Mental Challenges


The Biggest Obstacles are in Your Head

Most guidebooks and websites like this one focus on obvious, external challenges one might face, like inclement weather. Everyone faces these objective problems, which have objective solutions that can be tested empirically. While these physical and material preparations are important, equally important is mental and emotional preparation.


So Why Are You Doing This?

While hiking the AT, a fellow thru-hiker invited me to a party at his parent’s house. Me and three other hikers caught a ride from the trail to a nearby town. We stood out in a party thrown by wealthy New Englanders who wore pressed white pants and polos and drank wine under rented canopies. I defended my appearance to a scowling woman, telling her I had been hiking the AT for five months.

 

"Well, that must be nice," she said. "To be able to just pick up and go. Some of us have to work."

 

I didn’t care enough about her opinion to counter the implication that I was a child of privilege. It was not the things I had in my life that made the journey possible — it was the things I didn’t have, like health insurance, a job, a house, an apartment, a wife, a girlfriend, kids, et cetera. Over two years, I had sacrificed a career and two relationships to make the trip possible.

 

I don’t know why I made those sacrifices — the trail was an indescribable, inexplicable force that took hold of me. During the first anxious nights on the trail in Georgia, hopeful thru-hikers tried to ask other hikers why they wanted to thru-hike. The nervous uncertainty on their faces was obvious. They doubted their own motivations and hoped to reinforce their weakening resolve with the words of others, but no one had an answer. No one knew precisely why they were there.

 

Months later in Virginia, a middle school class came to a hiker hostel and me and a few other hikers did a Q&A with them. A boy asked why we were thru-hiking and the room fell into stony silence.

 

"I’m in it for the money and the women," I said. Big laughs.

 

Feel free to use that line when someone asks you why you are doing what you are doing.


Do It To Do It,  Not To Get It Done

Jokes aside, here is the real reason you need to get up every morning, break camp, and paddle for seven hours: to do it. Don't try to do the CT because you want to finish it, because you want to reach the end. To make what I mean clear, let me tell you about when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. In the first weeks of the hike, I met a lot of guys whose imaginations had already reached Maine when their bodies were still in Georgia. They flew out of camp every morning and would push themselves to do high-mileage days. They seemed anxious to reach the end of the Trail, but one-by-one I watched them quit. Their great anxiety and energy to make progress, to feel some sense of completion was thwarted by the reality that 2000 miles could not be hiked quickly, that there wouldn't be any feeling of completion for months. They grew frustrated and discouraged; their mental stamina deteriorated.

 

Each of these guys was physically capable of reaching Maine, but their motives for hiking were all wrong. They were hiking the AT in order to finish it, rather than simply to do it, and as a result, their minds were always in the future, and they were never able to enjoy the present. My favorite explication of this idea is Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Nhat Hanh’s dishwashing story from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975, page 4). The philosophical parts are in bold:

 

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes.

 

I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.”

 

Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?”

 

I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

 

Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way — to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”

 

From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

 

This is perhaps a lesson that to be truly understood, has to be experienced.


Coping with Adversity

I give this advice to everyone: If you can paddle the first 100 miles, then physically you can make it to Fort Clinch. However, if your head and your heart aren’t in the right place, you’ll quit and go home.

 

The biggest challenges on a long-term, long-distance trek are mental. Knowing, accepting, and understanding of this is the best preparation.

 

I experience four consistent and predictable stages of anger and despair when things get hard on the trail. When the rain won’t stop, my gear is muddy, I’m cold, and it’s been too long since my last zero-day, certain things begins to happen:

 

  • First, I become upset with the trail itself. I have thoughts like these: “I can’t believe I have to… why the hell does it go here… it’s so fucking stupid for it to go this way… I hate this weather…” et cetera.
  • Second, I become upset with my gear: “The maps are shit… whoever wrote the guidebook doesn’t know what they’re talking about… this tent’s a piece of shit… fuck this stove…” et cetera
  • Third, I become upset with the people in my group: “It’s so typical he would do this… what the hell is wrong with him… why doesn’t he… I wish he would shut up…” et cetera
  • Fourth, everything that has ever gone wrong in my life swells up from my memory: every failed relationship, every resentment I ever had toward my parents, every frustration or setback in college, et cetera.

 

How long the miserable conditions persist is directly related to which stage I reach. If the misery only lasts for a few hours one day, I’ll only hit stage one. If the conditions last longer, stage two is reached, and so on. Be aware that this will happen to you — and that you can push past it. Reaching stage four can feel like hitting a wall, and I think this is when people quit. But if you just keep going, you’ll make it.

 

I have had a number of epiphanies due to these moments of utter despair. Once I had reached stage four, and then realized that I wasn’t fighting the trail, or even the sea. I was fighting myself. The biggest obstacles in my way were my own fatigue, discomfort, thirst, and hunger. I was getting in my own way, and after this epiphany, everything became easier. This lesson stayed with me after I finished the trail and is not something that can be taught. You may understand it intellectually, but to feel it, to be changed by it — it needs to be experienced firsthand.


Personal Qualities Needed

Guidebooks and websites (including this one) always have checklists. But in addition to the usual gear checklists and preparation checklists I am including a checklist of character traits and personal skills that make one likely to succeed during a thru-hike.

 

This is not a list of must haves. After all, no one is perfect and no individual has every quality listed below. But keep in mind that in the same way everyone believes they have a great sense of humor (which of course is not true), we often believe the best about ourselves. Self-evaluation is hard and this list is meant as an aid for one’s self-inventory. Where we come up lacking, the trail itself will help us grow, if we let it.

 

Qualities of a Great Traveler:

  1)  An Easygoing Disposition

a temper as serene at the end of the day as at the beginning*

a willingness and eagerness to try new foods

an active mind not easily bored

delight toward the unexpected

an easy laugh

 

  2)  A Love of Human Nature

a love to meet new people

quick judge of character

ability to make new friends easily

inexhaustible patience for other people

empathetic, selfless, & considerate

interest in local history, customs, & culture

 

  3)  A Love of Nature

a sense of belonging in the natural world

comfortable when dirty

the ability to sleep anywhere

derives a sense of wonder from the natural world

does not fear wildlife

 

  4)  Determination & Self-Control

confident

a calm composure during a crisis

the ability to take decisive action quickly

attention to detail

a good organizer

embraces lengthy & tedious planning

ability to set long-term goals and stick to a plan

good with money

 

 * This list was inspired by Freya Stark’s "Ten Qualities Needed by a Traveler" from which I took "a temper as serene at the end of the day as at the beginning." That line struck me as extremely insightful.

 

Freya Stark, an British adventurer and author of twenty books, also wrote these words of wisdom: "One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one's own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism."


Personal Change

Those who venture onto a trail in order to “find themselves” never do so and usually quit before the finish line. Inner peace, enlightenment, and happiness are not found at the end of the trail. I realized this fact when I met a man on the AT whose son had died tragically. His marriage had fallen apart under the stress and he was on the trail in order to escape his pain and find solace. Instead, he was trapped alone with that pain and was suffering even more.

 

That said, it is impossible to spend months away from one’s normal life, alone in the wilderness, and not be changed by the ordeal. The nature of the change differs from person to person due to our personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique experiences. Just keep in mind that you should never undertake a thru-hike expressly to seek that change. You’re in it for the money and the women, remember?