Monday, October 15, 2012

John Muir Trail Afterthoughts

Trail life is all about living simply. Imagine, if you will, opening your eyes every morning and finding yourself immersed in the splendor of Nature, inhaling crisp, clean oxygen, and knowing you will walk through stunning scenery, enjoy splendid views, chat with good peeps, take a dip in cold, refreshing water (maybe), eat good food and camp somewhere scenic. Friends, that is a recipe for happiness!

The challenge of course, is creating a similar recipe for everyday life in the city.

After I got off the trail, the tug of certain responsibilities, people and events were overwhelming at times. I clearly lacked balance and this caused me to become more withdrawn, tense, on edge, and irritable. 

Importance of the Transitional Period

I was back in Los Angeles the day after I stepped off the trail. The next day I attended a wake, and two days after that I had a job interview. At the same time, family and friends bombarded me, wanting to congratulate me and hear stories of the trail. I REALLY appreciated their love and support, but it was too much too soon. 

I was not ready for it. It was a shock to my way of life for the past three weeks. Instead of easing into the madness, I dove right in and had a difficult time coping.

If I ever venture into the backcountry again for an extended period of time, I will make sure to include transition time after my trek to adjust back to city life. Three to five days lounging about in smaller towns, contemplating, and replenishing my caloric deficit should do the trick ;)

Lessons from the John Muir Trail

Ever since I was little, I was the shy, quiet kid who kept to himself. My shyness resulted in low self confidence and an irrational need to rely on others early in my adult life - even though I knew I was capable taking care of myself. To this day, every now and then this habit rears its ugly head.

Case in point: In 2011, my friends and I hiked from Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney. I was confident in my abilities to navigate the trail and locate adequate camping spots for the group, but I relied on others (whom I perceived had more experience in the backcountry) and let them make a few decisions on my behalf.

Hiking the JMT solo forced me to break this habit for good. Though it was easy for me to return to my old ways and want to rely on others when I camped and hiked with a group, I constantly reminded myself to remain confident in my abilities and always made my own decisions. 

In short, my biggest takeaway from the trail is how much I expanded my comfort zones. As Neale Donald Walsch once said, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."

I want to forever learn and grow, and challenging myself physically is one way to do that. 

On the John Muir Trail, hiking for 16 continuous days, being responsible for my safety, finding creative solutions to problems and adapting to change expanded my comfort zones by leaps and bounds. It's extremely satisfying to know that you - and ONLY you - are responsible for achieving something. 

And while this might not seem like a big deal to others, I don't know if I can put into words the immensity and importance of this journey to me. Suffice it to say that it's HUGE!

Gifts of the John Muir Trail

Remember when I mentioned I was shy and reserved growing up? Well, I still am to a degree, but the trail tremendously helped me become more social. Sure there were times when I wanted to interact with others yet shied away and said nothing, but for the most part, I engaged in conversation with 98% of the people I met. More importantly, I was usually the one who approached others and started the conversations.

I'm happy to report that I'm still just as social now as I was on the trail. I'm still not sure how or why this transformation occurred, but I'm sure glad it did! 

I believe this hike also enhanced my ability to focus and stay present. My mind seldom wandered when I consulted my map, calculated mileage, set up my tent or journaled on my phone - even after days on the trail when these tasks became routine. I was more aware on the trail than I had ever been in the city. 

There were also many moments of great clarity when I got lost in thought. I was better able to think things through because my mind wouldn't rapidly transition from thought to thought as it usually does. (This is probably because there are fewer distractions in the wilderness.) My mind felt clearer, more relaxed and less scattered. It is a place I try to get back to everyday but it takes more mindfulness and effort since I'm once again exposed to the distractions of the city. 

Social skills and clarity are great, but the most rewarding experience of all was the oneness I felt with Nature and other hikers. Although I was hiking many miles a day, I didn't rush through Nature with restricted senses, feelings or emotions. 

Quite the contrary - I was more in tuned to Nature and welcomed her gifts with open arms. And I'm not exactly sure how to explain this without sounding woo-woo, but I felt a connection between myself, Nature and other hikers that I've never felt before. I felt their energy in my heart; and this energy gave me great strength and a considerable sense of peace. 

One month after my hike, I experienced this same feeling in yoga class. It's happened a few more times since, both when I've been around others and when I've been alone, and I tell ya, I've felt AMAZING when that sensation has taken over me. It's lasted between 30 seconds and a few minutes each time, and never have I felt as balanced and relaxed. 

Speaking of relaxed, the most delightful surprise of my entire John Muir Trail experience was the gratification I received post hike from my journal entries. I decided on day 3 of my hike that I would journal every night but wait until I finished the hike to insert pictures for each entry. (Taking photos with my camera and my phone, then searching for the photos at night to insert into each entry was extremely time consuming and not very fun.)

Reading my journal entries and scanning through the 1,200+ photos was very therapeutic - especially on the tough days. Flashbacks of the evaporating vapor from morning dew, the cold drops of rain, the breeze atop the passes and the wonder-full people I met, painted huge smiles on my face.

If you're on the fence about journaling on your hike, I say go for it. You won't regret it!

Final Thoughts

If you're pondering a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, you are in for an awesome adventure! No matter the month, the duration or direction you choose, your soul will thank you for the experience. Just do yourself a favor and pack your rain gear. Cut weight elsewhere but don't neglect this essential piece of gear. 

So what's next for me? At this point, I really don't know. And I'm totally okay with that. 

I still have a burning desire to hike (and celebrate my 30th birthday on) the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, but right now there are other matters in my life that require my attention. 

Although I'm confident that my left Achilles is healed and my physical conditioning is excellent, I wouldn't feel comfortable hiking the PCT knowing I didn't do what I needed to do before stepping foot on the trail. 

I'm certain that if I take productive action everyday, and be receptive to the magic of life, I will be exactly where I need to be come April 2013.

Namaste & Happy Trails

"You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So...get on your way!"
~Dr. Seuss