Backpacking and long distance thru-hiking is not always blissful. It takes hard work, dedication and determination to stay the course when walking, tramping or trekking. But like life, the rewards are sweet for those willing to put one foot in front of the other.
Walking is how the body measures itself against the earth.
I was asked earlier this week to participate in the Minnesota Women’s Press August “Body” issue by answering this question in 500 words or less, “How do you nourishes your body and soul?” Here’s a preview of my answer and I look forward to those of my fellow Minnesotan sisters!
There’s really no trail from Royal Hut to Stag Saddle. Instead, in typical Kiwi fashion, it’s a pick-your-way between orange markers on soggy, tussocky humps of grass, back and forth across a boulder-strewn stream, and straight up from one false summit to the next. The sun is hot in a bluebird sky and the route is steep. I’m glad I have hiking poles.
Yesterday, the trail got the best of me. I sat down to rest and immediately started crying, ready to quit and go home. Today is day 100 of a thru-hike of New Zealand. I put life on pause to walk this, a risk I was willing to take before my arthritic feet impeded my “full time pedestrian” status.
I’m known as the Blissful Hiker and one would assume it’s walking that nourishes my body and soul. That’s true, of course, but it’s only part of the story.
My earliest memory is of looking down at my feet in wonder as they moved me up to the back door of our church where my father was the minister. Up there, was nursery school! I can still see the dappled light on the sidewalk, roly-poly caterpillars in brown and black, my arms swinging, propelling me along. The moment is indelible because it was the first time I felt in charge of my being, drunk on the power of the simple act of moving myself forward with my legs.
My dad has given me the best gift anyone has ever given me. He gave me wings to fly.
There’s a lot of things my dad and I share – a Roman nose (inherited from his mom, Janet Loricchio) an addiction to Gummy Bears (which his wife, Ding, calls his “antidepressant pills”), an outsize passion for classical music, ready smiles that crack up our faces into a mass of crinkles, and a love of the outdoors that oftentimes brings us to tears.
At fifteen, my dad left the nest to blaze his own trail, and ended up in Bellingham, Washington working in a men’s clothing store while finishing high school. He enlisted in the Navy, to see the world, but always kept his feet on terra firma as much as possible, especially in the fresh air of the North Cascades, a wonderland of deep green touched by fingers of snow late into the season.
There’s a wonderful picture of my dad in those mountains posing with his ice ax, never realizing it would take me five decades to get to this very spot when I walked the Pacific Crest Trail last summer.
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 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!
But, to give credit where credit is due, it took my accountability group of three professional actors to give me the permission I sought to follow this crazy idea. I say it that way, because my personality is one that is self-motivated and always follows through. What I need is to be reassured my idea is one worth pursuing and that tends to build my confidence enough to begin moving forward.
I can still see the faces of my brand new friends, Kurt, Elizabeth and Billie Jo smiling with encouragement – and likely a bit of bewilderment since this was the first they’d ever heard of my kooky backpacking fetish. But they appeared to enjoy the few stories I shared and convinced me to follow through in creating a podcast, which at that time, about two months ago, seemed daunting indeed.
To achieve anything, we need to acquire a thru-hiker’s mindset. There’s no way we can bite off all 2600+ miles of the PCT at once. No one would even set foot on the trail. Instead, it’s a matter of steps, one after the other that gets you where you’re going.
It is not an overstatement to say reading Stacia Bennett‘s article on for The Trek “Gear Essentials for Women” changed my hiking life. My discovery began with a question posed in the private all-women Te Araroa Facebook, “Are any of you ladies taking a ‘pee rag’ on the TA?” I had no clue what this gal was referring to and obviously needed to get myself enlightened – or look the fool. Dr. Google led me straight to Stacia, a.k.a Tink, and once educated, I never looked back! I hope you enjoy this Asheville-based, former teacher turned nomad, Appalachian Trail thru-hike-attempt-turned-long-ass-section hiker’s explanation on a requisite piece of kit for every women’s backpack.
It’s super simple to start using a pee rag. The biggest decision you have to make is what material to use. For my long hikes, I chose to stick with a plain old cotton bandanna.
A bandanna is lightweight and since the cotton is thin, it’s pretty quick drying. Cotton is gentle on the skin and absorbent. So, pick your favorite pattern for $1 at the Wally World. Tie it to the back of your pack, and BAM! You’ve got yourself a pee rag.
Ok, I know what you are wondering. What the heck is a pee rag??
Actually, if you’ve spent any time at all on a long trail you’ve probably heard of them, and you’ve likely seen them hanging off the pack of the badass lady hiker in front of you.
A “peedanna”, or pee rag, is a bandanna or similar cloth that is designated for wiping after urinating in the woods. A lot of women opt to use a pee rag instead of toilet paper. There are a multitude of reasons why you’d want to make the switch to a pee rag. For me, the ease and convenience were the biggest factor.
Long distance hiking is not a vacation, it’s too long for that.
At a tent site high up on a ridge in Washington, I met two women sitting on logs next to their individual mineral green tents and passing a small flask betwixt themselves. They lifted their outstretched legs as I passed, since that was the only route to a tiny spring – described as a “crisp, cool, mystical, scoopable pool of water” below the trail.
As it goes with all backpackers sharing a space, the two were friendly, eager to share about their day’s hiking. For them, it was a return to familiar ground, which last summer had been shrouded in smoke with no views available at all of splendid Goat Rocks or Mount Rainier himself, shining high above.
