Long Trails and the Daily Practice of Living
How you do anything is how you do everything.
We all undertake projects in our lives. Whether it’s in our career or in our personal life, there’s always work to be done. Sustained, sometimes challenging work. Earlier this year, I undertook an amazing project cleverly disguised as a vacation. The Colorado Trail runs 486 miles from the outskirts of Denver to Durango. I started it on July 20th and finished thirty-one days later. A lot of preparation and planning went into it, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, it’s about the similarity between hiking a long and challenging trail and the seemingly less difficult, but no less important, daily practice of showing up to our lives and doing the work of living.
Practice and pushing yourself increases capacity
Expect that you won’t be great at the start. Any time we undertake a new project or push ourselves outside our comfort zone, there’s going to be a gap between our expectations and reality. We have to push through the doubts and discouragement. At the start of the trail, my pace was slow and labored. My limit for a day of hiking initially topped out at twelve miles. By the end, I was capable of 25+. As with many human endeavors, it is by pushing ourselves to our limits that we expand them.
It’s easy in the day-to-day activity to push yourself too far. To overload our schedules and think we can maintain superhuman levels of focus and effort. We go heads down without letting up for hours on end and wonder why we’re exhausted or burnt out. Our capability is limited and we need time to recover to do our best work. Whether it’s intense mental effort, creative work or the physically intense activity of backpacking for ten hours a day, we have to build in time for breaks. Sometimes it’s the only way to go farther and get the miles in.
Show up when you don’t want to
There are times when we don’t feel like getting started. When the work is frustrating or you’re just dreading it. When you’d rather be lazy and put everything off. When the cold rain is coming down in the morning after a night of thunderstorms and you’d rather just stay in your tent. Maybe you really need a break. Or maybe you’d just rather not be inconvenienced. It’s all a balancing act. Getting it done means doing the work, and some days it will feel more like suffering than others.
The way it starts will sometimes be very different from how it ends
I started the Colorado Trail at the end of July. It was almost 100 degrees with little shade on a dusty, gravel roadbed. The water source where I camped was scarcely a trickle. Thunderstorms rolled in around mid-afternoon. I worried that this was going to be the way of things for the next five weeks. This worry turned out to be unfounded. As most worries seem to be. The thunderstorms continued to be a factor in the afternoons, but so long as you got below treeline by mid-afternoon you were okay. For the last two weeks, the temperatures were perfect and the storms had ceased. Circumstances will change as you progress through projects and life. Don’t let your concerns derail you from doing what is rewarding.
Do the hard things early
As mentioned above, thunderstorms regularly rolled through in the afternoon. It was best to plan out the days in such a way that you tackled the most difficult segments early because this would get you up and over the challenging uphill and higher passes before the weather added more risk. Challenge yourself to get the difficult things done early in the day before you wear out or adverse circumstances prevent you from going forward.
Enjoy the beauty along the way
It’s sometimes easy to be head down and laser focused for too long. Sometimes all it takes to find transcendence is to simply notice all the wonder and beauty around you. Whether it’s as permanent as a distant mountain range or as transitory as the blooming wildflowers. Beauty is everywhere if you let yourself see it.
Sometimes it’s a difficult slog
After my second resupply in the small village of Twin Lakes, the first day of hiking was miles of fairly level terrain followed by three brutal miles uphill through several thousand feet of elevation change to get to Hope Pass. All that after having just added six days of food to my pack. The view at the top made it all worth it. You will encounter challenges that feel beyond you. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Moments of unexpected transcendence can come right after difficult trials.
Break the big projects down into smaller components
A 486 mile backpacking trip seems like a daunting undertaking. Especially when your previous trip maximum was less than half of that. It becomes easier when you break it down into the smaller hundred-mile sections where you can resupply. And easier still when you break those sections down into individual days and hours. For whatever challenge you are looking at, decompose the problem into smaller and smaller pieces until you arrive at something manageable. Then it’s much easier to start and see it through.
Connect with others
A lot of our efforts are solitary. There were times on the trail when I’d go most of the day and not see anyone else. That’s part of what I love about the wilderness. But we’re social creatures and there’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. We have to connect with our fellow travelers when we have the time and opportunity. Even fifteen minutes of conversation can change your day. Especially when the other people are going through the same challenges you are.
Sometimes the way opens as you approach
Colorado got 300% more snow than usual in 2019. The Western Collegiate range of the trail was considered impassable when I started. I wanted to do that section since it was more scenic and remote. Fortunately, the snow in the high passes melted as I got closer and it was accessible by the time I reached them. Sometimes, you just have to start and trust that conditions will improve and the way will open when you need it to. Even so, you should have a backup plan. In my case, that plan was to do the Eastern Collegiates instead.
See it through
Sometimes the most mentally exhausting moments of zero patience are right before the end. Momentum in human motivation is a funny thing. You can go for weeks on end pushing yourself to accomplish a goal only to find yourself low in energy and ready to give up just before the end.
Make time for gratitude
Even for the smallest of things. Especially for the smallest of things. While exploring the miles of amazing wilderness for weeks on end, one of my fondest memories was getting an ice cold soft drink from a trail angel and a bag of Fritos from a fellow hiker in the parking lot at Kenosha Pass. It was my 45th birthday.
The elements of a good life are the same regardless of what journeys we take or the paths we walk. Do challenging things that bring fulfillment and expand your capacity. Connect with others along the way. Be mindful of what you are doing and focus on what matters. Have a plan but stay flexible. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Make time to be grateful and appreciate all that surrounds you. You don’t have to hike a long trail to do all this, just always remember that our practices and perspective makes all the difference.
If you’d like to see some of the photos from my hike of the Colorado Trail, feel free to peruse them here.