Total Miles: 1505.1
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, the footprints of users now dispersing onto previously untrammeled and fragile terrain.
A mere handful of miles away from our much awaited next town stop in Pinedale, Wyoming, the juxtaposition of my own perceived hardship of personal cleanliness and the real hardship surrounding me on the trail got me thinking about a text from our friend Susannah that she had sent in our last town stop. Buried in my long-winded answers to Ace’s recent on-trail interview of me, there was this:
“By thru-hiking, I’ve gained perspective about what adversity is and I’ve gained the ability over time to separate real strife from imagined strife.”
Her request was a simple one, to unpack that idea of separating real from imagined strife in a future post. Susannah, this one's for you...
I have a lot to be thankful for and very little to rightfully complain about in life. For starters, as a white, straight, male I'm kind of batting a thousand in the sweepstakes of life advantages. Yup, mine has been a life of white privilege, personified almost perfectly. Even when I think back on the things that I would've opened my mouth or my mind to voice some sense of strife about, I cringe a little. Not the strife of losing a job due to Covid without knowing where the next meal is coming from; not being diagnosed with a terminal disease; not living a life of unfettered racial persecution; not the death of a loved one.
No, my daily perceptions of “strife” would have been far more trivial: inconvenience and frustration masquerading as actual hardship, small mental prisons of my own creation. And how exactly did I create them? The same way we all tend to: by ignoring that so much of the “strife” I find myself voicing is merely the direct result of a conscious choice I had made somewhere along the way. Frustrated by work stealing time from my life? Guess who chose that job. Wishing I had more money saved in the bank to retire early (very, very early)? Guess who decided to buy that house, that car. If I'm honest, so much of the “strife” I saw wasn't strife at all, but discomfort with some consequence of my past decisions. But as my wise friend Sarah loves to say: “You order it, you eat it.”
Which led me to my first realization: it can't be strife if I've chosen it. Take this hike, for example, or the recent winter storm we had to persevere through. Yes, it's uncomfortable and yes, there's a very real aspect of you-versus-the-elements that could easily veer into a ditch and feel awfully close to real strife. And then I remember one all important detail: I signed up for this. Short of a serious injury, there's no real hardship to be found out here.
Would I have preferred to be warm and cozy in a bed somewhere that night? Of course. Which brings me to realization number two: what we deem to be strife is so often simply the death of preference. A preference to have been home in my bed that night. A preference to have showered more than once in the last 9 days. A preference to have worked less and spent more time with Ace in the years leading up to this hike. A preference to have seen far more of my friends and family than I have. All preferences that have died on the altar of my own decisions.
That doesn't mean it feels good—far from it. But there's comfort in knowing that if my imagined hardships are a product of my own making, then there must also be freedom in realizing the consequence of that logic: that new decisions can reverse them, revealing new, more tolerable versions of imagined hardship beneath.
In the end, all roads lead to gratitude when you realize you've been confusing the imaginary kind of strife with the real kind, and that life, by and large, is pretty damned good—a claim that far too few of us would openly make.
What are we grateful for today? For the incredible toil of the Forest Service to tame a sea of blowdown just so we could have the luxury of walking easily over open trail. For the kindness of strangers-turned-friends, Maciek and Lieke, for never batting an eyelash at our ask for a ride into town that turned into a lunch date together. And for a shower. A very long, hot shower.