You can be taught so much, but the sense of anticipation cannot be taught.
The day before Richard and I left for the long drive to Glacier National Park and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, I played my flute for three services at St Ambrose of Woodbury. Father Williams and five friends gathered around, laid their hands on me and blessed my trip.
It was magic – and so heartfelt – especially after his homily on the day’s gospel, you know when Jesus is out in the fishing boat with his disciples and a huge storm kicks up. Rather than help out, he takes a nap!
Though later, he calms the storm – the lesson being to live a life guided by faith and not by fear, because, in Father Williams’ words, ‘fear has no rights’ and can prevent you from a life of love, curiosity and generosity.
It’s funny how just the right words enter my life just when I need them. Here I was taking mapping classes, making gear lists, doing a shakedown hike and putting together enough food to feed a famished hiker for weeks on end and all I needed was some wisdom to focus my mind.
Yet my nights were all tossing and turning, but Monday was D-day and we were out the door at our planned time, with only a few tears as Richard got slightly bossy about how to pack the car. ‘We really should have bought a bigger car,’ he said, thinking of picking up three more hikers along the way and gear.
But that had to be set aside so we could go, the friends I planned to meet waiting for me to pick them up. And we were blessed with a cooler day, the clouds stacked up like fluffy gray cotton-balls, a child’s drawing to the horizon.
We flew across the state, pulling in briefly at Maplewood State Park, our last look at a particular brand of verdant green and abundant water among glacial-carved eskers and kettles. Red winged black birds slap trilled and white pelicans fished, heads underwater, their fluffy feathered rear-ends up in the air.
In North Dakota, we slalomed through construction zones at 75 miles per hour, green fields reaching far towards the horizon. A sign pointed out the Continental Divide, well ‘a’ continental divide at just over 1,000 feet.
At New Salem, the windshield heated up and I fought to stay awake, but smile as we pass the worlds largest fiberglass cow, huge and black on a pointy hump of land. In fact, everything beyond is made up of humpy bits of land protruding from the prairie.
Richard wisely takes the wheel and rouses me as he suddenly takes an exit for the ‘Enchanted Highway,’ a road of massive scrap metal sculptures heading south from Gladstone to Regent.
‘Should we go; it’s out of our way?’ Richard asked as he speeds us up the hill to the first sculpture, a giant dreamcatcher filled with the silhouettes of flying geese. ‘Hey, there’re geese in flight atop fence posts all the way up the hill! We gotta do it!’
The two-lane road wound past flat-topped mesas, down into a coulee filled with cottonwoods, birds scattering out of the way of our car. A country road has a different rhythm to the interstate, inviting our eyes up to the vast sky and the grasses dancing in the hot, dry wind.
Leaping deer – fortunately made of metal – led to giant grasshoppers, a fisherman’s dream with a tiny man and his tiny boat fifty feet in the air, catching a fish at least 10 times his size. A joyous Teddy Roosevelt led to giant leggy and wide-eyed pheasants and finally a family of three, the woman Richard pointed out was not handsome. Two pronghorn antelope ran next to the road.
We were hungry and it was still an hour to our hotel in Dickinson, but helpful signs along the way urged us towards the ‘castle’ at the end of the road, a converted school filled with suits of armor, private rooms and a full bar. We ordered hamburgers and met Gary who made all of this happen over thirty years. What possesses someone to create something fanciful, a roadside attraction, a whimsy and a business all at once?
We set our alarm for 4:30 and rolled out of bed as the sun rose to have Theodore Roosevelt National Park as much to ourselves in the cool morning air as possible. He escaped to this wild, desolate place after losing his wife and mother on the same day. It buoyed his spirit and gave him purpose to work as a cattleman.
Now, we can drive the roads and take short hikes. The prairie dogs peep loudly, as they comically scamper about their towns and bison find the choicest grass, sometimes rolling in the dust. We followed a mini-heard up the road, tails swishing like windshield wipers over their small and shapely rear-ends, large, soft brown eyes peering at us from massive heads. Short walks brought us to badland overlooks and deeply eroded hillsides frozen in the act of slumping.
But a long drive awaited us still in Montana now with a speed limit jacked up to 80. We followed the Yellowstone River, the largest wild river still intact in the US, carving its way through steep cliffs dotted with Rocky Mountain Juniper. I was hot, much hotter than it should be this early and I have the a/c cranked on high. Our gas mileage was awful.
In Billings, I met Oceana my friend from the PCT who plans to hike 500 miles of the CDT. Her boyfriend’s parents invited us to dinner at their house at the edge of the rock cliffs. We laughed, shared stories, drank and ate, but Oceana and I both have that amped up nervousness of two hikers about to embark on something big, something unknown, something hard to grasp all at once.
She showed me her pack and it elicits panic that I’m taking far too much. But when I speak about my other hikes, it elicits from her a feeling of being an imposter. Can one ever feel like they have it all dialed in? We did our due diligence, have a boat load of experience and have made our choices, but still, it never quite satisfies until we take that first step.
I played my flute in church the previous week too and my mind filters back to the lesson on that day when Jesus compares the kingdom of god to a mustard seed. It’s so tiny and yet becomes something large. All of that potential is contained in something seemingly insignificant. In that case, the priest focussed his message on how everything we do begins with something small and nascent, something undefined, yet ready to burst forth.
I fall asleep but jolted awake by Emily’s text that she’s ready to be picked up at the bus station. Like all bus stations in any city anywhere in the world, a sketchy cast of characters loiter in the poorly lit lot, redolent with pot. And there she is, her pack on her shoulder all smiles and tan. The age of my daughter if I had one.
We both fall into our beds, Richard already knocked out and morning comes early, with repacking up to roof.
The trail awaits, but with six hours to Glacier, the trail still feels like an idea. My walking it is still an idea. It’s not possible yet to know what happens, and it’s definitely not possible to know yet whether I’ve done my preparation perfectly. With that unknowable aspect and ambiguity comes ambivalence and second-guessing, but as my dad pointed out just as I got ready to leave, each day reveals itself like opening Christmas presents under the tree one by one.
The motel clerk had directed us to a food truck for breakfast burritos just down the road at a Ford dealership. We took then back to Oceana’s and spread out on the shaded patio. Just as we finished, the fourth person in our party texted us that he got us permits for Glacier. We’re starting tomorrow!
The route is random with one day only 3.5 miles, but we’re getting started and maybe taking our time and exploring will be worth it. As we leave Ocean’s boyfriend’s parents on their steep driveway, excited, relieved, ready to get this party started – the car bottoms out and we scrape the asphalt, leaving a bit of ourselves behind.
…that are helping me get through this moment right now
1. Take Risks
There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own.
The most important thing I learned even before I set foot on the Te Araroa or the Pacific Crest Trail is that security is a myth. Life itself is full of risk no matter how much we try to control its outcome.
I was terrified when granted a leave-of-absence from my job that I’d risk losing a career I loved. But I desperately needed this pause in my life. I needed to find out what would happen to my body, mind and spirit on a long distance walk, especially with a body already in serious decline from osteoarthritis.
I did all I could to mitigate the risk, ensuring things would be the same when I returned. But it made absolutely no difference. I still lost that career.
But what did I gain? An adventure, experience, self-knowledge, self-reliance, and the realization that I wouldn’t wonder someday in the future, when I’m not capable of walking like I could for those two thru-hikes, why I hadn’t taken the risk.
The truth is we never really know what’s around the corner, so sometimes you just have to take a calculated leap of faith. Funny thing? That day-in-the-future is now and I am in the process of replacing both hips.
On one particularly awful morning after surgery when I was nauseated and had a splitting headache, I told Richard all I needed was hope.
His response? “The most hopeful thing you are doing is taking these months to repair your body for the next hikes.”
