Standing in a desert wasteland we watched our shuttle van drive off into the sandy abyss. What was left were five hikers attempting to walk to Canada, a barbed wire fence separating Canada from the U.S. and the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
After years of planning and prepping we had made it to the starting line. The path was simple, but the journey would prove to be a feat of the body, mind and soul.
Over the course of the next five and a half months our path would lead us through the deserts of New Mexico, into the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the grassy plains of Wyoming, across the magical and sacred lands of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks before ending in Alberta, Canada’s Waterton Park.
With almost 3,000 miles ahead of us the race was on to make it to Canada before snowfall.
But today was April 5th, Day 1 and the only thing on our minds was getting to our first water resupply point. So, with nothing more than the packs on our backs we headed North! The CDT begins deep in the Chihuahua Desert, a remote landscape in the boot heel of New Mexico with no natural water sources. We had pre-arranged water stashes along the trail every 12 - 15 miles so that was our focus. The beauty and wonder of the desert also presents a harsh reality for us thru-hikers. There is no gentle way to adapt to the elements of nature. From Day 1 to the finish line, it’s sink or swim.
As our team of three headed North, we would find out just days later, one of the other hikers we started with had been rescued due to dehydration. Dehydration can cause severe nausea, exhaustion, and disorientation which often leads to hikers getting lost. The path is simple but the stakes are high. Every decision, every action must be made with focused intention. Through rough terrain, inclement weather, animal encounters, aches, pains, hunger, and lack of water, the challenges can seem endless and so is the adventure.
“Hiking is a bit like life. The journey only requires you to put one foot in front of the other…again and again and again. And if you allow yourself the opportunity to be present throughout the entirety of the trek you will witness beauty every step of the way, not just the summit.” - Author unknown
And this is why I hike...free from distraction, peace, harmony and purpose flood my being. The further I go, the deeper I fall into alignment with my true self. It is hard to explain but impossible to deny. Step by step I get closer to my dreams, not just to Canada, but towards a sense of inner fulfillment and joy.
Before I knew it, my inner journey had taken on a momentum of its own. My thru-hike is a moving meditation. Grounding into Mother Earth with each step, I feel supported, I feel present. My mind calms and my awareness deepens.
Thru-hiking is like a portal into another world filled with beauty, passion and purpose.
The simplicity is enlightening, albeit deceiving. It was a rare occasion when I knew the day of the week, it had become irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was following the sun. Daylight was work time. Everyday, every hour of light was used with intention.
Each morning as the sky began to lighten that was our cue to get moving. We would break camp, stuff our packs, and hit the trail. Depending on the terrain we would plan out our mileage, 18 -32 miles per day. Stopping once or twice to rest and repair our feet, collect and filter water, and eat, of course.
Eating becomes a daily chore. Somedays that meant stopping in the rain, sleet, or desert sun to fuel up. Hiking 8 - 11 hours each day, through constantly changing elements such as elevation, heat, rain, wind, snow and smoke, all required constant nourishment. Meals were eaten anywhere, anytime. The more calories, fat, and sugar the better!
At sunset we would begin our nightly search for camp. Dinner usually brought our one warm meal of the day, something I looked forward to all day long! As soon as possible I slipped my tired, swollen, blistered feet out of my shoes and got horizontal.
Body humming from the day's work, sleep never felt so good. And so it went day after day…each morning waking up in a new place yet the routine never faltered; until Town Day!
Every 100 miles or so we would find our way into town to resupply. Actually getting to town would sometimes require hitch hiking up to 40 miles.
A thru-hiker in town is like a kid in a candy store. Motels, electricity, cold drinks, hot coffee, pizza, ice cream, running water and soap. Ah, gratitude and abundance overflows! Every town day felt a bit like playing hookie, frolicking around town in clean clothes, freshly showered, and a ravenous appetite. Life was plentiful.
Still in town there were chores to be had. Our main focus was to resupply on food and update or repair any gear. Trail food is a smorgasbord of processed, dehydrated macro-dense food products that look something like this: Pop Tarts, Clif bars, Snickers, Ramen noodles, chips, cakes, cookies and candy.
In the thru-hiking community, it is a right of passage to receive a trail name - mine Tough Cookie, aka Shanti, aka Trash Panda. It was in towns where the Trash Panda really came out, and on trail cookies always brought a smile to my face. Most trail names have something to do with food, as it is always on our minds. Food is one of the few luxuries we can take with us on trail. The comfort of knowing there’s a brownie waiting to be eaten at the end of a long day would do wonders to speed up my pace!
Step after step, I witnessed my surroundings in a constant state of change, continuously morphing as the seasons brought renewal and decay, fire and ice. Everything is just a degree of difference. Some days I felt high, some days I felt low, but everyday I had an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude. On September 17th, I touched the Canadian Border. It felt like just another day, it felt perfect.
The simplicity of it all brings joy in so many unexpected ways. Thru-hiking opens up a wonderful world of possibilities I never knew existed - mentally, physically, and spiritually. By taking that first step, I found a new way to experience life. I gained a new perspective that has opened my mind and heart in glorious ways. My hope is that sharing my story may inspire you to take that first leap, just one step in the direction of your dreams. There is more than you know out there waiting for you.
Tough Cookie // @Flowwithvanessa
Photo credit: Alfred Bernard Photography @mylifecollectingdust
Matthew Fenner - email@example.com