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The Hardest Part

The Hardest Part

I have often said that the hardest part of doing a thru hike is getting yourself to the trail. Not necessarily just the logistics of travel (although that can be a headache for sure), but also the physical, mental and logistical work that goes into preparing for such a journey, and most importantly, definitively making the decision to DO IT. So many people dream of going on a big adventure such as this, but never make the decision to just MAKE IT HAPPEN. That is understandable, as that decision often means abandoning or putting a hold on a job, a career, a relationship, a family, a mortgage. If you are someone who CAN make that decision however, then you have already done the most difficult part. For me and this particular trail, the decision was actually brought about by my partnership with Zenbivy. I had wanted to do this trail but was putting it off. In my vagabond life, I have avoided (or already detached) from many of the responsibilities that hold people back, so I jumped at the opportunity to be a Zenbivy trail ambassador on the CDT!

The logistics of planning a trail can seem daunting at first: finding the right gear, learning to use it, deciding on a resupply strategy and potentially packing resupply boxes (or not), planning your route and obtaining permits, budgeting for months of unemployment and getting your home affairs in order before you leave, just to name a few tasks. Remember to be smart about things but don't work yourself into an anxiety spiral- chances are that 90% of your planning will go out the window the moment you get to trail. Also, once you've done this part once, subsequent preparations become much easier. I use much of the same gear that I have used in the past, with the exception of my new Zenbivy bed and light mattress, which I tested before I brought out on trail. I tend to pack a lot of my resupply boxes ahead of time and even make many of my meals from scratch. This requires a lot of time and effort in advance and doesn't allow for much flexibility on trail, but knowing that I am getting the right nutrients without having to think always makes me feel better out there. For this trail, I have 17 boxes being sent to me, and I was up until 11:30pm the night before my train left finishing up those boxes.

Physical preparations may seem simple- lift weights, build cardio, hike a lot, but nothing truly prepares your body for 20 mile days every day for month on end.  Some people don't train at all ahead of time and just "train on trail". For me, working with a chiropractor to correct my alignment and a physical therapist to strengthen the small stabilizer muscles around my leg and hip joints has been massively beneficial. Eating a whole foods plant-based diet has helped to nourish my body and give it quality fuel. Lastly, I do regular yoga to stretch and connect to my body. Injuries happen when we don't listen to our bodies, but I have to know HOW to listen and yoga helps with that.

The mental preparation is an incredibly important component of trail prep. You may have to withstand extreme weather, extreme temperatures, significant pain and exhaustion, homesickness and boredom, plus less commonly addressed things like fear and anxiety, imposter syndrome, depression and isolation. Getting in touch with your emotions and learning to manage at least some of these feelings is crucial to your success. I use my regular yoga practice to prepare for this as well, and plan ways to keep my mind occupied while I'm out there: writing, painting, listening to audiobooks, etc.

Now that we're ready to get on trail, we have to actually GET ON TRAIL! The thing that made the most logistical sense to me for the CDT was to take an Amtrak train to East Glacier, Montana, which is only an hour away from the northern terminus. I boarded a train at 4am with my fully-packed backpack and a cardboard box full up with my next resupply. I got to Chicago a while later for a 5-hour layover. While searching for food, I noticed someone else dressed similarly to me. They had a backpack with a bear can strapped to the top and were also carrying a cardboard box. "Hey! Hiker!" I called out. He turned and his face lit up. He introduced himself as Spacemaker and we determined that we are, in fact, both southbounding the CDT. We immediately teamed up, so joyous to have found another hiker so early on in our journey. We boarded another train and chatted the many hours away as the fields of Illinois transformed into the forests and grassy wetlands of Wisconsin and eventually the hills and lakes of Minnesota. It got dark and the train was full but quiet, although it still felt impossible to sleep.

Eventually light crept into the coach car and I watched the sun rise over the plains of North Dakota. Plains turned into hills and then back to plains as Spacemaker and I started to slowly lose our minds while our tin can on wheels made progress into Montana.

Finally, we were able to see some mountains on the horizon ahead of us. Sudden excitement took over and the last hour flew by. We were getting off the train before we knew it, sleep deprived but otherwise looking identical to how we boarded 30+ hours earlier, cardboard boxes in hand and full packs on our backs. There was a young woman with a seeing eye dog and a hiking backpack also getting off the train and we struck up conversation. She is Wanderer, her dog is GOAT (the Greatest Of All Time). It turns out that she is also southbounding the CDT, has already completed the New Mexico section and thru hiked the Appalachian Trail- all while completely blind. She is a traveling teacher and plans to write a book about how to do this for others. Amazing!!

Spacemaker and I dropped our boxes at the local general store, then we all got a room, got dinner at the most expensive Mexican restaurant I've ever been to, and then were in bed by 10pm. It was cold even indoors and still very light out. I slept on the floor in my Zenbivy bed and was super cozy all night, despite some pre-hike jitters: after all the planning, it was finally happening!!

In the morning, the three of us walked down the street to try and hitch into the park to get our permits. We met some other hikers who told us that the permit situation was crazy, and to go talk to hikers at the hostel and see if we could jump on someone else's permit. We walked to the hostel and met a bunch of hikers, some who had already hiked Glacier National Park, and some who were just beginning. There were far more hikers than I had anticipated, and we learned that many of them were Northbounders who had encountered many feet of snow when they reached Colorado and had flipped up to avoid it. 

We found a hiker who was willing to add us to her permit and hitched into the park with her to get things changed. Three hours of planning, watching required bear safety videos and working with rangers later, Spacemaker and I had our own permit and were able to start hiking. 

The hard part is done. Now I just get to walk for a while.

- Scribe
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