By Kalen Thorien, Salomon Athlete
I’ve always been an outdoor romantic at heart. Growing up in the whimsical literary webs of Emerson, Muir, Thoreau, and Abbey, I can’t help but embark on any adventure with a yearning and optimism of life-changing existential moments and groundbreaking philosophies. So naturally when I set off on an 18-day solo high traverse of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, I automatically assumed I’d return with a completely new take on life and some grand, expansive view of the universe in which we dwell. Ironically enough, what I learned was already something that I was quite aware of. I just needed 270 miles of off-trail terrain, a handful of panic attacks, constant moments of questionable decision making, and the highest highs and lowest lows to drill it home.
The 3 Not-So-Uncommon Lessons that the Sierra Taught Me
1. DON’T BE SCARED TO TRY
See? These are pretty obvious, but this goes beyond just a surface level task or goal. Every day, I was thrust into a new scenario where the only option was to go forward. Ambitious route planning led me to daily miles that tested my limit mentally and physically. When I say I had panic attacks, I did. Maybe not to the point where I needed a brown paper bag or a straightjacket, but most nights I spent roughly 30-45 minutes in my sleeping bag trying to get my heart rate and breathing down, holding back tears and attempting to tell myself everything is going to be ok. I never had been alone this long nor had I ever come close to this type of mileage and off-trail navigating.
The mantra quickly became: “One step, one day at a time…” If I tried to think beyond that, I’d completely lose it. But with those unbearable, shitty lows, came the sweetest highs I’ve ever felt. We’re talking screaming, hands in the air, crying, wanting to call my mom, holy-shit-life-is-amazing kind of highs. I discovered a confidence in myself I never knew I had and a release of internal fears. Through the years I’ve been the type of person that has big dreams, starts to work towards them, and then half the time gets lazy or distracted and dismisses them. This hike had been one of those until finally I just did it; just like that. With that accomplishment I wondered what else I had put off or dreamed of doing but was either too lethargic or lacked the confidence for.
So what does a girl who just completed 270 miles of hiking and discovered a newfound sense of conviction do? Well, she goes home and buys a Harley-Davidson (without really ever having driven a motorcycle before). Ok, so maybe that’s not what we ALL want to do, but there you go. Just one of the handful of things I’ve always dreamed of but dismissed as an unrealistic fantasy. The hardest thing sometimes in the pursuit of our goals is to pull the trigger; to start. But take the mantra “one step, one day” and see what happens. I guarantee you it’s a lot easier than you think.
2. ESSSENTIAL NEED FOR THE HUMAN SPIRIT
This was a solo trip, and stubbornly kept that way regardless of who wanted to join (sorry, friends). Every person needs a solo adventure, this I promise. Having said that, as I look back, the people I met along the way were keys to my success. On day four was one of the longest days of the trip. The first two-thirds were technical, demanding off-trail with two major passes. The last leg, on-trail, had a 4,000 vertical foot pass to top her off—all within roughly 24 miles and with three exhausting days behind me. It was getting late and I still had a substantial distance to go. I was in full zombie mode when I stumbled across Brandon, a guy who was in a similar predicament but way too happy about it. We met at the junction, both completely drained. I decided it was a good time to rest, turn my headphones off, and see what this guy with the shit-eating had to say. He instantly shifted the attitude of our situation.
“I’m just going to enjoy the walk, who cares if I make it,” he said so casually that it made my head slow down and go back to my mantra: “One step.” It was nice to know someone was just as stupid as I was, trying to get over this pass with minimal daylight.
We chatted for a bit, swapped a few laughs, and said our goodbyes. I motored on, fueled by Swedish Fish and ’70s funk. When I stopped for water, occasionally I’d see Brandon waddling up the trail, looking extremely content, almost childlike, and I’d giggle to myself and carry on. With the last bit of daylight left, I reached the top and could see my destination just a few miles away. As I was setting up camp and settling in for the night, what did I hear but the overly joyous chatter of Brandon. I poked my head around a tree and there he was in all is optimistic fun-loving glory. We hugged, high-fived, shared some whiskey, and took in the calm of a Sierra evening.
Badass Turtle was another human whose presence was essential on this trip. In her mid 40s, Sonja was a German solo hiker doing the John Muir Trail, segments of which I occasionally landed on before venturing off-trail once again. Paranoid of making my next mileage, I decided to push on instead of stopping at my designated point. Most of my camp spots had been near sheltered lakes, a sort of mental safety blanket, but tonight would leave me in a wide open drainage, exposed, with nothing but a small creek for water and a few stubby trees for shelter. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore; I just knew they were moving.
Naturally I was surprised when I came across a lady going painfully slow in the same direction. I said hello, determined she was camping here for the night, and pushed on hoping to get as close to the next morning’s pass as I could. Less than 10 minutes later, my few plant life friends and water completely disappeared and I was officially the largest entity in this drainage. Perhaps it was shelter and water or the comfort of another human close by, but I decided to turn back to greener pastures and camp with Sonja. Oddly enough, she was excited to see me as well. We swapped stories over dinner and the subject of trail names came up. Hers was Badass Turtle, given by a group of hikers due to her green backpack and slow but steady, persistent pace. She asked if I had a name. Since I’d been solo and avoiding trails, such an honor had not been bestowed upon me. She said she’d think of one. We said goodnight and fell asleep to the last few lines of pink on the horizon.
