Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wild and other Books by long distance hikers

I have had this hobby of reading trail journals and autobiographies and such by hikers of long-distance trails, such as the AT. My hobby started when I read a magazine article in a brand new publication, "Women's Sports + Fitness" which later morphed into Women's Sports Illustrated briefly, before dying from lack of interest. I was fascinated by the kind of girl who would willingly go out into the woods for months at a time, living in a tent, and walking, sleeping, and living in the rain. (It was a particularly rainy year on her AT hike). In spite of some really miserable moments, well, days, actually, it sounded really interesting, fun, challenging, and rewarding to me. I have since done some hiking, done some backpacking, and read much more about and from other backpackers. I think I want to do 'it' some day, but realistically not now. But I wonder if I'm tough enough... You see, I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and was astounded by several things: 1. the misery she put herself through and endured day after day from an overloaded pack and poorly fitting boots and the subsequent blisters and wounds they created. 2. the rewards she enjoyed from beautiful views, to closure with her family's dissolution, to strength she never imagined she would have acquired and 3. her incredibly clear, eloquent, and deep writing style that expressed better than ANY other person's accounts the WHY a person would do this, and what they get out of it. I only wish she didn't feel the need to aver its absolute truth in the beginning of the book...its like a kiss of death...the more one insists that it is true, the further from the truth it is likely to be. Of course its true, and its TRUE to her, but its also immaterial. If it is really true, the truth will shine out of its pages into the reader's soul and ring with the truth that is already there. There is no need to insist. But enough about that. WHY do people do these pilgrimages, despite the difficulty? Why do more than 2000, 3500, higher? people start a long trail EACH YEAR in the US? why do some people do it over and over? And there are so many reasons, and they are all complicated, and some are intertwined with personality. Not everyone is cut out to be a distance hiker. There are some who suffer season-ending injury, and some cannot finish due to other demands on their time, money or presence, so there is a certain amount of luck involved. Most starters just plain quit from sheer difficulty, they do not have a willingness to undergo some pain and deprivation that result in a clarity and pleasure that cannot be achieved otherwise. Plus, you have to like the woods, and walking in it, at least a little bit. I think of woods-walking as a pleasure for most people, but my dear daughter and dear mother have disabused me of that notion. Neither 'like' walking much and they don't care whether its trail or street. For many, the rewards just don't materialize or are not perceived as outweighing the hardships. I guess the next question is: what is the tipping point for someone? I think it is primarily a perception for each individual. What does one perceive a overwhelming and what does one perceive as worthwhile? For me, it would be the rain. If I had to live too much in the rain, it would get to me, and undermine me. For Cheryl Strayed, it was a combination of physical pain and loneliness. She was just about to quit when she met someone else. This person praised her efforts, showed continued enthusiasm for the hike, embodied the bravery of continuing, and was someone to talk to. Distance hiking can be a very polarizing event. Either you have done it or you haven't, and those who haven't done it, haven't imagined it, or wouldn't do it just don't "get" those who do. So it is very difficult to explain yourself (smelly, dirty with a well worn backpack, out on the trail) to those you meet. Plus, while there are a lot more distance hikers than there were 15 years ago, there are still relatively few, and sometimes, they just need conversation with those who can relate to them. It is very lonely to backpack, even with a partner or group, even on a busy trail, because no one else is you going through what you are going through, and no one else is doing it for you. Another distance hiker, Jennifer Hanson, pretty much never met another hiker on the CDT when she hiked. Now that is loneliness! But that wasn't her tipping point, for she didn't perceive that a lack of hiking and talking partners was a bad thing at all. Her tipping point came close with family demands, but she was a very determined hiker. Too bad she couldn't write well (reading her memoir was a hardship!). So I wonder if I could push past my tipping points. I wonder if I could express myself half as well, explain why I want to do it, explain why I pushed on, or why I quit. I want to test my limits. I wonder if I want the full experience.