[Update March 17, 2020: Per the ATC’s guidance, my summer plans are on hold]
Memories from February 29, 2020. This post is a little on the introspective side but realizing that the grieving process had been useful for managing conflicting ambitions seems like an insight worth sharing.
Today I decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Continental Divide Trails (CDT) this summer. The packing party invites I sent out this week said I was doing the AT and CDT. In texts with friends and calls with family, I’ve been saying the same. The problem is that until today, none of this sat well with me.
I’d wanted more. After hiking the PCT in 2016, I caught the long distance hiking bug and found myself repeatedly interested in a Calendar Year Triple Crown (hike the PCT, AT, and CDT in a single year). This was a low grade, long festering dream. Higher priority were financial goals. Then were relational goals. Finally, there were career goals. All of those came before hiking goals. The hike was delayed one year and then another. I have a spreadsheet with 2018 in the title because it represented a plan to meet a financial goal that year. I didn’t re-title it when events transpired which delayed the projection until 2019. More events transpired (not the recent stock market drop). Now the projection is 2020/2021. The relational goals have seen less traction, perhaps not surprisingly as people are less predictable than paychecks. The one place things are going well is my career; I’m on the cusp of a long desired opportunity which will disappear if I go hiking. After years of delays which have failed to resolve a number of my much desired goals, walking away for anything less than the full CYTC seemed like a let down.
The problem, of course, is that the CYTC is a brutal undertaking. I found myself building plan after schedule after resupply strategy, trying to find a way to escape daily mileage targets which seemed like they would sap the joy from the experience. I ran a number of ultra marathons last year and so no one part of the plan seemed unmanageable. The problem is that after running an ultra, you rest. After hiking an ultra as part of the CYTC, you wake up and do it again the next day. Town stops are aid stations – necessary but minimized. It becomes an ultra marathon of ultra marathons.
Into this unresolved problem stepped Garret “Pathfinder” Guinn (his blog). At dinner after a day hike with him and another friend late last year, I discovered he had attempted the CYTC in 2018. While he finished a couple weeks into 2019, the planning and experience he conveyed confirmed the grinding nature of my expectations. Garrett is an an engineer by trade and coach by passion. He sent me his planning materials and talked about physical and mental aspects of the undertaking. While Garrett’s experiences they made the undertaking seem more relatable, the physical and emotional cost seemed all the more inescapable.
Cause of my my discontent was something I’d experienced before: priorities which in some cases supported each other and in other cases conflicted. On the Hayduke in 2018, I started with unstated goals both of hiking the entire route and enjoying myself. These came into conflict when I had to bail out of a section and didn’t have enough leave from work to restart it. The process of identifying, articulating, and releasing myself from the first goal so that I could embrace the second seems like it should have been simple: “you’ve been saving vacation days for two years, why would you spend hard won days of freedom on anything you don’t enjoy?”. In practice, I went through the stages of grief, almost quitting the Hayduke, before being able to embrace the adventure only from the viewpoint that I should enjoy it.
By this time, I’d been through the first three phases of grief about the CYTC: denial that it was going to be as demanding it was, anger that I couldn’t seem to make it work in a reasonable manner (many planning sessions kept me up until midnight), bargaining with the trail by rearranging my plans almost a dozen ways to see if it would fit. The bargaining ended with a 42 mile walk during sick day I took from work which resulted in 8 blisters. Depression, the next phase of grief, now kicked in as I tentatively tried out plans which didn’t involve all three trails. I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense, though a lack of vitamin D due the the winter here in the Pacific Northwest didn’t help (I started supplements last week and they’re my new favorite recreational drug). Instead, I found that my new plans didn’t feel like they were worthy of quitting my my wonderful job and spending 8 or more months of life to undertake.
Today, acceptance came in a strange way. Garrett was in the area again having quit work and about set of on a long adventure of his own design. His enthusiasm for hiking and adventure was infectious. We hiked 10 miles, drove to lunch, ate lunch, sat in the restaurant talking, walked over to REI, stood around REI talking (frequently interrupted by attentive associates), then walked about three miles before calling it quits. We chewed over some of my worries and reasons for downgrading from the CYTC to AT+CDT, and he added some color to support both sides of the discussion. At the end of our time together, the CYTC just seemed possible and I had every intention of going home and revisiting my original plans with his new stories in mind. First though, I took a nap.
Waking up from that nap, I found I had no desire to hike the CYTC. I was now happy with the narrative I’d built around the AT+CDT hike. They’ll be the “wedding hikes” as I’ll be leaving form one wedding to start the AT and need to finish the CDT in time to attend another. Bonus: the couple in the first wedding my at my pre-PCT going-away party. If I want to keep hiking after that, I can hike a trail which is in season instead of pushing into winter conditions. I felt free again.
My CYTC dreams had been anchored by a quote from Jenifer Pharr-Davis about what became her second record setting hike of the Appalachian Trail, “I didn’t want to look back and I didn’t want to wonder.” Giving up on the CYTC before starting seems at odds with this. But recently, I’d written down something Dylan Bowman said during a talk I attended at UW, “Do what you do because you love it, not because you’re afraid of the person you’d be without it”. I’m a naturally driven person. I don’t want to wonder if I could have done a CYTC this year. That’s why I had to grieve forsaking it. More important to me is the pleasure I take in these long distance hikes: the wonder and awe; the camaraderie; the capturing and sharing of memories; the physical accomplishment of big miles, long days, rough travel and the delicious rest that comes thereafter. And so with my priorities straight, I can embrace my plans for the summer. If it turns out I really care about the CYTC, there’s always next year.