On the trail I have time to think about all manner of things. One such thing is the psychological aspect of hiking — since it fascinates me, especially as it relates to my hike du jour. I have concluded that to realize and understand my own thoughts and emotions as my hike progresses, the easier it is to motivate myself and push on when suffering the lesser stages, so to speak. I’m cognizant of certain phases I progress though as the day wears on, and this knowledge helps me get maximum enjoyment out of the best parts.
As much as I love hiking, if thoughts of giving up the sport ever enter my mind — and they do, in brief flashes — it’s during the first 15 to 20 minutes of a hike. It’s when I am just starting to perspire. I don’t yet have a rhythm and my mind is all over the place. This is worst in the summer in a hot, sprawling deciduous forest with moderate grades (I like to get down to business on early steeps). To counter this I try to remind myself of the stages to come, like The Zone, The Final Push, and Summit Bliss. But first I have to get through The Burn.
Oh, my. The good news is I no longer want to quit hiking at this point (look, fir trees… look, a view… and I really do love exercise) but damn my calves and/or quads are burning. This is tough! I take a couple of microbreaks to allow the blood to feed oxygen to my muscles. I take a breath. I smile and look around. I dip in and out of this mode a few times, depending on the pace, the angle of ascent, and the gnarliness of the trail, but before I know it, bam, I’ve got my groove on — I’m in The Zone.
My breathing is regular, not overly deep. I’ve got my stride. I feel good. My muscles are fully awake and being fed the oxygen they need. Now it’s one mindless foot in front of the other. I still take some microbreaks, but it’s now mostly for the sake of enjoying my surroundings. If I glimpse a distant waypoint, perhaps the far-away summit, I may feel a twang of despair, ugh, but it passes quickly. Often times I simply compare the bulk of mountain looming in front of me to the South Mountain at Pawtuckaway State Park (less-than-1000′ with a fire tower on the summit). It’s a very direct trail from the parking lot and takes all of ten minutes to walk up. I say to myself the monster in front of me is only like four or five Pawtuckaways, or whatever the case may be. It helps me to see the smaller milestones along the way, to break it down. Pitch to pitch, junction to junction. I may fall on and off back into The Burn, depending on the mountain, but this mostly serves me well into The Final Push.
The Final Push
Summit fever withstanding, the major waypoints are always important goals for me: The summit or destination for the day, a significant junction or ridge, or whatever. And of course making it in one piece at day’s end is always an important one. When I get close to one of these waypoints I suddenly slip out of The Zone. The draw of being close to “making it” is empowering and will often put me into overdrive. I try to control this urge at the end of the day — when most people get hurt — so I don’t become the proverbial “horse racing to back the barn,” but heading to the summit, I find myself making oversized strides, a huge grin on my face. I know I’m in store for some Summit Bliss.
Well, for me it doesn’t have to be the summit to enjoy this stage. I bliss easy in the mountains and any pretty spot or awesome view can give me this feeling to some degree. It is here that I think of hiking as an almost religious experience. It’s powerful and wonderful. It brings about “perma-grin” as an old friend used to say. It’s the recollection of this feeling — this high — that gets me through the Starting Out phase. I’d like to say it helps me get through The Zombie Slog, but that beast can be cured only by stopping.
The Zombie Slog
I don’t have to be coming out of Lincoln Woods or Zealand Road in the winter to enter and [barely] exist in this stage. The exit almost always starts out fun, a controlled skip down a mountain on the best days, but eventually it usually turns into an “okay, this can end at ay time now” feeling. At this point I just want to be done. This can be similar to The Zone, except a physical weariness now exists. My feet don’t hurt, but I’m ready to take my boots off. Aside from the reality of not wanting to spend an unplanned night in the woods, the only motivator is a want of The Done Feeling.
The Done Feeling
A weary feeling of accomplishment is a good way to put it. It can last me into the next day after some hikes. I’m sure it’s due to brain chemicals with long names, and it sure does feel good. It’s no longer such a tired feeling, that comes later in the evening, but rather it’s a more energized high. It’s so powerful to me that sometimes within mere hours of a hike my brain thinks I want to go hiking again. Fortunately for peakbagging reasons my body sometimes says okay, I’ve done “hit-and-runs,” even though I know the Starting Out and The Burn phases will last a helluva lot longer.
Those Are Mine…
I suspect others go through similar stages. I especially hope I’m not alone in those tougher early stages. After all, “misery loves company,” as the saying goes. It must be worth it, though. I know it is for me since I want to do it all over again, time and time again, three or more times a week if I can. I considered adding a Getting Up, stage, but I love hiking so much I often bolt out of bed before my alarm says it’s time.