2. Live in the present moment
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
Alice Morse Earle
A thru-hike forces a kind of single-minded focus that is unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered in life. I find it difficult to plan, at least specifically, too many days in advance. And even if I could, I find that circumstances change and I need to go with the flow.
That being said, I was shocked by the number of hikers who wore headphones and walked at night seemingly just to get in miles. That approach is anathema to me and I became a kind of ascetic of the trail, never listening to music, always hiking within daylight and taking the time to really see things.
My friend Myra, a.k.a. “Wonder,” takes pride in having carefully planned each day on the PCT, very much in the vein of her real life work as an engineer. Since she’s not a fast walker, she knew going in she’d have to stick to some sort of schedule or she’d never make it to the finish line. That being said, she describes in a Guest Post how delicious each day was because she had the spare time to really see everything.
I’m not afraid to be face-to-face with my own thoughts, even if they’re sometimes unpleasant! Part of walking a long distance thru-hike is staying present with all of yourself – the good, the bad and the ugly – and not looking away or trying to distract yourself.
Right now, my thru-hike is slowly recovering from one hip operation and having the courage to go in for the second one. I have suffered setbacks, including catching Covid 19 and developing painful – but temporary – neuropathy in my calf and foot. I use the lesson of staying in the present to experience fully what each day brings, the tiny victories and surprises that my body can heal itself.
3. Practice patience
Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.
I’m not a huge fan of FKT’s (Fastest Known Time) I understand the motivation for such a challenge and certainly celebrate the athletic accomplishment of someone running, say, the Appalachian Trail in 40 days.
But for me, walking a long trail is about sauntering, a word which John Muir preferred to hiking because it connotes a kind of mission like a holy pilgrimage as opposed to a physical endurance test.
Over the course of ten months walking two major trails, I discovered this phenomenon that no matter how much I desired to get somewhere faster, I couldn’t really walk much faster. It was simply going to take the time it was going to take.
Much like living in the present, patience is all about letting go of the need to control and giving things time to percolate.
The nature writer Edward Abbey explains it beautifully. He writes, “Walking takes longer…than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed…Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”
So patience, my friend, gets us where we’re going and forces us to become observant, which in turn opens us to the possibility of experiencing the divine.
The worst part about my recovery at the moment is this pins-and-needles electric buzz in my lower leg. It was likely caused by my sciatica firing up while they had my femur pulled out. The surgeon told me nerves heal about one millimeter per day, which means this could take months to go way.
That does not sound pleasant at all. But, it should go away and I take into this moment patience with that long process. And just like planning for where to camp and how much food to carry, along with practicing patience, I take vitamins, massage my legs, and keep up good blood flow to encourage recovery.
I think that’s what I love about my life. There’s no maniacal master plan. It’s just unfolding before me.
Carpe diem – seize the day. I get it. I do. This idea that we need to put on our big girl pants and Type A personalities and make things happen!
There’s another side to this approach that really becomes apparent on my thru-hikes. For sure, you have to put yourself out there on that trail and be bold, brave and brilliant.
But sometimes, that attitude became too confining, not allowing the flexibility to maybe go a bit further, camp somewhere unexpected, accept a kindness from a trail angel or scrap a tightly held plan altogether.
This was a biggie for me, to wake up each day and just allow things to occur. I may practice mindfulness, but in the back of that mind is a control freak who wants to know what’s ahead, what will happen, where will I end up.
That attitude has often caused me to miss opportunities right in front of my face. We all could sharpen our skills at being nimble, willing to change our minds, our plans and our direction. It can invariably lead to unimaginable wonders, like when I hooked up with a local to climb Mount Taranaki for the sunrise, being the first to summit in 2019.
At this moment, it means developing curiosity rather than certainty, to delight in the twists and turns of my life – like today, when I was finally able, with the use of my cane and the handrail, to walk up and down stairs, one foot after the other on their own step.
A huge accomplishment in comparison to what happened on my “walk.” My right hip is rapidly deteriorating and I simply can’t walk as far until I get that one replaced in December.
And yet, it was warm enough to take a break on my porch and watch the world go by – dog walkers, children on various wheeled forms of transport and neighbors wishing me well.
Not a bad afternoon at all.
5. Trail Angels exist
That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.
Simone de Beauvoir
I had heard the term “trail angel” for years before walking my first major thru-hike. I certainly benefited from kindnesses on every backpack trip I’ve taken with people offering rides on seemingly abandoned roads, shared meals when when I might have skimped on nutrition and offers of a spot to set my tent on someone’s property.
And then there’s just the thousands of little things, the beers offered at the right moment, the words of encouragement, the invitations to camp on the lawn and share a meal, not to mention how the “trail provided” in mysterious ways at precisely the moment I needed something.
None of these acts made me feel entitled. Rather I felt deeply blessed and changed inside, wanting to pay forward what I can and be the person that helped me.
You can see in my video that a patient is up and walking soon after a full hip replacement, but for about a week, it’s necessary to use a walker. Richard and I found one at a thrift store in Waconia, Minnesota for $3. It was fine, but clunky, even when we affixed tennis balls to its feet.
I was dreaming of a rollator like my mom’s. with fat tires and a smooth ride. The very next day, someone posted in my “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, the exact rollator I had in mind. Greta gifted it to us with the expectation we’d pass it along at the end of this saga, just like my feelings of passing along trail angel kindnesses.
Trail Angels help with no desire to be repaid, and teach us how to be generous.
6. The point of a thru hike is not to triumph.
The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.
When I finished walking the Pacific Crest Trail, Richard was waiting for me at the southern terminus in Campo as I walked up one last rise towards the blocky monument.
It was not an especially long day, just twenty miles through desert landscape and oddly shaped rock outcroppings. I met two thru-hikers along the way as well as a group of backpackers out for a weekend. The mood was festive, relaxed, and a little resigned. I didn’t feel exhausted or ready to stop, but neither did I feel sorrow that my life as a full-time pedestrian would be coming to an end.
The trail twisted through the mountains and skirted private land dotted with live oaks before I crossed train tracks and followed a road to mile marker number one and the final steps of my odyssey.
I could see Richard’s rental car parked near the razor-topped border wall and his tall body leaning against the door. I had a huge smile on my face as he applauded my arrival, all at the exact moment that another car joined. Richard handed me a margarita with fresh squeezed lime, reasonably tasty tequila and precious ice cubes served in a real glass.
He planned to take it with me as I sat on top of the monument for my finisher photograph, but it seems the man had other plans. He wanted his own picture taken – and taken before me. In a brusque manner – and without acknowledging that I actually walked to this spot from the Canadian border – he asked if I wouldn’t mind getting out of the frame while his wife snapped his picture.
I obliged, waiting for her as she snapped pictures from several angles of this man who walked ten steps of the PCT. At some point, he came down and headed back to his car and I climbed onto the monument.
It was such an odd moment, but it made absolutely no difference to me. I was done and this was just a marker in time and space. All my experiences and all my memories could not possibly be taken away from me whether I sat on the monument for my picture or not.
It occurred to me that there was a lesson in this. The goal to finish is a good one, and gives shape and direction to the walk. But accomplishment isn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, to triumph by making it to all the way 2,685 miles to the end does feel good. But what feels even better, is being alive for every step.
This journey to new hips has had ups and downs, including both Richard and I contracting Covid, fortunately, as far as we know right now, we have only mild symptoms. But I challenge myself not to get lost in wanting to get over and done with everything, but to search for that feeling of being alive within the tumult of this moment.
It helps that Richard and I both are feeling more “normal” today, still fatigued and coughing a lot, but ever so slightly familiar to ourselves. That in itself makes all of it worth it.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
Every day on a thru-hike, you get a chance to redeem yourself. Think about that. It’s like a do-over every single day beginning with letting the air out of your mattress, packing your gear and deciding what you’ll eat for breakfast before lacing up your shoes and walking on.
I found that to be one of the most freeing truths in walking long distances. It’s nearly impossible to get caught in a rut, because by its very nature, the terrain and environment are sometihng new each day.
