PERSONAL REFLECTIONS FROM THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
I fell in love with the outdoors during my first backpacking trip in Washington State back in 2005. Since then, nature has been my sanctuary. It’s where I feel most at home and at peace.
Despite this, time in the outdoors isn’t always a joyride. In fact, the outdoors can often be grueling, challenging you in ways that you could have never imagined. So why do people do it?
For me, the difficulties I faced during my 22 days hiking the John Muir Trail resulted in a lot of personal growth. It provided me time to learn about myself, reflect on my priorities, and focus on developing new habits that would have a lasting positive impact on my life, long after my return home.
Some of the things I learned are serious, some less so. And while I don’t often like to get too personal on here, I wanted to share a few of my reflections as a way to encourage the outdoor-curious to get out there.
And here’s the thing…You don’t have to spend three weeks in the boonies to feel the undeniable benefits of nature. A short weekend getaway, or even a post-work hike gives you the opportunity to turn off the outside world, so you can focus on you.
So here goes nothing! If anything in this post brings to mind ways that the outdoors have improved your life, I’d love for you to share in the comments at the end of this post.
And as it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
The outdoors can be an intimidating place, and I haven’t always been the bravest soul. In fact, I have plenty of fears, many of them irrational. Like wind. It’s so silly, but I hate sleeping in my tent when it is windy. I’m not sure what I think is going to happen, but for some reason, it just plain scares me. There are also outdoor activities, like mountain biking and climbing, that I have been interested in getting in to, but I have been intimidated. I ask myself what will happen if I fall or can’t keep up with my friends. And those fears have prevented me from exploring new interests.
When I was planning for the John Muir Trail, I knew it was going to be hard. But until you get out there, there’s really no way of knowing the extent of the mental and physical challenges of 22 days in the woods. Climbing 3,000 feet with a 45 pound pack on, day after day…that’s not a feeling you can anticipate.
A quick story….On day 13, we woke up in Kings Canyon National Park to some very dark and stormy skies. We were headed towards Muir Pass and would be spending a majority of the day above the tree line. I felt my anxiety rise as I pictured myself getting stuck in a lightning storm with nowhere to hide. As we soon as we made it to Evolution Basin, a series of lakes below Muir Pass, it began to hail and the sound of distant thunder echoed throughout the landscape. I nervously threw on my rain gear, and after some convincing from bRad, we decided that we would keep going. We agreed that if the thunder sounded any closer, we would stop and hide in our tent until the storm passed. So for the next 7 miles, we hoofed it uphill through the wind and the rain. We didn’t stop for a single water, food, or bathroom break. We were racing the storm to the top, and I swear I’ve never hiked so fast in my life. The adrenaline was pumping through my blood, and though exhausted and freezing, I began to feel like I could take on the world. When we finally got to the top of the pass at nearly 12,000 feet, we sought refuge in Muir Hut, and a feeling of satisfaction rushed over me. For the first time, I didn’t feel like the wimp that I had always viewed myself as.
Now that I’m home, I want to take this new-found courage and put it to use. I have wanted to try mountain biking for a while, and I figured there is no better time than now. So I went out and bought myself a shiny new bike and immediately took it out for a spin, all by myself, in the Vegas desert. That is something I would have never done prior to my JMT hike, and I now have the confidence to get out there and try some of the things that I have long been afraid of. BOOM!
Ok, so I’m an only child. I’d like to think that I don’t have that many only-child tendencies, but there is one that I am fully aware of. And that’s my inability to share food. Like you better watch out if you try to steal my last bite when I’m not looking…I might just stab you with my fork. It’s bad.
Prior to the trip, bRad and I decided it would be easiest if I just planned the menu for both of us, and that meant we would be splitting everything. Come dinner time, we’d be passing the Mountain House meal back and forth, bite for bite. Honestly, I was dreading it.
On the first night, we opened up the steaming package of Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork. I took a few bites and passed it to bRad. My eyes almost popped out of my skull when I watched bRad take the most humongous bite I’ve ever seen. I thought “oh no…this isn’t going to work,” and I began to fear that I was going to starve for the next 21 days. I continued to watch him like a hawk for the first week. I wanted to be sure I was getting my fair share.
