People sometimes describe thru-hiking as the ultimate freedom. There’s certainly a lot of freedom involved, but there are caveats. My partner Laura met me in Lima, and I took a couple days off to spend time with her. This of course meant we had to part, yet again, which is never easy.
When you strap on your pack with the intention of hiking thousands of miles, you shed a multitude of frivolities: bullshit television, traffic, jobs that (in many cases) don’t feel fulfilling or meaningful, constant advertisement, most stresses and over-stimulation in general – I could go on for days. But if there are people or passions or even things in the front country that you truly love, you’re also forfeiting your access to them.
I spent most of the section from Lima to Old Faithful Village in a funk, pensive and brooding, constantly weighing the merits of what seem to be two incompatible lives that I continue to juggle: Bard, the mountain man, free as a bird, and Connor the millennial from an amalgam of suburbs who fights climate change. I am both, undoubtedly, but there's a tension created by the vast differences in lifestyle.
Instead of giving you my usual play-by-play debriefing of the section, which is probably getting tiresome to read anyway, I want to talk about the mental and emotional roller coaster that is thru-hiking, and particularly my experiences hiking this trail and trying to direct this project simultaneously. This may get a little messy or disorganized, but I want to offer up a candid and unguarded view into my experience, so bear with me. I promise to include a few highlights from the section, for those of you who are more interested in the adventure aspects. Those’ll come at the end. Yes, there will be a couple photos. Also at the end.
What I love most about hiking is the freedom of thought. There is nothing influencing my internal dialogue except for the wilderness and whatever is already clunking around inside my brain. There are the stresses of the hike itself, like anxiety about getting injured or not hiking quickly enough to get through high alpine regions before winter arrives. Sometimes I’ll get stuck in very circular lines of thought, dwelling on memories of mistakes I’ve made that hurt people, or getting a horrible song that I haven’t even heard in years lodged in my mind, but there’s a freedom and a sense of relief in this – obviously these are bits of data my brain hasn’t had the space or time to process, and it’s doing so now. This can be painful, but it always feels constructive or therapeutic, as if I emerge more at peace with who I am. There are also times, ideally as frequently as possible, that I am simply present in the moment, acknowledging my surroundings and being both aware of and also comfortable in my own skin and movement.
On days that living in the moment isn’t on the table, I find myself wondering what the hell I’m really doing out here. In the simplest sense, I am literally just walking all day long, stopping only to eat, filter water, catch my breath, take in a view, or set up my tent in the spot from which I will repeat the process the next day. When my mind gets stuck on that perception of hiking, nothing in the world sounds better than laying on the grass in a park with the woman I love and a good book. I find myself getting hung up on all my attachments – both the meaningful ones, like my relationships with friends, family, and my community, as well as the vapid ones, like the vegan buffalo wings at Fire on the Mountain back in Portland that I would consider trading my rain jacket for an order of or the five and a half seasons of X-Files that I’ve yet to finish (Yes, I know that there’s never any closure for Mulder and Scully and yes, I will most likely still eventually finish the series anyway).
The trouble with all this is that when I’m on trail and lamenting my inability to access any of the people or things I’ve left behind in the front country, I’m preventing myself from enjoying my time away from all the aspects of society that I’ve intentionally spurned: a lose-lose. I am aware of this, though, and training myself to let go of the things and people I can’t have in any given moment and to be at peace with that lack is one of the main reasons I hike: the practice of non-attachment, or at least of presence. As I've completed a thru-hike before, I am fully aware of the culture shock transition that awaits me beyond the Mexican border - I have to go back to "real life," as they say. This recognition weighs on me, as it does all hikers, and it's difficult not to think about how I'll be able to reintegrate and having to figure out all the logistics of urban life like finding a place and paying rent. Even more so, there's the looming reality of no longer being immersed in wilderness, of trading trees and mountains for motorized vehicles and artificial lighting.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, I hiked around an older man named ZenDawg. He was once a Zen Buddhist monk, and as for the “dawg,” well, he says it’s because of his junkyard dog disposition. We were having breakfast at a restaurant next to Crater Lake in Oregon, and I asked him whether he meditates while hiking.
“Well, yes,” he said. “I’ve got a few things I do. I do body scans, for one.” He poked at his waffles a little and betrayed himself with the premonition of a smirk. “And then there’s the ‘Just This’ meditation.”
“I’m not familiar,” I said.
“Well, it’s simple, really.” He dropped his fork and slammed his fists on the table as he shouted: “JUST THIS!” at the top of his lungs. “Because that’s all there is. Just this!”
So that’s my brain on a thru-hike. Of course, on this hike I decided to deal myself a wildcard and see just how far I can stretch my bandwidth. I’m talking about Hike the Divide, this multi-media journalism project that includes the blog you’re reading right now. I’ve already established that I’m not cut out for or in desire of hermitage, but even if I had no ties to modern society, no one or place to go home to, I wouldn’t be able to walk away from the fight for a future worth living in. I don’t claim any deep understanding of existence or the universe, but it seems to me that if there is meaning in this life, it lies with empathy. Empathy is why I am a climate activist. It’s why I decided to create Hike the Divide. I can only know my own experiences, but if everyone else’s experience of suffering is at least similar to mine, I can be pretty sure that minimizing unnecessary suffering is a good thing, so that’s what I’m after.
Thus the model: listen to the stories of people who are working to combat climate change and foster community, then create a narrative from these stories that can be easily digested through social media posts, blog pieces, and videos that inspire and compel action. Simple enough, right?