And there’s nothing saying you have to walk with the same people, use the same trail name or even be the same person. Maybe that’s precisely why people thru-hike, to “find” themselves, lose themselves, then find themselves again.
There’s also that bit about weather changing. Non-stop rain in New Zealand nearly gave me PTSD, and yet just when I couldn’t handle another day of wet, it would clear and I was given a beautiful gift of sunshine, views and easy walking. I guess it shouldn’t surprise you that I longed for hard trail when it got too easy and through myself back into mud when the trail offered no challenge.
It was Abraham Lincoln who told the story about a king who charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this, too, shall pass away.”
Hardship, sorrow, confusion, fear, pain, the myriad feelings I have right now as I push through my bionic rebuild – all of these things shall pass, and eventually metamorphose into something else. I suppose that something else could be worse, but like the trail unwinding in front of me and taking me from rain forest to mountain pass to desert, our circumstances change with each passing moment.
8. You will never pass this way again
Sooner or later, we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip.
The most alluring part of a thru-hike for me is the fact that you rarely repeat any of it, rather you hike “thru” an environment. It offers a metaphor for life in being awake and aware as you go since it’s unlikely you will see any of this again.
Perhaps it’s because I’m middle aged and can see the other side of my life towards old age and death, I feel a bit more in touch with this concept. I know I wasn’t always popular with some of the younger hikers who got bored easily and found the trails a never-ending slog.
I would try to learn the names of the plants and creatures, to understand the geology and the cultures I passed through. In effect, I fed my curiosity so I wouldn’t see each day as on repeat and a series of physical challenges to be overcome.
That’s not to say it wasn’t hard as code word: tall grass attests to my complete and utter break down from a combination of hard trail and utter exhaustion. I earned true thru-hiker cred that day when I told it like it is and how hard it can be to keep going.
Perhaps like everything changing, it’s important to remind oneself that even unpleasant sections will soon go from the present to the past, and no amount of picture taking or journaling will help your recall what it felt like if you don’t feel if fully while you’re experiencing it.
When I first started walking on the sidewalk in front of my house, I thought of each place I camped along the PCT, recalling the sounds, the smell, the solitude or lack thereof. It was a fun exercise as I trained my new prosthetic to move smoothly.
I’m not wild about pain and nausea and being away from all I love to do as I heal, but I intend for this hip to last me most of my life and this time is one I hopefully won’t experience again, so perhaps it’s worth reminding myself to take each step deliberately and with intention since these are steps I will never walk again.
9. Let go and forgive
Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.
There’s nothing like a thru-hike to clean the cobwebs of your soul, especially if you’re like me and hike alone. You may have thought you were an ultralight hiker until the weight of excess baggage slowed you down and you knew you needed to deal with things.
I often argues with the air, spoke to old flames and old bosses and gave them a piece of my mind. But I found that interacting with other hikers – many pretty selfish and disagreeable – challenged me just as much.
Unlike our “real” lives, thru-hiking offers freedom from most expectations and demands. And yet, it stresses us to the point of breaking. Temperature extremes, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, injury, animal encounters, etc. can cause us to become selfish and demanding. giving little thought to each other.
In Northern California, I was left in a snowstorm by someone I had been hiking with for weeks and in Southland, New Zealand, I was threatened with physical harm by a Kiwi when I stole his chair. I felt betrayed, hurt and angry in those situations and worried over them for a long time before finally letting them go and deciding those guys needed to do what they did in the moment, and I’m not irreparably hurt.
When I’m vulnerable like I am now as I heal, I also “worry” hurt feelings from the past. Forgiveness is a tall order and not easy to practice even when we know it will set us free. What helps is to believe the people who hurt us did so for their own selfish reasons and not because we deserved it or had it coming.
While I won’t be hiking with either of those men again and there are many people from my past I have cut loose, taking it less personally has helped me move forward – and created the space for trail angels (see #5) to come into my life.
10. You are stronger than you think you are
If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.
I’ve always had a talent for going uphill. Richard calls me a mountain goat. I can set a pace and just cruise. It’s just one of my gifts.
But strength is not just in going uphill or downhill, or long distances or in hellacious weather. Strength is something innate, something called upon when we find ourselves maybe a bit over our head or in unknown territory.
I guess I never doubted I’d walk a long way, even if I wasn’t entirely sure my body would hold up for all those miles. What I set out to do was to discover what would happen to my body, mind and spirit if I walked for months on end.
I wasn’t always strong. I cried. I complained. I doubted myself. And I often wondered why I was bothering and if what I was doing was worth it. But something inside me kept me moving forward, even if I had to take breaks or change my plans.
It’s almost precisely a year to the day that I sat on top of the monument in Campo, California after walking nearly 5,000 miles in New Zealand and the United States and I can tell you today it was all worth it. I’m amazed here in Saint Paul after walking just the block around our house, that I had what it took to put one foot in front of the other, make good decisions and see both hikes all the way through.
I got plenty of help from friends and trail angels, but in the end, I did it. We have more strength than we think we have, but we can only know that if we put it to the test.
So get out there, don’t put it off any longer that thing you want to do. Challenge yourself, get into the nitty gritty and see how it feels to be back at square one, like learning to walk again on new hips! You might surprise yourself how strong you really are.
The ten essentials are navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid,knife and repair kit, the ability to make fire, shelter or a bivvy, extra food, a way to purify water and extra clothes.
Super important for day hikers who should always ask themselves the question if they could spend the night out here if something goes wrong like they get lost or hurt. Now a backpacker has all this stuff, but the thinking on navigation is to take five tools with us – including printed maps.
The Continental Divide Trail does have an official route, but, unlike most other long-distance trails, nearly every thru-hiker chooses alternates. Why? Because in some cases they’re more beautiful or more interesting or more challenging than the actual divide. The CDT Trail Coalition does make maps available – as does a very generous thru-hiker named Jonathan Ley, who marks the most used alternates – but there’s a couple that are not on maps, exactly.
And for those, I need to make my own. So I took a class.
I admit that on my last two thru-hikes I only had maps on my phone. Yes, it was risky because phones fail, they get crunched, lost, they die. I made it, but what bothered the most was a feeling like I was just following a line and not aware of the larger picture, or my options.
In the GPS Navigation class I learned a lot including navigational workflow,situational awareness and the ethic of self-reliance. Those are some big concepts and I’ll admit, I’m quite literally taking baby steps – and the class is for people like me who gotta start somewhere – and that’s with creating a map – a physical map with a route and waypoints customized to my needs – like, where I want to go, where I might want to stop and issues I may encounter along the way, like water sources or resupply options.
And that begins with learning to use software called Cal Topo. The story goes that founder and Wilderness EMT Matt Jacobs was sick of buying maps for every outing and 10 years ago, he set up mapping tools for search and rescue. He now has ten people on staff for this incredibly sophisticated tool.
With time running out before I head to Montana, I still thought cramming in all the material I’d need for class, including six hours of pre-work, reading and studying, practicing in the field and taking two quizzes (which I passed) – was worth the effort, even if by no means would I master navigation.
In addition to making a physical map, I’d also learn about the phone app Gaia GPS, which works in conjunction with the map software – you basically make your map, print it and then import to Gaia so you can follow it via GPS. But the key to success in the backcountry is to keep you nose out of your phone. And that’s because, well, you want to see the scenery, but also you are more aware of weather, how many hours left to daylight, if there’s a rattle snake in the middle of the trail. You want to NOT rely on these tools singularly, but rather as a whole.
And that’s when the magic occurs, when we combine the map making and gps with the lowly handheld compass. After our three-hour Zoom class, our next activity was in the field. I printed a map with a route and marked waypoints and went out and walked it. It’s at Lake Elmo again with clearly marked trails and a place very familiar to me using my compass to follow the bearing from the map I made now in my phone. One of the first things I learn, even after all those times walking here, I never has any idea which direction I was going. I also learn that heading towards something “as the crow flies’ is not always possible, and I can take intermediate bearings. The GPS gives me the distance, kind of like someone telling you, “walk fifty paces then turn right.”
