We all know what 2020 did to us as a long-distance backpacking community. To write anything else about it would just be reiterating that I had a Big Sad and felt like I was losing part of my identity when I canceled my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike. As I decided not to wade into the dumpster fire of 2021 PCT permits, I ended up feeling disconnected from my world of backpacking.
Backpacking has long played a multi-faceted role in my life. I initially fell in love with it before I learned how to do anything else outdoors. Backpacking came before climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, and hunting. It was my first experience in the backcountry, made even more special as a connection point for my father and myself.
I turned backpacking into a career in outdoor media, writing about my experience on the Appalachian Trail and using that momentum to springboard into an editorial job in the outdoor industry.
Backpacking has also been a way for me to get back in shape after long periods of low physical activity. Commit to a 200-mile thru-hike, and in 10 to14 days, you’re back in shape. It’s the best get-fit-quick scheme out there.
With all this, backpacking’s role in my life has taken on what amounts to identity-building pressure. I had vague plans to do one thru-hike in each season in 2021, which I figured would get me back in the game. Then job opportunities, travel, and pet care snowballed into plan after plan falling by the wayside, until we were halfway into the year, and the subject matter of my writing was something I hadn’t really done for the past seven months.
I lost my full-time editorial job this past year, which meant fully relying on writing. It’s one thing to be editing other people’s backpacking writing, and another to be responsible for all the content creation. With a dozen clients and at least five articles, essays, and posts per week, I was churning out writing at an unsustainable level. I’d gotten wedged into a narrow niche of backpacking content, and though I tried to broaden the subject, my experience and portfolio were centered around backpacking.
I never resented the idea of backpacking, but my workload meant I didn’t have much time to go out and actually do it. And let’s be real: if you’re focusing entirely on something for work, it does, in some ways, become less appealing.
I stopped thinking about my backpacking trips as escapes, and more about what gear I’d be testing on each trip, if I had assignments I could fit into the slot, what essays I could write from the experience.
Then, in late spring, things in life got hard. Life is full of cycles, and sometimes those cycles are less like an even-keeled rotation and more like the spin cycle on a particularly aggressive washing machine.
My one thru-hike in each season wasn’t happening, but one of my summer trail ideas had been the Colorado Trail. With my life upheavals, even that notion had been flung so far onto the back burner it wasn’t even on the stove. I had a one-way ticket purchased to the east coast, no idea what I was doing after, and a general feeling of aimlessness. I figured I’d return to Montana, arrange a major house repair, and finally try to perform life-saving surgery on my weed-infested lawn. You know, whatever fun things await tired adults.
On one particularly rough afternoon, I was sitting alone in my house with my cat. I clicked out of a dismal Twitter-hole and impulsively looked up flights from Boston to Denver. They were really expensive. I closed the window, ate an entire bag of mini marshmallows, and stared at a blank document that was supposed to be an article until my computer went into sleep mode.
What I was feeling was professional burnout combined with challenging life changes. But nothing was going to change by sitting on my couch feeling sad, so I opened the flight window again, cringed at the prices, and booked a ticket to Denver.
Impulsively committing to the Colorado Trail was partially from an understood need for change, partially from instinct. When I’ve felt this aimless in the past, backpacking has helped me through it. It provides a chance to clear my head in beautiful places and a singular goal.
When I booked the flight, I wasn’t thinking about what I’d write about the trail, how it would fit into my career, or the fact that I’d be forced to get back in shape. All of those things are valid, but at that moment, I just knew I wanted to be on a trail.
While I love backpacking for its purity, it has also been a job, a fitness boost, and a way to stay relevant within a community. Sometimes all at once.
That’s why this final snap decision to hike the Colorado Trail was so meaningful. All of those other elements faded into the background. I’d been feeling like I’d forgotten the reason I started backpacking, and the core of why I continue to get drawn in. That’s the truth of what backpacking means to me.
I have a friend who’s finally back on trail after nearly two years off. She grappled with her relationship with long-distance backpacking, and has decided after she finishes this PCT section to complete her 2019 thru-hike, she’s done with “life-altering long hikes.”
Despite uncertainties about her relationship with thru-hiking, she texted me the other day from the trail. “All of those thoughts faded once I got back on the trail. It feels comfortable…maybe too comfortable.”
Hiking the Colorado Trail feels like the right decision. I trust the gut feeling that led me to buy the flight to Denver regardless of my other responsibilities and the logistical hassle of figuring out this hike with barely two weeks to plan. Sometimes you just have to go with it.
I haven’t set foot on a long-distance trail since last fall, and I am woefully out of shape, despite having no excuse besides general malaise. The Colorado Trail will be a kick in the pants, but the fact that in one of my more challenging moments I instinctively committed to it speaks volumes.
I might have a more career-dependent relationship with backpacking than other people out there, but understanding that I return to the trail time and time again for a reset, clarity, and the connection tells me all I need to know.
Backpacking can be a lot of things. When you’ve done something for so long and it has such an intrinsic place in your life, it’s impossible for it to fit neatly into one category. The Colorado Trail will be a much-needed break from my routine – 486 miles of head-clearing thru-hiking. It will also contribute to plenty of future articles, and I’m definitely using it to get in shape quickly. None of these elements diminish the experience, and while I still am understanding my relationship to backpacking, I have a solid month of the activity to figure it out.
DISCLOSURE (Updated November 7, 2019)
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