Forward and Back on the JMT

In the summer of 2015, I hiked the John Muir Trail. This summer (2018), I’m hiking it again. This time with my son. The planning is familiar ground, but I had forgotten how much anticipatory enjoyment there was in putting together a small adventure. As with last time, there’s a certain excitement involved in figuring out travel arrangements, determining what gear to buy, how many miles we can do, where we’ll camp, what we’ll eat, etc. A number of small details and choices all driving at a single goal. An experience that will build a bigger life.

Adventurer / author Andrew Skurka has said that hikes have two independent qualities - fun to do and fun to talk about. A hike can be both, neither, or some combination. I wonder if there is a similar four-quadrant graph for experiences generally, except the dimensions are good looking forward and good looking back. Some things we look forward to but somehow they end up not so great to look back on. Others we dread but end up enjoying. Still others we neither look forward to nor enjoy reflecting on. The quadrant you want, and the one where the JMT lives for me, is the one where something is fulfilling and enjoyable to anticipate (as well as plan) and the same can be said for looking back on it.

Anticipation looks forward and reflection looks back. They engage different parts of us. They are the extension of our potential experience and our present experience spread out through time in both directions. Hope and dread are two sides of the imagination we use to plan and predict the future. Reflection is all about memory, imperfect and imaginative as it might also be. But that’s where meaning comes from. That magic quadrant of enjoyment in anticipation and fulfillment on reflection is important because it creates the maximum possible meaningful experience over time.

The JMT is the longest and most challenging trail I’ve ever completed. 220 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney through the High Sierras. The year I went there were a number of wild fires in surrounding areas that made for smoke-filled air in the afternoons. This was less than ideal and yet it does not detract from the narrative I have about the trip. If anything, it adds to it. A number of other hikers left the trail because of the smoke advisory. Some of us continued on.

Now it’s three years later and I’m back in planning mode. In a couple months, we’ll be in purchase mode as we gear up for this trip (though much of it we already have). I suspect I am more excited about this hike than my son but at least he is on board with the idea. I think it will be a defining experience for him. For both of us really. It was amazing when I hiked it before and I look forward to sharing the trail with him. I will admit, however, that I won’t be disappointed if there are no wildfires around.