And maybe the biggest miracle, is if I stay on my bearing, I don’t get lost.
Now back to why I took the course, to make that map for my big alternate on the CDT. It’s loosely called the Super Butte/Big Sky Cut Off – or the “Butte Scoot” – followed by Yellowstone and finally the Grand Teton Crest Trail. The good news is other people have walked it and have made their GPX data available online which I import directly onto my map. Still, I need to vary the route somewhat and create waypoints for water and possible camping. The greatest tool of all is a snap to OSM or open street map. No there aren’t streets in the wilderness, but there are trails and I can snap my route to them. It takes a bit of trying, but it saves so much time.
There are a couple of cross-country sections without trail, and here I can change the map layer from Map Builder to aerial or aerial topo hybrid, which allows me to see the terrain. I can see from the profile that there’s a 1,400 foot cliff over Lake Solitude, but there’s a section that looks doable and I know it’s doable because other people have done it. So I drop in waypoints to the easier part so I can navigate to when I get there.
I am no expert, but I am incredibly empowered. The ethic of self-reliance is founded on the principles of experience, preparation, skill and judgment. This is just one more arrow in my quiver that will help me when I move along the trail to make good decisions and be responsible for myself.
You want to get overwhelmed fast? Try making food for a thru-hike.
To be honest, the only recipe that’s mine is for my magic vegetarian pemmican bars. That’s a calorie bomb of cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts, wheat germ, flax flour, figs, dates and honey. Fortunately, I have about four pounds in the freezer ready to be packed.
For all the other recipes, I am using Backcountry Foodie. It’s a member-based backpacking meal planning site created by a dietician backpacker. Ultralight recipes packed with nutrition and high in calories and most importantly, gridded into meal plans, so you don’t have to think too much. You just have to prepare.
I watched friends on the PCT manage all 2600-plus miles without carrying a stove and I was jealous. I don’t like cooking on trail, and it’s not necessary. Backcountry set me up with a “No-cook 7-day meal plan” and I got to work.
The most fun to make was pasta. Sure you could live off of ramen for 7 days in a row on repeat, but I wanted to try others. You have to cook the pasta first, then dehydrate it. This enables it to rehydrate in about 30 minutes for a pasta salad. It does seem a bit ridiculous to pull out the water just to put it back in. And oddly, the pasta looks exactly the same. But it’s not. What works really well is penne and elbow macaroni. Not so crazy about orzo and definitely unwieldy is angel hair, which glued itself to the dehydrator. Still, for no cook meals, pasta works great because you make salads. Sun dried tomato pesto, spicy peanut, buffalo salad. And just how do you make these tasty? The trick is using mayonnaise and peanut butter packets and lots and lots of shelf stable parmesan cheese as well as olive oil.
I was kinda tuned off to the mess of it, but oils pack a massive nutritional punch per ounce and I know my body is desperate for it on the trail. Does it go bad? I haven’t had any problems, but I’ll let my nose be the tester. You do have to pack it carefully in a leak-proof Nalgene bottle and its own baggie, but it’s worth it.
I made about ten or so of each main meal, packing the herbs and spices and pine nuts separately in their own tiny baggie. It’s just a glorified assembly line, but it still takes me the better part of two days.
I have no idea why I was so opposed to cereal in the past on my thru-hikes. Maybe because it was always porridge over a stove, slowing down my morning. This time around, I make packages of granola and kashi with whole milk powder, berries dehydrated at home and nuts. I actually end up eating out the bag. I must look like a sorry little person, but wait until you hear about the dozens of shakes I created and also drink out of the bag – berry, chocolate, peanut butter – and a real cool trick of grinding up coconut and oats to a powder. I just might have the most flushed colon on trail!
For lunches, I have dips and spreads with chips and crackers. Have I gone completely off the deep end if I’m counting each cracker, measuring each pile of pita chips? Maybe the most complex of all my dips is a salsa. Lots of ingredients including a new discovery for me of True Lime powder, like one slice of squeezed lime juice and a miracle of flavor popping. In between meals are my magic bars, a truckload of Honey Stinger waffles sent to me by a follower, plantain chips, Pepperidge Farm goldfish and of course, gummy bears.
I am less a cooking show star and more a Swedish chef disaster of spoons, bowls, knives, cutting boards, food processor and baggie explosion – but I only had to go to the store twice for extra items.
Everything is assembled in quart-sized freezer bags and nestled into boxes ready to roll. Some I’ll send to my first resupply at mile 236 at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch. I need to send that this week so it gets there in time. Another box I’ll leave in east Glacier, and then there’s what I’ll pack in my new Ursack to take on day one.
And all the rest, my trail angel here in Saint Paul Richard will send as I move along, to Yellowstone, Atlantic City and Encampment, WY and Pie Town, NM – and maybe points in between. I’ve tried all the recipes and didn’t gag or die, but not cooking might pose its own issues. Let’s just hope Richard doesn’t have to send me an emergency resupply half way through Glacier with my stove.
People who love to eat are always the best people.
What do you eat when you thru-hike, Blissful?
The number one question I’m asked when making a presentation about my thru-hiking is, “What do you eat?” quickly followed by, “How do you get enough calories?“
It’s no secret in my household that I am not much of a cook. When I hit my twenties, my mom gave me The Joy of Cookingfor Christmas. Seemingly at the tail end of a vain attempt to convince me I’d come to like it too, she inscribed on the inside front cover, “It really is a joy!”
Is this a joke? I wondered.
Fast forward to today and the bible of cooking still sits on my kitchen counter but it’s more Richard’s than mine. Before we met, I subsisted on microwaveable dinners, ones I’d assumed were healthy since they came from the natural foods aisle.
What’s difficult for me, however, is that these items are hard to make in bulk and send forward as resupply. I’d come to rely on questionably nutritious packets of “food” picked up at random shops along the way.
What I ate left me constantly hungry and usually craving sugar. On the PCT in particular, I developed an addiction to gummy bears – well, to be perfectly frank, gummy anything. By the time I arrived in Southern California, I was consuming a full bag every single day!
My strategy to make up for the lost calories – and lost weight? Eat massive amounts in town. Surely there had to be a better way.
Introducing Backcountry Foodie
When Backcountry Foodie contacted me last year to see if I might want to trail test their company’s wares, I was under the impression the food was pre-made. Of course I said yes, send ’em on over! I’ll check them out on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic
Not so fast, Blissful.
Unlike any company I know of in the outdoor industry, Backcountry Foodie is less a provider than a partner in thru-hike meal planning.
Aaron Owens Mayhew is a registered dietician and ultralight long-distance backpacker. It would take more than fifteen years of carrying heavy military rations and unappetizing freeze-dried meals that left her feeling hungry before she thought to combine her passions.
She has created a spectacular collection of recipes in a kind of thru-hiker meal strategy, one that checks all the boxes – food that’s healthy and high in calories, ultralight and concentrated as well as cheap to create at home and easy to prepare on the trail.
How does Backcountry Foodie work?
Aaron must have been a straight-A student because she’s organized, passionate and thorough, covering information I hadn’t even known I needed, categorizing her meals by day part, calories-per-ounce, as well as cross referencing the use of ingredients for other meals.
I should point out here that it’s not necessary to own a dehydrator unless you want to dry your own ingredients.
The “pantry” is the extensive list of ingredients with a link to purchase each item. Many ingredients can be found at your local store, but some, like dehydrated refried beans or peanut butter flour, are harder to find and best bought online.
