Discovering Your True Path
Through Long Distance Hiking

An essay written by Wayfaring Bern
(reprinted here with his kind permission)

We all have our choices to do what feels right from moment to moment in the paths we take in our everyday lives. However, we can also find ourselves lost without even knowing what direction to take. If you find your Self as one of these unfortunate or even fortunate souls, a stroll through nature may be what you are looking for to clear and open your mind to see the hidden roads that lie before you. Therefore, it may be time to embark on some meaningful and mystical journey that is to help shape and redefine your life forever to come. But where do you start? How can this be achieved? Which adventure will lead you to the insights that you seek and desire? Perhaps your answers may be revealed somewhere within the Triple Crown of long distance hiking.

Appalachian Trail
If hiking and camping is something completely foreign and new to your mind and body, then the perfect walk in the woods may be the first of the three national scenic trails of the Triple Crown. Imagine deciduous forest terrain for as far as the eyes can see on the backbone of the east coast, and you will likely find your self hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. This 2,174 mile classic pilgrimage will introduce you to a world and culture that will change the essence of your very being and how you perceive the world around you. With as few or as many as 3000 people beginning the trail from all walks of life and from around the globe, you will find your Self perpetuously entertained with every step you take. Even though you may be walking daily amongst hundreds of newly found friends, not one will be experiencing the trail in the same way you do. Before you will lie the very psyche of American culture splitting at its seams with a cross section of personalities that will make you laugh or may make you cry. No camping experience is truly even required. Everything you need to know is before you. Just call out for help and a multitude of voices will show you their ways, their differing gear, and how they journey one step at a time. Some hikers don't even bother to bring tents anymore since three-sided shelters can usually be found every few miles. Re-supply points and crossroads are frequent, and there are chances for showers at competing hostels where the aching body can repair its blistered feet.

Even though this may be a wonderful beginner's trail for those of you carrying training wheels, this is not to say that the Appalachian trail is an easy trail to trek. Instead, it is an intensive journey that will make you truly feel your body for the first time. The trail is fashioned in a way to make you work for every step you take. Switchbacks seem to have been omitted from the designers vocabulary. There is no skirting or contouring of these tiny mountains of two to six thousand feet. There's only straight up and straight down, where even your hands get some of the action that your feet are receiving. By the time the bulk of the crowd reaches North Carolina and Virginia, the herd has thinned its' self out. At this point, the leaves from the millions of trees now begin to unfold, and flowers begin to bloom as Nature awakens around you. In some ways you begin to awaken as your walking meditation takes you into the heart of summer. Some of your fears begin to dissipate just as new ones begin to surface. You find your self flowing in 90 and 100 degree temperatures and profusely sweating in one hundred percent humidity throughout Pennsylvania and New York. Mosquitoes and biting flies become your newest companions as you work your way over slick and glacially polished rocks. This rocky and wooded deciduous terrain finally begins to open up in New England, and stunning views of infinity captures your heart and soul. Conifer trees now dominate as Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire make their impressions upon your waking subconscious. Instead of fighting with Nature you may have learned by now to give in and flow with Nature. Your mind begins to quiet down and you find yourself in the best shape of your entire life. Finally, you pull your way up the final mountain to the top of Katadin in Maine with tears in your eyes, and you ask your Self, "What's Next? Where do I go from here?" The possibilities may now seem endless.

Pacific Crest Trail
However, perhaps within You lies a desire for a deeper challenge to test your Spirit. On the opposite side of North America there exists the quite often second leg of the Triple Crown hiking Odyssey. Known as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, this route takes you into the core of nature. Beginning at the border with Mexico in April with as many as 200 other adventure seekers, long distance hikers quest to hike 2,700 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington States to Manning Park in British Columbia. The first hurdle of the mind is to overcome the lack of water through the deserts and chaparral country of southern California. The distance between watering holes almost dictates the need to hike twenty plus miles a day compared to the five and ten mile days that Appalachian Trail hikers tend to produce in Georgia. Also, the distances between re-supply towns tend to be greater than those on the Appalachian Trail. Therefore, great consideration is given to how much your pack weighs since you are limited by time and may be loading yourself down with up to eight additional pounds of water. One quickly learns to bring only what is essential and to let go of the things hikers tend to think they need to comfortably survive. Experienced hikers may consider purchasing a two to three pound pack instead of an eight pound pack. Ounces and even pounds are cut from all items where a base weight of 12 pounds can be achieved instead of the normal 40 to 50 pounds many hikers tend to want to carry. Basically, a complete overhaul of how we operate and think in the outdoors can potentially be achieved where even a long distance hiker becomes comfortable enough to leave the tent at home. Instead of hiding from nature in our enclosed shelters at night, we start to live within nature with the stars blanketing our souls. A twelve ounce silicon impregnated nylon tarp may become your only shelter from the more adverse elements you may encounter. The twenty to thirty pound pack with 4 to 7 days of food now feels like a part of the body which is to be treated with respect, and not held in contempt for being overweight. When one hikes light weight, one flows with the terrain as it constantly changes and transitions from one ecological zone to another.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, one rolls continuously on a wave from the dry lower lands to the higher pine tree forests till one reaches the towering snow capped Sierra Nevada's in June. The newest challenge lies with route finding, especially during the heavy winter snow years. A thru-hiker may find themselves hiking for three to five miles in deep snow till they reach their eleven to thirteen thousand foot pass to enter a new drainage as they play hide and seek with the hidden trail. Melting snow even becomes a hazardous obstacle creating swollen streams, creeks, and rivers. One's shoes may even stay wet for weeks. Road crossings are infrequent, and one senses they are removed from the umbilical cord of society. Singing birds, spooked elk, grazing deer, and meandering bears may be the only companions you see for days on end. There essentially becomes too much time to think, so in defense, one learns not to think and to just pay attention to the beauty that surrounds you. One learns to never fight, just to surrender and merge the self into the web that includes all things.

