Total Miles: 2346.4
There's an expression in sports, embraced by coaches and players alike, that can start to sound rehearsed, robotic even, if you listen to enough postgame press conferences: “It's a process. Trust the process.” Pick your favorite sport, collegiate or professional, and there's bound to be no shortage of coaches among its ranks that preach an emphasis on “the process.”
The idea is a simple one. Much of what athletes are trying to accomplish requires equal doses of sustained commitment and focus, and the best way to ensure that is to remove from the psyche any thought of the finish line. It's a method of keeping the mind in the present. Anything bigger than that becomes a self-defeating prophecy that undercuts the chances of success. Or so the thinking goes.
The season of any major sport is long, a marathon of marathons where it pays to focus on the here and now and nothing more. Remove the competitive aspect—and increase the number of marathons to roughly 100–and voila, you have yourself a perfect parallel to thru-hiking a long trail.
Big things are often too big for our brains and bodies to be successful at, which is where the the idea behind “the process” comes in. No one can successfully motivate themselves to hike across the country by continually dangling the carrot of the impossibly distant border in their minds day after day after day. Instead, we break it into successively smaller distances and milestones that do seem attainable. The next town stop, the next climb, the next water source, the next snack. Taken as a whole, they are merely a set of motions that need to be repeated over and over again until the goal materializes before you even have a chance to realize how it has managed to magically appear right in front of you. That's “the process.”
We’ve been living that process for four and a half months now, trusting that it will ultimately lead us all the way to the trail’s end. And when dawn came today, the calendar having turned to the month of November, we realized for the first time how soon that process would make good on its promise. Less than a week from today, there will be no more steps to take and no more trail to follow.
It starts to dawn on me most clearly when I realize that I'm at the beginning of a series of “lasts”. The last zero day, the last town stop, the last (fill in a day of the week), the last night in a tent. Before long, the string of “lasts” will multiply into an avalanche before coming to an abrupt end.
As we climbed ever higher to kiss 8,000 feet for the final time, the higher slopes of Burro Peak opened into a beautiful Ponderosa forest with a thickly covered floor of needles. When we rounded the summit and paused to watch a small tarantula move gracefully along the trail, I looked back at the pines that were about to retreat from our view in a matter of minutes. This would be today’s “last”: the last time we'll likely see such a forest of lovely trees on this trail.
Down to the desert floor we went to join the legions of juniper and cacti carpeting the rolling flatlands that will take us the rest of the way. With the upcoming miles as dry as you might expect, our friend Dean was kind enough to drive out from Silver City and cache a couple gallons of water that will be our final source for the next 30 miles until the town of Lordsburg.
Walking away with our load of water, my brain struggled to accept the now early fading light, courtesy of the end of daylight saving time. The sun began to melt into the horizon, soon to be replaced by an almost equally bright moon. Beneath the boughs of a giant alligator juniper, moonlight shadows spill from every bush and plant that I can see from the door of the tent. Not the last time I'll enjoy that sight on this trail, but it will be soon.