Reflections from the Trail
I love the outdoors, most notably the forests and mountains. Solo hikes and backpacking trips are some of the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences I’ve ever engaged in. Wilderness is one of the places where you can find the distillation of human experience. What matters can be found on the trail - solitude, challenge, quiet, focus, danger, connection, transcendence, beauty. It’s where we came from, or at least the closest thing we have left. On a recent hike, I reflected on all that I’ve learned out there, those principles that apply to hiking and to living.
Carry what’s essential. What you carry contributes to the quality of the journey. Burden yourself with the unnecessary and you will be miserable. Travel too light and you may have troubles you can’t resolve. The trick is always finding the right balance. No matter if it’s carried on your back, in your mind or in your heart, focus on what improves the journey. The things you count on should be high quality and uncomplicated. This goes for gear, but it also applies to principles, ways of thinking, relationships, and your own character.
What is essential may not be obvious. Think through what can go wrong before you start. Because a lot can go wrong on the trail and the environment isn’t quite so forgiving as our safer, artificial world. Like life, nature has her dark side. Enjoy when things go right. Be ready for when things go wrong. You might get lost, encounter bad weather and poor conditions, get injured or be impacted by other unexpected events. You will need skills, simple tools for emergencies, backup plans, and the ability to stay calm and face the chaos without letting it overwhelm you.
Sometimes you have to go down to go up and go back to go forward. Sometimes your plans don’t work out the way you’d like. Or you get side-tracked along the way. You still have to finish the walk, so you might need to rethink your plans. Check your map, know what your capabilities are, and be ready to let previous ideas and expectations go if they won’t serve you on the path.
It’s okay to push your limits but you must know them. The wilds will kill you if you play arrogant too many times. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many miles you can walk. Push yourself, but understand the consequences of going too far. When you encounter others on the trail, do not brag about what you’ve done, commiserate about what you share. Offer advice about where you struggled. When you boil the journey down to its essence, we’re all equals on the path.
What you choose to focus on defines your journey. There are times when you have to look at your feet because you might trip on uneven ground. There are times when you can see for miles, use that to anticipate what’s ahead and plan for it. It won’t all be pleasant. There will be struggles and bad days. Be grateful for the little things or just the opportunity to breathe the clear air. Enjoy the views but also enjoy the walk. Because life is too short for so much of our days to just be a grind.
A lot of this is from the perspective of the individual. I hike alone most of the time. By way of closing, I should add the most important thing that the solo hikes have taught me - connections matter. Companions make all of this so much easier. Our fellow travelers can help us when the world goes wrong, offer advice, and be there to talk to. It’s okay to take solitary walks to the summit. To look at the wide expanse of the world and reflect on life. But you can’t survive up there. We need others and the view at the top is better when you have friends to share it with.