Every recipe is “freezer-bag” style, cooking fast (if at all) and using very little fuel and each one is designed like pages of a cookbook (The Joy of Cooking, anyone?) including home and field prep time, allergy and diet restriction information and if the meal works best cold soakedor cooked. Plus, there are individual labels to print and slap on your baggie with all pertinent information. This will definitely come in handy when you open a resupply box three months down the road.
As a member-based organization, Backcountry Foodie offers three tiers – the most basic – and independent – level providing access to 75 different recipes, with the more comprehensive levels including meal plans, webinars, group web calls as well as custom meal planning.
In case you thought maybe the meals could get a little boring, here’s a sampling to whet your appetite: Coconut Mango Porridge, Taco Scramble, Bivy Bran Flakes, Antioxidant Trail Mix, Spicy Hummus, Yosemite Yams, Chips & Salsa with Guacamole, Pasta Primavera, Reboot Espresso Trail Mix, Pina Colada…and on and on.
I should mention here that each recipe is vegetarian, still managing to provide the essential vitamins and minerals and calories needed from a hiker walking 10-12 hours per day.
How did it go?
There are way more recipes than I could possibly have explored for my shortish hikes this fall. Working through the bounty one-by-one will take me most of the off-season. But from what I field-tested, I can say without reservation, Backcountry Foodie is a game changer.
I started this review mentioning that I’m not much of a cook, and that is made patently obvious on the trail where all I want to do is eat and get going. I want my meals to be simple.
And simple is the name of the game, one pot, just-add-water kinda meals, exactly the way I like it.
I made two items for breakfast – a Chocolate/Peanut Butter Shake and Banana Nut Crunch. These were beyond easy to put together even if I dried my own bananas. They tasted great in the field and I mixed and ate them directly from their baggie. They hit the two most important criteria – they tasted good (I wanted another serving the next day) and they filled me up.
I usually snack during the day on dried fruit and jerky, but I loved the Black Bean Dip made on my dehydrator and eaten with a bag of Fritos , a staple of every thru-hiker’s kitchen.
For dinner, I mostly stuck with the Ramen meals – yup, the same thing you had in college at 25¢ a pop. The secret is to remove the flavor packets, crunch up the noodles and add all sorts of tasty items like my new best friend, shelf-stable parmesan cheese, or freeze dried mushrooms, even cashews and red pepper flakes.
The only drawback for me is the recipes calling for the addition of oil. I just can’t make the leap to carry oil in my pack, no matter how carefully it’s wrapped. Maybe it’s because I’m generally a slob when backpacking and everything tends to get beaten up within an inch of its life.
I have no problem carrying nut butters, but I draw the line at things that might spill on my clothes and sleeping bag. Unfortunately without oil, the nutritional profile is not accurate. That being said, the meals I made tasted delicious and I found oil was not necessary.
Because everything was so delicious and I felt full and strong, I thought what the heck, why not give cold soaking a try on the Kekekabic. Cold soaking is exactly as it sounds – water is added to rehydrate the meal and it’s eaten cold. The advantage to the hiker is leaving the stove and fuel at home, thus saving weight and bulk. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at just how good everything tasted and I never felt the need for a warm meal even when the temperatures dipped at night.
I am now a convert to cold soaking and it wouldn’t have be able to accomplish this without the superb recipes from Backcountry Foodie.
Specs at a glance
three-tiered ultralight recipe and meal planner with lifetime access
recipes sorted by meal type, cooking style, and dietary needs.
freezer-bag style meals that are easy to make, nutrition-packed and inexpensive.
“pantry” ingredient resource and where to purchase
monthly webinars, recipe subscription and meal plans available
custom meal planning available
alison young was given a demo account for testing by Backcountry Foodie.
Listen to my conversation with Aaron Owens Mayhew on Walking Distance!
Some of the links found on blissfulhiker.com are affiliate referral links. This means that if a reader clicks on text or an image to enter an online shopping site, Blissful Hiker may receive a commission from purchases made on that visit. There is no additional cost to you; referral fees are paid by merchants. Through affiliate links and paid advertisements, I promote only products and businesses that I consider helpful to you. Thanks!
I am thrilled to announce that Summit Orthopedics is supporting my Continental Divide Hike. Thank you so much, Summit, for getting me back on my feet and on my way to #walkingtheworld!
Last October, I was told by lovely Doctor Stroemer at Summit Orthopedics in the Twin Cities that I had no cartilage left in my hip socket. It all came on fast starting with what I thought was a pulled muscle progressing quickly to barely being able to walk. They gave me a cortisone shot and I tested it by taking one last, limping thru-hike of the Kekekabic. The shot took away the pain, but it wasn’t going to grow back cartilage, so under the knife I went for two total hip athroplasty surgeries.
Since March, I have been on a mission to regain my strength by doing planks and yoga, biking, and, of course loads of walking, like hours on end. You can listen to the Blissful Hiker podcast episode #53 that takes you through some of my getting-in-shape daily routine.
I’m by no means all there. Dr. Stroemer told me it could be a full year before the swelling goes down in my thighs which explains why absolutely nothing fits me right now! And I still have pins and needles plus numbness from neuropathy likely caused by a bruised nerve when they had to pull my thigh out of the socket. It seems to be going away, but it will take time and does get kind of tight.
All that being said, I am on my way to walking the CDT and things are getting real! I’ve taken over our guest room with gear laid out all over the place, I got my butt kicked in a class called GPS Navigation: Using CalTopo and Gaia GPS Workshop with The Mountaineers in Seattle, and I’m preparing meals, sorting out the ones to send ahead right now and making piles for Richard to send as I progress.
There’s a lot to do, but I try and remember what Broken Toe said, advising to not plan too much and make the step I’m taking right now the priority. That’s not to say you don’t get organized, it’s more about adopting an attitude that not every bit of anything can be planned out. There’s always the possibility that I’m not quite as strong as I used to be and I’ll have to change plans or make adjustments – and then there’s the weather, wildfires…
The good news is the posse I’ll start the hike with are all in agreement that we take things slow to start – mainly because Glacier National Park is so astonishingly beautiful. So maybe, even I, the “Bionic” Blissful Hiker, can keep up with the kids on trail!
Thanks again Summit Orthopedics for your care and support!
Today marks six months since my first surgery to replace my worn out hip joints. I would eventually have total hip athroplasty for both left and right, with about seven weeks in between. My surgeon was a bit skeptical pushing the recovery time, but since I’m a “full time pedestrian” with essentially no cartilage left at all on either side, he knew this was the only way to get me back on the trail for the 2021 season.
For those of you might be surmising that walking all those long distance trails was what wore out my hips, rest assured that is not the professionals’ opinion. Walking 20-30 miles a day has made me strong. My problem is that I am genetically predisposed to wear out my joints and there’s not much that can be done, but give me new ones.
The good news is I live in the year 2021 with modern medical miracles as far as joint replacement and I’m doing fabulously well. Running may not in my future, but I’ve been given the green light to walk as much as I want.
Another big trail…
Many of you have heard me speaking about the Continental Divide, one of America’s National Scenic Trails following the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. There is an “official” path, but most thru-hikers take numerous alternates and create their own route, which is precisely my plan.
I’ll begin with three women – “Girls v Grizzlies” – in mid-June at Glacier National Park, then take the Big Sky/Butte Super Cut Off and add the Teton Crest plus high routes in the Wind River Range. I might have time to add a 14er or two in Colorado, too.
Audio narratives from the trail
For the past year, I have been producing a podcast blissful hiker ❤︎ walking the world that tells the story of my walks as a solo, middle-aged, female, long distance backpacker through personal essay and collected sound.
My artistic practice reflects an enduring curiosity in how we perceive this wondrous world around us, particularly through sound. On the CDT, I will continue sharing these audio essays while on trail. I’d love to invite you to follow and support my work.
…become a patron
As a subscriber, you will play a major role in helping me as I develop my story-telling skills and learn to produce exceptional work.In addition, you will have the opportunity to participate in exclusive Q&A checkins along the trail, reserved only for Patreon patrons.
