In 2017, suicidal and depressed, I dropped out of Cornell University to hike Patagonia and the Pacific Crest Trail. I walked the 2,000-plus miles alone. This is what I learned along the way.
Somewhere around week two or three on the PCT, I took notice of two rivaling philosophical camps: “smiles before miles,” and “miles before smiles.”
“Smiles before miles” thought having fun was more important than logging miles. They preferred jumping in lakes and hanging out in town to powering out the distance. They enjoyed the good things in life, like admiring mountain views, and chowing down on pizza – then eating more pizza. They weren’t too keen on the “miles before smiles” lifestyle. Those people pushed past the views and missed out on the moment. I think the laidback crowd secretly felt inferior about not “accomplishing” as much, as if they didn’t have the athletic prowess or psychological drive to throw down 25-mile days.
”Miles before smiles,” on the other hand, had a macho flavor. Crushing miles was their duty. They wanted to conquer the mountains, tame nature and overcome the limitations of their bodies. They seemed to think themselves superior to the others, and internally they’d sneer at the laziness of the “smiles” group.
I rolled into a cafe in Julian on my fourth day out. A bunch of guys fanned themselves under a canopy, drinking ice water and comparing the day’s mileage. “I did 23,” one said. “Well, I did 25,” said another.
“I did 27,” I said, staring them in the eyes.
Maybe I was kind of macho, too.
Once I got to the Sierras, I made friends with two guys who were very much in the “smiles” camp. They were both strong hikers, but they just wanted to enjoy themselves. They’d poke fun at each other, and they cracked me up all the time. We jumped into every pristine lake we could. It was fun, and we smiled a lot, but there was something in my gut that pulled when I wasn’t making the daily distance goals I’d set.
As the hike continued, I noticed a third, more periphery style. I called these rare specimen “miles with smiles.”
These hikers were often seasoned. They might have 5,000 or 10,000 miles under their belts, and they sported the tiny cottage-manufacturer packs that were designed for thru-hiking. They would regularly do 30 to 35 miles a day without breaking a sweat.
The “miles and smiles” hikers didn’t seem to muscle their way along the trail. They would simply float along and become one with the mountains. They ate while they walked, mega bags of chips in hand, soaking in the views with big, blissed-out smiles on their faces.
This was where I belonged.
I observed their behavior and took quiet notes in my trail journal. I examined increasingly large grouls, and I began to realize that the “miles before smiles” folks were striving, doing, and becoming.The “miles with smiles” group was more about being.
Miles with smiles was not about pushing. It was about falling into the flow and enjoying the process.
The “miles with smiles” contingent seemed to enjoy a better quality of life, a greater resilience to setbacks and fewer injuries, as well as more miles.
I tried to incorporate these ideas into my everyday (trail) life, but it was hard. Striving and pushing came easy. Learning to “just be” was complicated. It felt like I wasn’t doing enough, like I had to do more to accomplish something. Sooner or later, I realized that when I pushed myself, I would get tired and need to rest. When I walked slowly, I would just go, and go, and go.
By the time I got to Oregon, I would often walk the entire day and take only two 10 to 20-minute breaks. I could get up at 10 and still clock 25 miles before I got into bed. I began to glide effortlessly past struggling and panting day-hikers and weekend warriors. Dreamlike, I floated along exerting minimum effort. I felt them watching me, awed at the passing of this endurance superhuman.
One day, I realized that the only reason I hadn’t done a 30-mile day was because I didn’t believe I could. Because I believed it was hard. Because I had this internal barrier keeping me from that 30 mile mark. I decided I was going to do a thirty-mile day that day.
So I did. —And I smiled the whole time.
Lessons Learned from Hiking 2000 Miles Solo, Episodes: