Evolution is a very very slow process. We need only look at ourselves to know how true that is. How long does it take for us to change even the smallest of things—a habit, perhaps? Real change, it seems, requires a patience that does not come naturally to a species whose lifespan is but a fraction of the earth’s.
Some of my favorite freelance articles and posts from past long-distance trails.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Divorce, loss, upheaval, trauma. For as long as there has been wilderness there have been people who seek its healing and its catharsis. Packing with them emotional baggage as heavy as that which rests upon their shoulders, I’ve never counted myself among them—until now.
Open at 5am. That’s what the hand-written sign hanging from the door had promised, though the lady inside insisted it was wrong: they actually open at 4.
The flames dance and flicker to the music of a barely perceptible breeze floating down through the Ponderosa pines. Daylight fades, and the red embers pulse and shimmer.
The Upside of a Pandemic
Every trail has days like today. Hell, the last 4 days. The rest of life is no different. In between the few snapshots worthy of putting on display for anyone who might care to see them, the real work takes place. Quiet. Sweat. Fatigue. Pain. Frustration. Elation. A thousand other qualities, none of which anyone gets to see but us.
Your eyes are not your friend. Well, part of them anyway. The eyes that soak in every shade of the flames of sunrise emanating from the eastern horizon and illuminating Roosevelt Lake far below? That part is telling you the truth. The other part that tells you that lake—the destination of our next resupply tomorrow—doesn’t look so far away? That’s the lying part.
In Search of Sameness
The stars hang motionless, quiet, flecks of salt on an endless piece of black construction paper stretched above our heads. The crickets, less quietly, perform their discordant symphony from a score known only to them. The distant hum of a plane’s jet engine racing across the sky begins as a dull thud, builds to a roar, and disappears behind the mountain.
The morning discovered us in a state now quite familiar: strolling past a shallow depression full of dark brown water. Fine crystals of frost on nearby meadow grasses sparkled in the first rays of sunlight, while those that had been warmed for but a few minutes had already melted into droplets that now weighed heavily on the blades to which they clung.
Bang. Silence. Another bang. The gunshots reporting in the not-so-distance were all the reminder we needed that hunting season was in full effect. Exiting our camp site that was nestled into a cozy thicket of pines, we turned down the trail and passed a succession of pickup trucks, presumably belonging to nearby hunters out stalking their prey on another chilly autumn morning.
Some things—most things—are more than they seem. Hiding in plain sight, things we often attribute a hasty label to and understanding of harbor qualities that make them exceptional. Worthy of greater attention. Of greater appreciation. It’s as true of things as it is of people.
The Grand Staircase
One hundred miles north, far from the banks of the Bright Angel Creek on which we slept, Bryce Canyon National Park sits at the top of a geological feature few will notice. Known as The Grand Staircase, layer upon layer of sedimentary rock stretches from the high elevations of Bryce Canyon all the way to bottom of the Grand Canyon, telling the story of 600 million years of the planet’s history.
When you take your first step off the North Rim and onto the North Kaibab Trail, it is your first step into a different world. Gone are the ponderosa pine, traded for pinyons and eventually catclaw acacia, yucca, and all manner of cacti. The white Kaibab limestone yields to red sandstone which gives way to band upon band of other rock formations of varying colors and textures.
O Coffee, Where Art Thou?
Discombobulated. No, too strong. Confused. Not exactly. “I feel foggy headed,” says Ace, succinctly serving up the answer to my internal question as we sit down at a brief early morning break to remove our wind shirts. The question: what exactly is going on with my brain this morning?
When we had gone to bed, the sun still dominated the sky with only a handful of brave clouds fending for space amid its rays. When we had woken up, everything had changed. What first began with the lightest of drizzles morphed slowly into droplets that sounded a bit more like sleet. By morning, the snow that dusted the ground and our tents told the rest of the night’s story.
Mace said it best when we had reached the crest of Piegan Pass, some 3,000 feet higher than where we’d left our camp this morning, saying: “This is why I do this. It’s places like this that get burned into your mind.” He couldn’t have been more right.
John Muir Would Be Proud
Six weeks ago, as part of a talk titled In the Land of Dust and Fire: Hiking the American West, I mentioned this quote by John Muir which he gave when asked what he thought of hiking: “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike!”
The Trail Itself
What is at the heart of any trail experience? It’s a question I’ve had more time than most to ponder over, the luxury of a charmed life whose privilege is never forgotten. And over many years and many thousands of miles, I’ve come to the realization that the experience of a trail is not about the trail itself, not the thing physically beneath your feet. It’s about where it takes you.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Nostalgia
When I was a kid, I loved geography. Couldn’t get enough of it. Maps, atlases, countries, flags, states, capitals. It was the first way I remember trying to understand the world I was a part of. To learn about my place in that world, and to exercise that childhood curiosity about places I would likely never see with my own two eyes…
One final night came and went, and the stars that had thrust aside the evening clouds dissolved into the gray light of morning. I rolled over and lit the stove for coffee before closing my eyes for a few more minutes thinking how, in spite of this being our last day on trail, it felt no different than any of the others.
The Unfinished Symphony
To walk away now would be madness. Not unlike the mystery behind Franz Schubert’s Eighth Symphony—better known as the Unfinished Symphony—which remained unfinished for reasons that were known only to the composer himself, our own symphony of a CDT thru-hike remains incomplete but only for one more day. 12 more miles and it will be unfinished no more.
