Fear and Prioritizing

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Happy December readers!

It’s amazing to me that I’ve now lived in the Pacific Northwest for 5 months. It’s been wonderful, exciting, delicious, wet, and sometimes frustrating. I feel surrounded by amazing natural places, from peaks to beaches to deserts, but oftentimes I find myself frustrated that I don’t get out enough as I attempt to balance establishing a life here (with all the things that come with that) with my inner stir-crazy nature. On the plus side: I live here now, and if all goes to plan, I’ll have lots of time in the future to climb all the mountains and see all the places I want to see.

As I alluded to in my last post, I’m finally ready to prioritize a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail starting in August of 2016. This is exciting! But, also unexpectedly frightening. Let’s be honest, it’s one thing to imagine a 200+ mile solo journey through the wilderness in the abstract, but something completely different to face the reality of making it happen. However, on the plus side, a large part of the reason I’ve decided to begin (what I hope to be) my mini-thru-hike career with the JMT is because a) it’s well traveled and b) offers NUMEROUS planning resources. There aren’t a lot of trails out there with fantastic planning guides in existence, but the JMT is one of those. Thus, not only will I FINALLY get to spend numerous weeks hiking through my beloved Sierra Nevada mountains, but I’ll also get some solid experience in planning a longer trip, something I hope to continue doing in the future.

So, now that I’ve decided that I’m REALLY ready to make this all happen, I’ve been facing some interesting internal reactions. I’m excited. But, I’m also scared (surprise surprise).

I adore hiking by myself. I love the time to think, the option to stop and look at the flowers and mosses that grow along a trail while not having to worry that I’m slowing anyone else down. However, the few times I’ve done solo backpacking, I’ve felt the experience to be underwhelming, and honestly, a bit disconcerting. As you hear so often with people experiencing their first solo backpacking adventure, I found the days to be wonderful but the evenings and nights to be lonely and overly quiet. Sleep was difficult, as I imagined the night to be full of nefarious sounds and unknown creatures lurking outside my tent. While I’ve since become a much better sleeper in the backcountry, the few solo trips I’ve done have been underwhelming. Beyond the sleeping alone factor, I found myself thinking, “what’s the point of all this, if there’s no one to share it with?” Part of what I adore about experiencing the outdoors is enjoying it with like-minded people. It’s a special thing, and something I miss when solo.

However, as much as I crave that specific social experience in the backcountry, I’m also not willing to skip a thru-hike this coming summer. I don’t know anyone at the moment who has any desire to hike for 3 weeks or even the option to take that much time away from work, family, and responsibility (which is understandable). So, my current plan is to go it alone. Let’s be honest though, I highly doubt I’ll be alone THAT much. This is the JMT, a trail that has seen it’s traffic increase by over 300% in the last 5 years.

That being said, I’m still going to proceed as if I’ll be alone a majority of my evenings, in large part because I feel like this is an important obstacle for me to overcome. Even if I’m rarely alone on the evenings because I end up meeting amazing new friends, I want to be in a place where I CAN be alone.

In order to start working through some of my solo hiking fears, I’ll be spending the next 8 months doing short solo trips closer to home. As with my backcountry sleeping issues, I’ve found that the best way to troubleshoot problems is to face them head-on, and then see if there are any technics that can make that particular situation better.

For example, Wired, the writer of one of my favorite long-distance hiking blogs, listens to audiobooks and even watches movies in the evening. I LOVE this. As backpackers (well, as general humans I guess), it’s easy to read a lot of opinions online. Trail runners and not boots. This tent, as opposed to that other tent. In the outdoor world, one of the most beloved topics to endlessly discuss is the use of electronics in the backcountry. Many feel that the backcountry is the place to NOT have electronics, and they are vocal about these views. However, there are just as many individuals who feel that it’s a personal choice. I’m solidly in the second camp when it comes to electronics. As long as we aren’t changing the experience for anyone else, it’s imperative that we find what works for us individually, and if that means perhaps listening to an audiobook with headphones, then that’s perfectly okay. I love that Wired does what feels right for her, and doesn’t worry about whether or not she should be watching movies in the backcountry. Because you know what? There are no rules. So, I’ll also be experimenting with bringing some fun audio for my quiet evenings.

All this to say: Rationally, I don’t believe that going solo is ultimately going to be as horrible and scary as it sounds. I know parts of it will be, but as with everything, I believe that preparation will be key. My hope is that by August 2016 I’ll have several solo trips under my belt, and come my first day on the trail, to have a few technics to deal with the scary “oh my god, why am I alone in the sierras” feeling I’m sure to have.

Though, let’s be honest, you’re never REALLY alone on the JMT during any given summer. But, I think it’s important for now that I pretend I will.

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