Why I Hike: The Existential Hunger
Deconstructing the Hierarchy of Needs
If weekend backpacking is getting your learner’s permit, then thru hiking is becoming a full-time truck driver. Your very lifestyle – sleeping habits, relationships, community, and diet – all change to fulfill the specific needs you have for that duration. These changed for me first-hand during my 2016 thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I pursued the Canadian border with vigor, all the while with the theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs percolating in the empty spaces of my mind.
My understanding of the hierarchy (or pyramid) of needs is compartmentalized like this: people need their most urgent and animalistic-level needs met before they can address the more idiosyncratic aspects of life. Your physiological needs come first (water, shelter, oxygen, food, etc.) before you can experience love and belonging. Love and belonging are required before developing self identity. So on and so forth.
Obviously society is predicated on some degree of guidelines in order to function, some of which are more obscure than others. Things like insurance, credit, and traffic all need to exist in order to keep the machine well-oiled… but these ideas also detract from the more human aspects of existence.
Here’s the kicker: all of the fluff that makes society work isn’t necessarily required to live a happy life. Thru hiking offers the opportunity to peel back life complications, and boils down to our most basic necessities. How far am I hiking? Where is the next water? When will I sleep tonight? What is for dinner? These questions are now all that matters. Paired with the obvious benefits of exercising outside all day results in a simpler, kinder perspective.
Is this the Real Life? Is this just Fantasy?
I was somewhere in the Sierra on the PCT when a thought dawned on me: when was the last time I looked into a mirror? When was the last time I sat on a cushioned surface? What about a flush toilet? Wifi? These aren’t just luxuries. They’re utilities. I had gone without them for over a month and a half. Strangely… this was the happiest I had ever been.
The life I had experienced up until that point was the way, or so I thought. Commuting during rush hour and maintaining friendships through computer screens were natural parts of life. It took hundreds of miles and countless nights outside for the fledgling realization to push its way to the forefront of my mind: what I took at face value as real life, was not, in fact, real life. It was a fabricated existence made to make our lives more convenient, and in doing so, us more complacent.
These thoughts now had room to grow, my mind vacant of the clutter and worries of a front-country lifestyle. They were planted when I was toiling in the wilderness… a wilderness that was thriving with life. From huckleberries to pikas, marmots to martens, and bears to poodle dog-bush, life existed in the balance out here, seemingly without the help or disruption of humankind. Not far from Belden, CA, I had an encounter with a fawn. What made this baby deer any different from any other animal – say, a calf? If I wanted to eat meat, would I be ok with killing this infant animal by my own volition? Better yet – did I need to do those things to be happy or survive?
The answers were undoubtedly no, and the more I considered the differences between wildlife and domesticated animals, the less different they seemed. My own meat consumption was put into perspective by my proximity to abundant wildlife. I wasn’t willing to kill an animal, so why would I be ok with buying it pre-packaged, faceless, and deboned? Better yet, why did I need to eat meat at all? When I couldn’t think of an answer that was anything less than selfish, I decided to give up eating animals. The result: I still wear down garments and consume egg and dairy, but have otherwise been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for almost 6 years now.
Eating to Live / / Living to Eat
Walking for days on end provides a universal truth: food is fuel. Trail helped me appreciate my diet, and how the foods I was taking into my system would affect my performance. Holding-off from crushing the king sized Snickers bar in my hip belt until the afternoon required discipline. Calculating how many calories I’d need per mile, per day until my next resupply took planning. Finding the best weight for me to maximize my comfort and endurance while averaging 30 miles per day took experience. Simply put: a soggy cheese wrap on trail hits different, not because it is necessarily gourmet, but because I am hungry – not bored. This lesson has made me drastically increase my appreciate in the culinary arts, and inspired my own culinary growth at home.
With all that said, I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t fun and satisfying to eat gratuitous amounts of sweets on trail. Makes the big miles worth it.
Walking the Tightrope
The pandemic has been hard on everybody. I was born into one of the most privileged subsects of humanity, so I have it easier than most, yet the last two years have still been a struggle. Career 9-5 jobs force you into the aforementioned lifestyle that is so the antithesis of that on trail. Sitting behind a computer screen for 40 hours a week has tasted bitter after tasting the sweet life of a thru hiker and outdoor guide for several years. Sure, money provides security and comfort, but it was slowly poisoning my health in other ways.
As my administrative and professional skills waxed significantly, so did my health wane. My body grew soft and my mind grew cynical, resentful, and angry. I enjoy my industry and have absolutely relished the people and opportunities it has given me access to, but my inability to get outside left me feeling like a worse-version of myself. It wasn’t fair to my friends, family, partner, or me.
Lately I’ve come back to the same realization that made me initially take up thru hiking, some 6 years and many thousands of miles ago: life is way too short to do anything but the extraordinary. If I expired tomorrow, would I look back to fond memories of sales I made at work, the car in my garage, or the number in my bank account? No – I daresay I’d look back at the life-changing experiences I lived, and the people who made them special. Failure isn’t a worry of mine. “Success” and “failure” of a thru hike is subjective: what matters is our pursuit of life.
We owe it to ourselves, dear reader, to take that intrepid first step on the less beaten path. So if you can, go thru hike – backpack through Asia – or open up that wild mushroom stand at the farmers market you’ve always dreamed of. It’s the reason I’m going to be pursuing the Continental Divide Trail this summer.
Life ending is a certainty, but living is not. Take it into your own hands. That, is why I hike.