I am forever grateful to you for joining me on this unique, artistic adventure and on all of my walks in the world. Kia kaha and happy trails, Blissful 🐥🎒👣
I know, I know, choosing the name The Pee Rag for my podcast got a few of you in a twist, but it was never intended to be vulgar, rather a play on words – “rag” being another name for a news source.
I also meant the choice to equate the unglamorous bits of thru-hiking with the grit and bad-assery required – especially from of a middle aged solo female backpacker carrying all she needs on her back to so many stunningly beautiful and transformative places.
To tell the truth, I had never even heard of a “pee rag” until a few days before my departure for New Zealand with an objective of walking the length of both islands on the Te Araroa. It was actually a Facebook post devoted to women hikers of the TA that piqued my curiosity, one where a fellow hiker queried, are you taking a pee rag?
Not to look uninformed, I researched this mystery and came upon Stacia Bennett’s informative and matter-of-fact article all about the subject. Like me, after reading you too will come to realize you just can’t leave home without a pee rag. Let’s face it gals, “drip drying” is no way to manage on a multi-day hike – or ever for that matter, and using wads of toilet paper does not align with Leave No Trace principles in any form or fashion.
So both the Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail saw me sporting bandanas on the side of Olive Oyl, one for the pot and one for me. But this presented a few issues – namely mixing them up, but also uric acid causing the bandanas to wear out fast, and I could never really find a way to keep them clean or dry. I also feared contracting an infection.
What is a Kula Cloth?
And that’s where our story brings us to the remarkable Kula Cloth! Anastasia Allison is a former park ranger, blissful hiker, violinist, and entrepreneur based in the Pacific Northwest.
Like me, she tied a pee rag on her pack in the mountains, one made of microfiber. It became a kind of joke when rather than snap selfies, she would pose her pee rag in astoundingly beautiful locations. It wasn’t long before the thought occurred to her that maybe she was onto something.
Taking its name from Kula Khangri, the tallest mountain in Bhutan, the word Kula also translates as community, one she considers “a radically inclusive community that happens to sell a pee cloth for anybody that squats when they pee.”
What surprised me at first was how small the cloth is – just about a hand’s width in size, kind of like a potholder. My Kula is part of the artist series designed by Lyn Sweet and features an orange sloth backpacking with walking stick into the sunset. You could say, I’m carrying my Kula spirit of the “saunterer.“
The pictured side is the “clean side” and waterproof, preventing moisture from reaching my hands. The working side is made of antimicrobial silver-infused absorbent material, which quickly and efficiently did its job on the many stops during my latest hikes on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic.
Other features include a cloth loop with a tough little hypoallergenic plastic snap that locks the cloth in place, as well as an extra privacy snap to fold the cloth over on itself into a triangle. Reflective thread is woven into each side so the cloth can be found when a night urge hits and a headlamp guides the way.
1. Plan Ahead & Prepare 2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces 3. Dispose of Waste Properly 4. Leave What you Find 5. Minimize Campfire Impacts 6. Respect Wildlife 7. Be Considerate of Others
Just to be clear, Kula Cloth and all pee rags are meant for use only when going Number 1!
So, how did it go?
Kula Cloth did its job perfectly – it fit beautifully in my hands, absorbed the urine and kept me dry and clean. The conditions on Isle Royale were very wet this season – rain, sea-fog and general humidity – so my Kula only dried out thoroughly when the sun was shining. When wet, it acted more like a “wet wipe” but remained surprisingly absorbent and kept my hands clean.
I don’t ever take soap with me on hikes and I simply rinsed my Kula in water. I should point out that it was only when it dried out that it became completely odor-free, but no soap was ever necessary to clean it on my nine-day hike.
The Kula feels weightier than a simple piece of cloth or bandana and the only wear and tear I noticed was some of the side threads shredding ever so slightly. Since I’m a pretty rough on my gear, this might become more of a problem when having to crawl under fallen trees and potentially snagging my Kula.
Are either of those issues a deal breaker? No! A pee rag is an absolute necessity and Kula Cloth is made with materials specifically designed to be absorbent as well as non-toxic, non-sensitizing, and non-irritating when in contact with the body. Although I have not yet suffered a urinary tract infection on a thru-hike, that is not something to fool with and I put my full trust in the superb bit of gear to keep me healthy.
And besides, how cool is to have a work of art on the back of “Blueberry” (my new Granite Gear pack) something that gives a little character to my walking – as if I need any more!
Kula Cloth is coming with me on every hike and I give her my highest rating, five Anitas.
Specs at a glance
Weight: .53 oz
Length: 6.25″ x 6.25″
Antimicrobial, silver infused materials
alison young was given this pee rag for testing by Kula Cloth.
Some of the links found on blissfulhiker.com are affiliate referral links. This means that if a reader clicks on text or an image to enter an online shopping site, Blissful Hiker may receive a commission from purchases made on that visit. There is no additional cost to the consumer; referral fees are paid by merchants. Through affiliate links and paid advertisements, we promote only products and businesses that we consider helpful to our readers.
Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.
Merino is a type of wool harvested from a special breed of sheep most often raised in New Zealand and Australia. This is not your grandmother’s wool, but rather soft and breathable, and has become the gold standard for hiking attire.
THERMOREGULATING: Merino sheep live through cold winters with temperatures below zero (Fahrenheit) and hot summers with temperatures close to 100, all while wearing the same coat! The fibers, in turn, react to changes in our body temperatures.
BREATHABLE: The individual fibers are naturally “crimped” and can absorb around 30% of their weight in water, wicking it away from the body. This means you say cool and dry even when sweating.
ODOR RESIST: Because merino manages moisture, odor-causing bacteria are held at bay. This may be the number one reason for choosing wool since you’ll likely wear the same shirt for days on end before washing. My Ibex simply did not stink!
COMFORT: Merino fibers are fine and never itch, snag or poke and are fantastic for people like me who have sensitivities to most wool products.
DURABILTY: Merino fibers are elastic and flexible. They contain keratin just like our nails, hair and skin, and, like a spring, can be bent and flexed 30,000 times before tearing.
UV PROTECTION: Did you know you can get a sunburn through many fabrics even if your’e completely covered? Not with merino which has a UPF rating ranging from 25-50.
LIGHTWEIGHT AND QUICK DRYING: Merino packs to nothing and air dries quickly.
I wore one Ibex top – the Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew (the high collar style is no longer available) – through most of the Pacific Crest Trail plus on of the Te Araraoa. I found it lived up to the promise of being comfortable, moisture wicking and nearly completely odor free even after many days between washings.
That being said, in Oregon, I picked up a men’s dress shirt for a dollar because the mosquitos were able to bite me through the merino! However, that shirt had no UV protection and my skin burned, so I went right back to Merino when I hit the Sierra.
Ibex sells its product online only and this keeps the prices very reasonable. They make it their mission to treat everyone through the supply chain, from animal to person, ethically and ensure a fair, safe, non-discriminatory and empowering workplace.
And besides, if backpacking is not your thing, Ibex merino products mix fashion with comfort and you’ll love how you feel wearing their clothing.
I stayed warm through many days of icy rain in the North Cascades and cool while hiking in blazing sun above tree line in California.
Sweat wicked very well, and the shirt always felt soft and dry against my skin.
I had my family do the smell-test when I walked right off the trail in Campo, California and into a sushi restaurant. No one could believe I hadn’t bathed in four days.
Even after cramming my shirt into my pack, it looked clean and pressed once I pulled it out to wear. Not that thru-hiking is about looking good, but it does help when trying to hitchhike!
Mosquitos can bite you right through merino, especially on your shoulders.
Merino is durable up to a point. I was surprised the backpack didn’t wear away the fabric nearly as much as expected, though I developed holes in my under arms.
