By the time I got to Wyoming I was feeling a little overwhelmed.
Whenever I get that feeling, I itch for a grand adventure, something big and different and far away that will allow me to temporarily escape everything familiar to me. I want to be in a place where I don’t know anything or anybody with no ability for technological distraction. A place where I can truly let my mind wander.
A week hiking in the Grand Tetons was going to be everything I wanted and needed. I spent months preparing. I obsessed over my gear. I trained regularly despite an injury. And by the time I arrived in Jackson Hole with my buddy Rug (nickname, not real name), I was hoping all my pre-planning would pay off physically, and the trip would help me escape mentally.
Here is what I learned:
Extra comfort at the end of the day is worth added discomfort during the day
Yes, this might be a metaphor for life. But I spent hours and hours researching, debating, and worrying about what to bring on this trip. For good reason. Every single thing I thought I “might” need would be added weight in my pack. Ounces add up to pounds and 40 pounds of necessities quickly become 50 pounds of nice-to-haves.
I was also very aware that the last big hike I did, which was also the first big hike I did, I had no idea just how exhausting it would be. I figured I would spend my downtime at night reading a book. And so, as anybody would, I brought the autobiography of Malcolm X with me, a four-pound paperback tome I did not so much as open once in six days.
So I was extremely cautious about the things I thought I needed in Wyoming.
But I knew I wanted a real pillow. My last trip I had an inflatable one. An inflatable pillow is not really a pillow. It looks like a pillow. It theoretically does the job of a pillow. But it is not a pillow. It is an air-filled piece of vinyl that somehow keeps one’s head in an uncomfortable perpetual rocking motion. Because of this, I bought a compressible pillow.
It took up more space than Malcolm X but was infinitely more useful. I actually slept at night. I woke up semi-rested, which is incredibly important when through-hiking. The pillow was almost a no-brainer. The decision to bring a portable chair was more difficult. But having done so, I can now definitively say: A real chair is infinitely better than a rock. Yes, it was an extra two pounds strapped to the outside of my bag, but dear god, at the end of the day, when my shoulders were screaming and my feet were on fire, sitting on something manufactured for the human body was on par with nirvana.
It was so comfortable that my chairless hiking companion threatened to murder me several times during the trip solely for the chair. Either he was joking or uncommitted. Either way, I am grateful I survived.
It’s easy not to think about anything
I don’t mean it was easy to have my mind relax and zone out peacefully. I mean there was more than enough to do every day to keep my brain occupied so it didn’t really have time to zone out.
I said to Rug before we left that I was hoping for some clarity on things I had been worrying about. I wanted to return with a refreshed and relaxed brain. But hiking through fantastic mountains doesn’t magically make that happen. Because while we were miles away from anything of consequence, our minds were always occupied.
Here is what my internal monologue was like during the time we were hiking.
This pack is heavy. I can’t wait to take this pack off. Man, I am sweating. How long before I say I want to take my pack off? What should my next snack be? What should we eat for dinner? I wonder how much lighter our packs will be after dinner? Where the hell did these mountains come from? These are incredible! Should I stop and take a picture? How did this happen? I hope there isn’t a bear around this corner. Better start singing again in case there is a bear. I have jerky stuck in my teeth again. I wish I had a water pick with me. I can’t wait until we get over this hill. I wonder what the vista will look like. This is incredible.
And I loved every minute of it!
Hiking is not incredibly technical work but it is rigorous. There are times when the path is soft and easy on your feet. Most often though it was rocky. At times it was precarious. While taking in the views is phenomenal, most of our attention was spent on where we placed our feet and our hiking poles. Ten times out of ten if I zoned out and didn’t pay attention to where I stepped, I would trip.
It wasn’t all internal monologues. We talked a lot about life, travel, potential future hikes, and incredible nonsense. We probably talked as much as we were silent. It is not a zen sitting on a rock type of experience. But that is what I love about it. The zen of the experience is the inability to worry about too many other things. It is just the task at hand. Getting up this hill. Pushing on until we can find shade. Setting up our campsite before the rain came.
Every day we’d walk miles uphill and down always looking forward to ending on a vista. It was by far my favorite part; getting to the summit of the day’s climb and seeing a view we could not anticipate. The sense of accomplishment at the end of the day was unparalleled. That to me was everything.
By the time we finally set up camp and I collapsed into my chair my brain was so tired all it could do was appreciate the scenery. It freed me from any kind of mental achievement I thought would be possible.
You’re never prepared to hold on to it
I came back exhausted. After a rain-soaked final night, we hiked out on our last day more ready than ever to shower, clean up and rejoin society. But I also felt quite purged. Of energy. Of worries. Positive I would be able to maintain my current mental state of adventure and problem-solving. Because, every day, with every decision we made, and every person we met, our purpose and our character was being reaffirmed for us.
Many people we met asked us how far we were going. They were impressed by our endeavor. It was fun to have so many people interested in every single thing we were doing. That boosted our beliefs about ourselves, our capacity and the journey we were on.
Coming back was disheartening. Genuine curiosity was quickly replaced with perfunctory questions. The “how are you’s” and “hows it goings” of daily life that don’t anticipate honest responses wore on me. I wish it hadn’t, but it saddened me, lessened the wind that was just so strong in my sails.
I thought a week away would boost my patience, both with myself and others. I thought my worries would dissipate, that I would be better at pausing before I reacted. And yet, a month after I returned, it’s almost like I never left in the first place.
Well, I shouldn’t say that.
I know my expectations for this trip (like all of my expectations) were too high. I think everything will somehow change or improve the insecurities or dissatisfaction I have at my core. And yet, I am almost always disappointed when that is not what transpires. Which is not to say that any experience, especially this one, was any less valuable. Because it was incredible.
From the outside, the days I spent away were just hash marks on the timeline like any other. I know though, if you look close enough inside them, you can see days packed full of memories and experiences.
But it is not the job of others to look closely. It is not incumbent on anybody else in this world to understand the value of my personal experiences. Expecting that, means I need others to validate my life. And that is something I don’t want.
It is lovely when people are curious and ask questions or to see pictures. But those are just additions on top what the trip meant to me. I didn’t go for other people. The stories and memories I have are for myself, and I am additionally lucky if somebody else asks about them. It has taken me a long time to realize that. And still, I have to occasionally relearn it.
We saw so many people hiking. Doing shorter, longer or the same trails as us. And I was always wondering why they did it. If they loved it. What their goal was, or how long they prepared. All of it was distraction. The only thing that mattered was what it meant to me in the moment and in my memory. The pre-hike goals I had for resonance have faded. And that is for the best.
Letting go of what I think I should learn, allows me to learn something I never expected.
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