ten things I learned while thru-hiking…

…that are helping me get through this moment right now

a beautiful new titanium hip joint is going to keep me walking well into my 80’s.

1. Take Risks

There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own.

Meryl Streep

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.

Joyce Meyer

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.

The miracles of modern medical science that I am walking without sticks two weeks after surgery.

4. Let the day unfold

I think that’s what I love about my life. There’s no maniacal master plan. It’s just unfolding before me.

Cate Blanchett

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 hop 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.

But I had no concept for the depth of people’s generosity until I arrived in New Zealand. From Day One when Irene offered to pick me up at the airport in Kerikeri and get me to the trailhead to meeting Rob and George in Whanganui who opened their home to me and made me feel part of their Whānau (family) to Ian offering a totally lost and frustrated blissful hiker a ride to the supermarket and back to the trailhead, driving way out of his way and on and on.

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 the triumph, but to feel alive.

The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.

Hubert Dreyfus

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.

Every journey begins with the first step.

7. Everything changes

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. 

Maya Angelou

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 to 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 thistooshall 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.

Ann Landers

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.

Hannah More

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 mean 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.

Margaret Atwood

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.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. 1. Great ambulatory progress! Thanks for the video. 2. Damn that COVID! 3. I know the music is in there at all times, even without headphones!

  2. Hi, Alison – I’ve been thinking about a song that captures your experiences, as a way of letting you know how much your fellow “through [this life] hikers” appreciate your photos and writings. As you know from my Friday Favorites Facebook posts, music provides a means for me to share my thoughts and feelings – much like your podcast and your blog provide you. I finally found one that fits: “Steady On” by Story Hill. Here’s the studio version – a little over-synthed, perhaps – but with the lyrics superimposed. I think Story Hill nails it with the imagery of the lead goose flying through the sunshine and the thunder. May you come out stronger on the other side!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1Z6JoUSFaM

  3. Reading this honest, thoughtful, and well-written piece, I am humbled. You have met challenges with strength; you have let go of things that keep you from living fully; and you are an inspiration to others. In just a few weeks, you will be an even wiser “middle-aged” woman (your term) by another year. I may be old (my term), but I am still growing up. Your experience is an inspiration to me as well.

    1. Thanks MD! I have to practice pretty well all of these lessons right now as my “thru-hike” is slow and painful 🙁 But looking back on my pictures, videos, an audio gives me incredible strength. Dang, I just up and did that – and in the nick of time before both hips were reduced to dust. Here’s hoping titanium takes me a few more miles before I’m “old” and keeps giving me lessons worth learning as I continue to grow up.

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