Merino is very expensive. Plan to spend at least $100 if not more. That being said, its benefits make merino – especially extremely well-made and reasonably priced Ibex – a fantastic purchase.
Ibex merino tops are some of the most comfortable I’ve worn and this is likely because they add the smallest amount of nylon and elastane to give the shirt even more flexibility, durability and softness. I will continue to wear merino when I backpack and highly recommend Ibex!
Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
At my last Zoom presentation, a participant asked how do you get in shape for a long walk? I published this blog less than a week before I left for the Te Araroa and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it!
The short answer to the question “how do you get in shape for a thru-hike?” is by being in shape, which sounds much harder than it is! What I mean is take on the attitude of having physical fitness – in all forms – a part of your being.
How does one do that? Well, by choosing each day to move.
The list below covers most things I like to do to make myself strong enough to manage the rigors of a thru-hike, though Richard and I have lately been doing a daily morning routine with Russian Kettlebells.
Bells are lifted, swung, and pivoted around the body in orbits and figure eights. A series of kettle bell activities, along with planks and pushups, may very well be the number one routine worth adding to prepare for a thru-hike because they strengthen the core and improve balance – and let’s face it, you look like a bad ass swinging them!
I admit it. I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to training. It feels too much like homework. Not that I haven’t done it. I have, and even happily. I successfully trained to run 100k with 11,000 feet ascent, to ski 31 miles uphill and down hills three different times, and to bike all the way from Saint Paul into Canada. That being said, each and every time I found that my biggest successes came when I went easier on the schedule and more intentional on the changing of my lifestyle.
You might call me an “active middle aged woman.” So when people ask how I’m training to walk the 3,000 kilometers of the Te Araroa, I usually say, “By staying active!” with a smile, though that never satisfies.
Ok, then. How about, “By walking to work every day?” They usually look at me oddly either because they realize that 20-30 miles walking per week is never going to come close to the amount of walking I’ll do over the course of five months.
Or maybe it’s because most people don’t relate to my walking every day, rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave. It’s at about this point in the conversation when I feel like a slacker and wonder just who I think I am planning to simply warm up as I go on this 3000 km stroll. That’s more the perspective of the 20-somethings I’ll meet along the way, out-of-work or in their gap-year with young lithe bodies that can adjust fast to the conditions, and pick up long distance walking “skills” as they go.
At 53-going-on-54, that does not describe me. The not-so-young-anymore part, anyway. The out-of-work part is still TBA, though I do protest my calling myself a slacker. Welcome to my head-space!
Truth is, I move a lot – and in varied ways – and I find it translates more directly to my needs as a thru-hiker: to move steadily, quickly (enough) and over long periods of time.
Let’s look at the evidence:
Walking to work requires me to obviously move my legs briskly for two miles to and from my job in downtown Saint Paul. I live on Summit Hill, so it’s usually downhill to and uphill from MPR. But I have gotten creative in adding a roundabout course that forces me uphill both ways.It entails a good deal of stair climbing, and not that I’ve counted, but it comes to some 400 steps, and that’s first thing in the morning keeping my knees nice and juicy. Sure it gets my blood pumping to take them on, but what really “trains” me is the discipline of setting aside 40 minutes each morning. I have to make the time and I have to get there whether I want to or not.
I am so lucky to live in the Twin Cites with the finest network of bike trails in the country. They are heavily used even in winter. And I must point out here that Minnesota is no place for sissies; we have real winter. While I stopped commuting by bike in the winter the second year we lived here, mainly because I didn’t want to get flattened by an impatient driver, I do bike everywhere else I can get to in town, for groceries, to my friend’s houses, even when I broadcast from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Biking has got to be one of the most efficient forms of exercise. It takes all the stress off the joints, builds muscle, and gets your breathe going. And look at this, without even thinking about it, by combining biking with walking I am “cross-training,”
I do not have great form. Let’s just get that out there. My friend Rob says I look like an eggbeater, but, boy howdy, can I can push up those hills. Next to biking, cross country skiing is a sport you can participate in until you keel over of old age, frozen in a snow bank with a big smile on your face. Part of why I’ve gotten a little hinky about the whole “training” attitude is that Minnesota is home to some seriously awesome skiers – remember when our relay team stuck it to the Norwegians and nabbed gold? They were born here, popping out of their mother’s wombs with little skis on their feet. So I feel pretty self-conscious about my late start in this marvelous sport. It’s no wonder the Nordic Track is offered at gyms across the country, when you ski you become a four legged creature, using your arms as well as legs to propel yourself. I have never felt so fully fit then when I am skiing. Sadly, this year I have three summers in a row. Hey, that’s not sad! But I will miss ski season.
My climbing partner Patrick is 22 years my junior. Why does he climb with me? He’s explained it’s because I never quit. Well, sometime I do, especially when leading as I simply chicken out, unnerved by fall consequences. So I am happy to be a reasonably advanced follower. Climbing is the only sport that totally and utterly focuses my mind. I am unable to ruminate on issues or even carry on a conversation when climbing. That in itself is freeing. But it also is a kind of training for all things physical because climbing asks the body to be flexible, balanced and strategic. You can’t simply possess upper body strength and muscle-it through moves; you have to plan them. Oddly enough, climbing enhances all I do even when on-air because it makes me think about how I am engaged and if I am using my body efficiently. Furthermore, climbing is the great humbler forcing me to listen to myself for signs that it’s time to quit and leave a “project” for another day.
I am happy in my boat on small lakes and rivers, but happiest in “the big lake” Gitche Gumee, Lake Superior. Kayaking has its own set of skills including paddle strokes, and “wet exits” and rescues and requires a keen sense of balance and a strong core. Using arm strength will just tire you out, so you have to engage your torso when moving and bracing. There is also the element of knowing your limits and leaving the lake when weather moves in, all good skills for a thru-hiker as she plans her day and creates a backup plan. My back and arms are much stronger from kayaking which translates to less stress wearing a pack day in and day out.
A few years ago, I was told that I had “advanced degeneration” in my left hip. It hurt so badly I could barely walk up the stairs and I thought a joint replacement was imminent. The docs administered a cortisone shot and then tried to figure out next steps with therapy. I was aghast at the cost for treatment so I hunted for ways to give myself PT and that’s when landed on Bikram Yoga. You may not be a fan of the namesake, but the practice is amazing. The premise is to heat a room to about 108 degrees and work through a series of 26 poses in the course of 90 minutes. It is extremely difficult to do correctly but has meant a world of difference to my joints. Hot yoga worked like a charm and I am pain-free from whatever locked up my hip muscle/tendon/ligament. Again, what captures me – in addition to the physical benefits – are psychological ones that yoga is a “practice.” When you bring to class an attitude of non-judgment and simply do your best, you stay in the moment and take pleasure in the surprises that await. Translated into thru-hiking it means I don’t so much seize the day and force it into my pre-conceived ideas, but I allow the day to unfold. Obviously not without planning or an assessment of what I realistically think I can accomplish, but with more of a sense of wonder and acceptance.
…So, do I “train?” or do I just “do?”
It’s hard to say. Though I wouldn’t plan to run a marathon anytime soon as that kind of continuous pounding would require more focus on the specific requirements of non-stop continuous pounding.
Maybe what I am really saying is not that I don’t want to train, but that I am not looking for an end result of a specific event – a marathon, an ultra, a fkt (ok, maybe when I’m 80 I’ll go for the record somewhere) – but rather I want more all-encompassing result – to be strong and healthy enough to keep walking and climbing and biking and paddling and stretching – as long as possible. And that’s why training for the Te Araroa is an every day thing, with each activity feeding on the physical, psychological and emotional demands that I will encounter.
The very heart of yoga practice is ‘abyhasa’ – steady effort in the direction you want to go.
