Reflections on the John Muir Trail
I've been off trail and back in Tucson for almost three weeks. Thankfully I had a couple days off before heading back to work and I spent those days doing absolutely nothing. My body is just now starting to feel normal although if I sit for a long period of time, my leg muscles will tighten up. Also the skin on the bottom of my feet is, like, shedding? But I won't dwell on that.
I'd like to think I've processed the time I spent on trail but I don't know if I have fully. It was an incredible experience that I am deeply grateful for but I feel a bit unfulfilled by my first thru hike.
The expectations I had for the hike were completely different from the reality of it. Hiking at higher elevations affected me in ways I wasn't anticipating. My hiking pace was significantly slower than it typically is here in Arizona. Hiking in the Sierra Nevada is no joke. Slow and steady was my mantra almost every day. And since I was so slow and still had to hike an average of 10 miles a day, that meant hiking literally all day, which normally sounds like my perfect day, but add to that my 50lb pack and then the lousy sleep I was getting, my body was physically exhausted at the end of each leg of my trip.
But in that I found a new appreciation for my body. I started this hike at my heaviest weight ever. That fact didn't bother me that much, I was just aware that I wasn't at my most fit. But my body didn't fail me. It got me over those tough passes and held on so that I could finish. My strong legs handled the ups and downs. My feet took a beating though. I've never had blister issues and from Day 1 I had problems. By Day 24 my body was feeling the fatigue and exhaustion but it never let me down even when I wanted to give up. I learned I'm stronger than I give my body credit for.
Mentally I was pretty tough. I'd stare up at a huge pass and think, "Holy crap, I have to go up there?! There's no way." And then hours later after hiking slow and steady up thousands of feet in elevation I'd stand on the top of said pass and think, "Wow I just did that!!!" Those were unforgettable moments of pride and accomplishment. But there were other times where another hiker would reassure me, "oh this next stretch is easy" or "that pass is suuuper easy, you should get over it in no time" and then that pass would take me HOURS to get over and I'd start to feel bad about myself, those moments sucked. I finally stopped listening to anyone that told me any part of this trail was "easy." Sure a pass may be easier than another steeper, harder pass but every pass is HARD. No part of this trail is "easy." You really have to ignore those comments and hike your own hike. No matter how slow I was I still made it over each and every pass just like everyone else.
My emotions took me by surprise. This was solo trip and I was very proud of the fact that I was doing this solo. I'd learned so much over the years and this was my chance to "prove" that I belong out here. I was going to get through this trail by myself, damnit! But after my first week on trail I realized, you know, this would be a lot more enjoyable if I had someone to share it with. What's the use of going through this incredible experience if I don't have anyone to share the memories with me? I wasn't lonely per se, but I did feel like I was missing something by being out there by myself. And don't get me wrong, I still love solo travel and solo hiking and backpacking but I realized I like that in smaller fragments of time like a weekend or a week. Three weeks of solo traveling in the backcountry is too long for me. I missed my friends and family more than I thought I would. I had my Garmin In-Reach to stay connected but I still felt so far removed from my day-to-day life, which I know is part of the reason to do a trip like this, but it became clear that being in community and being close to family is more important to me than I previously thought. It kind of rocked my world because I always thought I'd want to be a backcountry ranger or move to a remote mountain off the grid and be a reclusive artist and be so far removed from "life" but now I'm realizing I don't actually want that and it's kind of throwing me for a loop. I'm wondering what other things in my life I think I want but in reality I really wouldn't want to have?
I thought my creativity would flourish in the backcountry and I wanted to harness that creativity. I brought my paints and a sketchbook and I envisioned painting every day and letting my creative mind wander. I'd be surrounded by beauty, inspiration would be all around me! And it was but I didn't have the time or the energy to paint. By the time I got into camp each night I would be too tired plus I'd have camp chores I needed to get done before the sun went down. Most nights I was in bed by 9pm (hiker's midnight) so my daylight time was limited. And if I did get to camp at a decent time, I wasn't in the mood to paint or I just wanted to sit and do nothing. This was frustrating since I brought all my paint stuff and was lugging it around for no reason but there was also this weight lifted off and I didn't have the stress of having to be creative when I didn't feel like it. There is a time and a place to "force" creativity but I was glad I didn't put that additional stressor on myself.
One thing I learned is I want to have more flexibility with my time on trail, so that I actually can paint or have a long lunch next to a beautiful lake. My 10 miles a day average was fine for most days but I had planned to do some 15 mile days my last two weeks so that I could finish in Happy Isles on time. After a few days on trail I realized I was not going to be able to do those kinds of miles in a day in the Sierras but if I wanted to finish when I planned on finishing I'd have to figure out how to put up those miles. I wanted more time to rest and relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery around me. Each day I had to focus so much on "making my miles" that it stressed me out and didn't allow me to really enjoy the trail. If I did allow myself an extra 5 or 10 minutes to enjoy a beautiful lake or vista I'd feel anxious that I wasn't enjoying it enough or the "right" way and I felt rushed to appreciate where I was while still thinking about how I need to get back to hiking so that I can get to camp at a decent hour. This isn't how I want to explore the mountains. I was to be fully present in each moment and I couldn't find that right balance during my hike. I will definitely think about this while planning future hikes.
The best part, by far, was the people I met on trail. The thru hiking community is incredible. People making sure you had enough food and water, sharing with those who needed it. Giving each other tips for the upcoming Pass or a good campsite you found the night before. The quick 3 minute "hello-how-are-you-where-did-you-camp-last-night-where-are-you-from" conversations led to the best interactions on trail. I had so many strangers encouraging me and I hope others felt my encouragement as well.
I was lucky enough to find a trail family which I needed more than I realized. I met Meghan, Lee, Reid, Brian, and Diane during my first resupply/zero day in Independence. A couple days later we met Zoe and our family was complete. I really don't think I would have made it the whole way by myself and I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did hiking and camping with this crew. They encouraged me when I was frustrated with my slow pace, made me laugh when I was being too serious, reassured me when I was feeling down and made the rest of the trip so much fun. Saying goodbye to them was incredibly hard but now I have lifelong friends and I can't wait to plan another hike with them!
I really thought I would love thru hiking but the truth is I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. If I had the chance would I do it all over again? I would love to immediately say yes. However, knowing what I know now, I don't think I would. I learned a lot about myself and my needs and wants as a backpacker and I'm grateful for those lessons. I'm grateful for the hard times and the seemingly impossible passes that I successfully climbed over. I'm grateful for the early freezing cold mornings where my hands were so cold I couldn't get my fingers to work. I'm grateful for clear skies and seeing a billion stars and the Milky Way every single night of the trail. I can now call myself a thru-hiker but I don't see any more long hikes in my future. I still have a long list of beautiful places I want to visit but I'll be doing them as a section hiker or as a week long backpacking trip.
And I'll be sure to have a nice hotel room booked at the end of each trip.
To read about the day to day details of my trip, start HERE!
Beautiful and such an articulate blog Stephanie. It was so good to meet you and spend that time on the trail with our trail family. I agree it was so hard and didn’t really allow enough rest time. However I don’t think you give yourself enough credit for how well you did, you’re the most consistent hiker/trekker I know, always catching us up at the first rest stop, and maintaining a constant pace is a skill and you were the best at that! You were such a great person to hike with and I’m so grateful we met, I miss the trail, for me as well the best part was meeting you all (y’all) , I can’t wait for the next hike we do!
Beautifully written Stephanie and I could not agree more with your take away from the experience. I am a fair weather section/week long hiker not a through hiker, but like you we can say we did it. It was so nice meeting you during the journey – Diane – trail name “Wild Flower”