Earlier this week I received an email from Bruce Matthews, Executive Director of the North Country Trail Association, asking a small favor to place an encouraging phone call to Luke Jordan (a.k.a. “Strider”), who is currently attempting a thru-hike of the NCT. Luke started his trip on March 27 at the NCT’s western terminus, Lake Sakakawea, and in a month he’s made it just beyond Itasca State Park, which according to the data from my Sea-to-Sea Route Databook means that he’s gone about 575 miles in 29 days, or about 20 miles per day — a very solid pace for the start of a thru-hike, especially since this is his first one and since he’s often been having to use snowshoes.
Luke’s journal entry from April 24 admits that he was in a tough place:
The past four days have been extremely challenging. The huge amount of snow and relentless winter conditions have caused so many problems and I am getting overwhelmed. I’ve had to use snowshoes off and on the entire trek so far, almost a month. The continuous use of them the past four days has caused my feet to swell up and the skin on my toes to be scraped off. I’m tired of being wet, being cold, being so exhausted at the end of the day because of using twice the energy to go only half the normal distance. I feel betrayed, defeated, lost, alone.
I know I could find some entries in my own journals that sound exactly like this — overwhelmed and, at least for the moment, beaten. In my experience this feeling does not come from one or two bad days. No, it comes from a long series of bad days, to the point where you don’t remember the last good day and where you wonder if bad is just the new normal.
Not coincidentally, most of these breakdowns have happened during the Spring melt, when the snowpack loses its Winter consistency and Summer conditions do not yet prevail. It’s incredibly mentally taxing to optimize, or to just emotionally prepare oneself for, the snow conditions that vary with elevation, slope aspect, vegetation cover, time of day, and current weather. Cold rain and cold, wet feet don’t help either. The National Geographic story about my Alaska-Yukon Expedition leads with the challenges I encountered during the Spring melt while skiing across the Alaska Range:
Andrew Skurka was demoralized, and it was a new feeling. Since 2002, logging more than 25,000 miles on foot, the 29-year-old adventurer had become one of the best traveled and fastest hikers on the planet. But now, sitting in front of the post office in the tiny hamlet of Slana, Alaska, ripping open his resupply packages…he struggled to recapture his enthusiasm. It was May, and he was less than a third of the way into his 4,679-mile circumnavigation of Alaska by foot, raft, and ski. With months to go, he couldn’t afford to lose heart.
The problem was the rotten snow—crusted chunks that couldn’t support a skier’s weight. In the Alaska Range, Skurka had struggled, sinking deep. He’d tried to gain altitude. Maybe the springtime snow would be colder and firmer higher up. It wasn’t. So Skurka walked. He spent most of one day “postholing,” every step plunging him knee-deep in the snow, and bushwhacking through dense willow and alder brush. He managed a scant 12 miles before darkness fell.
So what advice did I give Luke?
Our phone call only lasted 15 minutes — he has miles to hike and can’t afford to talk at length with every desk-bound person who is envious of what he’s doing. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but my advice to him boiled down to this:
1. Be patient. The situation can’t always get worse, and sometimes it’s necessary to slug along until it improves — until your head bounces back, your health recovers, or the conditions return to what they should be. Once the situation becomes more conducive, you’ll have the opportunity to make up whatever days you lost.
2. Distance = Rate * Time. This simple formula that I learned in high school physics has comforted me on many days. Thru-hikes, especially in the beginning, are overwhelming — from a macro level, they seem impossible. To wrap one’s head around it, the task must be broken into smaller goals: steps, miles, days, weeks. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite, and the Chinese wall wasn’t built in a day. So, too, a thru-hike is completed only by hiking at a certain rate of speed for a certain number of days. The math doesn’t lie — eventually you’ll finish.
I regret not telling him another thing he needs to know: a thru-hike is partly about exploring new landscapes and/or meeting new people, but it’s as much an extended experience outside of one’s comfort zone, mentally and physically. In hindsight, the sections where I was most challenged but did not cave are those of which I’m always most proud.