In 1953, when playwright Arthur Miller’s seminal work—The Crucible—about the Salem witch trials premiered, its parallels to the ill-conceived anti-communist crusades of Senator McCarthy were obvious. Like the real life protagonists of the McCarthy era hearings, those of The Crucible fight not only for their lives and livelihoods…
Coming down the stairs from our room at the Toaster House, I could smell the coffee that I hadn't even heard Jefferson make while we were packing up. We stood in the kitchen enjoying a cup or two while admiring the convenience of it. No fuel to pour, no pot to fill with water, and nothing to pack up afterwards.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
A Eugene O’Neill play isn't typically the first place one would go to feel uplifted. There's a depth and darkness to the themes he explores, none more so than his semi-autobiographical masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Addiction, despair, depravity, familial dysfunction—it’s all there. And if you were waiting for a Hollywood ending, keep waiting.
It's hard to top hiking in the fall. The heat of summer is a thing of the past, replaced by crisp, cool nights and a kaleidoscope of colored foliage. The rustle of leaves a new sound effect to complement the bugling of elk.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Food. Hot shower. Laundry. Grocery store. An easy hitch, or better yet, no hitch at all. Sounds basic enough, doesn't it? It's a simple recipe for the ideal resupply stop. And yet you'd be surprised by how few stops we make that check even that modest list of boxes.
The Folly of FKTs
The 100-meter dash is not for the slow-footed. It is the domain of the rocket ships of the human race and the winners are bestowed the title of world’s fastest man or woman. One simple question though: Why?
Pancakes, coffee, sausage, eggs, pancakes, hashed browns, and more pancakes. That's the way you kickstart a day of hiking, and our breakfast at Wild Bill’s certainly delivered. I can already picture my own look of ambivalence when faced with tomorrow morning’s breakfast protein bar.
How could it end like this? A day of jaw-dropping scenery reduced to a twilight scramble over a nearly impassable jungle gym of blowdown. But in the interest of not burying the lead let's rewind and get to the good part first.
The Strife We Choose
True story: I haven't showered in 9 days. That’s not real hardship, actually. Had I not stopped to count I wouldn't have given it a second thought. The trees that began to appear strewn across the trail in great piles, however, had the feel of a much more tangible kind of hardship—for the forest, for the dedicated Forest Service personnel tasked with clearing it, and for the trail system itself…
Stone and Smoke
Of all the mountains I've spent time in, two have held a particularly special place: the High Sierra are in my heart, but the Adirondacks of my home are in my blood. What we'd see today had me wondering how much room I would need to make on that list for the Wind River Range.
Come morning, it was the lulls between the wind I noticed most. Only seconds in length, they were still a new feature in the storm that had blanketed our little camp with 6 inches of snow and relentlessly buffeted our tarps with wind throughout the night. They also pointed to the last gasps of the storm as the sun supplanted the clouds even though the temperature had risen at best into the 20s.
The Death of Puritanism
The world is infatuated with purity tests, or so it seems. And right when I fall into the obvious trap of thinking this must be a new phenomenon with blame to be placed squarely on the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, I stop and remember that: 1) almost nothing is new; and 2) being puritanical certainly is not.
Angel from Montgomery
Standing at the kitchen sink, she gazes out into the stifling heat of a Deep South summer’s evening, the fire red sun hanging briefly against a gray sky before dipping to the horizon. A middle-aged woman wondering how another day locked in the same listlessness has come and gone, wondering “is this really all there is?”
A History of PUDs
It's the dirtiest of words out here: PUDs. Pointless Ups and Downs. It behooves you not to complain too much when you've signed up of your own volition to walk from one side of the country to the other, but PUDs are like the proverbial thorn in your side, the pebble in your shoe, the tiny thorn entangled deep in the fibers of your sock that you just can't shake…
This is Where I Leave You
Everyone learns differently. Myself? I've always been more visual than auditory, which made a brief time this morning all the more interesting as I became transfixed by the bugling of the resident elk herd. Unmoved by our presence in their valley last night, we awoke to find them sprawled across the high alpine meadows just beneath the Divide, happily grazing away and calling to one another.
The Legacy of Water
Its fingerprints are all around us. The lingering patches of snow that still cling to the coolest of high alpine corners. The lifeblood of the thick carpet of tundra-thriving grasses, bold enough to color such a forbidding landscape with their flowering blooms. Even the glaciers that long ago sculpted the waves of stone we've called home for these past 6 weeks.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Hike your own hike. It's a mantra you hear often on nearly any long distance trail. In real world terms, its meaning is simple: you do you. Hike at your pace, linger when you want to, and take the detours that most captivate your sense of adventure. Answer to no one’s whims but your own.
You're Not Special (and Neither am I)
Armed with a new spoon at last, I am ready for anything. “Why did it take so long?,” you might ask. Remember that box that didn't arrive in time to Grand Lake? Well, it turns out that it was there all along and the best we could do is forward it to our last town stop in Frisco, serving only to heighten the anticipation.
In August 1914, with the world peering into the void of what would become the First World War, a wooden ship unique among all but one set sail from Plymouth, England bound for Antarctica. Apart from its cousin ship, Fram, no other wooden ship had been built—or has been since—with such attention given to strength and the ability to withstand the crushing power of an Antarctic winter’s ice floes.
The mountain pine beetle likely has no conception of its impact on the landscape. No larger than a grain of rice, it proves the adage that even very small things can pack an incredibly big punch. Unfortunately for Colorado forests, that punch has been right to the gut of millions of acres of lodgepole pines.