The sandy trail stretches itself out in front of me up the exposed ridge, a dusty carpet rolled out. At each turn, the narrow switchbacks lure me into thinking a flat stretch awaits me. Not so, each turn means another 50-100 feet elevation gain. I’m glad it’s early morning, my can-do enthusiasm still high, the breeze cool because the pack load with 4 liters of water isn’t getting any lighter. I marvel at the weight distribution of these light backpacks. The weight doesn’t pull me back or push me down, once I hoist the pack on my back and tighten the straps in just the right places; I can walk upright, I can lift my legs without struggling. I can do this despite my age!!
Hiking this first section of the season is my self-appointed job: I must hike day in, day out, with a rest day once a week. I rise early in the morning, let the caffeine do its wake-up work, and start on the day’s task, another 12-14 miles up and down, and through a desert landscape, mountainous, tree-covered sometimes, but mostly sage or chaparral covered, bone-dry, rocky ground. The edge of the wind-blown Mohave desert where I hiked its flatland 2 years ago, is to the east, Bakersfield and the hot Central Valley of California to the west.
If I succeed, I can fill in the sections I have missed to connect the PCT-line on the map into one long trail I will have hiked mile after mile. Age is playing its part. How much longer will my body tolerate this strenuous activity? When will I slow down so much that the daily mileage becomes impossibly little, and I must carry too much food, and too much water, to cover the distance between re-supplies?
A South Carolina young hiker tells me he thinks the chaparral covered mountains are beautiful. I tell him it’s relative, and just wait till you get to the high Sierras for jaw-dropping beauty. I’m spoiled with the vistas I have seen, the mountains I have climbed. This stretch is more of a daily hum-drum; a job to get done.
I do enjoy the walking. As I let my body find its rhythm, my legs do their DNA imprinted work. I’m in awe of my body’s resilience, the lack of pain, the ease with which I fall into this daily effort. My thoughts recede, my eyes absorb the world around me, my brain remembers names of flowers and bushes, my being dissipates into the wide open distances with range after range of mountains resting on the earth, waiting for me to come to them and, stand in the high places, find the water sources, scour for a flat place to pitch my tent. When the birds start singing at 4:45 AM, I never wake up thinking “I don’t want to do this today” or “I want to stay in bed”. I become part of this natural world. My body responds to light and sound and wants to move, relieve itself, drink, eat and see what the day will bring. The deep inner drive to find food and water, to scour the environment for shelter is the essence of a nomadic life. A life in which survival is the thing that counts. Of course on this trek I don’t have to find food, but I do have to keep moving to find water sources, move to find safe shelter for the night, away from gusty winds or a bright moon. When we live in one place, in a home, the inner drive to move becomes muted. Only a social need to connect moves us about. We may have an inner voice that tells us we need exercise to stay healthy.
These last 8 years I gave up home and hearth for periods of time, to explore the effects of living and moving on the wilderness trail, away from convenience stores, chairs, beds, readily available water spigots, electric lights, screen entertainment and artificial waking and sleeping schedules.
I’ve found my connectedness in nature, my health, my contentedness, my confidence. I’ve learned that doing with less, eating less, moving more is a formula for happiness. I haven’t made the wilderness trail my permanent way of life. I watch the through-hikers pass me by with the 5-month-long view in their eyes, the sense of newness, ownership over their lives in their voices. And yet, they too return to the daily world of cars, jobs, noise pollution, light pollution, and stress to carve out a living that satisfies.
We can learn from our experiences; distill the essence, and apply our new knowledge in the life that follows. When I come home, I keep moving daily. I find places to hike, away from noise and light pollution. I listen to my body’s food needs and try to change my bodyweight set-point to a lighter, healthier number. I find alternatives for chair sitting and sit on the floor more.
Spending 3 weeks in the outback has given me a shot in the arm. I’m vaccinated against the onslaught of society’s disabling habits. Will I get the disease? Yes, but not as severe. Will I succumb to easy temptations? Of course, but not for long. Another section is waiting for me. I will explore again as long as my body lets me.