What we call “important” is subjective. A person needs a set of priorities before anything can be deemed important. My experience on the Pacific Northwest Trail gave me a new set of priorities. Safety and stability were still important but now they were superseded by excitement, novelty, growth, and above all else, adventure. During a thru-hike the first things to go are unnecessary material goods. If I didn’t use it every day it wasn’t that important. After that, I realized that I was carrying around a lot of unnecessary mental baggage, too. I began to examine the contents of my mind, deciding which thoughts were important and which ones weren’t. The practice of self-examination became the most important thing I learned on the hike. It wasn’t a harsh, self-conscious way of thinking, but it wasn’t naive acceptance of personality flaws either. I learned to look at myself honestly and objectively. I learned to appreciate the good parts and I figured out what it would take to fix the bad parts.
Montana sunset on the trail.
The wilderness is constantly presenting positive and negative situations. At first I was a slave to those fluctuations. A positive situation, like an amazing view, had me in a great mood. Then a negative situation, such as bad weather, made me pessimistic. I spent a lot of time wishing things would get better. It took a long time and a lot of suffering before I realized how pointless that was. No one can wish the rain into actually stopping.
In the middle of a 5-day stretch of rain in Olympic National Park.
After I had hiked in enough heavy downpours, the light rain that used to bother me was actually pleasant. Before, it wasn’t the discomfort that made me miserable, it was my belief that things were bad. Now my definition of “bad” had changed, it required something more extreme. Light rain wasn’t bad at all, because I had experienced so much worse.
Nothing about the external world changed, but now I was suffering a little bit less because my attitude towards it had changed. It happened by accident at first, but once I realized how much my attitude affected my experience, I stopped trying to control the external world. I couldn’t change the wilderness, but I could suffer less by changing my attitude.
Great place for a seat in Olympic National Park.
I realized that my priorities had been wrong my whole life. I had wasted a lot of energy trying to change things that were outside of my control. Now my energy would be put towards changing my inner world. Gaining control over my feelings, attitudes, ego, and perspectives would have a much greater affect on my experience of the external world than trying to control it directly. It was a breakthrough to discover that I could control those subjective things in the first place, but it wasn’t easy. Emotion is a powerful force and it controlled me more often than I would have liked to admit. It would take practice, but my adventure on the Pacific Northwest Trail showed me that it was possible.
I made a documentary about this hike on the PNT called, “A Sense of Direction: a 1,200 Mile Walk on the Pacific Northwest Trail.” The film is available on Amazon Prime!