Fortunately, it had been a gloriously clear day, so all had been rescued – and that might have explained the celebratory Scotch which was eventually offered to me.
Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.
I met Wonder in Bellingham, Washington, when trail angel Karl picked her up at the bus station. She’s an engineer and approached walking the PCT with an organized mind – and a few month’s worth of resupply already boxed, stamped and ready-to-ship in a throw-away suitcase. I was impressed and knew I needed to step up my game! We hopscotched the entire thru-hike and she finished one day ahead of me. I was most impressed with her self awareness when it came to managing the distances.
I sit in the grass about ten feet from the trail, eating dried fruit. My shoes and socks are off, letting the heat and moisture dissipate. Suddenly, another hiker comes crashing by, sunglasses on, earplugs in, head directly forward. They don’t see me in my bright red shirt and pink hat. It is as if I am wearing camouflage.
This scene repeated many times a day, during the five months I spent on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I am not a fast hiker. I have been dreaming of a through-hike for over ten years, but I was unwilling to leave my job which had a fantastic vacation plan. For many years, I contented myself with shorter adventures, but my dream of through-hiking lingered.
Finally, I was laid off and I had my opportunity. But I had to go southbound. The southbound season is short and I knew I would have to move quickly if I wanted to beat the start of winter.
I prepared a spreadsheet as I planned my adventure, and discovered that I would need to average twenty miles per day, far beyond my typical daily mileage.
Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.
Simone de Beauvoir
Change is not easy.
Most of us would prefer to keep things right where they are. We’d rather not, thank you very much, risk change that might bring on unsettling feelings of having no clue what we’re doing, or worse, having to start all over again. Kind of like when you choose that card in Monopoly – go to jail, directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
When I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail last July, it was all about survival of my spirit. If I could just get out of town for a few weeks and start walking again, I might clear my head and maybe the drastic changes happening in my life that were making me sit bolt upright in bed every night in a state of panic, would just go away.
I bought a one-way ticket to Bellingham, Washington and planned to carpool with a trail angel who organized a caravan of rented vans. She ferried thirty hikers to the trailhead at Hart’s Pass. I was surprised by the number of us and soon learned that there was only a handful actually starting the trail. Most of the hikers were what we called “flippers,” hikers who needed to change their intended route because moving forward was impossible.
The metaphor in that bleak moment of my life was not lost on me. Circumstances beyond their control forced them to reckon with the situation, make a decision, and act. Not everyone was happy or comfortable with what needed to be done, but they figured things out and finally placed themselves over a thousand miles from where they left off.
The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.
As I headed into the Blisstudio this morning to do my eLearning workout homework, I thought of a wonderful quote I read a while back about youth. I have to admit, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself starting all over in something new at age 55, needing to adopt a “beginner’s mind” while taking lessons from someone younger and more successful than me.
These are humbling times for all of us and I think it’s worth contemplating these words right now. They’re attributed to Luella F. Phelan, of whom I sadly can find absolutely nothing about on Dr. Google. If you have followed my blog at all, you’ll notice nearly every quote I refer to is from a woman. And if you know anything about women, our histories are often lost to time.
But at least we still have this amazing statement.
Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. People grow old only by deserting their ideals and by outgrowing the consciousness of youth. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul…. You are as old as your doubt, your fear, your despair. The way to keep young is to keep your faith young. Keep your self-confidence young. Keep your hope young.
The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.
I met legendary Arctic explorer, Lonnie Dupre, when he agreed to come on my radio program. He only recently summited Mount Denali…solo…IN WINTER. What caught my attention was not only the achievement itself, but the mindset he needed to adopt in order to follow through, even in the face of setbacks. It wasn’t lost on me that he listens to classical music to stay focused, calm, centered, brave and empowered. We have since become friends and last summer, hiked a few trails on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
For what its worth and perhaps stating the obvious, here are my two cents.
We don’t know what this virus will do to us. It could mean life or death. So staying put for a few weeks to months is a short personal sacrifice compared to one’s potential future.
It could very well turn out to be months that we need to keep a distance from family, friends and neighbors. When even just the first 14 days seems like an eternity.
To get through this, one needs to first be optimistic and train your mind by understanding and excepting that we could be in this for the long haul.
Look at it as a long and grueling expedition that needs some planning and is implemented in small steps – day by day, step by step. Don’t be thinking about the finish line or when this will all end. Look at this as a challenge on how you can best adapt. Stay optimistic and look for the bright spots that keep you motivated to climb out of the bed each morning.
Reasons to be optimistic
It makes people stop and think about what’s important in life…family, getting in touch with nature, contemplating life in general, long walks in the park, making that long put-off call to a distant friend.
The virus doesn’t care if you are rich, poor, old, young, male, female, black or white. The virus is a great equalizer that will bring people closer together.
These times make us reflect on what we are doing to our planet and each other.
The earth’s environment and animals get a break from all the pollution with air quality getting better each day.
We soon realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us and we are not the only things that matter.
This will humble us.
This changes life around the world as we know it. A re-set button to perhaps something better.
How to stay energized
Write that book you always wanted to do or undertake that building or landscaping project.
Have a camping expedition with the family in your backyard. In preparations for future trips. Kids will love it too!
Give back and plant a few trees.
Tackle that list of putzy jobs around the house.
Step in and volunteer in your community.
Take an online class. Perhaps learn a new language, photography…
Plant a garden, get chickens, train a new puppy…
Get out of bed, eat good, and exercise.
Allow yourself to just be. Try and relax to lower your stress. You can’t control what is, just care for what you can.