Yes and no. I do have a wonderful producer who not only organizes and edits my video footage, but who is also a partner in helping me shape these stories into a compelling narrative without co-opting or manipulating the voices of those I interview. We’re it, though: the Hike the Divide team. I manage all of the social media accounts, I write and edit the blog pieces, I reach out to potential interviewees, I set up the interviews, I perform and record the interviews and I am ultimately responsible for the fulfillment of sharing these messages. This grants me a lot of freedom and authority, and allows me to amplify the voices of those I interview without fear of censorship or agendas, but it’s proving to be pretty stressful. I mean, I’m currently at mile 1832 and this blog piece is technically covering a section I hiked over a month ago (if you’ve forgotten, this was supposed to be the Lima, MT to Old Faithful Village, WY blog piece).
I’m not trying to complain. I knew what I was signing up for, more or less; I knew I was putting a lot on my own plate. What I hadn’t prepared for were the externalities. Scheduling is tough when you’re traveling on foot – it’s both difficult for me to give precise ETAs and also nearly impossible for me to reschedule. If someone I want to interview in Helena, MT is out of town on business for the week during the time frame that I’m passing through Helena, I can’t afford to wait around. I have to keep heading for Mexico. Similarly, as I have to mail my laptop to myself over and over in order to upload content and write blog pieces, I have to work around Post Office hours. If I get into town at 5:01 on a Friday evening, I only have from the time the Post Office opens Saturday morning til it closes, usually at noon, to accomplish the tasks I need my laptop for before I have to mail it off once again. That is, if this particular office is even open on Saturdays. Even having a schedule of interviews is a concession of freedom; if I feel crappy on a given day and decide I want to call it quits after ten miles, I generally don’t have that option. If my body is telling me it needs a day off to recuperate, I can’t always listen to it.
I often worry about how well my content will turn out. I'd imagine all writers do. I know that the stories I’ve been hearing and recording are more than inspiring and compelling enough, but how can I ensure that people will hear them? How can I be sure that I’m not unintentionally bending people’s words to fit my narrative? Am I doing these stories justice? Will this project make a difference? The interviews always boost my mood and completely refuel my optimism, and I cherish the opportunities I've had to meet with such incredible humans, but the Hike the Divide team (i.e. Kristen and I) decided to push back the release of our videos until after I complete the hike. The videos are intended to be the main medium through which the stories of these amazing individuals and communities will be shared, in comparison to the blog and Instagram, which have been more focused on the hike itself thus far. I worry that anyone who comes across Hike the Divide right now, before I've caught up on the unscheduled blog pieces I'm now writing about the people with whom I've met, may write it off as a glorified call for attention to my hike and miss out on the message. Even in the times when I’m feeling confident and excited about Hike the Divide – which is certainly far more often than not – I’m drafting future blog pieces in my mind or working on strategies to boost my reach. I do my clearest thinking in the mountains, so this is definitely a good thing, but it does prevent me from coming back into that presence.
Okay, I admit it sounds like I’m complaining. Why am I sharing all this? Well, for one, as sort of an explanation for why I’m so behind on blogging, both about the hike and about the climate movement, and that from here on out my blog pieces about hiking will be less of the day-by-day, minute-by-minute commentary and consist of just the bits that I think stand out most. Even more so, I’m sharing this because it’s a part of my experience, and omitting it from the story would be dishonest. It also explains why I have nothing to say about this section up until the day after I left Island Park, Idaho – I was lost in my own head and combating negative thoughts instead of appreciating the wonders around me.
So! The day after Island Park, Idaho happens to have been the last day of Idaho for me. I caught up with Smokey, Anchor and Top Shelf leaving town the day before; this was good, because the four of us were on the same backcountry permit for Yellowstone National Park. The border of Yellowstone was only like fifteen miles from where we camped, but our permit was for August 23rd – the next night – as well as for a campsite twenty two miles inside the border. That meant we were going to do a fifteen mile day. Hallelujah.
There was only one water source on trail that day: Latham Spring. I love springs. I was so excited for cold clear water springing forth from the earth on such a hot day that I didn’t mind in the slightest having to walk off trail to get to it. I strolled up mere seconds after Anchor. There’s a vertical culvert with a lid shoved into the ground where the spring emerges; the spring water fills the culvert to a certain point at which it reaches an opening and runs out a pipe a few yards downhill. Nothing was coming out of the pipe, but hey, it’s late in the summer, the water level is probably just below.
Anchor dropped the lid dramatically: “Go ahead, take a look in there.” The water level was actually about ten inches above where the pipe begins; something must have been clogging it. I don’t know what was blocking the flow, but it wasn’t the two dead, bloated squirrels floating atop the yellowish, debris filled water.
I grabbed two thick sticks and removed the squirrels from the water. It was another fifteen miles to the first water source inside the Park, and even if we wanted to hike that far without water that day, we’d have to stealth camp and risk a hefty fine if we encountered a ranger. I had no choice, I was completely dry. I would have loved some heavy duty water treatment, even the awful-tasting iodine drops, but I had to put all my faith in my little Sawyer Squeeze and hope that the squirrel corpses hadn’t introduced any viruses into the water. Such is the life of a thru hiker.
A few miles after the Yellowstone border, the trail crosses the state line into Wyoming, as well as the 1,000 mile mark. I’ve already waxed on about that, so I’ll spare you the redundancy. The trail from here converges with the Old Faithful boardwalk, which is full of literal thousands of tourists. This was incredibly overwhelming. While the geysers and thermal springs were truly stunning, I was almost knocked off the wooden walkway into a boiling hot pool by a woman taking photographs, and all in all I’d rather not relive that afternoon. Besides, you can drive a car right up to Old Faithful, so it’s not like I’m holding out tell of remote, sublime locales on you.