10 things I (re)learned in the wilderness

looking SW over Lake Tahoe

looking SW over Lake Tahoe

Ten days ago was I was exhausted and near the end of a 6-day route to complete the whole Tahoe Rim Trail. The trail itself snaked through state parks, national forests, and federal wilderness areas and covered a remarkable variety of terrain.

As awesome as the outward journey was (and we will write it up soon), the inward journey was just as interesting and fostered plenty of reflection.

So here goes – 10 things I (re)learned in the wilderness:

  1. You could go it alone, but go with a good friend. Adam and planned this for months and committed to doing it together. I probably would have quit after day 3 if I didn’t have a friend who believed in me and was calmly urging both of us on. We shared the work, the load, the struggle, the long conversations, and the joy. It was a richer and deeper experience as a result.
  2. Signposts matter. Not so much for route-finding, but for situational awareness; signposts and trail makers give confirmation that you are on the right road … or warnings that you’re off-route. The complete lack of them gets frustrating.
  3. What goes up must come down. And what goes down will (frustratingly) eventually go up again. It’s unrealistic to expect a level path. The net elevation change doesn’t matter near as much. It’s the gross total that gets you. Day 4 was over 5000’ of climbing. The good news? I was ready for it.
  4. It gets better. Hurting is often the beginning of the story, not the end – endure and it gets better. (Or at least, something else will start hurting more and make you forget your current problem).
  5. Not all pain is a sign of damage or genuine hurt. Some is simply your body protesting: “you are making me seriously uncomfortable here!” Discomfort, aches, and stress are not in themselves always bad things.
  6. The wilderness and the trail give you a “new normal.” I ran with a friend who’s a veteran of many long endurance races, and each time I encountered new difficulties (this or that foot or leg issue) he calmly assured me “that’s normal.” Broadly speaking, there are realities you encounter out there that you simply must accept and embrace. You can’t keep comparing your experience to life as you know it. You adjust to a new normal.
  7. You are capable of more than you dream and far more than you usually think. Part of the reason to go to the wilderness is to push your limits, to eliminate distractions, to test your resources, to be forced to dig deep. Day 4 was a dig deep, 34-mile push to a prize: sunset camping at Lake Velma.
  8. Attend to the fundamentals. When the stuff hits the fan, necessities of food, water, shelter, warmth take priority. Getting down is more important than getting ahead. Sharing the load with another person helps you consider each other’s needs and not miss warning signs.
  9. Fear and adrenaline make you do things you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t do. Our last (late!) 14 miles of day 3 came trying (unsuccessfully) to outrun a thunderstorm. Instead we ran our fastest miles of the trip through hail and cold rain to get off the mountain. Awful? yes. Exhilarating? Without a doubt.
  10. Patient, matter-of-fact truth-telling is ten times better (and more compassionate) than any false praise. Being willing to give a truthful analysis of a situation (or hear one) is necessary before you can take that imaginative breath to see the way forward.

While these come directly from the trail, I trust there are some pretty keen parallels to ordinary life. Use your imagination, and never stop exploring.

One more: Don’t try out there what you haven’t first tried at home. That goes for equipment, food, nutrition, etc. I never should have bought that buffalo jerky bar last-minute…