The last few months have been, let’s say, interesting.
I got back from my hike on the John Muir Trail at the end of August. It was a good, albeit really hard, hike, about 200 miles and almost a month long. I doubt I will ever underestimate again the impact that elevation has when one is trying to walk, hike, climb or just move. It’s a whole different ballgame.
When I got back — just like when I returned from my Appalachian Trail hike — I figured I would just jump right back into reality. In both cases that was how it went — for a very short while. Then, reality’s smiling face gave me a quick poke in the ribs, reminding me that, yep, life on the trail is way different from life off it.
On the John Muir, I was without cell service most of the time. That trail is remote. Almost every night initially I had panic attacks — something that I have never had in my life — thinking about “what if.” On that trail if something happens you are almost always roughly 15 to 25 miles away from a paved road or anything resembling civilization. And those 15-20 miles are hard miles. No phone calls for help. No ambulances coming to get you. No law. Just you, the other hikers and unforgiving mountains.
About two weeks after returning to Alpharetta, I realized something was different, something subtle. Then it dawned on me; I felt unhealthy.
I could feel it in how I moved. I could smell it when I sweated — it was different. And I could feel the difference from one day to the next. Each day I felt incrementally less well. Once I realized what this feeling was I started thinking about it.
Part of the cause was not rocket science. I was not eating healthy back home. On the trail my nourishment was basic, but it was consistent and it was healthy — lots of water, protein and fiber meal replacement, lots of peanut butter, nuts, and raisins — no sugar, no processed food, no ice cream, no sodas, no fast food. On the trail I stayed hungry but it was a healthy hungry and my body felt like it was burning all the calories it had access to and leaving an empty but healthy engine waiting for more fuel.
The second issue I instantly recognized was that I was not exercising, again — just like after I returned from the AT. I didn’t exercise for about two years after completing the AT. Why? Mostly because of a general weakness of internal fortitude and character combined with hikers “post-trail depression” — something I think is very real and that most long distance hikers experience.
Neither reason was an acceptable excuse to me. I have always believed that we are in charge with how our lives go — at least most of the time.
The third culprit that was sinking my post-trail life I realized was a six letter word — “stress” — largely self-induced.
Of the three, I believe the last one is by far the most debilitating, and it is linked to and to a degree regulated by how one manages the first two — nutrition and exercise.
Stress is possibly the most toxic disease human beings face. I am sure that it is directly linked to most if not all of the big killers — heart disease, cancer, diabetes and more. The stress I felt off the trail, now in hindsight, I realize was multiple times greater than how I felt out there hiking. The difference in stress was like a hard slap in the face with an ice-cold towel.
Life on the trail for any length of time removes one from almost everything that constitutes “modern life” and “civilization.” Your day goes from driving in traffic, answering and making phone calls, catching news reports about how our lives and values are imploding and how limited our power is to do anything about it, to life on the trail which involves only five things — hiking, eating, finding water, setting up camp and sleeping.
Period. Nothing more. Nothing.
While this probably sounds defeatist, I maintain I have always seen the glass half full. I will always see opportunity in any situation and believe that the bad stuff, if you have faith, patience, and strength, always passes and the sunrise will be beautiful, nourishing, and redeeming.
It’s just that I suspect it is very hard to see how screwed up our modern life has become if one has not been able to step away from it — far enough away — to put it in perspective.
Vacations usually don’t take us away from the worst of it. Until we park most of our modern day stressors on the side of the road, it is almost impossible to see the color of the poison we try to live in each day.
On the trail one of the mantras has always been to “hike your own hike,” and I feel sure that applies to our lives off the trail. We’re all different.
So, what I need to do — again — is reengineer how I live. It will start simply; I will again be at the YMCA at 4:45 in the morning most mornings waiting for them to open at 5:00 a.m., and not leave until around 6:30, close to exhausted but an empty and clean exhausted.
I will also get my running shoes on again and get back to the backboard with my tennis racquet. That is step one.
Once I get that down, it causes me to self-correct and move onto steps two and three. It’s a chain reaction. The health/exercise and the nutrition steps will be by far the easiest ones.
Neutralizing or eliminating stress — much of it caused by the internet and modern forms of communication — will be much more of a challenge. I know I have the ability and shall eventually get back to this better place — a healthier place, a more sustainable one.
I have seen what our lives used to be like before we were overwhelmed by the pace and demands of modern life, and I have, for a few short amounts of time, lived that life.
It’s worth the hard work to go back to it. It is.