A jacked up Suburban loaded with eight-ply tires dropped us and five other hikers at the Mexican border. We were in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. With the border fence at our backs, we received our first glimpse of the Continental Divide Trail.
After weeks of dialing gear and completing training hikes around our Tennessee home, we found ourselves about to take our first steps on the 3,100-mile trail. My hiking partner, Ethan, faced his second time thru-hiking, completing his first thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015. On the other hand, the excitement of my first stood before me.
The dust settled as the Suburban left our sight. The weight of planning transformed into the weight of our packs with six liters of water. The first couple days on trail led us along the arroyos as we fell into a rhythm.
Here, we found solitude.
However, our isolation came without an anchor. We drifted aimlessly from cairn to cairn. The mornings were pleasant, but as soon as the sun rose higher, the brutality of the desert surfaced. We adapted by waking up before sunrise. During the day, we hiked until the sun was highest in the sky. Then, we sought shade, whether it be in a Juniper bush or against a wooden kiosk by the highway. We learned and adapted. You have to if you want to stand a chance in the desert.
As the days passed, we began to realize that we had fallen out of sync with our life on trail. This conclusion was hard to swallow. Everything about where we were and what we were accomplishing was beautiful. We loved being on trail. We loved who we were on trail. However, while we were expecting pure joy from thru-hiking we forgot to factor in the inevitable tough times. So we turned inwards. What were we missing? It began with a simple understanding that, while thru-hiking, we never slept in the same place twice. Every day brought a new piece of trail to experience, but every night we struggled to settle in. In the morning, our bodies felt rested, but our minds seemed to be trying to catch up from the day before.
The problem was in how we approached our evenings once the hiking stopped. What we were missing on trail, what we had in our “real” life, was a home. Not a physical space, but an idea and routine. Our time on trail challenged us to recreate our concept and feeling of home in the absence of a house. We sought to establish a camp routine to pair well with our days on the trail.
The sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent that packed away in our packs provided the physical space. Our house had nylon walls; our bed built of nylon and down. Nonetheless, the routine and feeling that we imposed on our camp was where our home received its shape. I found consistency there. The disposition of routine was as much of our trail “home” as the gear was. Fine tuning our sleep system and our routine allowed us to define our space each night.
This small mental adjustment made all the difference. I felt connected to trail once again. Things began to click and I fell into a flow.
Our nightly routine began as soon as we found a spot to set up camp. Sometimes the spot was flat, other times not. Some nights towering pines surrounded us. Some nights, we burrowed down among the sagebrush. As we unrolled our ground cloth, staked out our tent and inflated our sleeping pads, we arrived home. We stepped away from camp to make dinner before we slipped into our sleep clothes and crawled into bed. While each night’s location changed, our routine stayed the same. Some nights we even left the tent rolled up creating our space underneath the stars.
In the morning, we deflated our sleeping pads allowing the weight of our body to force the air out. We folded the pads and stuffed the sleeping bags. Splitting up of the tent’s pieces between both of us, we each packed it away. Finally, we folded the ground cloth, corner to corner. What was once so sacred of a place now fit in our packs. The bare ground beneath us showed no signs of what was, returning back to unadorned earth. We stepped back on trail.
Although our home was transient, we found stability in returning to it each night. We found our speck of familiarity along a vast, unfamiliar trail.
Go out and explore. Wander freely. But If you find yourself restless, remember that one trail does not fit all. Find what works for you. Create your own familiarity and flow. Even though our thru-hike stopped in Canada, we carry our trail home everywhere we go. Some quiet nights in the woods even take us back to nights under the darkness of a western sky along the Continental Divide.
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- 4 Tips to Mentally Preparing For A Thru Hike
Updated. Originally Published August 30, 2018.