What to do when the Trail isn’t that Strenuous

It’s been a few weeks since I finished hiking the 170-mile Pinhoti Trail in Alabama and I am still reveling in the memories of warm sun on my cheeks, wildflowers such as iris, trillium, and bluets lining the trail, and the serenity of spending a week and a half listening to birds and breezes.

The southern terminus at Flagg Mountain is scenic and capped by adorable CCC cabins and a firetown. The caretaker there, Nimblewill Nomad, is a kind soul with the wisdom of over 40,000 miles. The blue-blazed path is extremely well-marked as it explores the foothills of the Appalachian mountain chain and the steady climbs are challenging but not demoralizing. The trail offers a nice variety of ridgeline views, forest walking, and winding in and out of coves with cascading streams. The nearby towns are the essence of southern hospitality and there is an adorable Victorian-style hiker hostel in Talladega, AL.

The only problem I had with the Pinhoti Trail was that it was too enjoyable; I didn’t have to struggle. Long trails have been a valuable teacher in my life and the lessons that they teach tend to arise from hardship and challenges. You learn that your fears weigh you down when you struggle to lug your overstuffed backpack up a mountain. You learn to stop and address small problems like hot spots on your feet immediately before they become big problems like crippling quarter-size blisters. And you learn that even though you can’t control the weather or stop it from raining for five straight days, you can control your reaction and adjust your expectations to make it more bearable. All these lessons have been learned through painful experiences and they are now engrained in my being.

So when my out-of-shape body easily adapted to the twenty-mile days because they are hard-wired into my system, when the weight of my pack felt lighter than the children I lug around at home, and when the weather offered no more than chilly nights and one lightning storm I found myself still looking for the struggle. Where was it? How would I be able to learn and grow if the trail remained so lovely and exceedingly manageable?

I finished the trail without hardship. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such a friendly path all to myself. I also felt guilty! For nine days, I passed an average of two other hikers per day and never camped near company. At a time when the Appalachian Trail one state away was packed with thru-hikers, spring breakers, and scout troops it seemed shameful to have an equally scenic trail with warmer temps and milder climbs all to myself. No crowds, no blisters, no agony, it all felt way too self-indulgent.

Driving home to North Carolina I thought back over the hike and realized that the trail might be teaching me one of the more difficult lessons that I’ve had to learn. I have worked extremely hard to become a competent and confident backpacker who can set out at a moment’s notice and turn over twenty-plus-mile days while feeling completely at home in the backcountry. I don’t have to struggle or always seek out a new, harder, challenge.

I’ve built up the capacity to find pleasure in something that most people would deem extremely difficult and instead of seeking out or bracing for the next obstacle, it’s okay to just enjoy where I’m at.

Recently we set out on a four-month tour to promote my book, “The Pursuit of Endurance.” We’re traveling up and down the East Coast and out to the Rockies with a one and five-year-old. I’m presenting 5 to 6 times a week while working on a writing deadline, and managing a business at home. And somehow, most days it still feels like we’re not doing enough, but the Pinhoti Trail has helped me to let go of that.

We are already doing something incredibly challenging, but because of who we are and where we’ve been it feels both manageable and pleasant. And, instead of worrying what we’re not doing or searching for our next big project, I am going to enjoy what we are doing and where we are at right now.