While hiking and presenting we get asked a lot of questions about trekking, the trail, our gear, and our experiences walking across Canada on The Great Trail. The range of questions has always amazed me.
The one most frequently asked has been what is the largest challenge you face on the trail? Is it the weather? Walking through freezing cold rain and trekking amid +50 degree humidity and heat? Is it the trail conditions which can vary from the pristine cycling routes of PEI, to the rugged coastlines of the East Coast Trail, the Fundy Footpath and Casque Isles, to the side of the Trans Canada Highway? Is it the wildlife? Or perhaps it is waking up to find that a rodent has eaten through the side of your backpack, or finding two black bears snuggled outside of your tent? Is it the rare occasion that you meet ornery and unwelcoming people? Or perhaps it is the dangers you meet along the way? Such as breaking your toe on the second day of the East Coast Trail or being hit by flying debris on the side of the roadway in Northern Ontario?
The fact is however, that all of these challenges fall into the same category - the unplanned and uncontrollable.
As it is in life, the unexpected is one of the hardest things to prepare for and contend with on the trail.
There are those who have written to us declaring that we are simply bad at hiking, and are poor planners for encountering anything that is unexpected. We regularly get people informing us of what piece of equipment or gear we should have been carrying or should have on us to deal with unexpected issues. And we have received countless emails informing us that ‘only fools’ would go on a hike without planning everything. However if we were to follow everyone’s advice we would each have 300 lbs in our backpacks and still be in our first province. The simple fact is that when you are bound by weight limitations and travelling 24,000 km over the course of 4 or 5 years across the second largest country in the world means that you can prepare for things but you can’t carry gear for every eventuality and you can’t conceivably account for every potential circumstance.
Certainly you strive to be prepared, you abide by common sense, you trust in your own experiences, and you hike on confident in your own abilities and with awareness of your own limitations. Ultimately however, you hope for the best, prepare for the worst and pray that if anything else arises you can either deal with it or survive it. Weather can be planned for, variable trail conditions can be navigated, wildlife can be managed, and people are generally better than we all think but the unexpected is well…..unexpected.
Long distance hikers will tell you that, barring catastrophe, at a certain point any trek ceases to be a physical challenge and becomes more of a mental test – often with yourself. Time and again we have met people who have ventured 25 days on the Camino or more than 150 days days on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Coast Trail who have simply stopped trekking. They have stopped, not because they couldn’t complete the path, but because it was no longer “for them”. The stopped not because the trail was too tough but because the mental conditions for their hike had changed. Perhaps they found what they needed, perhaps the trail no longer called to them, perhaps they simply no longer had the internal drive to continue on. The list is endless and personal for each hiker.
We can relate to this as every time we go trekking the first four days are a physical slog of discomfort and pain. No amount of training changes this for us. If our continuing on any trail is ever in doubt it is certainly during these first few days. It has happened on the Bruce Trail, the Camino de Santiago, East Coast Trail, and the Great Trail (at the start of every year). However at a certain point, about the time you think you can’t take it anymore things begin to get better and eventually, one day, you realize that you are strolling down the trail and have forgotten about the soreness of your feet, the pain in your knees, or the weight of your backpack and are just out there. From this point forward, much of the hike is about enjoying the moment, taking in the wonders of the world, and working through the stuff you are carrying inside. John Muir said it best when he noted that “for going out, I found, was really going in.”
It is this part of the hike, composed of the mental struggles and internal debates, that are the largest obstacles for me. Past frustrations that remain unresolved, friends lost to the twists of life, and moments I wish I could take back or change haunt me as I walk.
Beyond even these things however, the largest challenge I face on the Great Trail has been, and continues to be, my own expectations. Regularly on the trail I struggle to accept situations and moments for what they are rather than what I hope them to be.
For instance, if I am expecting good trail conditions and that isn’t the case. If I am hoping to photograph a certain landscape, sunrise/sunset, or bird and it doesn’t happen. If good weather is predicted and it rains or snows. If we have planned for a specific number of kilometers only to eventually need to walk two or three times as far on given day. If we expect to stop and camp in a campground or stay overnight in a motel and it doesn’t happen. If I am hoping for and expecting a shower, or to simply get cleaned up and launder clothes and it doesn’t happen. If we need to resupply and can’t. Etc, etc, etc….
Each of these are instances which, for me, can easily transform what is otherwise a beautiful day with its own unique possibilities into one which is almost unbearable. While none of this represents any sort of real problem in the wider scope of the trail, for me, each example reflects what I find to be the largest challenge while hiking. I hold onto my own expectations to the detriment of enjoying the moment.
It is an odd thing; our own expectations determine so much of our experiences in life. If you expect bad weather conditions then you are mentally ok with it, but if you expect a pleasant day and it rains or snows unexpectedly the day can quickly turn into a slog. It is when you expect rather than accept, when days don’t go as planned, it becomes really challenging to stay positive and keep moving forward.
For me, the really challenging days on the trail are not those in which you have to ford an ice cold river, navigate through a marsh, trek around a road closure, or climb a rope ladder with a backpack on. The challenging days are the result of my own expectations of what I had anticipated of the moment. Hopes give way to frustrations and disappointments – each of which are of my own making.
This situation is particularly annoying as I travel with someone (Sonya) who is simply out there trekking. Regularly she is in the moment, taking in the natural beauty of the world around her, seeing the world as it is and not as she expects it to be and as a result she has a wonderful time on the trail regardless of the circumstances. I envy this in her, and have on those rare occasions also been able to trek without my head getting in the way - but mostly I am out there over thinking and over expecting.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest I am thinking deep or profound thoughts. (Anyone who knows me knows that this is certainly not the case, as I am more comparable to Winnie the Pooh or Eeyore than a philosopher.) It is just that I am working my own things out and struggling to see that those things that are very much in the way of me appreciating the experience that I am in the middle of are of my own making. Each day I continue to try to ‘accept rather than expect’.
As creatures we are an odd species. Few people seem happy just where they are with what they have. When at home we want to travel. When travelling we are often thinking of projects to finish at home. When at a desk we want to go on adventures, yet when caught in the uncertain and unexpected on the trail we want the certainty of our daily routines. If it is hot out we want rain, if it is raining we want warmth. We want warmer temperatures or cooler ones. Less forest, more forest, a more defined trail, a less busy path. Yet amid all of this, often when we arrive into the next region or onto the next section of trail which frequently has just what we had been wanting days beforehand, we find that there is something else missing. We expect and critique rather than accept.
The result is that we often trek these pathways several times. First while planning and preparing, then when on foot, our bikes, or when paddling, then in our minds while writing the blog and editing pictures, and later on when revising entries for publication. In each of these moments the trail is something different, and with each step what we expect and how we see a region changes. Our appreciation for tough days grows. We see the beauty in a moment that we pushed through months after being there. A stretch of trail that was too wet while trekking is later seen in our minds eye as lush, a region that was hard to navigate becomes well forested and shaded, and areas that are too rural and lacking in amenities become bastions of freedom and wilderness when viewed on a laptop sitting in the centre of a large city. The tough days and the challenging hikes all become better and better with time.
Only the lucky few appreciate the pathways of life in the moment they are on them.
Yet the simple fact is that, even a bad day on the trail is better than the best day at a desk.