin backpacking trips will be scarce as 60 year old transcontinental trekkers by then.

Maybe what's most important is not the major league sports or the extreme niches within a sport but what a person does of, by, and for himself, on his own. In other words, if you're looking for something to do, it might be that the way to go about it is to do what feels good.

Sleeping in feels good, but only on some days, and only for a while. I'm not saying you should aim for that. You need a challenge, something to define yourself and make you feel good about life while you're doing it and after you've done it. In the middle of it maybe not so much. Not everything that is good or worthwhile is fun while it's happening. As an aside here, you've probably learned by now that it's many of life's little disasters and minor calamities that make the best and funniest stories, but only later, often much later.

OK, challenge, and interesting. What then? Be specific. Trust your innards. They will let you know.

If you decide something with your head, it's probably wrong. If you think about something that you heard about, that's probably wrong too. Take Andrew Skurka. He just finished The Great Western Loop. If you hadn't heard of it earlier, you have now. It's an impressive accomplishment. Does that mean that you should go and do it too? Probably not.

Notice that Skurka now refers to himself as a "professional backpacker". In other words, he may like his work, but he's doing a job. The bigger and flashier he can make something, the more likely he'll get sponsorship and be able to earn a living. OK for him. I'm not saying that it's bad, but consider whether you want to be a government employee because the attorney general of your state just broke up a price-fixing ring. How much sense does that really make? Same with choosing the right backpacking trip.

If you hear about something, and if you've always had it in the back of your mind, and this is the last shove over the edge and you can't help yourself anymore, then I'd say you have a winner. Go for it. Not elsewise.

Kick back. Give it a rest. Let it come to you. Assuming that you have experience backpacking, and are comfortable with backpacking, and know about what you can do, and have a feeling for places you have been, then you have a good base. Let those experiences talk to you. An idea or two will come along. Reading is good, and talking to people you know is good. If someone like Skurka is speaking nearby, go have a listen. Keep an ear open for the small sounds, the little mouse squeaks that everyone else misses. Watch for the door that's open only a crack. Investigate.

Look for the oddball, out of the way place, the trail you hear about that everyone seems to pass by, saying they'd maybe like to get back there some day. Feel your way into it. You're looking for yourself in the world, for a place that needs you and where you will feel at home. It may not be the famous trail where everyone else goes. The best experiences after all are the ones that tell you the most about who you are and what life is all about, and the less baggage the better.

I've always wondered about people who hike one of the really big trails. The Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Pacific Crest Trail. What are they after? I understand the idea of international borders. An international border is a useful concept, but I still don't quite understand the idea of starting at the Mexican border, touching it, and then hiking for months to go and touch the Canadian border. For those hiking the two westernmost of these three trails, that is the story, and why?

The Appalachian Trail seems to make more sense. It is still arbitrary but is also much more focused on actual geography: Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin, no political boundaries really involved. It is about place. Going from Atlantic to Pacific makes sense too, or traveling the reverse route. Loop trails make sense to me, as do seasons. Boundaries and timetables do not.

True, if you want to do something you have to plan, and schedule, but scheduling down to the minute destroys a trip. Racing is wrong. Racing is a kind of thing I'm not talking about here. Racing is complex and done for other reasons. Backpacking is done for itself, in its own time, in its own way. There are hours and days and weeks and resupply points and there is always a limited amount of time, and you have to obey the limits but marching along the dotted line on a timetable is going too far.

It kills the experience. Dead.

Keep it simple and you will be right. You have to get up in the morning, and you do the right things in the right order to get home again, but other than that don't play along. Don't give yourself over to the rules of the game for the sake of the rules. Steer an easy course and remain in control.

I used to know someone who scheduled things a year or two in advance, and hiked with a guidebook and map constantly in hand. She was precise about always hiking the "official" trail. She had been a lot of places over several decades and yet her life didn't seem to have a soul. Not to me. Maybe I'm too small to understand, but her experience on the trail seemed to be a lot more about bagging things in the proper season by official rules than about finding joy.

And as I see it, that's what this is really about, and to do that you have to keep it simple.

I'm not in the big leagues now, and not headed there either. Maybe I truly am an idiot, but here's an idiot's advice if you want it: look for the small stuff. Go where others don't. Be quiet. Make yourself tiny. Move slowly. Stay humble. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Wait.

Some of my best times ever have been the unexpected ones, in places other people just don't go. Sometimes this is only a few feet off a trail. Cut off the trail, get out of sight, sit on a log and have lunch. See what happens. If you're patient and quiet, things begin to happen. You can have the same sort of experience while hiking on a non-name-brand trail. Simply follow the same rules.

I can't explain it to anyone -- they don't want to listen. No one knows what the hell I'm talking about anyway. They are blinded by the bright flashing lights and the dayglo colors. But the small trips have often felt like they were the culmination of a dream long gestating, and that tells me that they were right. I haven't had to fly between continents or hire guides. I just go somewhere interesting and see what happens. If I try to stay light then I almost always come out ahead.


Nimblewill Nomad web site.

Ten Million Steps.

Andrew Skurka.

2007 Adventurer of the Year: The Walking Man (National Geographic Adventure).