Soon, the fourth of July is at hand with the major remote and snow covered wilderness areas to the south behind you. Both wildflowers and the general public now begin to sprout and bloom throughout the mountains ready for the world to pollinate them. Your training and challenges have ended, and your Self and the trail transforms and connects the dots between towering volcanic cones littering the skyscape. Your legs stretch out and you glide your way with ease and grace through Oregon at 35 miles a day seemingly obstacle free. Nothing can now stop you as you leap over the Columbia River and into Washington State. Life is nothing but beautiful. Traversing the Mountaintops of the North Cascades you feel as if you reached the pinnacle of the transcendental experience. There are no more hardships and no more worries. There is only the realization that you wouldn't want to be anywhere else on earth. This is the Pacific Crest Trail. This is Heaven.

Continental Divide Trail
The third and most seldom used trail of the Triple Crown is the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Known to the world as "the King of Trails," it stretches its way through the realm of the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Montana. This 3000 mile epic challenge essentially tests the essence of who you are. Mental attachments and ideals of how a trail should be, must be left at the Mexican border. Trail is not even the appropriate word for this wondrous monstrosity. In actuality, it is a route of paved and unpaved roads linking up to established trails throughout its' length to Canada. Only about twenty hearty souls set out to complete this incomplete maze of mischief each year. If an army of a thousand hikers were to forge this journey, not one would find themselves following the same footsteps of another.

New Mexico, like southern California, begins the quest with thirst and dry heat as its' executor. Four liters of water keep you hydrated between picturesque windmills crowded with the trails most abundant inhabitant, the bovine. Where there are cows, there is the liquid of life. The more appropriately named Continental Cow Trail begins weaving its way through the traffic on the hard pavement of highways. This challenges the mind immediately with what our conception and definition of a trail actually is. Roadways then alternate with dirt roads of which at least fifty percent of the trail follows. Finding actual hiking trails in New Mexico brings a sense of relief and joy to the body and mind. The body itself becomes a finely tuned machine. You may begin to sense how many miles you have traveled since your last meal, not by merely observing the position of the sun, but by the feeling that it is time to refuel your stomach once again. The body may even trim five to fifty pounds of muscle and fat along the length of your hike.

Even more energy is needed in the 12,000 foot snow capped peaks that tower over the state border in Colorado. The San Juan Mountains may have snow lingering till the end of June. Snow Shoes may be the newest appendage to your body. There are mountains as far as the eyes can see and you have the choice as to where you want to venture without really knowing where the trail actually is beneath your feet. The true journey along the Continental Divide actually lies in losing the official trail, and how you deal with the situation that you find before you. Time and again a thru-hiker will choose the wrong junction or will just run out of treaded ground. Frustration is inevitable. Rage, sorrow, and even tears emerge from feeling a loss of control. But the wisdom learned doesn't come from ever being in control of your journey. The wisdom found comes from letting go of your expectations. When the trail disappears, you must realize that you will eventually find it again. No matter where you are you will know this is your true path. There are always unexpected detours in life, and they themselves provide the valuable lessons we need to learn from.

The trail transitions yet again in Wyoming and instead of losing heat to your surroundings, your surroundings begin to overheat you in a treeless high desert. Amazingly, cows, pronghorn antelope, badgers, and even wild horses thrive in this arid land they call home. A thru-hiker learns to live with as little water as possible through this section, because the water sources are typically dung infested reservoirs, at times, with decaying carcasses at the waters edge. These type of extremes that the trail provides makes living and traveling in ideal conditions or in the middle ground of life a pleasurable ease. The sub-alpine and alpine mountains of northern Wyoming then becomes a hop, skip, and a jump to Montana and Idaho. You flow as if floating on a breeze. Thunderstorms explode above and all around you. Winds do their best to push you off of the narrow ridge tops. Signs mislead you in their directions. Even early snowfall blankets the world around you. But all that just doesn't matter anymore. You've been through the worst and the best of it all. It all just is what it is, and you are there to experience it all in its' completeness. And as a farewell gift to you, you are greeted by a Grizzly Bear protecting her two cubs as you approach the Canadian border in Glacier National Park.

Beyond the Trail
In hiking long distance trails, one eventually learns that no matter what path we may choose, it will always take us somewhere. Just because the Appalachian Trail ends in Baxter State Park, the Pacific Crest Trail ends in Manning Park, and the Continental Divide Trail ends at the border with Waterton National Park in Canada, it doesn't mean the trail is finished. If it were finished you would be just as lost as when you began your journey. Taking a long hike through nature can in fact break the shackles of your mind, leaving behind the expectations and attachments to how we think things should be in everyday life for us. Having truly learned to walk for the first time, you realize that you can do anything right now and anywhere. The grass is never truly greener on the other side of the rainbow. You will just take one step after another till the end of time where knowledge expressed through action will provide the wisdom to take you down any path in life. What the Triple Crown of long distance hiking can instill within your spirit is the desire to live life to the fullest. One conscious and aware moment leads to the next and you will always find that you are where you are for a reason. So smile and wake up, and choose your continuous trails in life wisely.

--wayfaring bern