My next day was critical and once again, panic had set in. This was my re-supply day and it would not be an easy one. I had previously hiked in a food cache and left in a spot not near a trail, forcing me to make the gruelling off-trail miles. Sonja could see I was nervous. She gave me an extra granola bar and, before I left, told me she had thought of my trail name. “Running Feather, that’s your name,” she said with her goddess-like wisdom. “You move like a feather floating in the wind when you hike.” I held back tears. Her confidence in me, her ability to see my strength when I could only feel my weakness was the greatest gift I received on this trip. We hugged and said our goodbyes. I looked at the pass in front of me with a newfound sense of self.
“I am Running Feather!” And off I went.
These people, and many others, brought essentials to my trip I never thought I’d need. What if I hadn't stopped my music and just smiled and walked past Brandon? Or what if I hadn’t turned around and stayed with Sonja that night? Sometimes we get tunnel vision in our pursuits and it’s safe to say we’re all a bit more disconnected than our predecessors.
The beauty of hiking and the outdoors is that everyone you encounter is pretty damn delighted to be where they are. The genuine curiosity for one’s adventure allows for organic conversation. Nothing is forced or unnecessarily said. Friendships are automatically formed and for once, I easily remembered everybody's name. With the love received, I wanted to give it back, especially when I got out of the mountains and to those people that maybe I had neglected over the years. Something as simple as a loving text to an old friend, answering my phone, sticking to plans, being honest, doing nice things for others, setting aside my selfish needs to help those who could use a boost; to look someone in the eye when shaking hands and genuinely be interested in their life. Not to force a conversation and be ok with an awkward silence. Not to judge and known that everyone around us can bring something beautiful to our life, regardless of the differences we may have. These are all things most of us know, but rarely practice. Think back to someone who was a catalyst in your existence. Put your phone down, take your headphones out, and make an attempt to be a catalyst in someone else's. You never know just how crucial that simple interaction could be.
3. BE A SPIRAL, NOT A BOX
Ah yes, the classic “Be Yourself” idea. Preached in fancy Instagram quotes, bumper stickers, and lectures from mom. Yet it’s pretty damn difficult to be yourself when “self” has become a sort of marketing tool, a commodity, and we’re constantly bombarded to “buy this and you’ll be unique” or “do this and you’ll be happy”. Within our culture, we are continuously stimulated by consumable individuality; instead of discovering our own self, we puzzle together a handful of different ideas of who we think we should be and end up not really knowing who we actually are.
Being in the Sierra, I was surrounded by nothing and was doing - nothing. I mean that in a societal sense. The things around me were not telling me how to dress, act, think, OR feel, and my daily pursuits were purely done out of joy and in no way benefited anyone but myself. Slowly, it starts to chip away at all those layers you’ve built in your pursuit of individuality and you start to actually reveal—yup, you guessed it—your own damn SELF. I realized just how much I had tried to shape my personality into this cookie cutter idea of what an outdoor female adventurer should behave and appear like. That if I looked and acted a certain way I would be more successful in my industry. Everything from my clothing, to the music I listened to, to how I spoke and even the color of my hair. I had deeply confined myself to a very small sample platter of stereotypical traits yet never felt full.
The people I looked up to the most were those who at first were criticized for their behavior: Hunter S. Thompson, Gloria Steinem, Joan Jett, and one we all remember closely - Shane McConkey. I’m sure you have a friend or someone you know who is so fiercely genuine, it’s impossible for people not to radiate in their direction. Why is that? Because they don’t give a shit. There is such a drought of authenticity in this world, especially on social media, that we’re leaving a very narrow path for the next generation to walk through. This path is especially fine for women. Not to exclude men—they have their own set of cultural standards and struggles—but being a girl in this generation seems absolutely terrifying. We have lost the wild woman. As Clarisa Estes says in her book “Women Who Run with The Wolves”:
“The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others… A woman’s issue of soul cannot be treated by carving her into a more acceptable form as defined by an unconscious culture. Instead, the goal must be the retrieval and succor of women’s beauteous and natural psychic forms...No matter by which culture a woman is influenced, she understands the words wild and woman, intuitively.”
Now this doesn’t mean you have to run off in the woods, stop shaving your legs, or throw away your makeup. More power to you if you do, but that alone is just another stereotype. What this means to me, and what I learned on my trip, is to—with great ferocity and fortitude—pursue your wild woman and don’t be intimidated by your discovery. Because with great confidence and a strong sense of self you will create greater waves and lasting impacts than any attempted formation from outside influences. But most importantly, you will be genuinely and forever happy.
Pretty straightforward, right? Yet so easily dismissed. We spend a lot of time seeking answers, hoping for outside forces to propel us into an elevated realm of thinking, yet the simplicity of a walk in the woods can shed light to even the darkest corners of your psyche, sometimes without any intention to do so. In this day and age, it’s crucial we keep our eyes, ears, and minds open to new possibilities, to never stop evolving, to gain wisdom from the old and young, enjoy moments of silence solely out of necessity to hit the pause button on your mental chaos. These lessons benefit everyone. We won’t always be able to practice them, but at least they’re absorbed and can be wrung out at times of need.
Happy Trails, my friends.