Well surprise, surprise…I did not starve. I have to give it to bRad, he was well aware of the size of his bites and always knew when to pass it back to me. At the same time, I slowly learned to not freak out as I watched him eat, and I also realized that if he got a little bit more than me, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I would survive.
I can’t say that I wasn’t elated when we ate our first meal after getting off the trail, and I didn’t have to split my sandwich in half. But I think the experience of sharing like that over the course of our trip has helped me make some progress in getting over my selfish tendencies.
My patience was tested each and every day on the trail, specifically during our morning routine. On the trail, I tend to be an early riser…bRad, not so much. There were plenty of mornings where I would be up at 6:45, yet it would be 10am before we hit the road.
This wasn’t entirely bRad’s fault. When you are backpacking, there is just a lot of shit to do every morning. You gotta make coffee and breakfast, break down the tent, filter water, bandage your feet, get dressed, slather on the sunscreen, stretch, and pack up your bag. That said, if I had been by myself, I doubt that these things would have taken in excess of three hours, and by the 10th day, it really started to drive me nuts. I did my best to encourage bRad without being too obnoxious, but still, tension began to rise.
Finally, one morning, things erupted. I pushed him a little too hard, and he made me wait a little too long. And for the first few hours that day, we each hiked alone, keeping a good chunk of distance between us. It really was a bummer. When we finally decided to speak to each other, it became obvious that a my-way-or-the-highway approach was going to send one of us packing. Thankfully, we were able to talk it out and agreed to try to meet each other halfway.
For the rest of the trip, I decided that I was going to sleep in a little longer. Yes, I was eager to get going, but it was cold out and there was really no reason to get up and freeze before that morning sun appeared. And when I did wake up, rather than pressuring bRad to hurry up, I found other things to do, like write in my journal or read about the day ahead in our JMT guidebook. bRad also started getting up a little earlier and chipping in more so we could get out of camp at a decent hour. What I learned is that when I focused on practicing patience and having a more relaxed attitude, it set a better tone for the day as a whole.
In daily life, being patient is a whole different story, like when you are waiting in line or sitting in traffic. But what’s the use in getting worked up? Sometimes it’s best to just take a deep breath and ride it out.
On the JMT, we were burning upwards of 5,000 calories a day, and my relationship with food completely changed. I learned to see food as energy, rather than a form of pleasure, and I have never felt so strong and healthy in my life. When I returned home, my parents took me out to a fancy dinner to celebrate, and it was the most I ate in a single sitting in over three weeks. And then what did we do after dinner? Well we certainly didn’t climb a mountain. Instead, we just sat. And I felt awful.
Now I’m definitely not a health nut. I love my sour gummies and anything drenched in buffalo sauce. But if I was really serious about maintaining the physical progress I made on the JMT, I would have to up the ante on my daily activity levels. So with my new-found confidence, I decided to sign up for my first half-marathon. The November 16th race is approaching quickly, and now the pressure is on to stay motivated. (Stay tuned to see if I survive!)
Another thing that I have started thanks to my time on the JMT is a daily stretching routine. Every day on the JMT, I did at least 30 minutes of stretching. It felt amazing, and by the end, I started to notice a real difference. For the first time ever, I could touch my toes without being in excruciating pain. Now that I’m home, I have continued these stretching habits, and it’s doing wonders for eliminating the tightness in my body that I always thought was just the norm.
Finally, I’ve decided that I want to make the most of my days. That habit of being an early-bird on the trail has creeped into my daily life. Since getting home, I’ve started to sleep with my blinds open, allowing the morning sun to act as a natural alarm. Some days I even watch the sun rise, and I NEVER thought I would be that person. But I’ll tell you what…it’s an absolutely fantastic way to start the day.
Well that’s just a hint of what I learned about myself on the John Muir Trail. I still have plenty of bad habits and even the ones I speak of here are not fully resolved. That’s why I’m already planning my next adventure, so I can continue to make progress. If anything, I’d say its a pretty good excuse to get outside, don’t you think?