How to take off by hiking

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At this point in the year, we’re in hiking season heading north. Appalachian Trail hikers may be deep in Virginia, Pacific Crest Trail hikers get closer to entering the Sierra, and Continental Divide Trail hikers make trails through the New Mexico desert. Not all of them will be able to make it through to the end, though: Statistically speaking, about three-quarters of hikers starting this season won’t reach their goal. In 2022, for the first time since I started taking long backpacking trips, I found myself among them.

“Never stop on a bad day” is well-known wisdom, and the day I left the Arizona Trail was actually better than average. It felt powerful, the scenery was amazing, and the track was much smoother than it was, despite the steep ups and downs at 20 miles.

However, my skin was causing me problems from the first few days of my trip. First, a rash and tingling appeared on my legs and hands. I insistently applied sunscreen every two hours, but it didn’t help: Within days, I developed a reddish sore into heat rash blisters on my legs, chest, and down my fingers.

At the same time, the rage in my thighs was steadily getting worse, until every step felt like someone was grinding salt into a road rash. After the first 100 miles, patches of irritated skin the size of a palm were peeling off from the constant abrasion. The drained pus and droplets of blood acted as a sticky substance, sticking short shorts on the open sores. I added gels, ointments, and creams to my resupply and started walking around in my pants to relieve the worst of my symptoms.

Family commitments meant I didn’t plan to finish the Arizona Trail (AZT) all at once anyway, targeting instead Flagstaff, with loose plans to finish the last 200 miles in the fall. My skin was bad, but not bad enough to make me want to quit before Flagstaff.

Then one night, unable to sleep the third night in a row due to various skin burns, I opened my GPS app around 2 am to see what the rise looks like for the next day. About 15 miles from my camp site, I noticed a road junction. Maybe I’ll go to town and try to heal my skin for a day or twoAnd I believed.

View of the Arizona peaks in San Francisco (Photo: Deborah Lee Soltis)

I turned off my phone, tossed it, and turned around, trying to keep any substance — from my pants to my sleeping bag — away from my bleeding skin. Another hour passed. I turned on my phone again and looked at the map. It would only take a few hurdles at most to get back to a town that used to have an airport. I believed, What if I don’t get to Flagstaff this time?

It wasn’t my original plan, but no one forced me to stay. I loved AZT, felt strong and fit, but also didn’t feel the urge to get to Flagstaff. I flipped thoughts as the minutes passed and I still couldn’t sleep.

By the time the walls of my tent lit up at dawn, I had made a plan. I should not have reached my arbitrary goal. That’s all Flagstaff was: a random target. I can go home. I didn’t have to consider that my backpacking hundreds of miles failed to complete a longer trip. What if you look at your miles and feel it’s enough?

This may not sound like a particularly enlightened mindset, but it was a huge problem for me. I’ve spent a lot of time making my ability to suffer a part of who I am. What I lacked in natural athletic ability, I made up for it with persistence and determination. If you cut this trip short, what would you be left with?

I packed my bags at first light and walked out of camp, my mind racing with the idea of ​​making a decision within the next 15 miles. I pulled out my phone in tears. I didn’t know how to define what I was feeling.

Who am I without my achievements? What should I do? I wrote a letter to my friend who was probably still asleep two time zones away. I stared at the screen when the red exclamation mark checked: No service.

If I hadn’t been so miserable, I would have laughed. I was on my own.

My “hard” mindset has been with me for as long as I can remember. I would jump immediately after crashing my mountain bike or falling onto a climb, to prove I wasn’t shocked. My first instinct has always been to prove that nothing affects me, to show that I’m fine before checking in with myself to see if I really am.

On the trails, this meant fewer crashes but resulted in more intensity in the long run. But in the end, I had to wonder what exactly I was proving. That you are stronger? harder? Better to suffer? That I always reached my goals?

Of course, when you make solidity a pillar of your identity, your dedication to achieving it ceases to be rational. For many people seeking to travel to distant lands, stopping can be more difficult than continuing. Reaching your goal is seen as the everything and the end of any endeavor, which means stopping early is much more complicated.

What if I don’t reach my goal?

I thought about this for the seven hours it took to walk 15 miles to the crossroads. When I got to the road, I went into town and went home.

what happened after that? no thing. I’ve left my somewhat arbitrary purpose aside, had a good trip, and nothing has changed about my inherent self-esteem.

With hikers not hitting their initial goals this season, whether it’s an extended segment or an entire trail, I hope they can realize that not hitting the goal doesn’t change their inherent value. It comes down to what you got from the experience and how you respect yourself in the process. It took me a long time to get into that mindset, but it seems like the right place.

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