As I prepare for the Continental Divide Trail with brand new titanium hips, I am revisiting this post on the benefits of yoga and hot yoga in particular. I don’t do the full poses – or even get close! – but I have been assured my teachers that even doing the part of the pose is incredibly beneficial. You can also listen to this week’s Blissful Hiker podcastfor more about what I do to get in shape for a 4 1/2 month thru-hike. ~Blissful
A little over a year ago, I started practicing traditional Bikram Hot Yoga. Yes, he doesn’t have quite the reputation you’d want to follow these days with bankruptcies, lawsuits and sexual misconduct, but his strenuous and intense series of twenty-six hatha yoga poses has been one of the most effective workouts for me, proving both energizing and therapeutic.
Does yoga cure all ailments? Probably not, but I feel so good that I believe yoga is a crucial addition to my life as a long distance backpacker.
Here are ten reasons why you should add Hot Yoga to your thru-hike prep.
1. You will learn to manage heat.
Granted, hypothermia is a real danger in any outdoor activity, particularly when you backpack and are fully responsible for your shelter. But hyper-thermia can also be a significant risk, especially if hiking in the desert, beach or other shade-less region. Hot Yoga is typically practiced in conditions far more intense than any you’d encounter on a hike with the room set around 105-108 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. Just entering that heat can make you feel overwhelmed, like something is pressing on your lungs.
To survive a 90-minute class – and a thru-hike – you’ll want to consider loose-fitting clothing to let the sweat flow. You should also drink a lot of water, not in gulps, but in many mini-sips, and, perhaps most importantly, come to class already well hydrated. The yoga poses are difficult and teach you to push hard while still keeping the heart rate – and breath – under control.
2. You will discover how to stay focused when feeling unfocused.
Hot Yoga is a tough program that claims to work every muscle, bone, joint, ligament, tendon, gland and organ in the body. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the halfmoon pose, for example, is particularly difficult, but trying to bring the mind to holding it correctly with the arms straight at the ears, knees locked and the body in one line while the torso gently folds over your hips requires attention to detail.
With the encouragement of a superb teacher, you are continually asked to bring the mind to each aspect of the pose from wherever you are that day. A long hike over many days can also catch us in a variety of moods and levels of commitment. If we learn to stay focused on one step at a time, we can string together all the steps to walk a trail.
Which brings me to my next point…
3. You will learn how to see something through.
Hot Yoga is designed to keep you from pushing beyond what you are capable of doing, because it’s so hot. At the very least, you’ll need to leave the room to cool off or simply sit down to catch your breath. At the worst, you might pass out from being overheated, though more likely you’ll simply back off. What you begin to find in your practice is the tools to see it through.
A friend of mine just hiked 100 miles of the Colorado Trail. She says on the first days, she hadn’t quite figured out her rhythm. It was very hot and exposed and she arrived at her campsite completely wrecked and uncertain she’d finish the hike. So she adjusted her speed, and her expectations. It wasn’t so much that she completely rerouted or changed her itinerary, but rather that she tuned into her body in a different way, much like is required in every yoga practice to see it through the full 90 minutes.
4. You will improve your balance.
Classic hot yoga runs through a series of twenty-six poses that include demanding balance ones like eagle, standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. Each one is built on a premise of locked knees with the hips in line. To do them well, and to hold them for a full minute, you must bring each side of your body into balance while not overcorrecting or over-muscling. Yes, concentration plays a role, but so does discovering the body working optimally.
This translates directly into thru-hiking when walking a ridge, crossing a river, or traveling down a steep slope. Injuries usually happen when we roll our ankles or lose control and fall. A yogi who can hold what is aptly named awkward pose – sitting back in an invisible chair with the thighs at right angles and the feet on tiptoes while the arms are locked out straight in front of them – will have an edge on any stumbly parts of the trail.
5. You will also improve your core strength.
All of that balancing works the legs, but also tightens the core. For sure, you will be a buff hiker, but what really prepares you for the stress of thru-hiking is the floor series. These are all inversions from a prone position on your stomach. They are evil, sadistically working muscles you never knew you had, especially in your back. You will hold for what seems an eternity four poses, and then, repeat them. Each increases in difficulty too; cobra, locust, full locust, and bow pose.
And if that’s not enough of a work out, between each subsequent floor pose is a full sit-up from the corpse pose. Why is core strength so important to hiking? You are using the strongest part of your body to stay upright and move. Even if you’re an ultra-light backpacker, you carry some weight on your back and you don’t want to stress the legs compensating for a weak core.
About how far into a hike are you unable to squat anymore? For me, it’s usually day two when I go off to pee and find I need to hold onto something – or someone – for balance or I’ll topple over. Why? Because my quads have tightened up to the point they won’t bend properly. Fixed firm and half tortoise poses begin with the yogi sitting on her heels stretching the quads in half. As you focus on the upper body requirements of these poses, the quads eventually let go of their tension and allow the body to move more deeply.
Hiking is repetitive in its motion and is bound to tighten up parts of your body. The looser you go into the activity, the more likely your body will remember what it feels like to work at its most supple and you will also have tools to loosen things up on the go.
7. You will get the juice flowing to your joints.
After the standing series, hot yogis lay down on the floor in the aptly named corpse pose for two minutes before a very relaxing pose called wind removing. It is very simple to do as you pull your bent knee towards your armpit. It’s done on each side and then all at once, as you attempt to lay the spine out on the floor. I am nowhere near getting mine down, but it’s fun trying.
Wind removing can be done in your tent to massage the muscles and your insides as well. It’s said that it’s good for the gut and digestion. Tree and triangle open the hips and spinal twists have the sensation of squeezing out the bad juju. Hikers can begin to look hunched and gnarled into themselves if they don’t twist the spine and open the hips. I am convinced that yoga has slowed down my arthritis by bringing heat and blood into the joints.
8. You will learn how to be still and notice.
Lately I’ve been annoyed that people are bringing their music to the trails. If you want to be in the outdoors with headphones jammed into your ears, by all means, do it, but please don’t bring speakers that force everyone to listen to music while we’re enjoying the simple pleasure of the wind in the trees and the birds singing or maybe just the silence of nature.
I’m also, by nature, not a record-seeker and prefer to enjoy the beauty of where I am to the speed at which I can get through it. If either of these describes you, you might want to consider the slow pace of hot yoga. You won’t have a phone to look at in class and talking is discouraged.
There’s something of a cloister in yoga that begins to relax the mind to the point that you notice things in a far gentler way. Thru-hiking takes time and is not always blissful, but when you slow down and focus on your breath or the movement of your feet or hips or the swing of your arms, it can take on a more mindful atmosphere.
9. You will begin to breathe with the world.
Classic hot yoga begins with parayma breathing, a super long deep breathing exercise done while standing. Your hands begin under your chin and fan out like wings as you breathe in and then move forward, elbows touching as you breathe out. It tires you all over even as it energizes, your feet and legs locked into place and touching, your shoulders holding your arms as they move in slow motion, your lungs trying to control the timing of your breath, far harder to do on the inhale than exhale.
After ten repetitions, then another ten, you suddenly discover your motions are in unison with everyone else around you, like you’re one giant organism. As a thru-hiker, you want to be connected to your own breathing up steep climbs and after long arduous days, but you also want to find a kind of sympathetic rhythm with those you meet. We all need to learn to “hike our own hike,” but that being said, we also share the trail and want to bring our best selves to it.
10. You will find that yoga is a practice the way a thru-hike is a kind of practice.
Hot Yoga is a practice. I love that word. It’s not a workout, not an event, not something to just tick off your “to-do” list. It’s far more integrated into wherever you are in the moment. When you start a thru-hike, the end is very far off indeed. To think of finishing – even of planning every day – can be overwhelming. You don’t know how your days will go, whether you’ll move faster or slower, how the weather will affect you, if you’ll need a rest or want to move on.
In yoga, you learn to not so much seize the day as let the day unfold. This non-judgmental attitude creates room for surprise and allows you to say yes to what is, rather than pre-determine what success means.