Brain Game

Location: Acton, CA

PCT Mile: 444.3

I used to play guitar.

Picked one up the other day for the first time in years and couldn’t play a lick. (Not that my repertoire was ever that impressive...I seem to remember a lot of repetitions of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water and Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4). I couldn’t remember how to read music notes either. After that depressing realization, I did recall once learning a skill all musicians eventually develop--the ability to read ahead.

During a particularly long stretch of hiking last week, I realized an analogous phenomenon was occurring-- I was subconsciously “reading” the trail a few steps ahead of me. This wasn’t a normal “watch where you step” kind of deal; this was a targeted, analytical assessment of the base topography of the trail and any overlying rocks or plants (or snakes/lizards/scorpions) multiple steps ahead. An instantaneous way of maximizing efficiency and minimizing impact during extended periods of walking-- much like a musician might attempt to fine-tune their intonation of a struck note or chord-- and my brain was doing it automatically.

And that’s a very good thing-- the physical component of this trail is immense, no question. A thru-hikers is an athlete, even if they didn’t start out as one. Operating at the proper pace for one’s own body and with nutrition and rest, the body adapts miraculously and relatively quickly along trail. It is a daily, 2660-mile transformation, but 450 miles in, a lot of the dramatic changes have happened-- legs are fairly strong, metabolism has shifted (GIVE ME ALL THE FOOD, ALL THE TIME), skin has tanned.

What is less tangible, and I think often more daunting for people-- at least to some of the non-hikers I’ve encountered in towns along the trail-- is the mental game. Here are some of the oddities and cerebral challenges encountered after 300 hours of “practicing” hiking:

  1. "Connector sections"/hunger/physical ailments/adverse weather. I lump all this together, because it targets the same part of my head and requires about the same amount of effort to beat. Hint: It isn't one of the more challenging things out here, in my opinion. The PCT spends an incredible amount of time wending through federally-held lands; huge expanses of National Forest, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Park land. But sometimes, it's inevitable: you need to walk between two of those protected areas. And often that means walking through urbanized areas, or just super scenically boring areas. They can be frustrating and monotonous, but in the grand scheme of things, even though it might take you the better part of a day or even a few days to get out of those areas, better things are in store!

    I address hunger, physical ailments (on the level of aches, blisters, cuts, bruises), and adverse (not extreme) weather only briefly...they are a natural part of any thru-hike, and though they cause hikers mental stress in widely varying degrees, they have yet to really factor in to my hike. These factors are controllable to a great degree, and when the moleskin fails and you just ate your last Clif Bar, attitude and perspective are everything, as in life.
  2. But I don’t want to hike today…”  The exciting, glowing sheen of thru-hiking wore off during week three...I’d consider that a pretty darn good run. The cure? Same thing as “I don’t want to go to work/school today.” Get up, tread on. Except out in the woods, there is the slight pressure of a limited food and water supply ticking down. If you don’t put one foot in front of the other now, or in 30 minutes, or 1 hour, or half a day--it’s going to be that much more to cover later, which could be stressful and possibly dangerous.

  3. Ups and downs. Like, literal ones. You spend two hours climbing a mountain, only to reach the top and switchback down the other side, losing all the elevation you just gained. That's the PCT. Or almost any significant hiking trail. But sometimes encountering it multiple times a day for several days in a row just gets to you! 

  4. Trail claustrophobia. I’ve experienced this once so far, and it won’t be the last time. It's horrible and very strange. I'm not sure what caused it, but one afternoon, I found myself in a foul mood and very inexplicably and suddenly felt the need to be off the PCT. Like, right NOW. I felt trapped, anxious, and frustrated by the fifteen to eighteen inch-wide trail in front of me. My pace sped up to a near-speedwalk, I felt like crying, couldn't pay attention to my surroundings, and brain transformed into a mile-counting machine-- at the scale of tenths of a mile. Not good. It was a nice day, we had been in town to rest only a few days previously, I was up on a breezy ridge, walking beside a lake, and was headed into a well-established campsite for the night (it even had restrooms!)-- by all accounts, I should have been in good mental shape.

What's more, I then realized a mileage planning miscalculation had happened and there were three additional miles to get to camp. There was swearing. When I stepped off the PCT less than an hour later, I felt instant relief, though a residual, dampened mood lingered for the rest of the evening.

Haven't figured out how to beat this one yet. Hopefully it won't happen again soon.

5. That awkward moment when the PCT goes west instead of north. For a week and a half continuously. For a northward-focused journey, this almost purely westward movement just got to me. PCT miles ticked up, but my latitude on the map stayed the same. Thankfully, I am now at the location where the PCT turns north again--Acton, CA!

6. Constant vigilance!*  After the first several hundred miles, the terrain becomes more complicated as you move into some of the ranges of Southern California. It becomes a game of planning big elevation gains and losses over a day to time final campsite selection and water sources. Climb high, sleep low, but not too low because there’s no water. Oi vey. I’ve also noticed there is a certain threshold each day--usually any hiking after 4 pm or about 18 or 19 miles, whichever comes first-- where the amount of mental energy required to focus on footwork on the trail increases exponentially. And truly, each step matters out here. One mis-step can end a hike-- I’ve seen it happen twice already and heard of a dozen more cases this season. With that said, these logistics are all part of the fun and adventure! They build problem-solving and decision-making skills and ensure there's never a boring day on-trail!

7. Finally, just don't think about Canada. Or Washington. Or Oregon. Or NorCal. Or....

*phrase credit to Mad-Eye Moody, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling. :)

Is it "mind of steel" or "mind of ROCK"? Stumbled upon this awesome boulder...I call it the "Brain Rock!"

Natalie Raia2 Comments